The End of Nature: Interview with Angelika Markul
Angelika Markul (b. 1977, Poland) lives and works between Malakoff and Warsaw. After graduating from the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris in 2003, she has researched the natural world and the cycles of life, through her video installations and sculptures. The artist has stated that she is influenced by artists as diverse as Miros?aw Ba?ka, Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, Pierre Huyghe, Tadeusz Kantor, Jannis Kounellis, Alina Szapocznikow, and Tatiana Trouvé. Her 2016 solo exhibition What is Lost is at the Beginning at Zamek Ujazdowski Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw (Angelika Markul, What is Lost is at the Beginning, March 25 –July 31, 2016, Centrum Sztuki Wspó?czesnej Zamek Ujazdowski, Warsaw. Exhibition curator: Jaros?aw Lubiak.) was her third major retrospective in Poland.
Mylène Ferrand: Your work is not only structured around moving images it also manifests your interest in “planetary” research and existential metaphysics. Above and beyond the darkness frequently encountered in your work, recent pieces have gained in intensity and depth, as is the case, quite literally, in Yonaguni Area (2016).
For this video, you filmed the underwater archaeological remains of Yonaguni island, in the Japanese archipelago Ry?ky?, discovered in 1986. The ruins of this huge structure, comprised of sandstone platforms, are shaped like stepped pyramids or ziggurats. Sometimes referred to as a Japanese Atlantis, the citadel is the focus of two contrasting studies. In the first study, geologist Masaaki Kimura claims that the site is artificial and was covered by water circa 10,000 years ago. Kimura, with whom you collaborated, has identified sculpted rocks depicting human figures and animals. Some people believe that these are the ruins of the lost continent Mu. The second theory belongs to Robert Schoch, who claims that it is a natural monument that has potentially been altered over time by human actions. These two explanatory hypotheses of the artifact are almost symbolic of your work and investigations: Is art purely the work of human beings, or does “human” need to be redefined?
Angelika Markul: I am obsessed by questions regarding our origins: Where do we come from? Why are we here? These are the ultimate questions to which no one has the answer. What fascinates me about the Ry?ky? ruins is the enigmatic strength (human or not) that was capable of shaping and sculpting the stone in this way. I worked on this piece for two years with various scientists, including Kimura. He has spent thirty years examining the site. Is it a religious monument or a kingdom, as he believes? No one knows if he is right; ultimately it makes no difference, as this researcher is an icon for me. He has devoted his life to the creation of a myth. I have a deep conviction that this monument was made by human hands, and not by nature; it is too precise and regular. It is the finest object that I have ever seen, as well as the most mysterious and strange. In the same vein, I have never seen a blue so magnificent and penetrating as the water around Yonaguni. When we were diving, we went through two ‘doors’ with inscriptions. I even wondered if they were the gates of hell…
For the soundtrack, I worked with the composer Simon Ripoll-Hurier, and the only instructions I gave him were to create a stifling atmosphere. At the Zamek museum in Warsaw, in a gallery behind the film, I also exhibited a hand-sculpted installation made of two tonsof wax. The sculpture appeared to move and sway with the lighting, a sensation that is also due to the wax, a warm material full of life with a characteristic smell. I particularly love this raw, magmatic material that enables me to shape layers of time.
MF: Myths and mythologies are common in your work, typically set in an old, archaic time when the human species is a victim, surrendered to the sublime fear of a world over which it no longer has any control. Leviathan, Godzilla or Cthulhu could emerge at any time from the opaque waves of Yonaguni. Your work light-heartedly clings to magical folklore, as when the rocks independently move and supernaturally rise. In a sense, you seem to give back life and agency to the nonhuman, or even to the more-than-human, usually desanimated in Western cultures.
AM: I am inspired by abysses, by the life that somehow clings to stones; by colors; and by the incongruity of some of the luminescent inhabitants of such abysses. I am also inspired by legends, like those about giants or animated stones that move by themselves. The light that moves around for a while in the video is one of my inventions. This shining oscillation provides the appearance of continually moving water, and deforms the structure. Unlike a documentary filmmaker, my role as an artist is to transport and to transform facts into a work of art. The film, therefore, describes my own theory. The work, while scientifically based, always ends with a fiction; it is, in essence, science fiction. The forms and facts that interest me are those that are difficult for humans to access. I am looking for answers to mysteries. It implies a real physical risk to make this kind of work, not only in terms of time, but also to verify if something is a hoax or tangible reality. I trained for six months in order to be able to dive twenty meters deep in these rough waters. In the end, I was only able to go there twice, due to relatively bad weather conditions. But my experience of this monument is unique and unforgettable. I was bowled over by the fantasy of the situation. I heard noises; my ears were buzzing. The lights around me were like elves or mermaids. It was a bit like a mystical experience, at the boundaries of my perception. It is clear that my relationship with the sacred is moving towards animism, a pagan representation that does not oppose nature and culture.
MF: Do your films operate in pairs? I have the impression that the counterpart to Yonaguni Area is If the Hours were Already Counted (2016), also exhibited at Zamek. The very title is illustrative of your reflection about the end of time and the edge of worlds.
AM: Yes, perhaps, there is a relationship between them. My research is continuous and extends in various ways. It takes a long time to create my works.
MF: The video If the Hours were Already Counted presents unpublished film archives from the Naica grotto discovered in Mexico in 2000. This unbelievable place is a chamber at a depth of 300 meters full of selenite crystals, dating between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. The largest crystal is 13 meters long. Your film presents little people dressed like astronauts wandering in a cave adorned with huge crystals. As in Yonaguni Area, sparkling fairytale lights intermittently appear, this time from speleologist lamps.
I recently read that NASA scientists had found germs enclosed in crystals, dating from approximately 50,000 – 10,000 years ago, in the grotto. The microbes were intact and could reproduce. In all likelihood, the site is equally legendary and extremely dangerous;emblematic as much in terms of the ecological crisis as the danger arising from human hubris that is illustrated by the myth of Icarus.
AM: That’s the whole paradox of our situation. Some things disappear to enable new things to appear. Sometimes they are threatening, sometimes they are essential for the progress of human knowledge. And indeed, this “Sistine Chapel of Crystals” (as the geologist Juan Manuel Garcia-Ruyz calls it) is beautiful but lethal. No one can survive there without technical equipment: the temperature varies between 45 and 50°C and the humidity reaches 90%. The aesthetic experience is monumental in these conditions unfavorable to life. Authorization is required to access the grotto. A special overall containing ice needs to be worn for protection against the heat. You can drown due to the high humidity, therefore a mask needs to be worn. On site, there are cabins for cooling off those who work in the grotto for over twenty minutes. Your temperature is lowered. You can rest, be oxygenated, and carry out research. Access to the grotto is by a lift and then a walk to the cave.
In If the Hours were Already Counted, I wanted to play with the design and I started out with the shape of the crystals. I was also inspired by Édouard Riou’s famous engraving for Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (Hetzel, 1864), and, therefore, chose to film this in black and white. What amuses me is that what appears to be fantasy in one era becomes reality and commonplace in another, a delusional speculation. For the leader of the team of scientists and geologists, Paolo Forti, the crystals come from another planet, brought to earth by a meteorite. I worked on this project for a year and the images I used have never been shown. Meeting with the production agency based in Mexico was one of the finest moments of my life; I stayed with them for five days. Gonzalo Infante (producer/director of the Naica films) gave me a priceless crystal. I exhibited it at Zamek, alongside the film, accepting to pay the price for displaying it; in other words, its deterioration and slow disappearance on contact with fresh air. On site, in Naica, the company that managed the mine left the sites flooded in order to protect the crystals in this way from potential deterioration due to air.
MF: What you say reminds me of warnings issued by UNESCO about the effects of climate change, one of the main threats affecting cultural and natural sites of global heritage. Currently, 130 sites are in danger due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion. One of your emblematic works, Bambi in Chernobyl (2014), not exhibited at Zamek, connects to this subject. Thanks to the SAM Prize for Contemporary Art that you won in 2012, you were able to shoot at the site of the Chernobyl accident in Pripyat, Ukraine. I might add that you chose to expose yourself, as well as your team, to radiation in order to film this video. In this “atomic winter” theme park, symbolized by the big wheel and other rides in ruins, it is as if the catastrophe has been immobilized, turned into “cultural heritage” site of sorts. In this work, East and West collide in a long-tracking shot filmed from the “no-go zone,” extending the perspective of this devastated and toxic landscape from right to left and from one end to the other.
It appears here that you are following in the footsteps of landscape artists. Your landscape is “artialised” (Alain Roger) and belongs to the Anthropocene. The question arises about the disappearance of the human species, concurrently with other species. You say that you were moved by the symbiosis between the suffering plant and animal species and their struggle for survival on the site. The complete absence of human beings on the screen is striking especially as the ruined architecture is still recent. You question the future of humanity, following the example of Claude Lévi-Strauss who wrote in 1955, “The world began without man and will end without him.” It seems to me that your work is devoted to the idea of the end of man as a demiurge and marks in this way the failure of Cartesianism. It firstly conveys the end of the concept of nature as a reporting system to the world.
AM: That’s it. Chernobyl is the absolute symbol of sadness, a tragic landscape, a terrifying representation of the end of the world, of emptiness. Nature will prevail but not human beings. On site, everything is contaminated; you cannot stay in the “no-go zone” for more than an hour; you pass through decontamination chambers and undergo tests that determine if you can return to town or are subjected to quarantine. Experiencing this place is a very stressful experience, physically as well as psychologically. In conceiving Bambi in Chernobyl, I also thought of Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. In this film from 1979, Tarkovsky describes, almost as a premonition, a dangerous zone in which it is forbidden to enter. Stalkers alone know the rules of the Zone and guide the few visitors who want to venture inside.
In Chernobyl, confusion between fiction and reality is equally terrible and real. I see my work as an attempt to resist the Zone, which defines an outside and an inside. My film begins and ends with white; at the end, there is a minute’s silence dedicated to the victims, the ill and the dead alike. The exhibition room becomes very light, enabling the reduced and exposed Chernobyl plant to be uncovered. The scenography is crucial. The work is conceived like a whole, a sculpture and not just a projection. There is architecture in the architecture, a form in the form, as is also the case in Yonaguni Area. I adapt the exhibition space to each presentation by breaking the walls. Elements from the film (metal, children’s games.) are replicated as wax sculptures, as is part of a building from Chernobyl. My aim is for the video to become sculpture so that viewers become immersed in the work and its volumes. The music is by composer Franck Krawczyk. This original symphony, inspired by Disney’s Bambi, is classical as well as contemporary. In my film, the sound kicks off with an explosion and incorporates the real sounds of nature, such as the wind and snow. The music is primordial.
MF: Your film 400 Billion Planets (2014) was also exhibited at Zamek. It represents images from the astronomical observatory telescope operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) located in the Atacama Desert on Cerro Paranal. In this area of Chile, the conditions are extreme and hostile to any human life, but enable the continually clear sky to be observed. The visual device is frustrating since viewers can look at this telescope, scrutinizing space and planets beyond the solar system, without seeing what this supereye observes. In 400 Billion Planets, we oscillate between literal fascination, or even blind faith in technology and science on the one hand, and the complete precariousness of human existence despite these advances, on the other.
AM: I was lucky to find myself at the heart of this huge machine that opens out to the sky to observe the stars. It is one of the most hi-tech objects in the world. Atacama is an unforgettable site, a landscape that seems infinite and is closest to that of Mars. There is very little oxygen; going there is a really spiritual experience. The lack of oxygen can cause serious neurological problems, so scientists work for no more than one week at a time at the observatory. In the house that accommodates the researchers, there is a swimming pool in the basement, a huge glasshouse. It’s like being in a James Bond film. At night, it is so cold and dark that you can see absolutely nothing. There is no more life at all, not a breeze. You cannot turn on the light either or the machines will be disturbed. So when there is no more natural light, activities are carried out with headlamps. The most unbelievable is the spectacle of the stars and nebula, the impression of being so close to the sky that you could almost touch it with a finger. There are no words to describe such beauty and poetry; art alone is close to it. Zbigniew Preisner’s music for The Double Life of Veronique by Krzysztof Kie?lowski (1991) is, for this reason, particularly inspiring and pertinent. In 400 Billion Planets, I pursue the same type of introspection on human existence.
MF: Could you tell us a bit about your last work, Memory of Glaciers–a project filmed in Tierra del Fuego–and for which you were awarded the COAL Prize for Art and Environment–I remember that you went to film several glaciers around El Calafate in Patagonia.
AM: Memory of Glaciers presents a new fantasy landscape of changing and disappearing glaciers. The film shows their collapse live, depicting in an accelerated fashion what in the future will happen. In some ways, these glaciers are alive, appearing to self-amputate their necrotized parts in an attempt at survival. When I was on site, the noise was deafening, like the sound of permanent shooting. Today we know that stars form us; the comets that crashed onto the earth fertilized the earth and made us what we are today. Memory of Glaciers will be launched in September 2017 at the first Bienalsur in Buenos Aires. There will be an installation around the black-and-white film. There are images of glaciers and the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet filmed in 2014 by the Rosetta/Philae mission. I also recreated the comet in 3-D. The soundtrack by Côme Aguiar plays a fundamental role. We used enigmatic sounds heard and recorded by amateurs in various parts of the world. We also used earth sounds broadcast live by the National Center for Space Studies.
MF: Memory of Glaciers will, therefore, look like a prosopopoeia, the drama of which embodies Gaia [the Earth as a living, self-regulating organism] as written by James Lovelock and Bruno Latour in Facing Gaia (2017).
AM: The work vocalizes the rumblings of environmental threats that must now be taken very seriously, without any delay.
Malakoff, France, July 8, 2017