illusions, erasure, and arja renell
On a chilly fall morning on the Schillerpromenade, a few performers clad in colorful, opaque hula skirts added some flavor to an otherwise gray day. While a purple creature played tag with neighborhood children and its green friend hugged passersby, patrons of Berlin Art Week gathered around Top Schillerpalais for “Protest Song Competition,” a featured show in Performance Voyage 7. Once the creatures disappeared, those in attendance filed inside for the collection of performance pieces and short films curated by the Finnish MUU Galleria.
Berlin Art Week boasts in its magazine that “the city has once again dedicated itself to art.” For one week in September, Berlin was flooded with film screenings from Los Angeles, dance-workshop-qua-performances from Paris, visiting art from the United Arab Emirates, and a critical mass of artists, collectors, and students (myself included) immersed in the creative and inspirational scene. Performance Voyage 7 included an array of artists from all over Europe, as well as one from Peru, and a mix of installations, performance pieces, and short films.
Among them was Arja Renell—an artist, architect, and ‘urban designer’ from Finland. Barefoot and wearing a black dress and a headscarf, she sat in front of her laptop and greeted guests from a short black table. Speakers filled the space with vaguely industrial sounds. While the crowd slowly quieted down, Renell turned to a variety of herbs carefully arranged on her black table. She addressed each herb individually, crushing it first with a rock, her fingers, and then a blunt wooden tool. For about ten minutes, the audience patiently listened to the soundtrack of industry—a mix of noises including the beeps of a truck backing up over gravel, hammering (or shoveling?) noises, and more—watching as Renell collected the leaves and pine needles in small piles. Renell combined the herbs and turned back to her laptop with purpose.
Gone was the industrial noise—now a babbling brook accompanied her as she sprinkled the herbs into an egg-sized wicker strainer. Renell stood. She approached the first of several white plinths in the room, each holding hourglass-shaped teacups. The artist poured hot water through her strainer into each of the teacups and offered them, with a bow of the head and a smile, to nearby viewers-turned-participants. She continued this until all of the teacups had been distributed. Some of us smiled and started to drink the tea while Renell poured for others. After returning to her black platform at the front of the room, Renell poured a cup, inhaled a deep breath, nodded a smile to the onlookers, and took a sip.
She looked up from her glass and said, “All of these plants were collected from a forest in northern Finland. The area has been polluted by a nickel mine that was recently built, and the people who live there don’t know if their forest is safe, or if they can still eat these plants.” Then she started to cry.
We were silent. Some standing, some sitting, all reeling, responding, re-thinking. What we had taken for granted—a cup of tea—was transformed into a political prop. The liquid was no longer an infusion of herbs but a crossgrounds, a battlefield, melding the natural and the machine, ambiguously pure and toxic.
I was reminded of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” which ends with the bold assertion, “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” and encourages feminists to embrace a bricolage with technology, as opposed to turning to purist, earth-mother feminism. Renell is no goddess, and she does not allow us to think ourselves goddesses. Instead, we are ambiguously, strenuously, and sometimes unwittingly of nature. Our Mother Earth has nickel mines, and we must pay the price. She reminds us that we cannot escape the machine, and she asks us to take a sip.
Renell’s work punctures a keyhole in the illusion of modernity, the illusion that Man (and his throbbing appendage, Machine) conquers Nature. The illusion allows us to divorce consumption in the digital age from our material reality—we are led to forget about the rare earth minerals and exploited miners that make our laptops run. We are meant to assume that the natural resources we consume, our water, air, food, are safe and pure, inexhaustible natural resources which exist for our consumption. But Renell’s work refuses me my blissful ignorance.
It is worth noting here, too, that the spectre of environmental degradation haunts some more than others. In California, the state-sponsored Cerrell Report instructs localities and corporations that they will find the least resistance to trash incinerators and other pollutant projects in rural, poor, Catholic communities with low education levels. This policy of pushing waste onto particular populations, usually people of color, has the effect of abstracting environmental degradation to the mostly white upper class (perhaps why the polar bear is a more compelling battle cry for the environmental movement than the children of Flint, Michigan, who still do not have access to clean water). Renell’s work reminds us that if we want to consume art in Berlin from a smorgasbord of international artists, we need to understand the way that events like Berlin Art Week erase the continual harm done to communities across the globe.
Renell offers the spectator a choice. Drink the tea, or refuse it—after all, the residents of that Finnish forest don’t know whether the herbs are still edible. Accept the reality of contamination in consumption, or try to resist the harmful effects of natural resource extraction. Has Renell violated our trust? Why did we trust her in the first place?