Peeter Laurits & Ain Maeots.
Peeter Laurits & Ain MÃ¤eots
Is there a cafÃ© at the end of the world?
Ecological crisis. Despite the unfathomable horrendousness conveyed by this phrase, there's still something sublime in those words. The tragic beauty of fading away, perhaps, and the realization that on the threshold of environmental collapse we all stand together once again â€“ brothers and sisters, equally helpless. Such universality commands awe and faith: thank God, there still is something in this world to be treated with absolute seriousness, even solemnity, something hardly anyone dares to joke about. Somehow, perhaps because the ongoing environmental devastation is so utterly logical and tangible, acknowledging this feels safe and comforting. Ecological crisis is something one can relate to on a rational level and it seems like it can also be solved by approaching it rationally: if we do this and stop doing that, like quit overconsuming, pay attention to recycling and don't destroy any more rainforests, it should still be possible to avoid the unhappiest end, shouldn't it? Not that most of us would start any of that tomorrow. Just knowing there is a chance and feeling that the situation can still be taken under control has a soothing effect.
The realization that mankind has destined itself to extinction can be used as a reason or an excuse for pretty much anything: practising ecological fascism just as well as for leading a care-free hippie-lifestyle; for robber capitalism just as well as for giving up all of one's belongings, etc. The question is not even about what's the right thing to do now. First we need to reach a consensus on how do we acknowledge this crisis, how should it be formulated â€“ or in this case, how should it be depicted?
'Dining with Worms' by Peeter Laurits, a photographer, and Ain MÃ¤eots, a stage producer, consists of mise-en-scene photos, animated videos and music. The pictures taken last summer in the forests of Southern Estonia show post-apocalyptic scenes of nature's uprising wiping out the whole of mankind â€“ sending them to dine with worms (or according to the original title that refers to an old Estonian figure of speech, 'feed on soil'). This backward Garden of Eden is a place both beautiful and bizarre, where one can encounter many great figures of the Western culture like Jesus Christ, St. Sebastian, Romeo and Juliet, alongside lesser folk like investment bankers, soldiers and even a timber thief (a character sadly far too common in Estonian forests). Everyone is dead and lying in heavenly peace in Nature's primordeal embrace: some fallen into sandpits, some washed down streams, some caught in the branches of trees... The Last Supper is over and the disciples have collapsed onto and under the table, alongside empty Coca-Cola bottles and torn packages of potato chips. The only witness of the last flight of 'Oicumenic Airlines' is a graceful stewardess who has fallen from the sky to be pierced by the sharp tip of the onion-cupola of an orthodox church. Peace has come to Earth.
There seems to be a contradiction in this. Those pictures are too beautiful, too utterly refined, mystical â€“ well, if you wish, 'decadent'. In any case, they have an effect more like a lullaby than a wake-up call. But the thing they're pointing to is something else, isn't it? Something that demands climbing to a stage and shouting out on top of one's lungs... but what exactly? How could one depict the 'real' ecological disaster, making it 'authentic' and 'adequate'? Absurd, isn't it?
Thus the only thing one can do is give up trying to embrace the reality of the situation and delve deeper into the details: a dry leaf on a wet arm, a thin trickle of blood at the corner of a mouth, the shades of skin turning darker. Make this catastrophy absurdly beautiful, because in the end it works out all the same as depicting it in the most horrendous way imaginable. And if we must go anyway, why not show some fantasy, some grand gestures and some ability of being above oneself?
The discussions about 'Dining with Worms' have included some talk about theatre, photography and photographic mise-en-scene â€“ in fact the extended title of the exhibition is 'frozen and sliced theatre'. The fact that all we see has been meticulously staged is really not a problem, since it is openly admitted, even demonstrative â€“ it is just a game. But, for the sake of establishing one more link between this and theatre, it could be said that this kind of 'nature-glam' with it's pictorial Ã¼ber-aesthetics is a bit resemblant of the strategy of using words to create absurdity characteristic to dramatic writing. Images are hardly any more reliable a communication tool than words, and in a case like this, where achieving any authenticity is beyond reach anyway, a consciously created effect of estrangement and grotesquely twisted clichÃ©s may well be the only chance to avoid becoming ridiculous. In the end, those photos show pretty much everything an actual ecological disaster wouldn't be â€“ because they cannot show what it would be, but showing the opposite gets the message across just the same.
Now, to come back to that beautiful word, then of course the morbid and over-ripe aesthetics of the end of the world by Laurits and MÃ¤eots are 'decadent'. But there is a principal difference between this and the original decadence of the last turn of the century. The latter was, despite everything, inseparably bound to the rhetoric of progress â€“ thus it had an opposite that the current so-called decadence in any of it's forms lacks. It is hard to imagine a modern 'progressive' depiction of an ecological apocalypse that wouldn't come across as totalitarian agit-prop, psychological terror or something resembling the illustrations in a 'Word of Life' brochure.
The theme of looming ecological crisis, however emphasized, is definitely not the only possible reading of those pictures. They include several lesser storylines. A necrophiliac fairytale creating pleasant shivers of horror in the readers. A story of the everlasting quest to reach the stars and it's unhappy end (the aforementioned unfortunate stewardess and a picture of a group of soldiers, who have fallen to the ground around a cistern bearing the letters 'NASA') . Making fun of biblical themes. Documentary proof of a death orgy on a much lesser scale, some obscure and ghastly ritual taking place 'somewhere else' â€“ in a forest in VÃµrumaa County, Estonia. The end of the world is huge, unimaginable, impossible and absurd. One has to pick something tangible to even start discussing it. After all, noone has ever seen Godot either.
It seems that in the case of this project, using photography as a medium has a deeper purpose than plain practical considerations (why film, if nobody's moving?). A film creates an illusion that someone is still there, it has a beginning and an end, something is before and something after. Photography, on the other hand, seems to have an innate apocalyptic quality. Every time the button is pressed, one reality ends. It cannot really be told whether time ever went on after this or was this the final image.
Taking all of the above into consideration there is still something weird about those pictures. The reason for an ecological breakdown should lie in the excess development of technology, a theme that is mostly connected to urban living. The average image of a global catastrophy and the silence that follows mostly focuses on dead cities and machines standing still. But the people of 'Dining with Worms' are out in the wild woods without a sign of our technological civilization in sight. It doesn't seem like their agony lasted long enough for the wilderness to take over the cities either. How did they end up there? Those people look like they've been struck down by a lightning. What chased or lured them into the woods? It's as if they had some business there, as if they weren't total strangers after all. In the end, the hands and feet intertwine with the branches rather elegantly, moss grows through hair, water washes the bodies into the rocks and then there really isn't much difference left...
3 September - 23 October 2004. Open hours: Tues - Sat 14 - 18
Opening on Friday, 3 September 18 - 21
GIEDRE BARTELT GALERIE
Linienstr. 161/ Ecke Kleine Hamburger Str., 10115 Berlin