A review of Julian Charrière's show, For They That Sow the Wind, and an interview with the artist

Monday, March 7, 2016
A review of Julian Charrière's show, For They That Sow the Wind, and an interview with the artist

Julian Charriere is a Swiss artist living in Berlin whose fresh and promising work shows a great love of nature, an interest in geological, geographic, and other physical changes, a dynamic sense of time, and a love of travel.

A review of Julian Charrière's show, For They That Sow the Wind, and an interview with the artist

Julian Charriere is a Swiss artist living in Berlin whose fresh and promising work shows a great love of nature, an interest in geological, geographic, and other physical changes, a dynamic sense of time, and a love of travel.

He was born in 1987 and moved to Berlin several years ago, where he earned a master's degree at the Institut für Raumexperimente, and where he was taught by Olafur Eliasson. The hand of this contemporary master is evident in Charriere’s work, in which you can find not only a sober and gentle sparkling stylization, but also the endless love of nature. This affinity towards the outside is something that Charrière felt since his childhood: “I come from a small village in Switzerland. The place where I grew up is next to the mountains, close to the trees, surrounded by birds and fishes, which to this day I can still name and categorize”. This source of admiration sent him, years later, around the world. In order to record time and numerous physical changes, he has to spend time and be physically present. “Travelling for me is a way of being able to send messages, charged with both rational and subjective meaning while being closely linked to experience and life. My interests lie not only with the information but with the physicality, the territorial or geographical characteristics of these meanings, the spaces in which they evolve and the feelings they evoke. I need to evolve within a landscape, to engage actively with it in order to extract something from it.”

The first work you encounter in his exhibition in London immediately presents a clear interplay of these elements. It is a loose-tight arrangement of stacked and juxtaposed salt tiles, a nonchalant, alabaster-colored arcade in which tanks with pastel-colored liquid pop up. They were excavated - the Latin meaning of "fossil" - in the Salar de Uyuni, a region in Bolivia which is bursting with lithium. This metal is the main component of smartphone and laptop batteries and therefore highly prized. To harvest it, the salt layers have to be pierced and the pastel-colored liquid underneath (brine) has to be evaporated. Thus, in “Future Fossil Spaces” (2014) the material and geological-time-shaped tiles are not only contrasted with the intangible, flashing time of our devices, but also, the work silently implies a critique of our consumption religion and the ecological costs of our needs. Wonderful.

From Bolivia the works move towards Kazakhstan, and the west of North America. In the first he photographed and filmed Semipalatinsk, a testing ground for nuclear weapons where the Soviet Union commissioned 456 nuclear tests between 1949 and 1989. The film of the pictures - “Polygon I IIV, X” (2015) - was irradiated beforehand, so they show the effects of radiation, both in content and form. The results are spotty black and white images of robust buildings that resemble a faint but steady resurgence of a distant past. They are tangled in a man-changed and later abandoned landscape, one which Charrière also explored with a camera for his 16-minute film “Somewhere” (2014).

A similar but more layered landscape is found in the west of North America. The connotations of these spaces changed from boundless hope to apocalyptic doom after the beginning of several nuclear tests, but in addition to this destruction there still remained room for utopia. “Monument - Fragment of an Approaching Past” (2015) consists of a crushed geodesic dome made of carved car roofs, a housing form that could be found in the futuristic artist community Drop City during the 60s. According to the show’s press release, this installation stands for the disappearing and recurrence of utopias and the impossible return to something like Drop City. In other words, too much and too contrived and that is a wider problem in (the interpretation of) his work. The layers of meaning sometimes seem so puzzled that you have to search for gaps between the different parts, vague areas that invite other interpretations. The line between explaining a work and cementing its meaning is sometimes thin, but fundamental: a clear and frame-like designation can extinguish the open and stimulating character of art, and thus prevent creative reflection.

Nowhere is this problem as explicit as in “Monument”, but the other works also suffer from it in varying degrees. Certainly “Tropism” (2015), an ensemble of refrigerated viewing cabinets in which some of the oldest plants we have were frozen in time by liquid nitrogen. They recall the primitive prehistoric times and form a barrier against the impermanence of everything, but feel somewhat contrived. Luckily, they are more than the result of a rational calculation: “I developed an interest in these plants, not only because my grandmother had many orchids in her house and would play music to them, explaining to me that this would have a positive effect on their growth, but also because they were omnipresent – at the dentist, at school, at the supermarket – somehow taking over my childish reality.”

More aesthetically pleasing are “The Blue Fossil Entropic Stories I, II, III” and “We Are All Astronauts”, both from 2013. In the first - a photo report of a performance which he undertook on an ice float in the Arctic Ocean and which lasted about eight hours - a tiny figure is burning the ice away with a blowtorch. It is a dreary romance breathing allegory on our guileless destructiveness of the Earth. The second is a floating whole of young and old globes whose surface was sanded to colorful heaps of borders and territories, a job that was done with sand paper on which minerals from all the UN-recognized countries were stuck together. The temporal boundaries and geopolitical constellations, the limitless opportunities that arise by taking them away and the state of our ecology hang lightly in balance, mainly due to the dreamy, candy-like powder. Are we all astronauts who float between hope and horror, utopia and destruction? The explorer in Charrière wants to inspire us to see time and the world differently.

Artdependence Magazine: Let me quote from the press release of For They That Sow the Wind: “A significant part of his oeuvre to date has led him to scrutinize the actual and dominant demands for technological advances, most of which depend on further depleting the Earth’s natural resources…” Is the advancing technology not at the same time the greatest danger and the greatest salvation?

Julian Charrière: Indeed, some of my works talk about the complex nature of this relationship and the way in which it is also linked to the perception of temporality. It is in the understanding of this temporality that our “salvation” can exist, and yet it is this particular shift in the understanding of time that characterizes our digital era. Technology is a new perception tool with which we can absorb and digest knowledge. It also allows us to project into the future. The only issue here, and one of the topics that I like to discuss in my work, is that suddenly, because of this shift, a large gap is created: one where the moment, the now, is almost non-existent and, if it exists, it does so at such a rapid pace that we are not able to grasp it anymore.

AD: In the interview with Ziba Ardalan, the founder, director, and curator of Parasol unit, you said something rather grim: “Life is in a perpetual state of decay.” I’d say that it is more in a cyclic flux, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, than a constant degeneration.

JC: I do not think that by saying something is in a state of a decay that it is necessarily a grim take on things, or that it is a synonym of degeneration. Decay is a word that not only exemplifies the processes of biological life cycles but also refers to the physical, chemical, and entropic processes that I relate to in many of my works. Decay in the radioactive sense of the word, for example, refers to an infinite process over time. The concept is also interesting from an ontological perspective, as objects cease to be one thing and become another through this process. In this sense, I think that I believe more in a world that is in a constant state of flux rather than a world of cycles, beginnings and ends, and of eternal recurrent loops.

AD: It is often said that in order to contemplate and to ponder deep (life) issues like you do, one should ‘take the time’ and focus on the now. Yet, for you as for many people today, now is a flickering notion. Instead, you focus on the past and the future. Could you elaborate on the dialectics of time in your art and practice?

JC: I believe that the artist’s role is to filter reality, to react to a particular present situation and to expose it in some way. This can be on a personal or informative level, usually resulting in a combination of both. One has to work with the notion of the present in order to try to reveal another side of it, another perspective; one also based on the revision of the past and the future. Yet, when the present happens at such a rapid speed, there is almost no time for its’ revision. It is constantly changing, making the line between past and future so thin that they begin to almost blend into each other, creating a new order within the research methodology of history. This is the reason why I explore field research techniques, originally geared towards the past, such as archaeology, in order to project into the future and, through this, be able to understand the present.

AD: In his essay on the occasion of your exhibition at the Parasol, Timothy Morton states that in spite of our urge to access, reduce, and control things, they constantly slip away from us. Is an interesting work of art a thing that demonstrates this inherent inaccessibility, or is it a thing that is – perhaps because of that – a bit more accessible?

JC: A work of art is more accessible precisely because of its abstract nature. You don't need to understand it to actually connect - an emotional reaction is often enough. The fact that you are dealing with an object or a thing existing in a “tangible world”, allows us to relate to it on a more sensual level, thus making it more accessible. At the same time, it is this abstraction and multiple meanings that allows the object to stand by itself, completely separate from the individual that sees or experiences it, and completely independent of the meaning that that same individual gives to it. This is what Timothy refers to as “viscous” objects.

AD: In the interview with Ziba Ardalan, you also said that you need to evolve in a landscape, to engage actively with it in order to extract something from it. How do I have to picture that active engagement? Is it spending time walking, feeling, smelling… or is it something else?

JC: When I say evolve in a landscape, I am not only referring to the active engagement with this terrain through the senses, the haptic experience of a site, but I am directly referring to the capacity of changing with the landscape. Evolving relates to a continuous development, and it also refers to the idea of evolution. As I change through the experience of landscape, landscape also changes with me. Nevertheless, this confrontation and exchange can also result in a violent interaction, damaging the landscape as much as it can enrich it. I think this is the reason why I've always felt inclined towards the work of land artists, during the sixties. These individuals used this idea and played with the aggressive nature of change in order to create art works that questioned the ecological and cultural notions of that time.

AD: Later in that interview you stated: “I am particularly interested in what I could call a ‘culturally energetic landscape’, somewhere I would consider to be culturally loaded. It doesn’t matter whether it is connected to natural resources, cultural history or is just an anecdotal fact, like a telephone box in the middle of the Mojave desert.” Could you elaborate on that? Do you mean that you’re interested in landscapes that evoke cultural constructs and associations?

JC: Landscape, its concept and therefore also its existence, is intrinsically connected to man. Either physically or virtually, through the violent extraction of the resources that lead to the progress of our culture, or through the invisible bombardment of the geography through electromagnetic waves traveling in the world's atmosphere. Landscape is constantly being transformed by man.

AD: Your second solo-exhibition at Dittrich & Schlechtriem was titled On the Sidewalk I Have Forgotten the Dinosauria. Is humor a way to alleviate the existential nature of your art and to make it more accessible? Is humor important, despite or because of the problems you address?

JC: I think that humor is a basic and important resource for language, and therefore an important tool for the understanding of many of the topics that I try to address in my work. It is a way of making information more accessible to people by highlighting the sometimes absurd nature behind the development of some of these concepts.  It is a little bit like Aldous Huxley's theory from his novel, ‘Doors of Perception’, where every time a door is opened, another one closes behind it. For me, humor is a way of slightly opening a door, enough to see that it is not locked but still too closed to see what is behind it. It's an invitation to venture into something that you do not necessarily know or understand.

Julian Charrière, 'For They That Sow the Wind', 2016. Installation views at Parasol unit, London. Photographs: Jack Hems. Courtesy of Parasol unit foundation for contemporary art

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