You depict and reference both imaginary and real environments in your pieces. There are typical Berlin scenes (for example a punk with a hound, or people promenading with dogs in Nelly-Sachs-Park) along with events and characters from the Bible and Quran. What is the place of your pieces, and what do these places and spaces represent to you?
Gilgamesh is the oldest known narrative and it begins with a parting of an early man from nature. The beginning of this tale, even before the character of Gilgamesh is introduced, is what has engaged me the most. Grane is a horse from the German Nibelungen legend. I made a paper silhouette about it, in which I tried to depict a specific moment from the perspective of the horse. I am interested in leaving behind the anthropocentric perspective. It is probably not entirely feasible, but it might be possible to at least relativize the human view in favor of animals.
Berlin appears in some of the works because I can imagine so many things in this city. When I moved here in 2001, I saw Berlin as very diverse. As a person with a migration background, I felt I was in the right place. In this city where intercultural coexistence works relatively well, I wonder if another form of interspecies coexistence could take place. I see certain places within the city as spaces of possibility, and these sometimes emerge in my pieces. For example, the relief Asylum/ the Liberation of Animals from Cages VI, from 2009, depicts an interspecies scene in the corporate compound of a Berlin car rental company, Robben & Wientjes, in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg. This site, which does not exist anymore, was a democratic place, known to everyone who moved around in Berlin or wanted to take something from A to B for little money. On the roof of the company building were seal-shaped light boxes serving as the company logo.
However different these fictional and real places are from each other, I am interested in the mental journey through time, following a common thread, the relationship between humans and animals.
Often we see a mixture of non-Western subjects in Western environments in your works. It seems like animal liberation has a greater connotation to you than lifestyle choices, for example, becoming vegan. You depict a range of social and political issues from social classes or pollution to war in your work. Do you see animal liberation as a subject on its own, or as a piece of the larger whole?
Definitely, animal liberation is part of a larger fight, against climate change and for social equality. It is part of a left-wing movement. To me, veganism feels so self-evident and widespread today that it’s almost pointless to continue to address it directly. In the context of my work, this would be an unnecessary repetition. Also, I don’t necessarily want to link my personal lifestyle to my art practice. I usually try to avoid making direct appeals to the viewer although I certainly have my ambivalences: I like Agitprop and Comic culture, since they tend to be very direct in their statements. It is a constant balancing act; it’s impossible to accomplish everything in a single piece.
The way I first perceived the relationship between man and nature in a larger context was influenced by the environmental disasters of the 1980s, such as Chernobyl in 1986. This was 1,200 miles from the city where I grew up. People were told to stay at home. I was personally not affected or frightened, but it made me think. Why do we call what animals do natural, and what humans do or make artificial, be it plastic bags or nuclear power? This thinking process turned into an alienation from the concept of humanity and from the results of human labor. Then, there was the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Later, I did a sculptural piece about this, Cleaner/Reiniger, a figure holding an oil-smeared animal in her arms.
There are at least two kinds of humans depicted in your work: cruel, militaristic, and kind, peaceful. Do you see people differently based on how they relate to their environment?
The way people treat weaker creatures such as animals certainly affects how they are perceived by others. To avoid falling into black-and-white thinking, I look at temporal processes of change, and assume that the omnivores of today are possibly the vegans of tomorrow. Whenever someone mentions their meat consumption, I try to keep in mind their freedom to make choices. As for the future, there are several reasons why people would change their attitudes towards animal consumption: they might decide, out of a process of reflection, to live non-violently, i.e., to become vegan. Or they may adapt to new ethical standards embraced by society. Or one day, it may be prohibited by law to eat animals and use them for other purposes. Which of these possibilities will be the reason for shifting to veganism has yet to be seen. The main motive will probably be the fight against the climate crisis… In any case, I expect that the use of animals will end.
Your use of Styrofoam as material makes me think of functionality with aesthetic purpose. With your sculptures, you create new, organic spaces out of artificial material. Do you see a role for artists in promoting material sustainability as well?
Yes. Art is no more exempt from the necessities of sustainable production than other professions. Styrofoam is an absolute prime example of a material that should simply not be. As I started working in figurative sculpture, it turned out to be the material that allowed me to work in large sizes. Since Styrofoam is imperishable, I considered it suitable for my works, which I hope will outlive me. I use as much found Styrofoam and other found materials as I can get.
In all other areas of the studio, like art handling, I act as sustainably as I can. I try to minimize air travel or avoid it altogether. When I got a commission for the Skulpturenpark in Köln, I wanted to work with aluminum casting, as it seemed more contemporary and a more adequate translation of Styrofoam pieces. However, after doing some research, I learned that bronze is less environmentally damaging to produce than aluminum. So when I cast outdoor pieces, I work with bronze.
What’s your relationship with texts, history, and philosophy? On your website, there is a wide selection of texts on animal liberation.
My homepage is basically one long entry from 2008, which was written shortly after I decided to fully dedicate my work to the human-animal relationship. I have often engaged with theoretical texts in exhibitions too, such as Nagheoleed/Neolith, a lecture by the Italian philosopher Marco Maurizi on the supposed beginning of capitalism in the Neolithic period.
I have included other texts in my exhibitions that I found particularly relevant. For the show at Lulu in Mexico City in 2017, I used an excerpt of an essay by the social scientist and activist Melanie Bujok, that visitors of the exhibition could take home.
In the last exhibition at Jacky Strenz, my gallerist in Frankfurt, Germany, I was able to include a text by Birgit Mütherich, which curator Rob Wiesenberger also published in the catalog for the exhibition Arrival of the Animals at the Clark Art Institute.
(Top image: Grane, 2013. Cardboard, transparent paper, wood, and fluorescent lights. 128 x 224.5 x 19.68 in. (325 x 570 x 50 cm))
Biborka Beres is a senior student at Bennington College in Vermont, studying dance, drama, and philosophy. Her interests and works lie at the intersection of socio-political change and the performing arts. In her interviews for Artists & Climate Change, she is continuing her process of exploring how the arts can create models, practices, and imaginary worlds which allow humans to coexist peacefully with nature and with each other.