Text by This is Jackalope (Cristina Anglada and Gema Melgar)
Entitled I’m Still Learning [Aún aprendo], British artist Jonathan Baldock’s exhibition is the third episode of the cycle An Involuntary Trace, curated by This is Jackalope for La Casa Encendida.
Baldock’s starting point is the drawing by Goya of the same title (I Am Still Learning), which shows an old man walking along with great difficulty as he leans on two crutches. The image initially conjures up the will and the need we all have to continue to learn despite the shortcomings of old age. However, what Baldock is mostly interested in is the feeling of humility it expresses in today’s context of anthropocentric crisis and the urgency of adopting a listening attitude towards Nature. Baldock is presenting an alternative reality from which to recover our ability to connect to the elements, synchronising once again with our natural surroundings and, in the wider sense, with the planet itself. I Am Still Learning is an imaginary, queer scenario located in another space-time which transports us into a universe of healing.
How can we relate to nature in a less narcissistic and simplistic way? In the West we have built our reality around our interest in extraction and exploitation, of which agriculture is a good example. Using mythological sources, we have invented stories that justify that simplified relationship. The history of the seasons has its origins in Demeter, the mythological Greek goddess of harvests and agriculture, whose moods determined the success or the failure of those endeavours. The number of seasons changes depending on the culture. The ancient Japanese calendar, for example, identifies twenty-four seasons or sekki, made up of fifteen-day periods that can in turn be divided into seventy-two variants, while in Mesopotamia the solar year was divided into two seasons and in Assyria into three. Even meteorologists and astronomers are divided on the matter and organise seasons in different ways. How can we set up a new relationship with our planet that goes beyond the uses and abuses of human enjoyment and empowerment? In his book Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, Michael Marder—a philosopher who is associated with environmental thinking—exhorts us to revise the concept of objectivity as he introduces us to vegetal thinking. He proposes the notion of “phytocentrism” to address life in its relation to the inorganic, developing the concepts of “communities of growth”, trans-species and/or transkingdom. In The Life of Plants, Emanuele Coccia suggests we learn from the vegetal world, especially in everything related to its ability to adhere to its surrounding environment.
There is not only a vindication of nature here, but also of other rhythms and measures of time, above and beyond those that are based on productivity and efficiency, or on a linear development driven towards a future of presumably infinite growth. Working slowly for long periods of time not only generates a close affinity with the employed materials but also leads us to an intimate, community-wide form of healing. Sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui speaks of looking back (to the future—what we don’t see and don’t know) and looking forward (into the past) in order to be able to move ahead in the present future. In other words, she proposes an anachronistic celebration of an overflowing, expanded and malleable time. Donna Haraway, for her part, looks at how the indigenous calado embroidery that is typical of Cartago (Colombia), made slowly and by hand, plays an essential role “in these difficult times, becoming a key exercise for personal and intimate healing, for the reconstruction of destroyed communities and for telling stories of the earth and the water, of displacement and of futures that are still possible”. This story appears in the introduction Haraway wrote for Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, in which she dismantles the idea of the evolution of human technology by stating that the container evolved before the club, as a tool designed to kill, as well as before the knife or the stick. The idea is to look into the past with a different perspective and to vindicate other narratives that have been eclipsed by stories imposed upon us as definite, thereby discovering new possibilities for human experience and knowledge.
The present show denotes a clear intention to connect with the earth and its rhythms while we reassess our place in the world. The pieces on display have been crafted with natural materials (clay, sackcloth, beeswax, water, hand-blown glass, wood) with a view to providing material experiences through the five senses and the five elements. In Ayurveda philosophy, the senses are related to the elements (space=touch, air=hearing, fire=sight, water=taste, earth=smell) and in Chinese traditional medicine the five elements are associated with the five vital organs. In both systems of belief, the human body heals and recovers its balancewhen in harmony with nature.
This space for healing and spirituality is also present in Baldock’s pieces: a felt fan represents the air; a blown-glass puppet, suspended in the room, holds water in parts of its body that act as tumblers; a lighted candle listens with a pair of molten human ears, bringing fire into the space; five clay stools of different hues represent the earth, while each of them embodies one of the senses (in accordance with the Aristotelian classification); two large golden eyes observe the interaction between the works on display and the spectators, representing ether (the fifth and most powerful element, often depicted as a deity).
The works and the space in Room A are bathed in a sound and smell that once again appeal to our senses. On the one hand, there is the soundscape designed by Luke Barton, structured in four parts that evolve and scatter reproducing barely audible murmurings and abstract buzzing that give voice to objects and organic materials, creating a simultaneous conversation between them. The piece is inspired by the stone tape theory, which speculates that ghosts and hauntings are analogous to tape recordings and that, under certain conditions, mental impressions during emotional or traumatic events can be projected in the form of energy, “recorded” onto rocks and other items and “replayed”. On the other hand, the encounter with smell is almost impossible to capture and cannot be easily measured or detected using accessible or accurate scientific electronic devices.
Alex Margo Arden has designed a soft and inexplicable smell shadow made up of forty-two chemical synthetic products. Its composition is based on not-too-sound historical narratives taken from internet forums for communities interested in the paranormal. Spirits and ghosts use aromas to send messages to the living, aided by vibrations and spiritual energies. For centuries, encounters with ghosts have been recorded through descriptions of their earthy smell. In such encounters, layers of different experiences overlap: a slice of burnt toast, the smoke of a cigarette, a pinch of ancient perfume, decaying library books, a lost scent of gardenias, old damages caused by fire, roses, mould or chemical products in a conical laboratory flask. Smell can guide us towards memories we don’t know we had, towards places we have forgotten we have been to and things we don’t remember having experienced.
Ours is an age in which different currents appeal to a rejection of the scripted, excessively simplistic and rational world that conditions us. The vindication of “margins” and their areas of darkness is ever-more evident, together with a search for alternative methods of knowledge that trace new trajectories between ancient thought and contemporary creation. This potentiality or possibility of exploring other realities and alternative worlds feeds into the concept of queer (Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire; José Esteban Muñoz. Cruising Utopia) and a desire to investigate the notion of “the broken open” (So Mayer, “The Broken Open”, in Spells, Ignota Press, 2018). In Room A, Baldock has manufactured a textile pillar in material that pays a sculptural tribute to trees. The hollow “trunk” allows the spectator to look inside through a series of holes that issue light and set in motion suggestive scenarios of forms alluding to the inside/outside, serving as mechanisms to invoke queer space and overturn binary notions of ecology and our connection to the natural world.
The exhibition space will go into action with a performance by the author and his collaborator, fellow artist Rafał Zajko (Białystok, Poland, 1988). Attired in ceremonial dress and headgear that enlarge and distort their human proportions, Baldock and Zajko will assume the role of carers of the elemental beings in the room. A series of ritualised movements will reawaken the beings they come across and transport them to the present, allowing them to take up residence in the exhibition space during the show. Thus, the performance will establish a physical connection to the works on display, blurring the line that separates bodies from objects and the living from the inanimate.
In I Am Still Learning, Jonathan Baldock guides us through an imaginary, temporal, theatrical and immersive realm in which different symbolic incarnations of the elements serve as communication vessels that help us explore our relations—past and potential—with the earth and nature through the creation of a space in which the rules of the world no longer apply.