NATURALIA ET MIRABILIA IN THE WORK OF BODO GASTON BÖHM
Enchantment is the impression that 16th and 17th Century Wunderkammern had on their contemporary spectators. These strange collections mixed a various range of objects: some were artefacts, while others had been created by mother nature. One could find fossils together with Roman coins, mummified animals and ivory sculptures, bizarre creatures and paintings of hairy human beings. Although most of the collected objects were in fact artificial, even some devilishly winged reptiles, the spectator’s amazement depended on their acquaintance with nature. Humankind was still lingering in an Age of superstition, when good and evil forces were thought to shape one’s destiny. Unlike Middle Ages, though, some early researchers around Europe started to question nature’s mysteries and found groundbreaking answers. Science was moving fast forward, and some aristocrats wanted to catch up the pace of expanding human knowledge. In fact, the Wunderkammer is a clumsy attempt to find stable categories in the scope of natural phenomena. Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria’s heterogeneous collection, still on display in its original location at Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck, is a well preserved example of such a gallery, probably the very best that has resisted up to date. It gives a spectacular insight to an Era of change, when human beings were starting to dominate nature, instead of continuing to adapt to its evolution. Nevertheless, the Wunderkammer still reveals a kind of distance and respect towards nature, which slowly disappears in the scientific collections of the 18th and 19th Century, dedicated to a complete and thorough categorisation of naturalia. The Wunderkammer-socity could still find amazement in nature, and maybe even atonement. Being incapable of grabbing nature’s essence somehow prevented mankind from destructing it.
Human knowledge experienced a fast increase, and so did the direct and systematic interventions on nature. Suddenly, humans started to be careless about their habitat and about the consequences of the industrial turn. Although the cause of this attitude is much more greed, scientific thought had turned down nature’s flair by uncovering every riddle it concealed. An Era of colonisation was about to begin, which aimed at the total control and power over any inferior being. This could mean overcoming of weaker Nations, enslaving of aboriginal tribes, intervention on the environment. Huge masses of people were drawn from the countryside to the outskirt of gloomy and overcrowded towns, losing their contact to nature forever. Romanticism may be seen as a reaction to the positivistic consequences that had turned society around, but in fact it was much more a kind of nostalgic projection of the human self on the outside world. Nature became, then, the mirror of the poets’ mood, the temple of an artist’s feelings. One had to wait for Naturalism to find an upright defence of the ecosystem, even though aimed at the social conditions of the working class. Nevertheless, it was the first and only time in the 19th Century when art reflected its growing concern with the fundamental changes society and nature had gone through in such a short time. Sure the solution put forward by the Luddites movement – that is the systematic destruction of every machine – was a quite unorthodox one, but it succeeded in stirring the awareness about human condition and his environment. Such forms of extremism often help to shift on the long run the way we watch the flowing and apparently unchangeable fate humankind is living in.
Today’s environmental movements serve the same purpose as the Luddites’: they may never convince the majority of people they are in the right, but they are capable of instilling a new idea into common sense. Their failure is only bound to the growing speed of man’s incredible capacity of destruction: World War II marked the bench, but the exploitation of the environment has not stopped since. Artistic movements in the Sixties, from performances to Land Art, desperately tried to shake human consciousness one last time before it was to late. The naked actions of Austrian artist and architect Hundertwasser, as well as his buildings penetrated by meadows and trees, are probably the best examples of a possible bargain between technical evolution and our surrounding environment. The style of Hundertwasser bares again that kind of respect that was due towards nature before the start of the industrial revolution.
Unfortunately, to set a good example seems a failing strategy today. Flooded by information, mostly unnecessary and unwanted, people who live in the new-media era react chiefly to harsh messages, if ever. In 2010 the square at Gänsemarkt in Hamburg was filled with 322 refrigerators by artist Ralf Schmerberg, who composed them into an igloo: cold on the outside, warm on the inside. The title of this piece is very significant: “Der Stromfresser”, the energy-eater. In front of the entrance a screen was measuring the current waste of electricity, which was huge, of course. Though it’s like showing pictures of lung-cancer to an inveterate smoker: it’s unlikely for him to stop even after seeing the black shadows all over the X-rays.
The Venetian painter Bodo Gaston Böhm is apparently on the same wake as this environmental tendency that permeates some part of the art world, at least the one that isn’t concerned with self-referential subjects. In his oil paintings he confronts the viewer with the extreme consequences of human intervention on the environment. One after another, Böhm creates landscapes of pure destruction, in which Mother Earth is shown shattered into pieces. The paintings could seem like visions of distant planets, but they are in fact drawn from actual photographs. Mankind is completely absent from the picture, even though all that remains is the direct effect of our actions on the ecosystem: desertification and laceration of the world’s surface, barren and sterile plates. There is yet another hint at mankind in Böhm’s paintings, in spite of the oblivion of the human figure. One feels the presence of man due to the choice of representing a landscape with the traditional horizon constructed through para-mathematical perspective. As the great art historian and theorist Erwin Panofsky has shown, the mathematical perspective is one of the main intellectual achievements of the Modern man. It reveals the very moment in which mankind has placed itself in the centre of existence, putting God and nature out of the way. Renaissance perspective sets us, for the first time after the Middle Ages, in the epicentre of our destiny. Suddenly, individuals became masters of their own life and of all that surrounded them. The choice of painting landscapes with a traditional perspective seems to point at the fact, that salvation (both of mankind and nature) is still up to us, or at last this is what the artist may believe.
In a recent work for a group exhibition in Venice held in June 2012, though, Böhm has overlaid his paintings with large paper sheets, in order to extract its texture by frottage. The result was impressive: the landscapes were transformed into pure matter put onto a surface, like particles seen through a microscope. These drawings inspire a whole bunch of contrasting sensations: the feel of smoothness as opposed to roughness, stiffness and flexibility, balance and mixture. Curiosity arises immediately and one is drawn towards these visions in an urge to study them thoroughly, to understand the mystery they keep inside. A sense of enchantment pervades the viewer, an enchantment one must pay respect to. It is the very feeling affecting many scientists, eager to discover the secrets of nature without hurting her.
Bodo Gaston Böhm’s art brings us back to an Era of naturalia and mirabilia, an age when mankind was content with nature’s gifts – day by day – and still capable of sincere enchantment.