BIRDS DON’T CRY by STEFAN KNAUF at ROBERT GRUNENBERG [from 20220611 to 20220731]

[Photos: Roman März]

Robert Grunenberg is pleased to announce “Birds don’t cry,” a solo exhibition by Berlin-based artist Stefan Knauf. The exhibition is Knauf’s second solo show with the gallery, and presents an installation comprised of steel sculptures rising from a landscape of blinding white perlite. 

Knauf explores the ideological and colonial structures that continuously shape the world through design and space-making practices, particularly with regards to landscape and the natural world. His diverse practice probes the history of botany, migration, trade, science, and architecture to uncover concrete paradoxes in our misperception of nature as something inherently stable, wild, or uncultured. Knauf’s recent research has led him to the countless ecosystem restoration initiatives around the world, where governments and companies are effectively attempting to “re-create” previously destroyed or eroded natural environments.

Knauf has flooded the entire gallery floor with perlite, a natural mineral that is industrially modified via heat, which transforms it into a light, pebble-like material, used in everything from construction, water filtering to hydroponic greenhouse agriculture. Over 20,000 litres of this material has been unloaded in the gallery to form a landscape of dunes and hills. Here, a variety of components—oil columns, steel reliefs, and plant-like metal sculptures—co-exist in a radically sterile white cube environment, where the absence of organic elements leaves no potential whatsoever for organic processes to occur.

At the center of the installation are a series of towering “prickly pear” cacti realized in inflated and zinc-galvanized sheet steel, a process used in large-scale industry that blows up the intensely durable material into soft, organic shapes, with noticeable crystalline patterns on its surfaces. A familiar plant in the Mediterranean and Northern Africa, the prickly pear (Opuntia sp.) is in fact indigenous to Central America, where it was used for millennia to cultivate the Cochineal insect, used for the production of the color pigment carmine red. Spanish colonisers unsuccessfully attempted to introduce this bug to Europe, but the cactus still took root and has since then spread throughout the region and become ubiquitous.

As a colonial artefact, the cactus speaks to the problem of thinking of landscapes as being “unspoiled,” a prevalent attitude during European romanticism, where artists sought out nature in pursuit of the sublime in reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Along the walls of the exhibition, Knauf presents a series of landscape reliefs in pierced sheet steel metal based on paintings by the romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Employing the same inflation-method as with the cactus, these motifs are traced only to immediately become spatial or “blown-up” by industry processes.

With these various symbolic and formal references, Knauf outlines a political history of human geo-engineering, and points to how our understanding of nature, technology, and their interrelation continue to blur the lines between the natural and artificial. Who gets to decide what nature “is?” “Birds don’t cry” returns these issues to the context of art, showing the power of aesthetics in perpetuating—but also, critiquing— dominant modes of representation. 

[Text: Jeppe Ugelvig]

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