“Diderot’s account is a very romantic, early form of art criticism,” writes Maximilian Schmoetzer in an email about one of the many inspirations on his latest solo exhibition, And then masses of detached stones and other accessories common to the genre. Running at Berlin’s ROOM E-10 27 at Center from March 17 to April 30, the installation of objects and a video draws on the 18th century philosopher’s writing on art and the salons of 1767, along with a book by the architect — and Diderot contemporary — Giovanni Battista Borra. The show also examines the destruction of the Roman Arch of Triumph at Palmyra in Syria by ISIS, the extinction of the Northern Bald Ibis, native to the ruins, and an exhibition animation featuring a baking soda box walking through a 3D scanned reproduction of the arch in New York. Then there’s a pillow fight in London’s Trafalgar Square, and a rally by German Nationalists, Pegida, in Dresden. These are but a few of a series of potentially unrelated themes and events that, when viewed together, make a lot of sense.
Schmoetzer’s work often assembles seemingly disparate elements to express a common idea — that idea being one of techno-colonialism. It emerges in Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ symphony-as-allegory to the empty heroics and late-capitalist destruction of GoPro slogans and Red Bull Stratos space-dives in ‘Preliminary Material for 2022’ (2016). Or, the discovery of a new avian species, instigated by a weather disruption, that was in turn discovered by the artist in a spontaneous shift in exhibition preparation for his A rare bird in Estonia (2016). The random diversion of the Fox Sparrow’s migratory habits matches the accidental misdirection of a DHL artwork delivery for the show in Tallinn, followed by a six-week delay and parallel pattern: a strange coincidence.
“I took the title from Denis Diderot’s The Salon of 1767,” Schmoetzer tells me, about the sentence from the 18th century French text that became And then masses of detached stones… “He describes the ancient ruins of Palmyra based on drawings by artist Giovanni Battista Borra from the book The Ruins of Palmyra. Borra’s drawings depicted the earliest known images of Palmyra and display a variety of architectural details that inspired architects and artists across Europe.” Channeling a cultural history of reproductions and appropriations, Schmoetzer’s work lambasts the fields of western science, advertising, entertainment, politics and, of course, contemporary art as sites of colonial production; where a 3D-modelled reconstruction of the Monumental Arch of Palmyra would complete a ‘world tour’ of London, New York and Dubai, before being returned to where it came from in Syria.
These are just some of the associations that Schmoetzer makes in a body of work whose themes he’s ambivalent toward; ones where the notion of intensity, as well as ideology and modern warfare circle back to Diderot’s Enlightenment, a philosopher credited with incorporating the world’s knowledge in the first general encyclopaedia to describe the mechanical arts. “I chose it as I concluded,” he says, about the moment a Diderot quote became his exhibition title, “So, in a way, it gave a finality to the work.”
** There appears to be a particular kind of networked syntax you use in your work, a number of associations that draw on several ideas and relationships at once. Do you have a clear lexicon you draw on, or is that something that’s still consciously abstract in your own mind?
Maximilian Schmoetzer: Yes and no. I have something like a script in mind. It’s always a mess to begin with, and to some extent, I want it to be less messy and that is probably what keeps me going: creating a mess and tidying up. At some point I know it’s clean enough. It’s important for me contextualise the ambivalence that is present in my work by adding another layer that is not necessarily part of it.
I wrote a short text in preparation for the show, which needs to be reworked, but eventually it will be issued in a publication that Jelena Seng, Thomas Butler and I are planning on producing. The publication’s premise is to address and expand on philosopher Tristan Garcia’s 2015 essay La Vie Intense. Une obsession moderne (‘An Intense Life. A modern obsession’). Thomas will contribute a text that directly addresses Garcia’s book and uses it as context to discuss ideology, modern warfare, and contemporary art practices. We invited other writers to contribute work that will be loosely centered around this notion of intensity.
** Birds are a recurring motif in your work, is there something about them in particular that draws you to them as a subject? I’m seeing an evolutionary connection between birds and dinosaurs, then humans via extinction myself…
MS: I don’t really engage with evolutionary ideas in my work. In A rare bird in Estonia, I stumbled upon a report about an unlikely bird sighting in the country during my preparations, which I referenced. Bizarrely, DHL managed to send my show to Spain instead of Estonia. It took them six weeks to retrieve the package and they eventually spat it out in Berlin without notice. The first date for the show had to be cancelled. Funnily enough, during the preparations for the current show at Room E-10 27 / Center, another bird fell victim to DHL. Only, in this case, it was actually a piece of clay and I can’t really blame DHL for the loss, but poor packaging.
However, for the show at Center, I use the story of the now extinct Syrian colony of the Northern Bald Ibis. Its disappearance more or less coincides with the destruction of the cultural heritage of Palmyra, Syria. This story would need a longer explanation, but, in a nutshell, I introduce these elements (the destroyed heritage and the bird). Both went extinct at a point of rupture, when the geopolitical and ecological crossed paths and went awry. These fugitive entities oscillate between the binaries of us and them, refusal and complicity, aesthetics and politics, nature and culture, extinction and preservation. By interlocking both disembodiments (the arch and the bird) my project embarks on a migration in which, strangely enough, virtual (re-)creation and physical materialisation, historical references and recent events coincide.
In the end, birds are innocuous agents as source material for artistic work. Having said that, a kind of endearing anthropomorphisation (or transplantation) of natural processes into the banality of my world view incentivises my ‘bird-y’ approach.
** There has always been something quite visually striking about your work, also super-creepy, I wonder what your thoughts are on your position within a certain ‘post-corporate aesthetic,’ if you will, that your work pulls against?
MS: For me there’s a whiff of anachronism to corporate aesthetics. In that sense the ‘post-‘ is already inherent, deep within the roots of these aesthetics. The next step is actually to uproot it and have a look at it on a speculative level, because from this perspective a dissonance can emerge. I would say that the allegorical use of a dinosaur is a shortcut that collapses time, which is important for me as a video artist. Natural history, in its fossilised state, becomes artificially resurrected dinosaurs by means of technology and is capitalised on as a product by cultural industries.
Of course, we have to accept this limited reading of natural history as a container for outmoded ideas that is recyclable. Then it becomes literally an pan-optical eye of technology staring back at us. Ultimately, the dinosaur is clearly an allegorical agent with a certain use-value. It’s a commodity and it fluctuates between obsolescence and the critique of it.
** On the point of this tension, you are clearly highly-skilled at graphics and video, a sought-after quality in the advertising world, for example, how does your work critically site itself within this space?
MS: I gained a lot of experience while working for other artists or art institutions. Yet, I’m successfully resisting advertisement jobs. Luckily, I don’t have problems finding work in the art field. I hope it stays like this as long as I’m dependent upon it. However, as of late, I feel a bit trapped in regard to my personal work, so I’m diligently unlearning some of it at the moment.
** The theme of this exhibition feels like the most literal one to date, drawing strong connections and parallels between the extinction of a species, human self-destruction and colonial narratives writing and re-writing themselves, what sparked this shift from abstraction?
MS: I wouldn’t call it a shift from abstraction. That’s simply not the case. Throughout my previous artistic practice, I have explored the narrative and visual patterns, presets and design used in science, advertising, entertainment and politics. I’m currently invested in the subject of what I claim to be a wave of a techno-colonialism armed with 3D scanning and printing technology. A phenomena that situates itself — via its use of algorithms — at the intersection between digital files and physical objects.
A case that warrants particular attention is the digitally-reproduced copy of the triumphal arch leading towards the Temple of Bel in Syria. The arch project was conducted by the Oxford’s Institute of Digital Archaeology (IDA) in conjunction with Harvard and Oxford Universities, and the government of the United Arab Emirates. The original 1,800-year-old arch of triumph on the colonnaded main street was blown to pieces by members of ISIS during their 10-month occupation of the site. The IDA’s facsimile arch stood in London for three days before travelling to New York in mid-September. It will be sent to Arona in Italy and Dubai in 2017, and then eventually back to Palmyra after its world tour. The replica itself was generated by collating hundreds of images, and it was constructed at two-thirds the size of the original. Even taking into account the stated fidelity of the copy to the original, it’s hard not to perceive this fake as an unfortunate attempt of war propaganda to cash in on a symbolic victory over terrorism.
** Potentially relating to this, and perhaps this question is too direct, but in your ‘Preliminary Material for 2022’ video, Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ composition plays, with some critics suggesting the wolf represented the threat of fascism in the 1930s. In the context of the video and when it was made, presumably in mid-to-late 2015, it felt more related to the threat of capitalism, but it appears that the connection to nationalism now is far more literal. And yet, both concepts are still related, contemporary capitalism and nationalism. Is that something you considered in producing and then looking back at this work?
MS: Yes, true. While I was working on the video, my intentions where certainly to unpick the idea of heroism and its strange afterlife within capitalism. ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is a classic children’s story with a young hero. As a kid, I listened to the record at my grandmother’s and I always felt sorry for the wolf for some reason. Back then I didn’t understand the underlying juxtaposition between the wolf and fascism. However, during this kind of unresolved showdown moment in my video, when the cameras are facing each other, we hear the Prokofiev’s theme of the wolf playing.
Of course, GoPro’s slogan ‘be a hero’ is everything but the actual possibility of heroism. It is marketing, but literally, the consumer as hero and empty shell for fleeting branding strategies. The hero has shifted to an accelerated stimulation on the surface of things in art, culture, advertisement and so on. This is something that I had in mind while producing the work. Last, but not least, the stupidity of all this white male heroism explored in the video is something I aim to unpick. ‘Peter and the Wolf’ is a fascinating example of how deep the rabbit hole of this kind of heroism goes, and how I got instilled with all of this as a kid.**