The Observatory: Art And Life In The Critical Zone revolves around the intricate relationships among humans, animals, plants, earth material, and other forms of life. The exhibition brings together a collection of new and existing artworks by twenty-six artists who, in diverse ways, actively engage with the multifaceted elements present in the “critical zone.” These elements encompass a wide range, spanning from earthworms and oil birds to imagined beach creatures and resilient potatoes, from indigenous landscapes and micro-territories to rainwater and archives of rural-based alternative communities across Europe and West Asia. The artists have employed painting, drawing, video, sculpture, performance, workshops, agriculture, and other means of expression, which will co-exist in a dynamic display at Södertälje konsthall.
As a term, “the critical zone” was coined in the early 2000s by earth scientists in order to grapple with the heterogeneous, near surface environment in which complex interactions involving rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life-sustaining resources. Instead of thinking in terms of nature and culture, and a dichotomy between the two, geoscientists, hydrologists, micro-biologists, and pedologists developed this integrative approach to overcome the divide between disciplines and methodologies.
Acknowledging the urgency of the rampant climate crisis, they not only created a new term but also a new methodology: the critical zone is predicated on the notion that the interconnections of all entities within the zone are inescapable. Something which indigenous people, among others, have known and practiced all along. Another objective of the earth scientists in coining the term was to disrupt the discourse on the planet’s dire circumstances, aiming to foster a new approach to earthly politics necessitated by the ecological crisis.
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The Observatory: Art And Life In The Critical Zone is not unlike such observatories belonging to the critical zone: the exhibition gathers heterogeneous art works, which nevertheless all pertain to what is going on within the critical zone. If the observatories try to overcome the incongruity between lab results and field data, between a range of individual disciplines usually kept apart, the exhibition attempts at allowing seemingly disparate art works to influence each other within and outside the exhibition space at Södertälje konsthall.
Like the research in the critical zone observatories, the art works/cosmograms in the exhibition represent – and present – a variety of things going on in the critical zone. They reflect an array of phenomena, but they also do things themselves – they actively perform. Likewise, for the critical zone researchers, it is not only the constitution and character of an organism that matters but also the chemical and physical reactions that they generate. In other words, it is essentially a question about agency. And hence, it is more about what something does, than what it is. Here, the specific agency of life-forms goes hand in hand with a more complex view of the material world. Contemporary art as a particular form of understanding, with its ability to both complexify and simplify, plays an interesting role within this intricate view.