The artwork of Swiss artist Julian Charriere seems on the one hand to be part land art performance and part sculpture, weaving anthropology, ecology, history, politics and art together to form a narrative based on what humans have done or are doing in certain places, creating a portrait of the earth of sorts. He also has a penchant for travel to exotic locations, in a way retracing footsteps of early explorers, to re-interpret their findings within the contemporary situation.
One such location at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan which was the Soviet test site for nuclear bombs during the cold war between 1949 and 1989, produced the Polygon series of photographs. Inspired by J.G. Ballard’s short story, The Terminal Beach, the Polygon photographs depict a flat, tree-less field with fragments of left over concrete ‘geese’ buildings used to collect bomb blast data, standing upright in juxtaposition to the horizontality of the land. Here, Charriere would sprinkle radioactive dust onto the film stock (somehow), let sit for a while, and then develop it again, resulting in photographs sprinkled with ‘specks’ of radiation.
The Terminal Beach is quite a mind-bending, psychological story with no ending and not much of a beginning, just the tale of a heart broken military pilot who snuck into the island of ‘Eniwetok’, part of the nuclear test site at Bikini Atoll during the 1960s, and refused to be rescued, preferring to stay with hallucinations of his family, malnutrition and talking to a test dummy.
The thing with nuclear test sites is the tendency, until someone invents a ‘radiation vacuum cleaner’, for time to stand still after its usage, turning the place into a monument of sorts, a testament to the nuclear age. And radiation itself is controversial, as both a poison and a cure, something that brings death and disaster, hanging around for hundreds of years, but in a controlled environment can cure us of cancer, all the while being invisible. Unless, ofcourse it is exposed to film, where it can finally express itself, iconographically.
In And Some Other Traces Of (2013), Charriere manages to bring back to his Berlin studio, radiation contaminated bricks that have mold and fungus growing on them, which is a cryptic gesture as the meaning is unclear. Maybe people like to bring back souvenirs when they travel, especially dangerous souvenirs, or have to brave some danger in bringing it back. And so this souvenir is so dangerous it has to be permanently kept in a glass case, yet fungi can grow on it, which is another ironic, paradoxical situation.
And in Somehow They Never Stop Doing What They Always Did (2013), its a similar gesture with miniaturized pyramids made of little bricks of plaster, fructose and lactose, ‘irrigated’ with water from major rivers such as the Nile, the Yangtze, and the Euphrates. The micro-organisms within these waters causes mold and fingi to grow, decomposing the structures, all the while trapped within the glass cases and under the glare of spotlights.
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In Future Fossil Spaces (2017) salt taken from the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia is used to make hexagonal bricks and stacked one on top of each other to form human sized towers. But some of the bricks are hollow, with a glass side to expose the veneerized pieces.
Whats interesting is that the salt on the ground at Uyuni naturally forms hexagons, which leads one to think that these towers are a representation of what the geology of the place would look like after its fossilization, thousands of years from now.
In The Blue Fossil Entropic Series (2013), Charriere takes a portable blow torch to an iceberg in Iceland and tries to melt it, spending a whole day trying. Obviously, he hardly makes a dent, as the freezing conditions just forms ice over where his blow torch had just left.
This performance is sort of reminiscent of the Charlottesville, Virginia protests last weekend, when the ‘alt-right’ descended to prevent a statue of a Confederate general from being removed and to vent their anger and frustration with life in general. They came looking for a fight.
Counter-protesters, presumably college educated and other people (possibly anarchists) living in the area, came and were incensed by these ‘alt-right’ groups and not wanting to back down, fought back which ultimately got deadly.
One group came to prevent a statue from being removed, yet the next week, many cities across the southern states had their Confederate statues removed. The other group came to prevent their community from being taken over by racists and haters, yet they tried to do it by beating people up or by yelling at them.
‘This island is a state of mind’. The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudogeological strata condensed the brief epochs, microseconds in duration, of thermonuclear time. Typically the island inverted the geologist’s maxim, ‘The key to the past lies in the present.’ Here, the key to the present lay in the future. – The Terminal Beach (1964) J.G. Ballard
As opposed to what J.G. Ballard said about Eniwetok, the key to Julian Charriere’s The Blue Fossil Entropic Series (2013), lies in the future decades to come when global warming finally melts these icebergs; what man could not do, nature eventually will. It is also the key to Future Fossil Spaces (2017), when there’s nothing left of the salt flats except his salt ‘towers’, mined out of existence as part of the region that produces lithium to make lithium batteries. It also applies to Somehow They Never Stop Doing What They Always Did (2013) when those microbes completely decompose the pyramids into a pile of miniature ruins, finishing their ‘performance’.
Referencing the history of a subject or place and the ‘projected’ future at the same time, Charriere’s work depicts geological, biological and even atomic processes as a portrait of the earth, altered through our interventions. In this respect they visually bring to life these invisible processes, on the road to entropy.