"Lakeside" by Herwig Turk (2011). Video with sound. 6’17”, video still. Image courtesy of the artist.
By Ingeborg Reichle, guest contributor
Some months ago scientists, gathered at Harvard Medical School in Boston to talk about creating a synthetic human genome. As a follow–up project to the Human Genome Project, this new initiative aims to synthesize an entire human genome from chemicals. While fabricating a fully artificial Homo sapiens2.0 is a ways off, the main aim of this project is to improve the synthesization of DNA in general; to make it cheap, easy, and completely reliable. For more than 20 years, the Austrian artist Herwig Turk has been fascinated by such debates within the life sciences about cutting–edge science and technology. He asks how our societies will respond to developments that call into question our very status as humans and our concept of life–questions that are usually negotiated behind closed doors.
In his latest solo show, “Herwig Turk: Landschaft = Labor”—a comprehensive retrospective at the Carinthian Museum of Modern Art (MMKK) in Klagenfurt, Austria, curated by Andreas Krištof and Christine Wetzlinger–Grundnig—the Vienna based artist engages with the material culture of the laboratory and the epistemological framing of doing science in the age of technoscience. In the early 1990s, while exploring visual strategies in digital art, Turk also began to study images produced by the sciences, which, even at that time, were already making extensive use of digital images and imaging processes. Since that time, he has created many artworks that reside within the field of tension between art and science. Turk has subsequently collaborated with scientists such as the Portuguese cell biologist Paulo Pereira at the University of Coimbra to create works including Referenceless Photography(1998–2003), Agglomeration(2003), Agents (2007), and Labscapes(2007), which engage with the symbolic and media practices within the production of knowledge in a scientific context, and explore the referencelessness of digital images and imaging systems. Most procedures of scientific image production are essentially dependent on the use of visual media, and therefore strongly reliant on sensory perception, which then leads to the pictorial rendering and visualization of what is perceived. Since not only the production of visibility, but also seeing itself ipso facto constitutes an activity, seeing, in the sciences, always involves strategies of control and discipline.
"Hands On" by Herwig Turk (2014). Two–channel video installation without sound. 6’17”, video still. Images courtesy of the artist.
In his video work Hands On(2014), Turk addresses the fact that laboratory experiments cannot–yet–be carried out without human participation, and that they are based not only on abstract knowledge, but also on experience, and particularly on knowledge expressed by physical activities and gestures. H ands On shows the manual operations necessary to conduct an experiment in a laboratory, which cannot be adequately represented by a series of static images and would thus otherwise re- main invisible. The performance of routine manual processes in the laboratory as a space–time event acquires the status of an archaeology of what is natural, and refers to the implicit manual or procedural knowledge that exists in a laboratory, as is also the case in the videos Tacit Knowledge Experiment 1and Tacit Knowledge Experiment 2. Within a precisely defined framework, Turk has different scientists take laboratory objects, such as mixers or pipettes, and build a tower, in order to suggest a new perception of the manual actions performed in a laboratory. In this way the artist graphically visualizes the material or procedural aspect of establishing scientific facts. By paying particular attention to manual knowledge, he breaks away from the artificial distinction between theory and practice, or theory and experiment. In the video installation The Conversation That Never Took Place(2013), the artist shifts his focus to four molecular biologists, who were individually interviewed and are shown on four monitors, as though they were having a conversation with each other. The experts’ conversations are, on the one hand, about engaging with the scientific world view on which their research findings are based, and on the other, about their ethical convictions and personal motivations. They are revealed as individuals within a field of research that is highly regulated, formalized, and governed by protocols, as well as based on a collective style of doing science within their scientific community. It takes a considerable effort to scrutinize the thought style of such collectives, develop it, implement innovations, and acquire new knowledge.
With his current artistic research project, The Bonneville Laboratory, Turk expands his debate about doing science by referring to landscapes as laboratories in the American West, like the Great Salt Lake in the state of Utah. In the context of The Bonneville Laboratory, the artist has developed a series of videos and installations including INVERSUM(2008), Lakeside(2012), Clymanbay(2013), Hogup Pumping Station(2014), and his most recent work Linescape(2016). The project’s title, The Bonneville Laboratory, refers to prehistoric Lake Bonneville, now dried up, which existed until the Pleistocene 14,500 years ago, covered more than 31,000 square miles, and extended into today’s state of Nevada. One of its remnants is the Great Salt Lake. This now arid and dry region is named after Benjamin Bonneville (1796–1878), a French–born officer in the U.S. army who, in the first half of the 19th century, conducted explorations of the American West on behalf of the government.
"Labscape 05" by Herwig Turk (2011). Document print on canvas. 150cm x 375 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
In his videos and photographic works, Turk approaches the conditions under which time and space are perceived within a landscape of extremes, which by nature of its barrenness and hostility questions our very notion of “landscape.” Utilizing a variety of media, Turk pursues a visual narrative that seeks a revision of the cliché–ridden reception of American Land Art of the 1960s and 1970s, the historiography of which continues to be dominated by focusing on monumental earth works by artists such as Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, or Walter De Maria.1Exponents of Land Art produced their works in remote locations like the Great Salt Lake and the Lake Bonneville region, a purported protest against the established art system in America. The dimensions and natural materials of Land Art and the selection of remote desert regions as the locations of their production and reception sought to create a unique aesthetic experience in stark contrast to the traditional experience of art in urban venues. The arid landscapes in the American West, accessible only with difficulty, were imagined to be endless, timeless, and without any history, and thus promised to provide the artists with a new form of aesthetic autonomy which could not be appropriated for commercial interests and exploitation by museums and private galleries. Turk seeks to deconstruct the founding myth of the Land Art movement to locate their artworks in terrain that was empty or ahistorical and thus to break spatially and ideologically with the art system. In his works he documents the toxic legacy and how the deserts of the American West—long before Land Art discovered them—were shaped by human technology by uranium mining or being used by the U.S. military as testing grounds and as restricted facilities, for example.2
Detail: "Linesapce" by Herwig Turk (2016). Five exposed screen printing screens. 215cm x 170cm. Photo credit Peter Paulhart. Image courtesy of Georg Kargl Fine Arts Vienna.
In LinescapeTurk shows two photographs of the Spiral Jetty, which he took from the centre of the spiral on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah as a 360–degree panorama, digitally printed on canvas in a 118 by 35 inch format. With Spiral Jetty, the artist refers to one of the most famous monuments of Land Art, which Robert Smithson constructed in the wasteland of Utah in April 1970, because he saw a certain unique aesthetic experience in the place, particularly because of the play of colors in the blood–red salt water—its coloration is due to the high percentage of bacteria. The two photographs by Turk show the spiral from an observer’s perspective, thus conveying the real–life experience rather than the bird’s eye perspective from which the Spiral Jettyis usually seen. When Smithson had his work built, which was intended to show the viewer the elevation of the landscape in the middle of the Salt Lake, he asked the construction workers to alter it into a spiral shape in a second construction phase, so that it would also appear as a perfect image. In the middle of Linescape, hovering above the viewer, are five silkscreen prints, in different sizes, with motifs of restricted military zones such as the Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR), which lies close to the Spiral Jetty. The graphic patterns and trenches, which become visible on the aerial views of the restrict- ed zones, evidence that the desert of Utah is a terrain marked by the deployment of weapons and technology —a circumstance which Land Art artists such as Robert Smithson simply ignored. The American public was familiar with photographs like those Turk took in Utah of the first nuclear weapons test in the desert of New Mexico on July 16th, 1945, which depicted the American West as an almost apocalyptic place, formed by weapons technology.
"Tacit Knowledge Experiment 2" by Herwig Turk (2011). Video without sound. 8’ 1”. Video stills. Images courtesy of the artist.
Turk confronts his photographs with pictures from a number of issues of the American LIFE magazine dating from 1945, 1951, and 1952, which demonstrate that in the cultural construction of the desert landscapes in the American southwest as a post–apocalyptic terrain, photography played a significant role, which is hard to reconcile with its attribution by American Land Art as a natural landscape, untouched by human hands. As a starting point, Turk offers a photographic report entitled “New Mexico’s Atomic Bomb Crater” from the LIFE issue dated September 24th, 1945, which, only weeks after the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki on August 9th, informed the American public of the first atomic weapons test in the desert of New Mexico on July 16th—a date now considered as marking the beginning of the atomic age. Since the Manhattan project test could not be carried out in a laboratory at the nuclear research facility in Los Alamos, the secret overground test detonation of the bomb was moved to the remote desert region in New Mexico State, some 155 miles south of Los Alamos. The LIFEissue of September 24th shows full–page aerial views of the crater caused by the explosive power of the bomb—of ground zero and the indexical traces of the dramatic destruction of the testing ground, as well as close–up images of the desert surface turned into glass by the thermonuclear reaction—as triumphant proof of the first successful atomic explosion in history. The desert had been transformed into a nuclear laboratory. The circulation of these photographs via mass media such as LIFEmagazine, however, was a contributing factor to the origin of the atomic desert within American public consciousness. The LIFEissue of May 5th, 1952 followed up with the article “An Atomic Open House,” an illustrated report about a further atomic bomb test at a testing site in the state of Nevada, to which the United States Atomic Energy Commission had invited 197 journalists, 44 photographers, and 200 guests of honor to watch from a distance of about seven miles. The live broadcast was watched by more than 35 million people.
"Tacit Knowledge Experiment 2" by Herwig Turk (2011). Video without sound. 8’ 1”. Video stills. Images courtesy of the artist.
Ten years after this event, in March of 1962, close to the Nevada test site, where hundreds of aboveground and underground atomic weapons tests had taken place, the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, as a pyrotechnical experiment, blew up Study for an End of the World, N o. 2, one of his kinematic sculptures, to draw attention to the threat of a possible military escalation of the Cold War. At that time, both superpowers had an arsenal of weapons at their disposal, unique in history, which could, at any time, have ended in an atomic apocalypse for humankind. Turk concludes the series of LIFE editions with an illustrated report from February 12th, 1951, entitled “Atomic Tests Light Up Four States,” showing a series of photographs attempting to document the flash of the explosions.
Turk’s various art projects show an interesting pattern over the past two decades. They display a wide spectrum ranging from experimental visualization of microscopic DNA sequences in bioscience laboratories to criticism of the transformation of large desert landscapes into laboratories for military purposes. Using a variety of media, Turk has found his own artistic language, which can be seen as reflecting current theories of media and knowledge production as well as doing science and making art in the age of technoscience.
1 Several years ago there was an in-depth critique of the myths of American Land art by the exhibition Ends of the Earth, cf. Philipp Kaiser and Miwon Kwon (eds.): Ends of the Earth. Land Art to 1974, exhib. cat., Prestel Verlag, Munich 2012. 2 Cf. Emily Eliza Scott: Birth of the Atomic Desert , M A thesis, University of California, Los Angeles 20 03.