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Reading Rämistrasse #81: Aoife Rosenmeyer on In the Forest. A Cultural History at the Landesmuseum Zürich - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #81: Aoife Rosenmeyer on In the Forest. A Cultural History at the Landesmuseum Zürich

It opens with a strapping Ferdinand Hodler lumberjack drawn back to his full extent, axe poised to descend into the lean tree he is felling. It closes with Julian Charrière’s black and white forest Ever Since We Crawled Out (2018), a film of mighty trees toppling with eerie sighs and groans, as if of their own volition. In between lies a cultural history of the forest, a collection of artefacts, documents, literary and film works and art.

This Landesmuseum exhibition is divided into chapters: the history of forest use; a history of its portrayal;and the pioneers who first campaigned for woodland protection. The information given is kept to a minimum; evidence speaks for itself. Forests and timber have been key to how European societies have evolved, having become established after the last ice age; forest was cleared to make way for settlements, wood was then the fuel to generate the heat with which bronze and iron were worked. The Romans brought about massive deforestation to drive ceramics and glass production and in turn create technologies like hypocaust heating.

[Captions from Landesmuseum Zürich:] The oak forest as a favourite motif
Robert Zünd painted the same oak forest several times, almost identically. Owing to his meticulous style of painting, he holds a special position in Swiss landscape painting. Robert Zünd (1827–1909), Eichwald, 1859, Oil on canvas, 77,7 x 104,2 cm.

Kunstmuseum Luzern, Depositum der Stiftung BEST Art Collection Luzern, vormals Bernhard Eglin-Stiftung, Inv.-Nr. M 87x, © Kunstmuseum Luzern, Photo: Roberto Pellegrini

Woodland equates with hunting too, an exclusive leisure activity enjoyed for centuries by the nobility, producing portrayals of fantastical hunts and creatures, not to mention heroic huntsmen. Woodland use for grazing or lumber was contentious, but until modern times working timber was gruelling work. Pre-industrial society and the onset of the Industrial Revolution brought about logging on the greatest scale to date, while Romantic artists sought to escape modern life in the forest and some fostered nationalist mythologies there. After we plunge into their sylvan refuge, a shift in perspective is adroitly presented: from a distant, god-like viewpoint, admiring the picturesque or sublime, to an immersive experience with the woods at eye level.

In 1924 a landslide destroyed part of the village of Someo in Valle Maggia. The frequent landslides in Ticino are a result of the large-scale deforestation for the wood trade during the 19th century.

Photo: Anton Krenn, 1924, ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv, Hs_1360-0173-002

But with humans around, the idyll is always under threat. Even in the 19th century, Swiss logging led to erosion and landslides. The damage had been done. Joseph Beuys politicised reforestation in his Kassel actions for Documenta. At this point the exhibition, till then firmly focussed on central Europe, takes abrupt and unsteady flight. The forest protectors Johann W. Coaz and Paul Sarasin and even more so Armin Caspar and Anita Guidi, as well as Bruno Manser a few decades later, gained understanding of deforestation by observing it first in a colonial context, then applying it in Switzerland. Caspar and Guidi’s Amazonian jewellery and artefacts and Guidi’s paintings are presented as if in a time capsule of how ‘exotic’ culture was once, not so long ago, regarded, which fits uneasily in a contemporary context. Adjacent to that is a collection of contemporary drawings from artists of the South American Gran Chaco, showing a different relationship to a forest environment under attack; it’s a viewpoint from which we could learn, but a somewhat random inclusion. Or rather, if we’re going to open the can of worms of how rapacious global capitalism destroyed and continues to destroy cultures and societies of which we have little understanding, it is scarcely enough.

A view of the exhibition

© Swiss National Museum

The closing chapters are a celebration and an elegy, in art and fact. The mental and physical health benefits of spending time in the forest are acknowledged, its carbon capturing virtues are celebrated, while the threats of climate change are enumerated. A modern activist, Kenyan Nobel-Prize winner Wangari Maathal, is given a spotlight. And while climate change is a bleak prospect, Swiss forest coverage has increased – slightly ­– over the past century.

One tree after the other falls to the floor creakingly. Julian Charrière’s Ever Since We Crawled Out gets to the heart of the matter: can we still save the forests, or will soon the last tree fall?

©Julian Charrière, 2022, ProLitteris, Zurich / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany

Im Wald is an informative, stimulating and, if not wild, at times delightful exhibition, and any number of further tangents could undoubtedly still be explored. And yet, much as I wish I didn’t have to conclude here, not only is the lumberjack male, so, almost exclusively, are the hunters, the archaeologists, the loggers, the painters, authors, photographers and even the contemporary writers and artists. This is entirely historicallyplausible, if the patriarchal role also involved controlling the forest environment, restricting access to it and framing it as a dangerous place to be avoided. (Anita Guidi first approached Armin Caspar in order to gain access to the forest.) In which case, is this not a significant chapter in the cultural history? Much as Julian Charrière and Ugo Rondinone make for a spectacular finale, prior to that Shirana Shahbazi and Denise Bertschi have only a small corner in which to offer a counterweight to enormous, beautiful works by Guido Baselgia, Thomas Struth and Franz Gertsch – or to contest whether bigger is really better.

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions in Zürich. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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