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Reading Rämistrasse #111: Tobias Bärtsch on Species at Mai 36 Galerie - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

Reading Rämistrasse #111: Tobias Bärtsch on Species at Mai 36 Galerie

The late HR Giger, a Swiss surrealist artist, is renowned for his contributions to the science fiction and horror film genres, particularly his Academy Award-winning designs for the 1979 film Alien. Species, at Mai 36 Galerie, showcases some of HR Giger's distinctive otherworldly works alongside Maren Karlson, Berenice Olmedo and Hiroki Tsukuda, who represent a younger generation of artists, susceptible to present-day predicaments. Each of them offer their own perspectives on themes such as the relationship between humanity and technology, cosmic horrors of the unknown and what it means to be human.

The ground floor of the gallery is unattended and silent as I stumble in front of Giger's monster-sized Necronom/Alien, 2005. The sculpture is based on the designs for Alien 3 from 1992, that conceptualized a more sensuous and animalistic version of the iconic Xenomorph. Notice its voluptuous lips, emulating those of actress Michelle Pfeiffer. A perfect organism, one might say; its structural perfection matched only by its hostility. I am fascinated by this creature that makes me feel frail and humble. Would anyone hear me if I screamed?

I move on from this memento mori by heading towards Hiroki Tsukuda’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages, 2022, which is a joy to decipher. Hyperkinetic symbolism clusters into a mecha-abomination akin to the one in the cyberpunk body horror film Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989). But instead of being anxiety-inducing, it seems to explore a fascination with technology as a deeper, more spiritual aspect of our existence in contemporary society, one that manifests in the intricacies of our own, ever-growing physical and digital forms.

Species, Galerie Mai 36, 2023

Image: Aramis Navarro

Berenice Olmedo’s sculptures challenge the notions of a consummate human biomechanics. Her practice deals with harmful normative beliefs about race, sexuality and ability, and therefore the implications of being seen as different by the cultural and political hegemonies. Through familiar shapes, far still from the uncanny valley, her sculpture Alotropía, 2020, proposes forms of otherness. The polyurethane object borrowed from the field of orthopedic technology resembles either a stump or part of a prosthetic, I can’t be sure. Similar to Giger’s Xenomorphs, it’s hard to tell where nature ends and technology takes over, as the bounds of the definition of each life form collapse into one another.

Maren Karson’s three paintings in subdued tones calm things down. In Ingress I-III, 2023, ethereal shapes are framed by odd constructions, and then the canvas itself, to form portals (or black holes?) of sorts. The paintings allow us to meditate upon entering or not entering these gateways that contain in themselves the unknown. As a spiritual question also present in Giger’s Passage VII, 1970, it makes me contemplate a point of no return.

Species, Galerie Mai 36, 2023

Image: Aramis Navarro

After a first round through the rooms, I read the exhibition text, where OpenAI’s ChatGPT parses the concept of posthumanity. The AI model is trained to interact in a conversational way with its user, hence the name, but when I saw it going viral, people have been merely commanding it to write texts for them. After all, we humans prefer to be in power. Personally, I have sent out compelling cover letters for freelance jobs written by ChatGPT, and only slightly edited them to my needs. It helps me, it thinks for me and it obeys me. Is it really smart, or am I just a smart ass? I wouldn’t know if it was actually using me. Either way, AI is a crapshoot, reserved for the privileged and the gallery's use of it feels gimmicky at best.

As I take in the exhibition, the feeling creeps up on me, that we as a species are expecting something else – something more powerful – to take over, or a big shift in what it means to be sentient. Willingly or unwillingly, we are currently reckoning with a post-human techno-utopia, or more realistically, bargaining powerlessly with the dreams of multi-zillionaires. I feel doomed and optimistic in equal measure. All this technology might save us after all from well-known impending disasters. But what if the solution ends up being a disembodied metaverse with no way to log off? I would rather serve as an incubator for a beautiful, perfect alien.

Species, Mai 36 Galerie, Rämistrasse 37, 8001 Zürich, 20 January–18 March 2023

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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