Pauline Berger | WARP #06
Trollstone, Pauline Berger, 2022
28.10. – 18.11.2022
and Madalé Jooste
This exhibition is part of
art and sustainability program
in fold #05 on Awakening
Pauline Berger is a German artist, sculptor and herder. She graduated from the Master Institute of Visual Cultures in Den Bosch with the concept of arting/herding figuring out how the two practices relate to each other. During the summer, Berger travels to the Swiss Alps where she shepherds cows and sometimes sheep in the high altitude above tree level in the pastures that stay rich and green.
In the first place, herding means staying in solitude with the mountain and the animals and taking care of their well-being. It can seem that the herding practice belongs to the fold on No Hurry. Herder spends hours a day walking no matter what the weather is like and lives a simple life over a long period of time. However, herding does not find its primer place in the romantic wild nature narrative where time is slowed down. Instead, it means to confront oneself with what it means to care, and ‘[to be] alive among life’. Nurturing a bond with cattle, Berger awakens the animal within herself while being aware of certain exceptionality that herder and humans possess.
Shapes and meanings
In the Prototyping series (2021), Berger restrains her own body with tapes and explores what happens to the mind if the body parts change shape and when the human body becomes ‘humanimal’ like. If the meaning is determined by shape what new life forms can come to life once the bodies morph, she asks.
Berger draws inspiration from texts such as How to be animal by Melanie Challengers or Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In the first citing, the author, in reaction to Western thinking, concludes that humans tend to deny the organic part of their body since any relation to animal/plant-like creatures is threatening human existence with decay and pathogens as well as moral uncertainty. Although Challengers does not deny human’s extraordinary nature, she sees the mind as a natural phenomenon that connects to everything and everyone while constantly positioning itself apart. On the other hand, R. W. Kimmerer focuses on kinship and the inherent bond humans share with nature, referring to her native American descent.
By shifting between life forms and shapes, Berger explores multispecies connections. These do not offer a simple conclusion that we all come from an animal but explore a potential in restriction and friction allowing the body and mind to become anew thus playing with meanings that were once created.
Weight and restraint
When I talked to Pauline Berger, she had just finished an artist in residence in Norway, sculpting a stone in a still active Larvikite (granite) quarry. ‘As quaintly as it might sound, in front of a stone, one can get a sense of the tininess of a human life compared to the lifespan of the planet.’ The layers of deep time that the rock remembers are chiselled down and shaped smooth under the hands of a sculptor. The physical involvement of an artist is obvious when the rhythmical but laborsome movements are reworking the stone. Physical action and restraint challenge the body. According to Berger, the tangible and painful quality of our life reminds us of our existence and kinship with other beings. Face to face with an enormous stone, the matter of weight becomes ever-present. For the exhibition at SEA Foundation, Berger is exploring weight and restraint, not as forces that limit us but provide ground and potential to situate ourselves. Weight as a potential.
Through the study of bone structures and storytelling, she makes a turn to Greek mythology and the figure of Atlas. Atlas was condemned to carry heaven on his shoulders and separate Gaia – the Earth, from Ouranus – the sky, for eternity. He protects the sky from falling down on the Earth. In anatomy, the name atlas is given to the first vertebra that holds the head above and apart from the rest of the body. The heaven is heavy and the head is heavier than heaven. While the head weights the body down as Ouranus restrains Gaia, the axis vertebra goes through the atlas allowing for the head to turn, thus connecting it from the bottom. While it seems we are confronted with a certain dualism of ancient mythology and Western knowledge – such as Earth and sky, body and mind, heavy and light – Berger aims to question the meanings that were once set to burden us and awaken alternative narratives.
Coming from an interest and longing for physical involvement and bodily intelligence, as well as workfields of labour, Berger started exploring fitness culture and gym aesthetics. While modern, advanced, and especially urban work fields are highly disembodied, the gym is the place to feel physical exhaustion and resistance. This feeling though, as ambivalent as it is, Berger sees as a moment of awakening. She observes how humans seek weight and pressure as embodied state of satisfied exhaustion. Carrying weight in the wider sense is too, related to the necessary feeling of situatedness, responsibility and care. By contemplating gym culture in relation to ancient myths, Berger is trying to figure out, in what ways this has been, and is still a thing.
For example, in her installation walki talki (2021), Berger expresses interest in the sports tools and machines that are meant to bring disembodied bodies back to feeling physical. The interactive installation allows you to walk at a monotonous pace. In the background, you can hear Berger walking in the mountains and experience the action of herding. This mock-up embodiment is a paraphrase of the industrialised society that got rid of the limits in the working environments in order to be more effective but invented machines to restrain our bodies again to feel connected with the physical. As our conversation continues, Berger shares the collage of wildly growing muscles that let us ‘w(a)(o)nder’ through the corporeal landscape. As feet and mind stretch each other, we are reminded of related humanimal physicalities, however, never exiting our own human perspective. Berger’s intention is therefore to access her own body, to become an animal, not in a literal sense but to fully embody what the body is. Perhaps something that has been forgotten, repulsed or restrained. Berger’s approach is contemplative, performative and (despite its weight) heaves from the ground.
The exhibition is part of WARP, a series of vitrine exhibitions which were activated in 2020. These exhibitions now also follow the SEA Foundation’s folds on art and sustainability. Their aim is to stimulate artistic research and present the adaptations of the works made by regional artists or artists with regional connections.