Considering the recent period, where much UK fine-art photography is either minimally abstract, suggestive of the banality of the everyday, or full of bleak (and dare I say dull) representations of the post-industrial landscape, it is in fact rather satisfying to consider a body of photographic work by an artist that remains faithful to the meticulous development and consistent refining of her own oeuvre, as opposed to the ever-changing and unpredictable morphology of trend.
In his book Science and the Arts (1935), Jacob Opper describes the change in the theory of nature from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries as one that involves a shift from Cartesian and Newtonian mechanics, to biology – the science of life. It is this turn from the rigidity of mathematical physics to natural history that sparked a parallel movement in the arts of the time.During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, who eerily shares his place of birth with Karen Knorr (Frankfurt-on-main), straddled this change in the sciences and carved out one of the most prolific series of writings of the age of enlightenment. These writings are best known as works of fiction (namely the great tragedy Faust,) but also prolific to the time were his developments of scientific study – particularly anatomy and colour theory. In 1784 Goethe published his independent discovery of the inter-maxillary bone in man, therefore relating man to other ‘higher animals’ and understanding that man and nature are fundamentally tied in evolution; governed by the same natural principles. It is these discoveries in good science that should force a perceivable equality between man and animal today, so why then, is an imbalance still prevalent?
Nature and man-made culture are antithetic; they are distinct in as much as nature, on the one hand, retains a certain integrity and honesty, and mankind, on the other hand, seems to thrive on the principles of greed, arrogance and deceit. As nature and mankind have drifted apart, nature, which was once by its very definition natural, has become a spectacle. The appearances of the objects of nature into the built space or environment of the modern city come as a surprise to us – they are somehow regarded unnatural (the fox in my garden, the mouse in my kitchen, the pigeon in my chimney). It is this incongruity between objects and space that is central to Knorr’s photographic practice.
On two levels, the taxidermised animals – as foreign objects unusual or ‘other’ to the environment they inhabit – recall the central intent of the pagan fable. The first level represents the traditional definition of the fable as a fictional narrative that uses animal characters to teach a moral lesson. For example Aesop’s The Fox and the Grapes where the central and only protagonist, a fox in this case, realises he cannot reach the grapes he desires and therefore defaults to a position of indifference, exclaiming “The grapes are sour anyway!” – the moral of the story being – “it is easy to despise what you cannot get”. And the second, more complex and to some extent subversive level, admirably seeks to hold the anti-humanist position that animals need not be anthropomorphised by the writers of folkloric literature in order to teach a moral lesson to humankind; but instead, simply by being their animal selves, they are equally capable of moral teaching. In this sense Knorr’s work removes the need for allegorical storytelling, and uses the animals in their purest, non-fictional form to deliver a striking ethical lesson. These animals are removed from their natural habitat as a means to directly compare ‘pure nature’ with ‘high culture.’
In these images the photographed animals defy the construction of human spaces for solely human use; they enter into our domain reducing the human-defined gap that separates animal nature (as base and untamed), and human culture (as relatively advanced and refined). By appropriating the fable, Knorr represents this gap between nature and culture and calls into question the very logic of the institutions in which the animals are placed. By re-staging nature in the built environment by way of positioning these animals in a variety of museum spaces, Knorr seeks to question why cultural institutions such as the museum remain so fundamentally unnatural. Many museums are, after all, narcissistic reminders of human cultural worth, built and adored by humans themselves, which deny entry to nature other than by way of pictorial representation. Museums are, as art theorist Danielle Rice has put it (referring to a consensus amongst theorists) “ideological symbols of the power relationships in today’s culture.”
Circa 1929, Swiss architect Le Corbusier completed his Villa Savoye, a building that would come to epitomise high-modernism. Just prior to the Second World War, the building developed a structural fault in the roof (initially designed so it’s flat surface could be of some practical use to its owners), but has since been fully restored and made available for public viewing. It has, quite literally, become a museum.
“The idea of this house is that it is a free-flowing space that blurs the boundaries between the inside and the outside. I chose birds as the animal type to go into this building because all the work with the animals and these architectural spaces is about blurring the boundaries, disrupting the boundaries, or transgressing the boundaries between nature and culture. These birds [the crane and the magpie] formally echo the architectural space with their colour; they are, in a way, playfully formalist devices. The building is very clean – you can’t imagine organic matter. The birds are unnatural in this environment, totally unnatural, like the building itself.” (Interview with the artist, February 2009.)
The slick, hard lines of Le Corbusier’s design contrast the natural and soft aerodynamic curvature of the birds in these Villa Savoye works. Both the shots taken in architecturally Baroque museums, and the newer pieces at the modern Villa Savoye, seem to point directly at some of the issues facing the art museum as a supposedly accessible cultural institution today. In his essay Having One’s Tate and Eating It: Transformations of the Museum in a Hypermodern Era, Nick Prior recounts Bourdieu and Darbel’s 1969 study of art museum audiences. This study reveals the poignantly elitist nature of museum culture as a phenomenon that breeds and reinforces social difference (class, education, distinctions between high and low culture). Although the situation has vastly improved since the late sixties, with more diverse education programs and increased museum visitor numbers being recorded (surely a reflection of museums doing better work?), there is still an issue prevalent, elucidated by Knorr’s concerns of why, when directly compared to nature, such institutions remain fundamentally unnatural and possibly immoral? Her appropriation of the fable into a photographic device necessarily raises this fundamentally important issue.
Knorr’s work subverts the power of the museum setting. While creating artworks of visual beauty and conceptual clarity (a pairing rare in much contemporary art), Knorr’s photography consistently challenges the spectator’s assumptions about the nature of representation – and indeed – the representation of nature within the art museum.
From a curatorial perspective, it is work such as this that functions well as an apéritif to exhibition strategising; by way of its critique of high culture it provides a lucid reminder of the ever-pervading didacticism in contemporary museum curatorial practice (important, as we have now just been subjected to the next implausible neologism, ‘altermodern,’ courtesy of the Tate Britain’s Gulbenkian curator of contemporary art).
In conclusion, Karen Knorr’s photographic practice is a constant reminder of the essentially unnatural phenomenon of the classist, hierarchical structure of modern society. It is within the very institutions that Knorr photographs, and in turn displays her work that these issues still ubiquitous in contemporary culture can be most readily understood.