MONTREAL — For city dwellers, towering buildings tend to serve as points of orientation: in New York, we can look toward the Empire State Building; in Paris, the Eiffel Tower; and in Chicago, it may be Trump Tower that guides us in the direction we seek. But such manmade markers aren’t givens, particularly in rural areas; for people living on the island of the Java, it’s a chain of volcanoes — some of which are active — that helps define daily navigation.
The unique relationship between these volatile structures and the Javanese is why the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) is currently hosting a traveling research exhibition that may at first seem more fitting for a natural history museum. The illuminating 17 Volcanoes, curated by Philip Ursprung and Alex Lehnerer, examines through historic and contemporary works the volcano as a structure, which, although natural, is not a passive part of the landscape; instead, like buildings, these containers are charged and in constant conversation with local society, culture, and economics. Part of Singapore’s Future Cities Laboratory, the research invites us to consider our role in caring for these ancient landscapes and how we may be transforming them.
The exhibition draws its title from an ambitious series of trips to what will be a total of 17 volcanoes undertaken by the curators, the arts collective U5, and artists Armin Linke and Bas Princen, both of whose video and photography works fill the gallery. (The party also included volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer and a shifting roster of university students.) These trips trace the footsteps of the intrepid German-Dutch explorer Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn, who, between 1836 and 1848, climbed more than 40 of Java’s volcanoes, studied, and illustrated them — making him one of the first known surveyors of the island’s craggy wonders. Since the start of 2015, the team has made 13 trips to reexamine these volcanoes through a contemporary lens; it plans to make four more next summer.
Many of Junghuhn’s careful notes and colorful lithographs are on view, giving the largely unknown explorer his belated dues. Although initially sent to Java as a military doctor in service of Dutch colonial authorities, Junghuhn was fascinated by the island’s natural landscape, and Dutch officials decided to also sponsor his research. He spent years gathering data about eruptions and interviewing locals, but he returned to Europe between 1848 and 1855 to recover from poor health; there, he published books, albums, and the first accurate map of Java that showed the island from within — rather than from the coastline. Picturesque but mostly very accurate, his album of lithographs conveys both the wonder and power of Java’s volcanoes. We see scenes in which man and crater exist in harmony, but elsewhere a crater appears on the verge of eruption. In some sketches, Junghuhn drew himself to offer a sense of human scale. His sketches of volcanoes in an accordion notebook led to the curators’ comparison of them to buildings — shown in profiles and lined up in a row, they resemble a city skyline or an architect’s elevation plan.
Linke and Princen’s works examine how these enduring geological formations, like monumental or aging buildings, affect their immediate environments over time — and vice versa. Princen’s large-format photographs of volcanoes are updates to Junghuhn’s lithographs of the same craters. As in the explorer’s prints, we see in Princen’s immersive images the volcanoes’ potentially destructive power, but we also catch glimpses of new human activity built right to their rims: houses stand below streams of smoke; blue swimming pools pop amid the greenery; and the Gereja Ayam, an odd, chicken-shaped church built in the 1990s, squats near Gunang Merapi — the country’s most active volcano.
A series of smaller photographs and three videos by Linke instead relates to Junghuhn’s scientific records and how we build understanding of these proximate giants today. His works show scenes from the local volcano monitoring station and Center for Volcanology, focusing on institutional monitoring of natural phenomena. Photos of scale models of volcanoes and rows of computer screens with charts suggest how research can now be conducted from afar — they invite us to consider the implications of this distance, compared to Junghuhn’s more intimate studies. Video footage of schoolchildren gathering around a volcano installation and stepping onto a platform that simulates eruption shows how we have managed to package uncontrollable grandeur into easily digestible displays for educational purposes — but it’s ambiguous how successful these endeavors are.
Most captivating is Linke’s video of Kawah Ijen, which presents the East Java volcano as a theatrical stage for human activity. When Junghuhn visited the crater in 1837 and 1844, he noted the high sulfuric levels of its lake. Today, miners collect the accumulated, solid sulfur in laborious acts of extraction, but tourists, too, flock to see the volcanic wonder. Linke’s silent video shows both groups at the site at the same time, with workers carrying the yellow material in baskets while people take pictures around them. The scene is a surreal ballet of the disparate action volcanoes can foster, highlighting our many ways of exploiting a type of landmark that is fundamentally — sometimes dangerously — beyond our control.
Many of these volcanoes have served as popular tourist destinations for the last few decades. Linke and Princen’s images show just glimpses of the transformations that have occurred since Junghuhn’s expeditions. Taken together, the historic and contemporary works question whether and how changes to these volatile landscapes might accelerate under intensified human influence.
Appropriately, the 21st-century expedition’s members recognize their own roles as tourists. Two volcanic stone sculptures, commissioned from local stone carvers, stand at the center of the show to represent large souvenirs some might call kitsch. One is a miniature Mount Merapi; the other, a small Gereja Ayam. The latter is an endearing homage to Junghuhn, whose name translates into “young chicken.” But it also stands as a subtle reminder of the broader message of 17 Volcanoes: the church has been abandoned for over a decade, and, although wondrous, is now decaying, left as a reminder of man’s careless imprint against nature’s own architecture.