BERLIN — Tucked into the quiet campus of Charité Medical University, a neoclassical dome marks the oldest original teaching facility in Berlin — a veterinary anatomy theater, built in 1790. This remarkable little building has stood through many wars and regime changes. Its central dome was originally built for veterinary study of animal anatomy, usually through the dissection of cows and horses. It has steep seats rising up from a central circular ‘stage’, on which the animal would have been placed, and an underground chamber, where the animal was prepared before being heaved up with an elaborate elevating device to the theater. The walls are adorned with frescoes of animal cadavers and plaster casts of cattle skulls, as though decorative designs had been updated for the enlightened study hall. After a thorough refurbishment, this monument to the history of science now hosts interdisciplinary exhibitions and is conceived as a lab for contemporary connections between art and science.
The current exhibition on view is “Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest,” curated by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin. Their trilogy of exhibitions in natural science museums across Germany is based on extensive research of received Western knowledge and ideas about nature, which they contextualize with parallel, post-colonial narratives, as well as with contemporary art. The exhibition at the anatomical theater unpacks the Western projection of the rainforest as an image of wild growth, devoid of humans, an environment so diverse and bursting with life forms that it exceeds man’s scientific categorizations. It frames the rainforest as a Western fantasy land, born together with Colonial explorations, which provides endless ‘material’ for the botanist, the explorer, or the artist. The exhibition contextualizes the rainforest in different ways, for instance, by making connections between influential German evolutionary scientists and their ties to German colonies in Papua New Guinea.
Surprisingly, the driving figure in the exhibition is Alfred Russell Wallace, the British botanist who developed a theory of natural selection in parallel to Darwin. Wallace’s expeditions to the Amazon and the rainforests of Southeast Asia define the geographical reach of the exhibition. His adventures in luscious faraway rainforests are represented in dried and labeled specimens, such as palm fronds from the Amazon and an Orangutan skull from the Malay Archipelego. These two regions — South America and South-East Asia — became linked, in the exhibition and in Wallace’s work, as frontiers of ‘virgin’ forests; effective playgrounds for botanists to research natural processes, followed closely by explorers out to tap them for natural resources.
The contemporary artworks in the exhibition tend to pale in comparison to the fascinating history-of-science objects. One strong piece by Revital Cohen and Tuur van Balen consists of three pink neon sculptures based on skeletons of birds of paradise. Their pink glow reflects off the surfaces of the other vitrines, marking the scientific specimens with abstract pink scribbles. In the theater itself, an ‘Extinction Gong’ by Julian Oliver and Crystelle Vũ goes off every 19 minutes, the average rate of the extinction of species worldwide, according to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson. The effect is dramatic – only an occasional visitor is there to hear the gong ring, if they wait long enough. The theater once devoted to the study of animals now resonates with sounds representing animals’ demise.
The exhibition sets up a stark timeline: in the mere 150 years since Wallace’s cataloging efforts of animals and plants, many of the species he recorded have become threatened or extinct, and their habitats are growing scarce. Along with mass extinction of animals, indigenous populations in these areas are faced with catastrophic deterioration of their land, water, and crops. A multi-channel video research project by Maria Thereza Alves brings stories from indigenous activists and farmers in the Amazon who are developing new networks for conserving agroforestry knowledge. The installation’s multi-layered sound is a strange choice, since it creates a garbled chorus of unintelligible stories. However, thanks to English subtitles, the indigenous communities affected by deforestation, monoculture farming, and decline in biodiversity get to tell their stories.
The main juxtaposition in the exhibition is between nature in the imagination of 19th century European explorers, and the current erosion of nature due to human actions. An art world favorite, the term Anthropocene is used freely in the exhibition to denote the current era of human domination over nature. This is a somewhat simplistic schematic, going directly from scientific discovery and fascination with rainforests to their destruction by the same forces of progress and human advancement. Europe in the 19th century had an image of the rainforest, the exhibition argues, which was useful for its colonial and scientific development. We might consider what the equivalent is today, and which ideas we still keep about the rainforest, despite it having been so drastically destroyed in the last century. It is still a strong cultural reference, an image of an untouched natural worlds, which is printed as hip wallpaper or used symbolically to mark environmental friendly products. As long as this idea of the rainforest in kept alive, then the decline of the actual rainforest and the human and animal life within it can easily become an abstracted image, an exotic and remote as it was for Alfred Russell Wallace.
“Disappearing Legacies: The World as Forest” is an ongoing exhibition on view at the Tieranatomisches Theater of Humboldt-University Berlin North Campus (Philippstr. 12/13, Haus 3, 10115 Berlin, Germany).