© Image Diana Pfammatter
Claudia Comte’s work speaks to various ecological sensibilities, entreating us to consider our relationship to the natural world as anything other than certain. Comte’s sculptures rendered in wood, marble, and bronze riff on their material status. Smooth marble cacti, for example, belie their prickly form. Collectively, these configurations register the contrasting states of materiality, from the raw to the highly industrialized. Involved in all steps of fabrication – sourcing appropriate trees, felling, carving, and sanding the wood – Comte reinvests a hands-on approach, often lost sight of in Western manufacturing processes.
To better understand Comte’s connection to the natural world – and to forests specifically – the photographer Diana Pfammatter accompanied her deep into the Swiss Forest. It was here that Claudia began her search for suitable wood for her exhibition "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" at KÖNIG GALERIE (28 April – 24 June 2018).
The story begins with an assembly of thoughts by art historian Gabriella Beckhurst. Here, she takes a closer look at the concepts explored by Comte during the development of her exhibition. In the feature essay, curator Chus Martínez examines Comte’s exhibition in progress, reflecting on how the artist’s material processes open up different ways of thinking about the imbrications of art and the natural world.
The story concludes with a conversation between Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the artist. Together they touch on subjects such as the importance of contemplation and Zumthor’s lifelong experience working with and within nature.
© Image Diana Pfammatter
There is a theory that the building blocks of all human languages are fundamentally based on energy, frequency, and form. Music, like language, operates through these vibrations, the form of which is embedded in mathematical systems of numbers. Numbers are the ultimate universal language, reflecting perfect geometrical shapes and sequences in natural processes, as well as verbal language and music. If a universal language exists, it is mathematics, providing the perfect arrangements of structure and form found in nature. In her work, Comte explores these universally perfect shapes – a spiral, a cylinder, a pine cone – and their patterns are limitless, connecting us with the fundamental building blocks of the universe. In our present era, with ever-increasing speeds of technological innovation, is it possible that the rediscovery of this ancient theory could provide answers on the way forward for our species? What can nature’s mathematical processes tell us about our own technologies, and the future of our existence?
As mathematics structures our language and our natural world, so does the pyramid of complexity, which breaks down all composite parts into smaller and smaller parts, ultimately making up a whole sum of knowledge. This theory, popularized by astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, can theoretically describe the structure of the universe from the beginning of the Big Bang until today. Comte’s sculptural forms at first seem divided into distinct groups (nature, man-made, abstract), but they are in fact all connected. These aspects of our environment are inextricable from one another, though becoming infinitely more connected in complex ways. A plastic bottle can bob to the surface anywhere, and in the same way, all shapes, forms, and knowledges rise to the surface in a never-ending swell.
THE SIXTH EXTINCTION
As we speed through the twenty-first century, our environment is crumbling. No part of the planet is unaffected, not the forests, the deserts, nor the oceans. Our critical mass of humanity is bearing down on the planet that gives us life – a seemingly unstoppable force. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth reimagines the history of our planet, hearkening back to a time when nature was seemingly untouched and untouchable. Human intervention has broken this apparently unbeatable force, taking the offerings of nature and using them for our own means. What was raw and untouched – a forest or a jungle – is now carved up into tables, sculptures, buildings at an unsustainable rate. As scientists have noted, a major extinction of species is underway. The last time this happened it led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs, sixty-six million years ago. Meanwhile, we speed around in cars and airplanes powered by the liquefied remains of these dinosaurs – maybe they still do rule the world.
Comte’s sculptures are highly polished, their sheen and smoothness belying their humble origins. Materials such as bronze, marble, and wood are a time capsule into our past; the materials themselves betraying many truths about human production, ways of making, and emergent technologies throughout history. Cut down a tree and you can find the uncomfortable truths about the changes in our climate: dendrochronological techniques show that the rings in tree trunks grow at different speeds according to shifts in the climate, among other factors. This technique can also solve mysteries about human culture: for example, the exact dates of pre-Renaissance artworks painted on wooden panels. By cutting down a tree, you’ve already implicated yourself in the process – there is no way out of this entanglement. Nature and culture are inextricably entwined on our planet, informing each other to the point where they are impossible to think of as separate concepts – a single tree is part of an entire forest. The Bronze Age, an age that defined our relationship to making and transforming raw material into tools, is also hailed as the era of protowriting formation. Writing, materiality, and the environment we exist in are all part of one another – smaller blocks that form the pyramid of the complexity of all knowledge. Bronze, wood, and marble compress the stretches of time across many centuries.
LABOR AND MATERIAL
The role of the artist is to transform, to conjure, and to reimagine worlds. But the question remains as to how to sustain this practice in a world full of intangibility. Comte’s work pushes the raw materials of life up against the digital, questioning the nature of art-making and manual labor in a world of new technologies that present infinite conceptual possibilities. However, maybe these practices are not as opposed as we think. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth brings together multiple aspects of Comte’s work: the history of materials, and the play between old technologies and the cutting-edge. What are initially deemed to be opposing factors – old and new, material and digital – are simply continuations of the weight of human intervention. The old materials make up the new. The systems that create digital animations are ultimately comprised of materials such as metal and glass: materials made up of smaller parts of shell, of sand, of stone. Time rolls on, and with it humanity, but where it will take us in the future remains to be seen.
© Image Diana Pfammatter
THE POINT WE CANNOT FIX
Claudia Comte has an uncommon way of loving trees. Don’t be wrong, she does not see wood when she works with trees, but trees. They are matter and this matter is the substance of her work. But they always remain an unbreakable entity, they are still trees. One of my favorite books IL BARONE RAMPANTE (1957) – translated as THE BARON IN THE TREES (1959) – was written by Italo Calvino. THE BARON IN THE TREES begins with twelve-year-old Baron Cosimo retreating into the trees after a disagreement with his parents, vowing never to come down, and determined to live his life on his own terms, under his own conditions. The book is too often interpreted as a description for the utopian impulse: Cosimo’s adventures and retreat to an anachronistic realm, the trees, serves as a pretext to the narrator’s nostalgia and pessimism in relation to the dark times of Mussolini’s Italy.
© Image Diana Pfammatter
However, there is another aspect of the text that links to the biography of the author, but from another angle. Calvino was born in Cuba, in 1923, to Italian immigrants. His parents were both botanists who relocated for their careers. When Calvino was two years old the family returned to Italy, settling amongst the exotic plants and trees in the small town of San Remo on the Ligurian coast. Despite his literary interests and ambitions, Calvino initially tried to follow in his parents’ footsteps, enrolling at the University of Turin in 1941 to study agriculture, and again later at the University of Florence. It is through the work of Comte that I feel that the presence of the trees in Calvino’s text is not only a way of creating a scenario but that the scenario is actually part of an interest that links the individual to nature, to the law of species coexistence, which the urban environment can never deliver.
The trees that are present in Comte’s exhibition "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" at the KÖNIG GALERIE are very intriguing figures. They embody not only the presence of who they are in their natural habitat, but also carry in their hearts a sculpture made from their own flesh. Trunk and sculpture are both “tree”, and, hence, in this artwork, we can trace the genealogy of the life, death, and transformation of this crucial organism for life itself. A suspended tree with a wood sculpture inside appears to us like an enigma placed inside a mystery. Can art produce the conditions not only for us to perceive the qualities of the work but to reflect on the continuity and discontinuity of nature? And if yes, can it be done so that it surpasses the utopian impulse that provokes again and again a wave of useless nostalgia toward the loss of the natural world?
© Image Diana Pfammatter
Nostalgia is another name for the authoritative, a sorrow that just perpetuates the unwillingness to change the way we connect with life, and how we could imagine the coexistence of nature and culture without separation. Donna Haraway begins her book WHEN SPECIES MEET (2007) with a meaningful question: “Whom and what do I touch when I touch my dog?” This inquiry should be extended to all matter, organic and inorganic, so as not to enter a mystified world but to learn how to leave behind the great divides that mark our relationship with nature, and to enhance our possibilities of animating culture with a new experience of itself. It is not that we need to “redefine” culture – the task is far more complex than the necessary ongoing exercise of critique – but that we need to introduce other experiences inside the experience of culture.
The second part of the work by Comte is three metamorphic, film animations where some of her sculptures, including an ordinary plastic bottle, disintegrate and regain their forms afresh. Like the trees, the films enact a study on the nature of transformation, the relationship between human agency and technology, and underline the importance of the simultaneous representation of existing and non-existing phenomena. It brings me to ask: How can art or an artwork sustain a double vision between the tangible and the intangible? I believe that the interest of art and artists in nature has a quantic character – a desire for the simultaneity of art and nature. More than building a relationship with other disciplines, I sense that Comte’s work has an ambition to transform art’s own substance, and then, us. Her interest in nature cannot be perceived as a revision – as nostalgia, as I mentioned before – but as a necessary adjustment among nature and culture that is happening inside artistic production and its exhibition history.