We had to ring the buzzer to get in. I hate ringing a buzzer to get into galleries. I prefer to walk in unannounced to spaces, free to slip out without saying a word. But most of the galleries in Berlin are in buildings you need to be buzzed into. A studious young man sat at the landing at the top of the first flight of stairs. He closed the small book he was reading, got up from his chair and stood in front of the door to the gallery. He asked us something in German.
“Is this Esther Schipper gallery? We’re here to see the Pierre Huyghe show?” I said.
“What are your names please?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did we need an appointment?”
“No, I just need to know your names.”
My friend interjected and told him her name and so I said mine.
The young man graciously opened the door and peered into the space.
“Olivia Moore and Erik Wenzel,” he said in a booming voice that echoed through the rooms. This was the first piece in the exhibition it turns out, Name Announcer (2011, A person at the entrance of a space).
Inside the ornate door was an empty gallery, filled with blinding bright white light. Small black dots moved around in lines on the walls of the otherwise void space. “Influants” makes a suitable addendum to the Voids exhibition, a travelling retrospective of shows that had nothing in them in 2009. Except there were these little specks and they were walking up and down the walls.
At eye-level were small holes in the walls. Out of these tiny caverns marched ants in trails down the white walls to small bits of sustenance on the floor. Spiders waited for them. In the corners various breeds of arachnids had set spun webs. Umwelt (2011, 10,000 ants & 50 spiders). I was overcome with the inherent fear one gets when insects make their presence felt en masse in an interior space. They don’t belong here! But as we walked through the space I was also held captive by my Zen Buddhist anxiety over harming even the smallest living thing, or especially small living things. Be careful, don’t step on the art, you don’t want to kill it! As I am writing this I’ve dutifully saved a small bug from a sudsy death in my Paulaner Oktoberfest Bier. Crisis averted.
The rooms, all containing one or two ant nests and a handful of spiders led to a small room at the back. Most galleries, particularly the more established ones, have offices well cordoned off from the exhibition space and the wandering visitors. Here was a space as stark as the rest of the gallery with a woman seated at a stylish glass table. “Are you the person with the flu?” I asked. On the corner of the table was the list of works including Influenced, 2011, “A person in a space carrying the flu virus.”
“No, he’s on his lunch break,” she replied. Thank God. My response to that piece is so visceral that I can’t even think about the concept of it as a work of art. I can’t imagine anything worse to do when you have the flu than spending your days amongst a bunch of bare white walls with some spiders and ants. Even thinking about it now I’m just worried about getting sick.
A similar kind of reaction is elicited by seeing a pristine white space occupied by creepy crawly bugs. There is something very primal in the way the presence of these animals brings out the animal in us. There is threat, whether the real suffering that ensues from contracting the flu virus—just the possibility of which is enough to trigger our reflexes—or the unspecified threats colonies of ants and clusters of spiders pose to us.
These aren’t exotic species; the wood ants are common in Berlin, the spiders were collected from the area in and around the gallery and they found someone with the flu to come sit in the gallery. Observed in the austere laboratory like environment of a gallery, we see how alien the world around us is. If these were rare examples from far off lands we might be fascinated because they are exotic and therefore bizarre. Instead we stop and think about how varied the life we share our everyday space with is.
But the bugs aren’t pets either. Relations between humans and insects (and arachnids) have not been normalized the way they have been with furry little mammals. Spiders and ants cannot be domesticated and so in a certain way we are peers, cohabitating and going about our business. Sure, people keep exotic spiders in terrariums and kids have ant farms but that is more like a zoo. Just like a fish tank, a pocket of their habitat has been placed in ours. But with domestic (as opposed to domesticated) ants and spiders, we share habitats. Spiders and ants pop up in our buildings because they already live here and can adapt. Corners make excellent locales for webs and cracks are great places to build nests.
The word “Umwelt” means “environment” or “surrounding world” in German. Having inhabited structures about as soon as humans invented them, the building has been part of the insect’s environment for thousands of years. Huyghe doesn’t so much bring these animals into the environment of the gallery as these ants and spiders assert that the gallery is already part of their environment.
~Erik Wenzel, an artist and writer living in Berlin.
(Images: Pierre Huyghe, Umwelt, 2011, 10,000 ants, 50 spiders; C.C. Spider, 2011, Spider; Courtesy of the artist & Esther Schipper)