This year’s recipient of the Gasag Art Prize, Tue Greenfort, talks about what it means to be given a prize by Berlin’s largest supplier of gas, the climate conversation and redefining consciousness and relationships with nature.
The Danish-born artist’s show for the Gasag prize (which pays tribute to an exceptional artist working in Berlin at the crossroads of art, science and technology) falls outside the norms of traditional art creation. From a personalised catalogue where the viewer can select pages to add throughout the exhibition to novice glass works, Greenfort, who recently collaborated on an installation for dOCUMENTA (13), has aimed to make a body of work with many entry and exit points. At a glance the exhibit has the slight feeling of a science museum. But given time and curiosity, his story framework ERDGLAS unfolds.
How did you come up with the name ERDGLAS?
ERDGLAS is a word I made up, literally ‘earth glass’. It’s a play on the word ERDGAS meaning natural gas and commonly used in reference to ‘green resources’. Both glass and gas begin as quite opaque matter – ash, sand, organic waste – but end as something transparent. The Berlinische Galerie was once a glass factory, and so I chose to incorporate this element.
One of your catalogue pages hanging in the exhibition includes a definition of ‘corporate personhood’. Can you explain this?
There’s this inherent danger of the corporate form, the corporate ‘person’, as the humans behind the veil aren’t held liable for their actions. This means you apply different standards when you know you won’t personally bear the hand of the law.
What’s the significance of the newspaper clippings of Knut the polar bear?
Gasag’s emblem is the polar bear. So it became the symbol of the exhibition, because I think it’s odd that a bear is used as the symbol of a gas company, considering the environmental destruction caused with fossil fuel extraction and the current status of climate change. Knut is for me nature, culture, history. This detachment from nature and how an animal becomes like a celebrity, totally taken out of its organic context, becoming this weird symbol that people try to interact with.
How do you reconcile the accolades of a fossil fuel company with the rather ecological themes of your work?
Well, that was one of the points of departure in making this exhibition. I thought a lot about what it means that institutions work together with corporations and give prizes to an artist whose work is mainly concerned with art and ecology. I have been dealing with ecological aspects in my work for quite a long time. There was a fashion around making shows about climate change – it was something that cities and curators and institutions could easily get funded because it was in the media and on the political agenda. I had a long, closed dialogue with Gasag, studying their environmental plan and policies, and also their aspects of cultural sponsoring, and what they call engagement with community and education.
Some people may call it greenwashing.
That was something I was conscious about, that this would be read into, so I tried to work against and around this challenge.
How did you approach the works for the prize?
Well, one really interesting and serious topic is the very cultural perception of nature: nature as a topic which all kinds of ideology can be projected onto. When you read into all that sustainability and climate change discourse, you find different fronts. They’re actually talking about different aspects of how we conceive or understand nature, and I think to get to the point of a change, or another way of thinking about our role as a species that suddenly has been a component of changing the climate on this earth, I think we need to talk about how we understand ourselves within a natural system.
Do we even see ourselves as part of nature?
No, we don’t. That’s the disconnect in a sense. The very idea of the individual and ‘I’ as being some kind of unity, something that is based in itself… but actually we are so much more mixed with life, we are already totally interwoven into a synthesis of life, and we couldn’t exist without this synthesis.
Do you think your upbringing in 1970-80s Denmark influenced the way you think today?
My parents were much engaged in political debates. I remember we were living next to a lake area that was being totally reconstructed due to different ideas of what it should be used for, from hunters to environmentalists to people who wanted to do fish farming, and it was a total mess. But also there was the idea of setting up a new landfill. My parents got involved with a group of environmentalists and grass-roots parties to work against this idea, and all these experiences set up a way of thinking for me. It connected with art later.
So, do you have a message?
I have no solutions. It seems that this solution-driven economy is wrong. So maybe it’s time to say that we really don’t know what we’re going to do. And then take discussions from there and see where their root is, where the problems are rooted. This is a discourse, and I think the one we have to approach.
Greenfort’s ERDGLAS runs through April 8 at the Berlinische Galerie, Alte Jakobstraße 124, U-Bhf Kochstraße, Wed-Mon 10-18:00