Lucas Gehrmann

Natura morta vivente – con bravura or misteriosa, sometimes even: con calamari.

Karin Pliem‘s Symbiotic Unions as holobiontic still lifes.*

The still life today is hardly ever still. Over almost four centuries, as the carefully composed natura morta – tranquillo e pensieroso –, the genre had reminded us of the transience of life, of things, of all our aspirations. Then the images started to move, and henceforth – accelerando – leapt from the cinema screen to tube TVs, video- and flat-screens and mobile displays, on which we now swipe them onwards and – presto possibile – away; this may have contributed significantly to the idea of motion entering into the still life. It may also have been the change wrought in our conception of the world by the (natural) sciences that brought restlessness into the contemplative field of the interpretation of natural and artificial products. For instance, when Salvador Dalí painted what was perhaps the first Nature morte vivente1 in 1956, he did so explicitly against the background of knowledge about the movement of atoms in their millions, taking place constantly in every object that to us appears motionless.

Some 60 years later, Karin Pliem entitled two of her pictures similarly,2 though not in homage to Dalí, but against the background of the more recent realisation that (higher) organisms in any state – whether vivente or morte – are to be seen as holobionts.3 Every tulip, every peach, every oyster … is composed of countless living organisms – mainly micro-organisms – permanently co-existing and interacting in the most intimate association with one another and with other organisms. Thus in today‘s bio-sciences, symbiotic combinations are considered at least as important for evolution and the propagation of life as mutation, re-combination and selection. In the 1990s, American geneticist and cell biologist Lynn Margulis already saw a constantly fluctuating „symbiotic union“ of all the inhabitants of our planet as the driving force of evolution.4 Should not this principle of an ultimately constructive, productive co-operation of the most diverse forms of life and worlds be of advantage to the human individual – as regards both his socio-political context and his relationship with what man calls his „environment“? „Environment“ would then be not that which „sur-rounds“ us and which at the same time is separate and dissociated from us, but both our context and part of ourselves, and vice versa. Karin Pliem – who has travelled widely, always exploring nature – has for many years been pursuing these ideas. She has entitled her latest group of works – in reference to Lynn Margulis –Symbiotic Unions. Here, as earlier, nature in her painting is seldom morte and never still, but extremely animated in detail and as a whole, in the sense of motion permeating all compositions. Titles such as Drammatico alla turca (2016), Sinergia in conflitto (2015), Grazioso con ortensia e siluro (2014) or Misterioso con bravura (2013), like expressive markings in music, give indications of the dynamics of each modus vivendi, as well as the geographical and cultural background of the picture (thus for example „... alla turca“ or „Seraglio ...“ refer to pictorial associations with Ottoman Turkish architecture) or of particular botanical or animal protagonists („... con tulipa crispa“, „... con siluro“, etc.). These protagonists are often recruited from species whose origin, propagation or endangerment is attributed to human influence (non-indigenous species, transgenic plants, invasive and endangered species…) or which (have) played a significant role in cultural history (as food, medicine or addictive drug, source of raw material, commodity…). Thus Karin Pliem‘s paintings of biotopes frequently include maize, poppy, coconut, kudzu, sweet pea, lotus flower, shrimp, catfish and squid, if not always as main protagonists, and not at all in the same guise. For transformation is also a fundamental principle of her painting, and thus based here on permanent symbioses and mutations in colour and form, producing novel creations and constellations until the process of image-generating has reached the point of a successful „symbiotic union“ of all protagonists.

As we look at a picture that has attained this point, our perceptions may be something like: „… blooms forming swirling fans of floral colours, eddies of colour pulled into a polychrome surge… and one is almost tempted to disappear bodily into this painting, in a foam of colours and tactile stimuli…“5
The artist welcomes it, when the viewer enters into the painting – indeed, this is evidently her assumption, since she omits homo sapiens sapiens from her pictures – although he ought to belong equally with drosera, cigno and maiale to the Pliem pictorial cosmos of nature. Just as in the classical still life, man has no place in Symbiotic Unions. Perhaps occasionally his skull – Vanitas? memento mori? – may appear,6 and cultural artefacts – architectural fragments, an African mask7 or a manneristic sculpture from the Sacro Bosco of Bomarzo – can be glimpsed here and there, amongst all the plants and animal hybrids generated by the artist as she paints, out of the originally real (or sometimes virtual) archetypes she discovered worldwide. Such human artefacts serve her as representatives of anthropos, who must first learn and understand that he himself (as a holobiont) is a component of that symbiotic union called „nature“. Here, entering into Karin Pliem‘s pictures – con passione – might prove helpful to him.

1 Salvador Dalí, Nature Morte Vivente (Still Life — Fast Moving), 1956, Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida, s. http://archive.thedali.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=138;type=101.
2 Natura morte vivente, 2015 (s. www.karinpliem.at/werke.asp?id=H.211) and Natura morta vivente II, 2016 (s. www.karinpliem.at/werke.asp?id=I.225).
3 Norbert Lossau, „Wir sind nie allein. Nicht mal im eigenen Körper“, in: Welt.de, 01.05.2015, www.welt.
de/kultur/literarischewelt/article140354029/Wir-sind-nie-allein-Nicht-mal-im-eigenen-Koerper.html.
American natural science historian and biologist Donna Haraway says: “We are all lichens now. We have never been individuals. From anatomical, physiological, evolutionary, developmental, philosophic, economic, I don’t care what perspective, we are all lichens now.” Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble“, in: Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, 05/09/2014, http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/anthropocene-capitalocene-chthulucene/.
[Note: Lichen grows and forms exclusively in symbiosis with a fungus (mycobiont) and one or more photobionts.]
4 Lynn Margulis, A New Look at Evolution, Basic Books, 1999.
5 Kurt Kladler, „Inscapes“, in: Karin Pliem, Symbiotic Unions, Hohenems−Vaduz−Vienna: Bucher publishers 2016, p 33.
6 For example in: Symbiotic Unions I, 2016, bot tom left. (s. www.karinpliem.at/werke.asp?id=I.226) s. here illus. p. 83.
7 ibid, bottom centre.

* Translated from German by Fiona Claire Mered.
First published in: Museum moderner Kunst Kärnten (ed.), Unheimlich schön. Stillleben heute, Klagenfurt 2017, pp. 78-80.
ISBN 978-3-9503572-6-4

© 2017 Lucas Gehrmann; MMKK