Karin Pliem


Just as the Chinese dragon glides through the air and waters as a ‘hybridʼ of many animals and forms of beings, sometimes spitting clouds of fire and sometimes spreading fertility and happiness, the protagonists in Karin Pliem’s painted ‘cosmologiesʼ1 are as diverse and contrasting: blossoms, fruits, living beings from different regions of the world and habitats—many of them of natural origin, some bred by humans, some originating from the painter’s artistic imagination. They are mixed with set pieces of inorganic nature—such as indigenous cult objects, fragments of ancient sculptures, or syncretic architectural elements. Similar to the configuration of the dragon, all these elements unite to form a transitory-living entity in the shape of a work of art. Or, as the title of Karin Pliem’s exhibition, which has been touring China since April 2022, says: the image of a “biocultural community”.

The word ‘bioculturalʼ is borrowed from the still young scientific concept of biocultural diversity: “The ‘trueʼ web of life is biocultural diversity: the interlinked diversity of life in nature and culture, an integrated whole formed by biodiversity, cultural diversity, and linguistic diversity. Diversity in this fuller sense is the multi-faceted expression of the creative force and potential of life in both nature and culture, a wellspring of vitality and resilience for life on the planet.”²

This insight coincides with Karin Pliem’s own observations and experiences, which she has made on countless walks and journeys through near and distant worlds for over twenty years. The ‘true web of lifeʼ she has located in this way is depicted in her visual language in ever-new constellations and mutations. Everything here is linked to everything else and at the same time in motion, in mutual correspondence, sometimes harmonious, sometimes conflicting. In the end, all the pictorial components link up to form a visual composition.³

Like nature, Karin Pliem’s painting is based on transformation as a principle. It blossoms and fades, only to begin anew in a different form. Colors and forms are allowed to morph to give rise to new creations. Despite this painterly freedom of interpretation, a number of pictorial actors remain identifiable to their audience. Among them are representatives of flora and fauna that play a culturally or economically significant role in the context of the respective pictorial theme. In the triptych “Foresta tropicale in conflitto” (fig. pp. 58-60), for example, oil palms, avocados, cocoa and soybeans thrive alongside Brazilian rainforest plants. As the title of this picture already says, ‘culturalʼ interventions can put nature—and thus our lives—in the greatest danger: For the agro-industrial cultivation of crops, huge areas of rainforest are cleared by fire every day.

More understanding of Brazilʼs nature, on the other hand, underlies the architecture of its capital built in the middle of this country: “I am not attracted by the right angle, nor by the straight, hard inflexible line that man has created. What attracts me is the free and sensual curve that I find in the mountains of my country, in the meandering course of its rivers, in the clouds of the sky …”, said the architect of Brasilia, Oscar Niemeyer4, who has also designed the building that peeks out of its vegetative surroundings in the center of the triptych (see fig. p. 12, detail of the Supremo Tribunal Federal, Brasilia 1956).

Like a glimmer of hope that even in our highly technical world, reduced at the same time to the combination of only two numbers—0 and 1—there could be ways towards a correspondence between civilization and nature.

As an artist, Karin Pliem is not alone in her thoughts—especially recently, the theme of ‘art and natureʼ has been booming at almost all international biennials, in art magazines and major exhibitions.5 Often also in connection with proposals and ideas for replacing the neoliberal capitalist system geared to resource exploitation and quick profit. For example, the artist Zheng Bo, who lives on Lantau Island, Hongkong, says: “It depends on whether we work with other beings in the planetary garden or exploit them until we all drop dead in the capitalist market. It is time that we define art not as human-only ‘creationʼ but the vibrancy of ten thousand beings [wanwu].”6

A turn away from the economic-social practice of opposing each other in the direction of constructive togetherness also underlies the concept of ‘regenerationʼ as presented in detail by Paul Hawken in 2021. “Regeneration is putting life at the center of every act and decision … an orientation … looking at what we do; what we think; what we buy; and how we interact with each other, with the natural world, and with the world of goods and services.”7

Last but not least the idea of bringing—and seeing—nature and human civilization together, may be also related to an old and traditional Chinese philosophical concept, best known as ‘Tianxiaʼ—which means ‘the order under the skyʼ. Contemporary Chinese thinkers apply this idea to the present. According to their interpretation, Tianxia contains the peaceful coexistence of all peoples with great mutual benefit.

In contrast to many of her contemporary colleagues who deal with the subject of art, nature, and civilization, Karin Pliem articulates herself primarily through the analogue, traditional means of painting. ‘Mixed Realitiesʼ can also be produced without computer-aided technologies, namely employing an artistic language that has been considered ‘universalʼ for centuries because it is understandable to all people. Through this possibility of being received independently of time, space and culture, she is able to address her audience not only on a cognitive but also on an emotional level: “My message is: Let’s get involved in the variety of colors, in spectral diversity, in order to be able to perceive, appreciate and benefit for all of us even those areas of life that are complementary to our habits!”

That the Chinese dragon would ever make an appearance on Karin Pliem’s exhibition tours was not foreseeable at the beginning of this journey. It was not until the third stop—after Chengdu and Guangzhou—that Loongma, the dragon horse, first appeared in the Carte Blanche Art Space of the Beijing Winland IFC as a leitmotif of the host institution: as a “symbol of the intercultural connections of Winland Group”.

At the beginning of June 2023, the exhibition moved to a newly completed pavilion on Gallery Street at the Hangzhou Winland Centre. There, as part of the events taking place in Hangzhou to mark the 50th anniversary of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention,8 it was ceremoniously opened together with a presentation of Gustav Klimt’s life and work under the surtitle “Art from Austria …”.9 Also present in this part of the exhibition was the Austrian artist Bernadette Huber with her video animation “FLOEGE FLOEGE”.10 This animation deals with the changeful and ambiguous relationship between the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) and the fashion designer Emilie Flöge (1874–1952).

In the meantime, Loongma had also arrived—this time in the guise of a ‘life-sizeʼ mechanical artwork interacting with its audience in real space.11 At the end of June, Loongma was to perform at Wulin Square in Hangzhou, which is also the host city of the 2023 Asian Games. Karin Pliem and I were allowed to view and greet him there shortly before the assembly of his large-dimensional individual parts.

The fact that the artist had already integrated a Chinese dragon into the cover image of her exhibition catalogue from Chengdu in April 2022 must also have made Loongma feel good about her traveling exhibition: it was spared covid lockdowns as well as numerous storms and floods of water that have raged since then.

Even the ambience of the exhibition space in Hangzhou comes close to the idea of a biocultural community. The Hangzhou Winland Center, designed by international architecture bureaus together with Adam Chikeung Yu, CEO and President of Winland Corp., is located in the immediate vicinity of the Grand Canal, which is lined with green areas and historic buildings. “The formality of the masterplan and building design of Hangzhou Winland Center was inspired by the formality of the neighboring Xiangji Temple (built in 978 C.E./Song Dynasty). The buildings are expressed as interlocking oblongs, a principle well explored in Piet Mondrian’s paintings. Dramatically sculpted façade components create an enticing, truly unique balance between order and playfulness,” said Stefan Krummeck, Design Principal and Director at TFP Farrells.12

Thus, during its 18-month tour through China, the exhibition “Biological Community” encountered a high diversity of culturally high-quality venues: From the White Night cultural space in Chengdu, founded by poet Zhai Yongming and artist He Duoling, to the InterCulture Space in Guangzhou, housed in the 300-year-old Hu’s Ancestral Hall, and the Carte Blanche Art Space in the Winland International Finance Center Beijing—the seat of the headquarters of many foreign financial institutions in China and thus a symbol of the international mix on the Beijing Financial Street—to the above-mentioned exhibition pavilion in the recently opened Gallery Street of the Hangzhou Winland Center. The exhibition was thus not only able to stimulate thoughts on the ‘true web of lifeʼ through the works of art presented, but it itself became one of the many nodes of this web in the great—as we Europeans say—Middle Kingdom.

[…] At the end of this catalogue introduction, an excerpt of the greetings Karin Pliem sent as a video message to the openings of her exhibition in Chengdu and Guangzhou. For it was only in Hangzhou that she was able—to her great delight—to be present in person:

“I have always wanted to emotionalize people with my paintings. Let them feel the common ground and bring them back to things that are important in life. […] What is important for all of us at the moment, I think, is that we feel, think, feel where we are—and that we do things that we know are good for us and therefore good for our environment. I am very happy to be in China with my pictures and I am curious to see how they are considered here!”

1 Belinda Grace Gardner, “Enigmas of Existence. On Karin Pliem’s exhibition De natura at unttld contemporary”, Vienna 2019, https://karinpliem.at/belinda-grace-gardner-enigmas-of-existence/

2 Luisa Maffi, “Biocultural Diversity, The True Web of Life”, in: Biocultural Diversity Toolkit, Vol. 1, Salt Spring Island/Canada: Terralingua 2014, p. 7.

3 The titles of her paintings, which are in Italian, also refer to the compositional ‘musicalʼ part of the creative process. Based on the performance designations of occidental musical notations, these titles often contain references to reproduced organisms (… granoturco, … maiale) and artefacts (cortile, … ciborio) or to basic emotional moods of the picture composition (spirituoso, sonore …).

4 Oscar Niemeyer, 1996, here cit. after: Architektur & Wohnen Magazin, Designerlexikon, 20. 1. 2020, www.awmagazin.de/designerlexikon/oscar-niemeyer

5 Cf. for example the contributions in: [sýn] Living Together [bíos]. The art of togetherness as a global survival strategy. Kunstforum international, vol. 281, 2022. Note on this: Karin Pliem already entitled an extensive group of works in 2015 and her catalogue published in 2016 “Symbiotic Unions”. S. https://karinpliem.at/symbiotic-unions-2015-2016/, and https://karinpliem.at/lucas-gehrmann-natura-morta-vivente-con-bravura-or-misteriosa-sometimes-even-con-calamari-karin-pliems-symbiotic-unions-as-holobiontic-still-lifes/

6 Zheng Bo, “Art as Multispecies Vibrancy”, in: ArtAsiaPacific, No. 119, 07.2020, p. 15.

7 Paul Hawkens, here cit. after: Simon Mainwaring, “Purpose At Work: Paul Hawken’s ‘Regenerationʼ Reveals A Critical Roadmap To End The Climate Crisis”, in: Forbes, Sep 15, 2021. www.forbes.com/sites/simonmainwaring/2021/09/15/purpose-at-work-paul-hawkens-regeneration-reveals-a-critical-roadmap-to-end-climate-crisis/?sh=f41a9423d4ca

8 www.unesco.org/en/articles/hangzhou-declaration-heralding-next-era-human-development

9 www.ehangzhou.gov.cn/2023-06/12/c_285159.htm

10 www.bernadettehuber.at/frame1.htm

11 ‘Loongmaʼ first performed in Beijing in 2014 as a collaboration between Chinese and French artists and technicians, then toured to Hangzhou in 2023 via Nantes, Ottawa, Macau and many other cities. https://m.winlandcorp.com/en/spirit/background.html, www.instagram.com/p/CuTNBRbv_74/

12 “To create timeless and long-lasting architecture”, www.winlandcorp.cn/en/content/details70_1710.html. See also: www.e-architect.com/china/hangzhou-winland-center

First published in: Austrian Cultural Forum Beijing, Winland Group Beijing, Bariaa Mourad (ed.), Austrian Art in China. Karin Pliem: Biocultural Community. Barcelona, Beijing, Vienna: TRITON 2023, pp. 11-20. ISBN 978-3-85486-224-6

© 2023 Lucas Gehrmann, ediciones Triton