Interviewed by Ann Dingli
Pristine Paradise artist Nadine Baldow
Nadine Baldow opens her solo exhibition, Pristine Paradise, at Valletta Contemporary (VC) after a month-long residency on the island of Gozo. Baldow is a visual artist working mainly with site-specific installations. She studied with professor Eberhard Bosslet, who exhibited his work at VC in 2018, at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden after completing a woodcarving apprenticeship in the Alps. Baldow’s work predominantly addresses the relationship between humankind and nature, and their ongoing impact on each other. Aside from her residency at Gozo Contemporary, she has been an artist-in-residency in the Himalayas in India; the national park Šumava in Czech; the nature conservation island Vilm in Germany; and in Seoul, South Korea in cooperation with the Hansung University, where she created a site-specific intervention. She has also produced several public space interventions in Panjim, Dresden, and Görlitz; and has exhibited her work in Switzerland, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, and India. Her work has been shown at the Contemporary Art Week, Delhi; the International Exhibition for Contemporary Art, Ostrale; the Red Base Foundation, Yogyakarta; and the ArtFair Düsseldorf. In this interview for VC, she speaks to Ann Dingli about her ongoing research into the connection between man and nature.
Ann Dingli (AD): Your work looks closely at the relationship between humankind and nature and you've spoken about a power struggle between the two in the past. Is this idea still your main focus?
Nadine Baldow (NB): Yes. I am observing the relationship between humankind and nature on many different levels, but I do not want to be understood as an upholder of moral standards with a wagging finger. I am more interested in raising questions like: Are we still part of nature? What is ‘nature’ at all? Could our planet, as we ourselves have shaped it, be what ‘real nature’is?
In this questioning process, our disturbed relationship becomes clear to me – as on the one hand, we perceive ‘nature’, rather romantically, as a paradise-like place of longing; while on the other hand, we keep pushing it even further back as a consequence of our current form of civilisation. There is hardly any place on earth where mankind hasn’t been, and there is certainly no place on this planet that we’ve left completely untouched. I consider the two forces, nature and humankind, as divergent positions rather than as a unit – both equipped with tremendous power.
AD: Your work surrounds issues of dominance and territorialism with reference to the age-old man vs. nature disunion. At this point in human history, who do you think is winning – man or nature? Does your art work to illustrate this envisioned supremacy?
NB: I do not believe in a ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ in this scenario – I believe there will be change. It would be presumptuous to believe that we could ‘win’, or that our actions could destroy the planet. The age of humanity is estimated to be counted in years, the planet Earth has already existed 2,000 times as long as we have. The planet does not care whether we exist or not.
However, it is obvious that our livelihood stands to change massively. The question is whether we can adapt to these upcoming conditions or not and whether these conditions are worth striving for. We are living in an incredibly complex and fragile system and yet believe we can control it. To give an example which illustrates this line of thought, my series Occupied Objects imagines a future scenario in which an alien kind of nature occupies everyday objects. In this sense, my work reveals a possible dystopian outcome of humankind’s story that is worth reflecting on.
Nadine Baldow working in the studio as part of the artist-in-residency program in Gozo Contemporary
AD: Your show for VC is titled Dystopia. Although your previous shows to date have dealt with foreboding themes concerning humankind's hindrance on the natural world, this title feels quite final. Can you talk about why you chose it?
NB: I am glad you asked this question, because the same thoughts regarding the title have also occupied me. And incidentally, I changed it precisely because of this finality. The exhibition is now called Pristine Paradise. The pristine paradise or the untouched idyll, like our relationship to nature, is allowing an open denouement in this thought experiment.
AD: The work you make conveys feelings of the unnatural in terms of its colours and materials. Can you describe the way you create these dystopian forms?
NB: One of the main materials for my installations and sculptures is the building material polyurethane. I do not, however, try to reproduce natural growth patterns with it. I use the characteristics of this artificial, man-made substance to create my interpretation of a highly artificial, alien kind of nature. It doesn’t allow much to be left of the common idea of nature as an idyllic paradise: bilious green, deep black, shocking pink and pastel blue shapes sprayed onto the alien polyurethane-foam are dwelling out of objects or lost places of human origin, disrupting or cracking them open them as they do so.
AD: You deal with alarming themes concerned with natural degradation, yet – paradoxically – your pieces are quite beautiful. Are you making a comment on the relationship between beauty and destruction?
NB: No. I deliberately work with this discrepancy between superficial attractiveness and critical content. My works appear beautiful at first, but if you look behind the façade, you get to the critical themes. At first glance, most of the planet’s natural landscapes look beautiful too, but if you take a closer look, you often find that idyllic appearances are deceptive. In fact, I believe that the viewer feels this irritation. In the past, I have often found that my work causes a very unpleasant feeling to many people on close viewing. A common question is, for example, if my work is toxic.
AD: It seems as though your work takes the notion of human activity up-ending the tranquility of nature and turns on its head. Is your message to your audience that nature will avenge itself in the end? And if not, what is your ultimate message?
NB: We are not the crown of evolution. As mentioned before, the planet does not care if we exist or not and we are powerless in comparison to our environment. It may seem that we have the situation under control, but I think this is megalomaniacal given the complexity of our ecosystem. What’s more, numerous political and economic factors hamper our ability to interact with this system.
Nadine Baldow, Some Kind of Nature, 2016
AD: Artists have sought to make art that reckons with our evolving relationship with nature from as early as the 60s. What made you want to tackle this specific theme? What is your personal relationship with nature?
NB: My first contact with artists who deal with nature in their work was indeed with the artists of the 60s Land Art movement. The work of Richard Long, which he made by walking in landscapes, especially fascinated me. Since then, I have gone through a process in which nature for me at first – quite naively – represented a romanticised place of longing. I yearned to escape from the, as it seemed to me, destructive civilisation that surrounded me and take refuge in an untouched place. Being highly attracted to places that appear to have been unaffected by man for the last 10 years, I began conducting my own small expeditions, or rather, self-experiments, so to speak. Loaded with a backpack filled with all sorts of ridiculous survival gear and food, I set off deep into the mountains and forests until I lost myself in vast countryside settings.
Besides thoroughly enjoying being within some of these surroundings, to some extent I also had very unpleasant experiences that cured me of my former romantic ideas. Meanwhile, my interest began to shift towards places where nature could be seen to be slowly taking over. Places that humans have strongly influenced and now are no longer habitable for us – for example, Chernobyl – are a symbol for me that man was indeed part of this environment for a certain amount of time, but that he does not exist at the end of history. Humankind is constantly redistributing resources on this planet, thus shaping its appearance – this fact leads to speculations in my work-in-progress.
In summary, I see nature as a complex, highly detailed system that has the power to self-correct and adjust over and over again. Even supposedly cruel mistakes – such as diseases or epidemics – have their significance. We, as humans, differ from all other living beings in that we are able to intervene in this system. The question of whether we are still part of nature remains unsolved to me.