Ane Graff, The Goblets (Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, Inflammation-Associated Anorexia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic Fatigue/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, Dementia, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) , 2022, courtesy the artist. Exhibition overview Ane Graff, The Wound in Its Entanglements , 2022, Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam, NL. Photographer: Kristien Daem
Relationality – Ane Graff’s The Wound in Its Entanglements at Kunstinstituut Melly – Art and ecology #1
Ecology and art are rapidly growing closer and closer: more and more art spaces, university and academy programmes, and curatorial statements dedicate themselves to the intersections between the natural environment and creative expression. In a new online series, Joris van den Einden researches how this phenomenon manifests itself within the Dutch art world. In this first episode, he visits Kunstinstituut Melly to see The Wound in Its Entanglements, the first exhibition of Norwegian artist Ane Graff in the Netherlands, and reflects on the concept of relationality.
Ecology is, in its very essence, a relational concept in an almost etymological sense: the term is generally defined as the contemplation of all interaction, communication, and entanglements between organisms, phenomena and their physical environment. As such, with their shared reflective, observational, and responsive nature, as well as the wide parameters of their definitions, the linking of ecology and art appears inherent and solid. In thinking and talking of ecology (versus similar alternative terms such as ‘climate’), artists and curators construct a framework from which they can reflect on the many ways in which various agents and actors, ‘natural’ or not, face one another and interact. In The Wound in Its Entanglements, Ane Graff investigates the relations between human public health, our natural environment, and its destruction through pollution.
The main space of Graff’s exhibition at Kunstinstituut Melly presents the artist’s Goblets. Spread around the room are seven cocktail glasses, standing on pastel-coloured, translucent tables made from epoxy resin. Each glass contains an intricate set of substances that, when combined, sometimes appear coral-like, other times mouldy. Apart from two of the Goblets, most of the glasses are encased by a glass dome attached to the tabletop. While looking through these domes, the curved glass slightly distorts my vision, drawing me closer so that I can properly see into the colourful amalgamations of the chalices.
[blockquote]Goblets presents Graff’s investigation into the environmental risk factors that affect our physical and mental health
Goblets presents Graff’s investigation into the environmental risk factors that affect our physical and mental health. Each glass contains several materials, substances and objects that are linked to a specific mental health condition – e.g., the goblet of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) includes dust gathered in tunnels and on roads in Graff’s home country, instant coffee powder and Ritalin, a medication tablet used to treat ADHD, among other substances. As such, the goblets contain mixtures of highly commercialised and branded products with man-made (or anthropogenic) materials of environmental pollution like pesticides. While seemingly static and almost tranquil, the amalgamations of Goblets are still slowly developing and changing as their ingredients keep reacting to one another.
It appears that Graff does not aim to explain what is on view, but rather provides the viewer with information to make sense of their own observations in the space. The make-up of each mixture is listed on the information placards on the walls of the room, which include a detailed description of all the harmful elements present in the chalices. Furthermore, the artist wrote a text for each of the glasses; at times, these texts appear deliberately convoluted and disorienting, but still reinforce the agency of the viewer to form their own understanding of the total work.
While seemingly static and almost tranquil, the amalgamations of Goblets are still slowly developing and changing as their ingredients keep reacting to one another
This is what strikes me most about Graff’s work: approaching the human body as a relational rather than individualised, independent entity, she considers meaning to always be formed in the in-between – between humans and their environment, between ourselves and the beings, objects and phenomena that surround us. This relational way of making sense of the world is then extended into the art space; as I walk around the room, I find myself drifting between the goblets, the information on the wall and the booklet of Graff’s texts. I find knowledge in the acknowledgement of the connections between the various elements around me, rather than in the objects in and of themselves.
In the adjacent room, Graff’s relationality takes its shape through the concept of fluidity. A large glass encasing stands in the middle of a slightly smaller space and is shaped in such a way that its open door appears as if it is in a liquid state. The work, accurately titled Patches of Standing Water, almost looks like some sort of closet, but instead of clothes, a smooth, blue glass cylinder hangs in the sculpture’s centre amidst a vein-like structure. In a move against scientific categorisation and distinction between materials, Graff experiments to investigate the significance of water to human life – each droplet carrying with it a specific history and related set of meanings. While I experience the various elements of the sculpture more as fragmented than as a fluid continuum, I do recognise the artist’s relational mode of sensing and the radical stasis or “staticness” that is also present in Goblets.
Patches of Standing Water almost looks like some sort of closet, but instead of clothes, a smooth, blue glass cylinder hangs in the sculpture’s centre amidst a vein-like structure
The third and final space of the exhibition is home to The Brain-Cardiovascular Axis (The Heart Brain Pain), Graff’s only work that uses artificial light. The red LED lights curve over an open ceramic-like suitcase filled with small, aggressive glass structures with irrefutably sharp edges. In this sculpture, Graff considers how our bodies store our experiences of pain; as such, the attention to the impact of the past on the contemporary rounds off the artist’s triptych of relational thinking. I feel that the tense atmosphere created by the combination of colour, texture and material stands in stark contrast with the Goblets’ polished aesthetic qualities. No longer do I comfortably lean into the work to investigate it further – instead, I take caution and prefer to observe from afar. Graff’s representation of pain thus becomes visceral in the tension it creates in this exhibition.
While the artist’s focus on relationality is a welcome connecting motif that naturally ties much of the exhibition together, I do feel it may be the catalyst to its main obstacle, too: for example, reading the placards of Goblets, it becomes clear that the resin tables are casts of real tables from the British colonial period. While Graff thus rightfully works to place contemporary ecological detriment and issues of public (mental) health within the context of the colonial endeavours of the 17th and 18th century, the relatively small scale of the space and the wide scope of the exhibition appear slightly out of balance at times.
The exhibition reveals how it remains a tricky task to work with a theme as intricate as ecology. Moreover, its complex investigation of the relations between these historical processes and natural phenomena represents the difficulty of wielding terms and concepts like entanglement and relationality. While the broadly encompassing understanding of their definitions certainly creates opportunity for productive, intersectional reflection, it simultaneously poses challenges to specificity and purpose through the almost-homonymic diversity of potential meanings of the terms; one word, many uses. With the term ‘relationality’, for example, we might refer to that fluid, fluctuating and interconnected nature of meaning, but could certainly also be talking about something entirely different – such as notions of responsibility and accountability in destructive or painful processes.
The exhibition reveals how it remains a tricky task to work with a theme as intricate as ecology
Graff, extending beyond conventional conceptions of nature, shows how we can consistently recognise a plethora of ecologies, always (partially) overlapping and intertwining with other ecologies. While we, as humans, may be central to some, and less so to others, Graff points out that it is vital to keep in mind that humans are never the only actors or agents in any type of ecology. We must ask ourselves: What do our actions actually set in motion? Especially thinking of the by-products and side-effects of our presence within such systems of interaction, what are we responsible for? But also: What can and can’t we control? How does our environment double-back and affect us? As Graff’s work reveals, it is through the theoretical or conceptual untangling of an ecology’s entanglements that we can make sense of the types of relationships that we are engaged in ourselves.
As such, the artist (and/or curator) certainly renders the total experience of The Wound in Its Entanglements as an intensive, explorative, and investigative experience. In thinking about our environment, Graff works through the human body to investigate an impressively broad range of themes and phenomena. By the time I walk away from the last room, I am already thinking back to the glasses of the first space, and while I complete my exit, I can’t help but contemplate whether I should turn around and do it all again.
Ane Graff: The Wound in Its Entanglements is on view until August 21st, at Melly.
Joris van den Eindenis fotograaf, filmmaker en onderzoeker