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photo: Tomasz Koszewnik, workshops: Returning to Bialowieza

(…) having seen Life in the living or the Living in the lived, the novelist or painter returns breathless and with bloodshot eyes.

Deleuze / Guattari, What Is Philosophy?

When Grand Duke of Tuscany, Leopold II gave Queen Victoria a copy of the statue of David by Michelangelo, she immediately sent the gift to the museum in South Kensington, today’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The authorities of the institution prior to receiving sculpture ordered an appropriate plaster cast of a fig leaf, which then was used to obscure the genitals of David during royal visits. After years of seniority in the service of Victorian prudery close to a half-meter leaf disappeared from the statue, however, still remains in the permanent collection where can be seen. It rests on its own pedestal and reminds of the old shame, requiring to duplicate the gesture of biblical ancestors covering their nakedness during exile from the Garden of Eden.

Figleafva, Wikipedia cc

Nature reserve in the Bialowieza National Park also has its museum, its monuments and leaves hiding the embarrassing nature of this place. The museum recreates the forest and its inhabitants in their natural state. The life of plants, fungi and animals have been captured in the carefully made dioramas. Tourists share their impressions and are encouraging to visits with full of delight comments: The subsequent scenes depicting realistic flora and fauna of the forest emerge from the shadows. Animals seem as if they were stopped in the freeze-frame and as if for a moment they were to come back to life. This is a very interesting museum worth a visit.

The reserve is an autopoietic system, that is such that can produce, reproduce and maintain itself according to its own rules and its own forces. However, this is only possible within the limits set by the man. Park Museum doubles adjoining nature reserve, which is also a kind of museum. It keeps nature in archival state, which would not exist without solicitous protection. Gradually, with further interior renovations, rearrangements of exposition and restorations of exhibits, prepared animals are replaced with synthetic models. Insects killed with ether were replaced by rescaled styrofoam replicas. Fascinating complexity of life forms in the micro-scale is displaced by hyperbole of a model.

Insects’ corpses had been hidden in warehouses. Probably the same fate will meet taxidermic monuments of mammals, birds and all the rest. Artificial forest full of dead animals, like the fig leaf of David, hiding embarrassing detail – the discovery of nature is made, when it ceases to be natural.

photo: Tomasz Koszewnik, workshops: Returning to Bialowieza

Reserve is an area of research, the repository of the past, a living archive of natural history, but also a theme park, an extreme example of the English garden, a giant exhibition producing original atmosphere of savagery, it is also something more. At least in premise it is supposed to constitute an area where nature exists for itself and in which man can only watch, deriving informations and the affects. The park is open for people to be able to acquire knowledge, which involves a shame – just as while leaving the biblical paradise.

Due to the presence of dead stuffed animals visit to the museum of the forest evokes a strange and disturbing feeling. Separated dioramas are calibrating perception in a line with the traditional, bourgeois aesthetics. Viewer hidden in the shadows, separated from the admired object may calmly contemplate its advantages in the aura of a safe distance. Entering the forest, the observer keeps this way of looking: looking for convenient observation points allowing experiencing the delight over a picturesqueness of the natural landscape.

As far as going into the wilderness with every step the distance decreases. Experience is initially dominated by sight, but subsequent senses come to the fore. The body of the strolling viewer feels pleasant or shrill cold; smell, changing with the season and the weather, awakens his memories; multichannel stream of sound expands its range while observer stays mute. At the edge of the forest paths and beauty spots spinneys, thickets and wilderness are waiting. A panoramic overview, with a horizon closed in the frame of a wide shot is not available there. It’s replaced by a close-up. Reducing the distance, opening for the microstructures does not reduce alienation, but it gives a whole new possibilities.

By changing the perspective, the Park visitor passes from being-towards the landscape to being-within the landscape. The perception extended to all the senses allows for immersion, change the position from the observer to participant. Neutral overview turns to micrological look. It lets you feel the initial amazement with natural world, live the schizophrenic metaphor of your own organicity, to arouse in oneself the ecological compassion, followed by a growing shame. Entering the Bialowieza Forest is like returning to the crime scene.

photo: Tomasz Koszewnik, workshops: Returning to Bialowieza

photo: Tomasz Koszewnik, workshops: Returning to Bialowieza

We live in an age of anxiety, as Wystan Hugh Auden called it; global warming, air pollution, the growing layers of waste, extinction of species – the immediate future of the planet is marked by feelings of guilt and fear. The reserve proves that despite all nature is doing well, but only locally, within the reserve, and under the tutelage of special services and regulations. At the same time it hides and reveals the truth about the ecological catastrophe that takes the geological dimension. Fear, shame, guilt, alarm, warning and lament – in such a tone usually appears the concept of anthropocene, which in recent years has dominated the thinking about man perceived in a global environment.

Anthropocene, as suggested by Peter Sloterdijk, is a synthetic semantic virus that slipped out of the closed symposia of geologists to infect the crowd of amateurs armed with laptops. Extremely popular definition of a new era in Earth’s history, marked by human activity, according to the German philosopher describes not so much the state of affairs, as rather includes indictment and the guilty one. The complaint is clear: humanity is responsible for the use and management of the planet as a whole, and since the time its presence on Earth no longer take the form of unobtrusive intervention, life on planet is heading towards inevitable extinction. The guilt is evident. Since the potential of nuclear weapons reached the level allowing the destruction of the entire planet, guilty no longer can waive the full responsibility. The absolute proofs are the traces of human activity in each of the most remote and smallest particle of Arctic ice, the world’s ocean, atmosphere. A bigger problem than guilt and its evidence gives the accused – humanity. It is impossible to summon humanity before the court, nor to send summons, it does not have a postal address or e-mail, no phone number, you can only hope that it would voluntarily feel to a duty. Entering the Park, the representatives of the accused voluntarily appear before accusing face of the victim.

Each step in the Park is an act of anthropo-pressure, although it takes place in a setting suggesting the eternal power of nature. A sense of agency in the geological scale, suggested by the anthropocene, in the shade of ancient oaks gives way to a full of delight humility, that is easy to rationalize and transform into a line of defense. Global biomass of humanity is almost nothing compared to the vastness of particular ecosystems: taiga, Amazon, oceanic plankton. If everyone suddenly jumped into Lake Baikal, the level of the water would rise only a few centimeters. Nature is seen as something far bigger, more durable than humanity, which is a fragment thereof, a faint gleam during nearly four billion years of history of organic life.

Bialowieza National Park, Wikipedia cc

Bialowieza National Park offers a unique opportunity of direct experience of the monumental vitality of nature. The most spectacular form of its former glory is bison, whose image appears in the logo of the Park. Actually, this almost endemic animal should no longer exist. As the Park reports on its website, “The survival of the entire species we owe just to a few individuals and to a great deal of luck.” Although several restored herds of bison now lives in freedom, they lost their chance of a lifetime some 3,000 years ago, when mammals – from which the today’s cattle descends – were domesticated. Since then, along with expansion of human empires the cattle population is growing, ruthlessly displacing other species, causing that more and more land is devoted for fodder crops, in return providing leather, calories and protein powering the expansion of Rome, the Habsburgs, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

The majesty of a lonely bison herd goes off in the shadow of hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of greenhouse gases produced daily by half a billion cows worldwide. Now humanity with its biotechnology facilities does not look so inconspicuous anymore, it cannot be reduced to the wave on Lake Baikal. National Park, which one can walk both far and wide in one day, can cease to exist from day-to-day due to the legislator’s decision.

Anthropocene offers the prospect of inevitable and rather grim future, it is an apocalyptic concept drawing its strength and the reasons for its allegations from a vision, which it provides. Economy based on credit depends on the colonization of the future, the use of goods and profits which have yet to come. In the moment of the closing of globe, when there are no new territories to conquer, the only chance to pay off the debt incurred by economy subjected to continued pressure of developement is by creating new worlds through scientific discoveries and their technological applications. However, there is no way to cope with the challenge of infinite growth based on finite resources, let alone sharing them with defenseless nature. Life is not able to resist the pressures of free market societies by itself. Park is the best proof.

Currently nature does not exist in a pure state for itself, it is and it will forever be only a resource factor affecting production or sales asset, sold as an experience in a wide variety of the tourism industry. Exactly like the Bialowieza National Park attracts naturalists, artists and anyone who is more or less interested in nature. Here, in a very energetically intense surroundings of a primary forest meets the spontaneity, longing, desire, happiness and emphatic truth. The beauty inherent in nature, which nothing is able to describe, and any attempt of its conceptual or pictorial approach is in itself a form of objectification, can be fullest felt in the unconscious perception, intuitive and thoughtless, untroubled by any thought, which would have to lead to feeling of guilt and anxiety inevitably accompanying the situation between “late” and “too late”.


This text could be published courtesy to the Arsenal Gallery in Bialystok and the University of Arts in Poznan Foundation, as well as the curators and authors of the project Returning to Bialowieza: T.Koszewnik and J.Szewczyk.
This essay was originally published in Returning to Bialowieza in Polish and English, translated by Marcin Czerkasow , edited by T.Koszewnik and J. Szewczyk. The book will be available from March 2019.


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