What is our relationship to our environment and how does our longing for nature affect it? Christiane Gerda Schmidt’s practice investigates these questions within the context of our natural and built environments. In this exhibition Umwelt, there is a focus on works created between 2008 – 2015 that highlight the role that leisure plays in that relationship.
Umwelt, German for ‘environment/surroundings’, encapsulates the narrative thread that runs through Schmidt’s work: each piece is a careful and meticulous observation of the environment-human interaction. Even in works where no person is portrayed, careful examination of the image reveals evidence of human intervention. ‘Umwelt’ can also refer to the semiotic theory of how an organism relates to its environment; its perception of the world is constructed in its own mind, and is therefore a self-centred position. From this angle, it could be argued that this self-centredness blinds us to the position of the Other, Nature, and our longing for a connection with nature can therefore never be on equal terms; we will always shape it in our own image.
Germans love their forests, countryside and waterways, and personal enjoyment of the natural environment is a national pastime. Politically, too, Germany is highly attuned to die Umwelt. The Greens wield considerable power and helped introduce some of the toughest environmental protection laws in the world. Other Western democracies have begun to follow Germany’s lead. However, as Schmidt’s work shows, all is not as it seems and self-awareness is not as high as we would like to believe.
In our eagerness to experience the essence of nature, we build roads, chair lifts, viewing platforms, amenities, etc, to allow us to commune conveniently and efficiently. Where there is an emphasis on holidaying and active leisure, we build camping grounds, hotels and install snow machines. Even at the mountain summit (Gipfel, 2013), Nature is being stage-managed. The process of enhancing our experience of nature eventually destroys it. Within our city and architectural spaces, our attempts to "naturalise" our environment rely on the artifice of landscaping.
The belief in the sublime power of nature to lift the human spirit can be traced to the Romantic movement of the 19th century. Nature and God became synonymous; the divine was to be discovered through nature. With this came the development of tourism and sanatoriums in country and alpine areas, supported by large scale infrastructure projects that promised ease of access and comfort. The legacy of these ideas and developments is with us still, and growing.
Much of Schmidt's recent work is in pencil, or a combination of pencil and printmaking. It is an interesting choice of medium because it underscores the tenuous bond between us and nature: works on paper are more fragile than linen and pencil is easily smudged or erased unless handled with care. Her style is hyper-realistic, and on first glance, these drawings read like low contrast black and white photographs.
Schmidt pushes the boundaries of the printer's convention of working in limited editions when she mixes woodblock printing and pencil drawing in the same work (e.g. Schneise 1 [Clearcut 1], 2015 and Schneise 2 [Clearcut 2], 2015). According to convention, each print within a limited edition should be the same as the others, allowing for slight variations in plate tone. While Schmidt can faithfully reproduce the woodblock component of the work across the edition, the drawn component is created anew for each work. It is therefore impossible for these hybrid prints to meet the conventional requirements of "limited edition". Subtle differences in each pencil foreground are unavoidable and thus become a key feature of the work by reinstating uniqueness into what we see before us. And so it is when we allow Nature to regenerate herself, the new plant formations cannot be identical to that which was cleared.
Finally, Schmidt’s acrylic and oil paintings of urban scenes are peopled with actors whose features are indistinct; they have become props in a bigger narrative. While some interact with companions, there is a sense that the concrete, glass and steel structures have sapped them of their vital life source. The architecture acts to dwarf them or confine them in spaces populated with strangers. There is evidence of the ‘natural’ in potted plants and street plantings, but this isolated greenery escapes the notice of the works’ inhabitants. Our urban estrangement from the sublime power of Nature is complete, so we must travel repeatedly if we are to reconnect with it. This contemporary reality is exemplified in Abflughalle 2 [Departure Hall 2], 2008 where the alpine tourism banner in the top right-hand corner reads: noch 5 Schritte zu Ihrem Urlaub (just 5 steps to your holiday). Our longing sated, we exhale: Relaxation, recuperation, redemption.