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Staging Nature: the Art of Mathias Kessler

When you first encounter the art of Mathias Kessler, it may take a minute to get under the surface. He’s not your Banksy, or your Jeff Koons, or your Damien Hirst. It’s the kind of challenging work that feels like somewhere within, there’s an inside joke that not everyone was let in on. A photographer gone rogue, his works are rooted in photography with a conceptual twist, channeling the raw, primordial spirit of 1960s Land Art, with a subtle nod to German Romanticism, leading back to the artist’s Germanic roots.​

Island 03, Careyes, Mexico, 2003 The New York-based Austrian artist is set to open his next major solo show, Here and Now! at the Kunsthal Rotterdam in mid-September. Published in conjunction with the exhibition is a large catalog chronicling the last decade of the artist’s work. The new exhibition will include an assortment of new and old projects, building upon a recurring theme in his work that questions man’s position in nature’s cycles.

Mathias Kessler’s story begins in a quiet little ski town in the Austrian Alps, where he was raised with three generations of photographers documenting the powdered slopes and picturesque terrain. In an interview with David Ross, curator and chair of the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Kessler describes his childhood as feeling “like growing up on someone else’s holiday.” “I just saw big machines moving dirt all summer long,” Kessler says. “And big snow machines creating an artificial climate for more snow.” It is this creeping feeling that seeps through some of Kessler’s work, where he plays with the tensions between idyllic “untouched nature” and man-made, constructed environments.

Ilulissat W1 003, Greenland, 2007

The commodification of nature is a concern for Kessler, which he expresses through his Staging Nature series: sublime images of icebergs captured in Arctic Greenland. With a group of scientists, the artist embarked on an expedition (another important theme in Kessler’s work) to explore the Arctic Seas. In the still darkness of night, Kessler projects high-powered Hollywood cinematic lighting onto the larger-than-life iceberg formations, creating eerie, plastic images, so dramatically detailed — more detail than could ever been seen with the naked eye — that they look almost unreal. During this expedition, Kessler not only returned with images of the Arctic landscape, but he also recorded the physically and psychologically demanding experience of being on the rough seas, which he later reproduced in the form of a two-room installation entitled The Taste of Discovery (2009).

The Taste of Discovery, Kunstraum Dornbirn, 2009

One room, representing the cold outdoors, holds a mirror connected to a refrigeration component, causing the mirror to freeze over with ice. The second room, representing the warm, noisy belly of the boat, holds the refrigeration compressor, blowing heat in and out of the machine and causing an ebb and flow of ice on the mirror in the adjacent room. The artist even produced an “eau de parfum” of the same title, to capture his scent-memory of sweat and motor oil, complete with tongue-in-cheek advertisements made from found pornography.

The Taste of Discovery, eau de parfum by Mathias Kessler, 2009

The idea of commodified nature echoes through Kessler’s Sunset in Simulacrum series, where he points to the ironic absurdities created by the tourism industry by combining real and rendered images to create convincing, hyper-real artificial constructions of paradisiacal environments. Like Gauguin searching for his perfect, “untouched” paradise, modern-day advertising lures consumers towards an idyllic place that exists only within our collective imaginations. While they strive to create the ultimate consumer experience, most popular tourist destinations are so contrived that they fail to provide a genuine experience and leave little to be seen but other tourists. For resort-goers who travel to remote destinations and never leave their hotels, eco-tourists, adventure tourists, and the billionaires who pay for luxury accommodations at Burning Man, advertising has made the simulacrum a reality, in an era where pluralism dictates the legitimacy of experience.

Sunset in Simulacrum 01, 2014

Kessler sees this ironic absurdity both within artistic practice itself, and in man’s detached relationship with nature. While man seeks the beauty of “untouched” nature, he fails to preserve it accordingly. He documents this failure to connect with nature in his images of environmental destruction caused by mountaintop removal in Appalachia, and its devastating social impacts in his apocalyptic Picher, Oklahoma series. The aerial landscapes, shot by Kessler via helicopter, depicts the effects of surface mining, in which the mining industry levels entire mountaintops, layer by layer with explosives, leaving behind lifeless piles of dirt in lieu of lush forest. Kessler juxtaposes these images with contrasting ones like his beautiful sunsets, to highlight the inconsistencies in man’s relationship with nature.

During his time spent documenting mountaintop removal sites, Kessler became closely acquainted with the mining and activist communities in Matewan, West Virginia, a historic site of battles for social justice between coal miners and the oppressive mining industry. He found himself returning to this place again and again, obsessively documenting and recording the residents’ living history, and how surface mining has continually caused social, environmental, and economic devastation in the region. In the early 1900s, mining companies acquired the mineral rights from illiterate landowners, which has allowed them to relentlessly tear through the landscape to this day. Opposition and protest from the surrounding communities regarding pollution, environmental destruction, economic exploitation, and a deterioration of their way of life has proved to be no match for big industry. Kessler documents the Matewan struggle to save what little is left of their natural surroundings, in countless interviews, film footage, and photos of their rapidly disappearing landscape.

Impact CF034499, West Virginia, 2012

While Kessler questions the status quo, I wouldn’t call it activism. His role takes on the perspective of a contemplative observer: of our natural environment, of our past and current histories, of man’s role on this planet and the strange absurdities that occur when humanity reaches its limits. However, that is not to say his work hasn’t had a social impact. His message is critical but avoids the usual cynicism of apocalyptic warnings, and remains hopeful. He dares to rise to the (currently unpopular) challenge of producing meaningful and profound work, with an underlying purpose that is greater than itself, while remaining within the conversation of theory and practice. Does the art world have room (or the attention span, no less) for “meaningful” work in the current artistic climate? Only time will tell.

Burning Savanna, Guiana Highland, Yunek Village, Venezuela, 2009


exhibition: Mathias Kessler Here and Now,

Kunsthal Rotterdam,

12 September to 6 December 2015

publication: Mathias Kessler Nowhere to Be Found,

Hatje Cantz, 2015

text: Susie Lee

photos: Mathias Kessler