Conversations on climate change and human interactions with the natural world are increasingly finding their way into the art world. An ongoing exhibition at Delhi’s Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Critical Zones—In Search Of A Common Ground, raises questions on coexistence, biodiversity and how the planet reacts to human actions.
A collection of works by international artists, designers, and scientists, the exhibition sets up an imaginary cartography, where the Earth is a network of critical zones. The term “critical zone” refers to the Earth’s outer layer or skin, which extends from the top of the vegetation canopy through soil to subsurface depths at which fresh groundwater freely circulates. This is the zone where most terrestrial life, including humans, exists.
The exhibition is a travelling adaptation of Critical Zones. Observatories For Earthly Politics, which was conceived and exhibited at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (2020–22) in Germany. Based on a concept by French philosopher Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, an Austrian artist, curator and new media theoretician, it was co-curated by performance artist and art theorist Mira Hirtz and Daria Mille, a curator and research associate at the ZKM | Center Art and Media Karlsruhe. The Delhi edition has been curated by Bettina Korintenberg, a cultural studies scholar whose work focuses on interrogating digital and global media ecology.
The exhibition creates a landscape that makes the public understand the characteristics of the so-called “new climatic regime”—a term coined in 2017 by Latour that describes the global situation affecting all living things.
“We picked some of the artworks from the original exhibition and then complimented these with works from Sri Lanka and India... The exhibition is a medium to describe where we, as human beings, live and how we live in relationship with the critical zone,” said Hirtz, during a recent walkthrough of the exhibition, which has been showcased so far in Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, and Colombo in Sri Lanka.
Presented in both indoor and outdoor settings, Critical Zones is a sensory and immersive experience, where you learn about everything from soil life and diatoms to simple concepts like the role of mangroves in protecting coastal areas. It features, among many names, works from the likes of Sonia Mehra Chawla, a Delhi-based multidisciplinary artist working at the intersection of art and science, Ravi Aggarwal, photographer and artist, environmental campaigner, writer and curator, and Rohini Devasher, who works in a variety of media, including video, prints, and site-specific drawings.
A part of the exhibition also features the pioneering work done by American evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis and British chemist James E. Lovelock, who together developed the Gaia hypothesis, which proposes that all organisms and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated in a complex system that is constantly interacting.
In addition to this, Chawla and Devasher’s respective works - on microbial organisms (The Universe in Details) and deep-sea algae (Glasshouse Deep) - show the extent to which human-induced environmental problems permeate.
Korintenberg, who is currently head of ifa Galleries at Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, Germany’s international cultural and educational relations body based in Stuttgart, says that most of the artists featured in the exhibition worked closely with scientists, which helped in creating an overall experiential journey. “The initial exhibition at ZKM was set up in a big space, an old ammunitions factory, which was about 4,000 sq. m. We have scaled down the exhibition here. But the core idea of the exhibition is still the same—a shared endeavour to understand what it means to live in the critical zone and not on the globe,” she explains.
The exhibition also has a specially curated activation programme – a series of events to set up a dialogue between curators, art mediators, civil society partners on issues of importance in and around Delhi.
The exhibition is on at the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan, Delhi till 9 March. It will travel to Bengaluru next.