Of the narcissus, the world machine and an unforbidden Tree of Knowledge in Stefan Waibel’s Ideal Nature Machine
‘And now they were preparing the funeral pyre, the quivering torches and the bier: but there was no body. They came instead upon a flower, with snowy petals surrounding a saffron-yellow heart.’1 Thus the Roman poet Ovid describes the physical end of a Greek youth, whose mortal remains have just been transformed into a flower, which is henceforth to bear his name: Narcissus poeticus, commonly called ‘white narcissus’. It all happened less lyrically, however, in the life of this Narcissus, who was so proud of his beauty that he humiliatingly rejected all his admirers, including the mountain nymph Echo. Goddesses heeded the laments of the rejected nymph and punished Narcissus by blasting him with an insatiable self-love, with which he henceforward beheld his forever unapproachable mirror image. Even the realisation that ‘I am he. I sense it and I am no longer deceived by my own image. I am burning with love for myself. […] My riches make me poor’ cannot save him. He therefore further laments: ‘O I wish I could leave my own body!’, which indeed then happens in the manner previously described, and whereby the vain youth finds his afterlife not only in Ovid’s famous Metamorphoses and as the white narcissus, but also in our own days in the increasingly common personality disorder of narcissism.² And in a further metamorphosis he again reappears in Stefan Waibel’s contemporary work Ideal Nature Machines, which for several years has been shooting up in various dimensions from the soil of diverse art institutions, galleries, museums and private collections between Vienna, Basel and Brussels; mainly temporarily and ‘indoors’, but sometimes also for an indefinite period and outdoors, most recently over the summer months of 2014 in the factory-like halls of the Dornbirn Kunstraum. Here, quite in the spirit of its name giver, Narcissus poeticus moves for the first time into the centre of attention, within, as Ariane Grabher writes, ‘a shimmering neon biotope in which the viewer can stroll beneath fairy-tale-like, oversized coloured flowers and grasses swaying gently in the wind’;³ an over six-metres high art-growth, towering over the other vegetal members of this meadow-like ensemble and roughly corresponding to the actual natural plant in proportion and form, though strikingly deviating from Ovid’s description in colour: the artist has made the central crown of his narcissus mutant not ‘saffron yellow’ but luminous green, and its sextet of stamens deep blue instead of ‘snowy’ white. Which may in turn be tantamount to an optimization of its nature or goddess-given appearance in the mythological tale: cool and sublime at once, the Narcissus poeticus now looks down on its red-hot and greenish-yellow fellow flowers of smaller stature.
Stefan Waibel’s Ideal Nature Machine is not only suited to ‘optimizing’ the aesthetic and narrative-functional effect of individual plants, but, depending on how its name is interpreted, is also, as a (nature) machine, a (potential) producer of an ideal, that is, an optimized natural nature, or even manufactures nature in general as an ‘ideal machine’. Remote from a poetic-psychological way of thinking à la Ovid, however, this arouses in us a certain scepticism: what nature is supposed to be ‘more ideal’ than natural nature? And how is an ‘ideal machine’ supposed to work in reality when we know that in it ‘all processes are reversible and no energy is lost through friction, turbulence and the like’4, whereas ‘actual natural processes are always reversible’? 5 As a matter of fact the wind machine that effects the swaying of the plants and the UV lamps that produce the shining of the wire objects treated with fluorescent epoxy paint need plenty of (electrical) energy, which is ‘lost’ in the previously mentioned sense by their serving to generate the effects of movement and gleaming.6 Our scepticism is therefore warranted, the title is a bluff and the artist is at most a trickster.7 And yet this conclusion is too hasty. An equally striking fact is that, in entering Waibel’s ‘shimmering neon biotope’, we open ourselves emotionally more to the illusionist side of the scenario than to the technical-mechanical backstage, though the latter is not even concealed from us. ‘The interesting thing for me in the installation is the responses of the viewer’ says Waibel after repeated observation of his public: ‘Often they tip over into it; the movements and forms have a soothing and familiar effect; there emerges a state of mind similar to that of someone looking at a meadow with tall grass swayed by the wind, at water or fire. There arises the sense of an idyll, although that is exactly not what it is’.8
No less interesting is the question that arises as to our perception of natural nature in relation to a concept of nature shaped by civilisation. What are we talking about when, for example, we talk about “untouched nature”? Have we ever been in it, can we still find it at all? A lover of mountains and nature, Waibel has described the entire Alpine region, valley stations, avalanche protection structures and summit crosses, not as a natural landscape but as an ‘overgrown recreational area’. We all know that elsewhere in the world, in the Sahara, the Himalayas and the Amazon, it is no different. So that talk of ‘untouched nature’ is talk about an unknown, about a fiction, perhaps about an object of our longing; yet were we actually in this nature and delivered over to its forces, wouldn’t we long instead to be in our warm room near a supermarket promising that it has ‘everything here, here, here’? Friedrich Nietzsche, who had taken up the cudgels for the subjective experience of nature and man’s interconnectedness with nature, already polemicized 130 years ago against those philosophers who pretended to live ‘in accordance with nature’: ‘You would live “in accordance with nature”? Oh, you noble stoics, what a fraudulence of words! Conceive of a being such as nature – profligate without measure, indifferent without measure, without intention or consideration, without mercy or justice, fertile and desolate and uncertain at once; conceive of its indifference itself as a power: how could you live in accordance with this indifference? Life – does not ‘life’ mean the desire to be different from this nature? Is life not evaluating, preferring, being unjust, being limited, desiring to be different?’9
The history of the drifting apart of (‘civilised’) man and nature, however, is at least as old as the story of Narcissus and his hubris. If we follow Walter Benjamin, we will already mark the end of the harmony between man and nature with the story of man’s expulsion from Paradise as the result of eating from the (forbidden) Tree of Knowledge, written around the 8th century BC, for ‘the Fall is the birth of the human word’,10 and so of man’s power of independent thought. From this point on, an order of things in which man lives but which he does not himself create no longer suffices him. But by ‘becoming himself a creator, he abandons the ground of his being. […] Eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge destroys not only the immediacy of man’s relation to God, but also his harmony with nature, which is now known and named only from outside. Nature has fallen silent. The lacking recognition of the nature of things brings with it a misguided intercourse with them, so that the original interplay becomes more and more confused. The order of things has become profoundly disturbed’.11
Let us now jump briefly from the Judeo (-Christian) Paradise to the Hellenic Grove of Akademos, which Plato acquired in 390 BC and which was to serve for over eight centuries as the seat of philosophy. It was in this garden that the ‘first cosmology of the occident’ intellectually restored the order of things, and at the same time ‘gave birth to a metaphor that has shaped thought up to the present: in the dialogue Timaeus, Plato describes the cosmos as an organism, as a great living creature’. Accordingly, only nature, which generates the diversity of living forms, is truly creative; technical designs, on the contrary, use natural processes as models and imitate them.12
We have now arrived in the vicinity of the technical and imitative-illusionist sides of Waibel’s nature-machine, but some time was still to pass before the idea of cosmos as a machine was to be added to the idea of the cosmos as an organism: ‘When in the fourteenth century Nicolas Oresme discussed the movement of the celestial bodies in his Treatise on the Heavens, the comparison to a clock serves him as an argument for the harmony of the universe. “For”, as Oresme says, “if someone was planning to construct a mechanical clock, would he not have all the wheels move as harmoniously as possible?” The implication that the universe is a clockwork is then drawn only a little later.13 In the seventeenth century, as a result of the mechanistic philosophy of René Descartes and Keplerian-Newtonian astronomy, the idea of the world as a machine at last attained the status of a scientific model. In the famous correspondence from 1715 between G. W. Leibniz and Newton’s student Samuel Clarke, the two thinkers speak of the world as a machine (sometimes in need of repair, sometimes perfect) as a matter of course.14 And in 1720 the German mathematician and philosopher Christian Wolff writes: ‘A machine is a composite work whose movements are founded in the manner of a composite. The world is like a composite thing whose changes are founded in the manner of a composite. And therefore the world is a machine’ 15.
Now at the latest, since the movement of the stars is controlled ‘mechanically’, the world works quite without divine intervention, no longer needs any angels ‘to propel the crystalline spheres of heaven, no earth spirits and demons to make the movements of the celestial bodies comprehensible’.16 So that poetry and all the other arts, which had so decisively contributed to the invention and symbolizing of all those angels and demons over the centuries, could be dismissed and sent into retirement. There were tendencies in modern times, however, in which the metaphors of the organism and the garden for cosmos/world and nature lived on and so, though they could dispense with angels and demons, conceded the language of art a role in the depiction of nature. ‘Subliminally, and at times along side the established natural sciences, they form a tradition that never wearies of correcting the one-sided mechanistic interpretation of the world. Bruno and Leibniz, Whitehead and von Weizsäcker develop a view of the world that assigns to the human mind its rightful place. They take into account not only the objectifiable side of nature and man, but also the subjective side of experience. Only from this interplay can a picture of the world as a whole again emerge, only then can new metaphors be formed.’17
Equipped with this re-legitimation of the ‘subjective side of experience’, we may at last open ourselves to the (environmentally incorrect) swaying of the (environmentally incorrect) glowing flowers in Waibel’s artistic statement about the clashing relationship between man and nature, and thereby leave the environmental incorrectness for the time being in its brackets. After a spell of contemplative beholding and strolling in this wondrous garden, the wind blows so loudly in our ears that we can sense how little an ‘ideal’ creation such a techno-nature ultimately is. That we could henceforth increasingly encounter this also outside the exhibition rooms would be a proof of the ultimate efficiency of the Ideal Nature Machine – as a knowledge-generating work of art.
1 Publius Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses, Book 3 (‘Narcissus and Echo’), 351‒510, line 510 here cited (with modifications) according to http://poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph3.htm#_Toc64106194.
2 See, eg., Peter Gray, ‘Why Is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?’ psychology today, January 16, 2014, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201401/why-is-narcissism-increasing-among-young-americans; and: Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic, Chicago: Free Press/Simon & Schuster, Inc., www.narcissismepidemic.com/
3 Ariane Grabher, ‘Hinein ins schillernde Wunderland’. VN, 26. June 2014, www.vorarlbergernachrichten.at/kultur/2014/06/25/hinein-ins-schillernde-wunderland.vn.
4 H. D. Baehr, Thermodynamik. Berlin: Springer, 1981, p. 142; www.physikdidaktik.uni-karlsruhe.de/altlast/33.pdf.
5 Cf. Hans J. Paus, Physik in Experimenten und Beispielen. München: Hanser, 2007.
6 In ‘real’ nature, the energy coming from outside or the entropy within a feedback system would be used by parts of the same system as input and could be ‘recycled’.
7 ‘Tricksters’ are figures in mythology who, by means of tricks, throw the order of the (divine) universe into confusion. http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trickster.
8 Stefan Waibel in an e-mail to the author from 4. 10. 2011. The first series of flowers and grasses consisting of iron wire treated with fluorescent paint were already created in 2007 under the title Fleur du coleur. See also Karlheinz Pichler, ‘Stefan Waibel im Kunstraum Pettneu’. kultur-online, 27. 8. 2007, http://kultur-online.net/?q=node/1254.
9 Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Vorspiel einer Philosophie der Zukunft. Leipzig: C. G. Naumann, 1886, Erstes Hauptstück, 9. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are by Jonathan Uhlaner.
10 Walter Benjamin, ‘Über die Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen’ (1916). Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. II. 1, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1991, pp. 140-157.
11 Regine Kather, ‘Gottesgarten, Weltenrad und Uhrwerk. Bilder vom Kosmos’. Hochschule für bildende Künste Saarbrücken (ed.), TightRope – the digital journal. Art, Science, Philosophy 4/ 1995, p. 7. www.forum-grenzfragen.de/downloads/kather_gottesgarten.pdf#page=1&zoom=auto,-43,534.
12 Cf. Regine Kather, ‘Die erste Kosmologie des Abendlandes. Platons Timaios’, Der Mensch – Kind der Natur oder des Geistes? Wege zu einer ganzheitlichen Sicht der Natur, Würzburg: Ergon, 1994, pp. 37–54.
13 Regine Kather 1995, op. cit. footnote 11, p. 13.
14 See Volkmar Schüller (ed.), Der Leibniz-Clarke Briefwechsel. Berlin: Akademie, 1991.
15 Christian Wolff, Anmerkungen über die Vernünfftige Gedanken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaupt, Frankfurt a. M.: Andräische Buchhandlung, 1724, p. 337.
16 Regine Kather 1995, op. cit. footnote 11.
17 ibid., p. 17.