Natura Morta. Photographien von Oliver Mark in Korrespondenz zu Stillleben-Gemälden der Sammlung
Natura Morta, Oliver Mark’s current project, is dedicated to the question of how human beings treat their environment and the natural world, focusing in particular on the animal kingdom as well as the aesthetics and beauty of death. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the still life genre, originally known as natura morta – ‘dead nature’ –, became established as stil leven in Holland and Stillleben in Germany. In this transition, the notion behind the genre shifted from the Latin and Italian meaning. However, if one takes life as existence or being, and still as inactive in the sense of dead, the term continued to express a very similar idea, even if not quite identical. For his present project, Oliver Mark has deliberated chosen the original Latin term as a way of highlighting the contrast between nature = life and lifeless = dead. What we discover in his photographs did once live and, in almost every case, was killed in the prime of life by human hand. Moreover, the natura morta term strongly shifts the focus to the animal and plant kingdoms, placing humanity in the background. Even if, of course, human beings are a part of nature, we are only one small part compared to nature’s vast diversity.
Oliver Mark’s still life photographs were taken in a German customs’ storage room in Bonn where the court exhibits are kept. In his photos, he orchestrates objects confiscated by the customs as classic art still lifes – from leopard skulls and carved ivory to products from crocodile, tortoise or turtle, parts of protected animals and plants, hunting trophies, snakeskin garments, musical instruments from valuable tropical woods, and souvenirs such as sea horses, coral, snails and sea shells.
Oliver Mark presents his works in historic painting frames. In the Paintings Gallery, this generates parallels between the genres of painting and photography, but also between photographic and painted still lifes. Together with Oliver Mark’s photography, the Paintings Gallery is showing nine works from its own collection by artists such as Willem van Aelst, Philips Angel van Middelburg, Abraham van Beyeren, Jan van der Heyden, Maximilian Pfeiler, Abraham Susenir, Jan Weenix, and the successors of Peter Paul Rubens, creating new perspectives on masterpieces of seventeenth-century Dutch art.
In this way, visitors can explore a wide range of associative ideas. Ideally, these produce new and different views of seemingly ‘well-known’ paintings in the collection, or encourage the aesthetic enjoyment of the photographs and lead to reflections on how humanity treats the natural world.
In the Natural History Museum, where a further three groups of Oliver Mark’s photographic works are shown juxtaposed with animal specimens, the focus is on the protection of endangered species. The trade in animal and plant species is regulated under international law, banning many souvenirs from being imported into the signatory countries. The authorities enforce this law under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which protects over 35,000 threatened animals and plants and was ratified by Austria in 1982.
Oliver Mark’s impressive photographs offer space for ideas and associations across a broad spectrum of topics: How do people treat their environment? What so fascinates us about the still life genre? And what distinguishes painting from photography?Julia M. Nauhaus, Director of the Picture Gallery Academy of Fine Arts Vienna