Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien, 2017

Natura Morta. Photographien von Oliver Mark in Korrespondenz zu Stillleben-Gemälden der Sammlung

About

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