Buhlebezwe Siwani • Yuken Teruya • Dr Renate Wiehager
„Friendship. Nature. Culture.” Taking this as its motto, the anniversary exhibition of the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection in Berlin shows works spanning a period of 100 years. What follows is a conversation between the show’s curator and two of its participating artists about engaging with nature, responsibility and the silence of the pandemic.
Dr Renate Wiehager
Director of the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection
What was the idea behind the exhibition’s title?
Against the backdrop of the climate crisis and the impact that human action plays therein, it is evident just how intertwined human solidarity, nature and culture are. The title was also inspired by the German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt, who defined friendship as a constant discourse based on the acceptance of difference and diversity. With that in mind, we wanted to give to the ideas of friendship, nature and culture a physical form within the exhibition. We also intended to initiate a conversation about these terms, while looking at them from various philosophical and aesthetic perspectives.
Such as the perspective Yuken Teruya gives us with his series of paper trees that he carves out of paper bags? (see image)
Yes. Yuken’s artworks remind me of little theatre scenes. These tiny trees absorb you immediately. They are so fragile. You feel afraid that just your breath may destroy what you see. It’s a very interesting experience, and also a physical one. Once you delve deeper, you will see that Yuken is sharing a lot of thoughts and research about our throw-away society.
Thank you, Renate. Referring to my experience of your Berlin exhibition, “Friendship. Nature. Culture,” I felt these different kinds of nature there. I experienced nature from the past, nature from memory. But, also, a new understanding of nature that is inspired by our digital world. Also, I felt a little alarmed about the condition of nature. I felt my responsibility.
Conversations between Companies and Trees
You mean your responsibility as an artist?
Yes. I want to share my vision of nature and evoke emotions. Showing a tree within a paper bag hints at the fragility of nature. That’s an emotional aspect. When people see the tree, they want to protect it. At the same time, the work is a conversation between a company and a tree. A bag can be seen as a part of a company and the tree represents nature. Nature should be protected. And in my view, the bag is also protecting nature and nurturing it. So, I’m glad to be part of the exhibition and I also like to be inspired by other artists. Buhlebezwe’s art, for example, deals with the relationship between nature and culture on a different level.
Yes, that’s right. Buhlebezwe Siwani’s work deals with the effects of colonialism in her home country, South Africa. Her art raises questions about past and present spaces and to whom these spaces belong. She’s also a very spiritual person. In the exhibition, we see her in a Dutch landscape inviting her ancient ancestors, called “Mnguni,” in a kind of spiritual gesture to settle with her in her new country. (see image)
Please tell us a little more about your artwork, Buhlebezwe.
“Mnguni” refers to a special group of ancestors, who have a human form. Part of my heritage is rooted in that. So, my belief is, whenever I move to another place, like, for example, my workplace in the Netherlands, I also need to introduce this part of my physical self to the new space.
Respect for the Spaces We Live in
Do you perceive different views of nature in the two countries?
Yes, definitely. Before I went to the Netherlands, I had never seen food for a whole nation being grown in a greenhouse. It was shocking to me. I was used to food grown in fields. Coming from that point of view, it’s been interesting to look at how we live and how we treat the planet. I always like to think about responsibility and respect for the spaces we live in. Because the spaces mean something. They mean something to us, and they meant something to our ancestors. Earth is not just earth. The soil means something, as does the air that you breathe. So, these things enter and enable an ecosystem where they feed each other. That’s interesting.
What is your personal view on nature?
I don’t know how to answer the question, because in my language, we do not have a single word for nature in the sense of it being a sphere separate from us humans. My understanding is that without it we are null and void. We are nothing if not part of it.
In your art, you often deal with responsibility. Looking at the dimensions and complexity of the current climate crisis, many people feel powerless. How do you see this? What can we do?
I can answer this very briefly: If we all took responsibility for what we could do, surely, we wouldn’t be in this position. It’s that simple. If we all respected the earth, the climate crisis would not be here. But we can reverse things, too. If you can make one percent of a difference, it will matter.
Yuken, what is your perspective?
I agree. Every single person counts. However, responsibility cannot be imposed. It’s rather a feeling that should arise in ourselves, from our own spirit and sensitivity. Education helps to confirm and realize what’s happening. But if you feel it, it’s more real and you can make action based on that. I think a lot about what Buhlebezwe told us about ancestors and the “Mnguni.” I saw her work in Berlin. It raised questions and emotions for me about her home country and about the Netherlands. But now, knowing about her ancestors, it gives me other layers of understanding. This is why I think that your responsibility has to be triggered at some point, to make you act with sensitivity. And this is what I think we can do also as artists.
A Responsibility to Move People with Art
You mean that you want to trigger people and make them feel what their responsibility is?
Text-based information of course helps to provide access to knowledge. But the visual aspects of an artwork cover much more. I’m also from a background that has strong connections with ancestors. So, to me, responsibility is connected to my background. It brings me another and a very strong reality.
I agree with Yuken. Everything is tied to each other. It’s a symbiotic relationship, where nothing stands on its own. And as Yuken said, it’s deeply tied to ancestry as well. We should have kept some of their practices. I feel that a lot of ancient cultures knew better how to respect the earth. As artists, we have the responsibility to show what is happening, to make a statement about it. If art doesn’t move people, why should it exist?
Do you think that we have lost our connection to nature?
No, there is still connection. We are sensitive, our awareness and subconscious are still part of nature. But there are also many noises and disturbances, so these feelings can get lost. Stimuli like those from the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection exhibition in Berlin make us think about these issues. Artists and curators can bring people together and help us move forward.
A Space for Conversation
What can art do which facts cannot?
Art can speak without words.
Yes. And it opens up the imagination.
Within the framework of an art collection, it’s a space for conversation, ideas and vision.
Are you confident that we as humanity will succeed in making the transition to a more sustainable future?
There is no choice. But how we will make it, there are many ways to act. I will be hopeful and try to create a vision of how this future can come to be.
People tend to only think and care within their own lifespan and not further on. However, I want to live in hope. Surely, the earth knows how to survive. She is able to adapt.
And we can learn to adapt as well. Thinking of the covid-19-pandemic, a lot of people, especially in the cities, appreciated that there were less noises and emissions. To me, it was like an unexpected discovery.
People need to learn how to be still. Actually, in South Africa during covid-19, there were animals coming out that I had never seen before. They were free to move around. We share this place. It doesn’t belong to us. We are in it together.
is active predominantly in the mediums of performance and installations. Siwani often uses videos and stills as stand-ins for her body which is physically absent from the space. The artist lives and works in Amsterdam and Cape Town.
works with various materials such as paper rolls, paper shopping bags and butterfly chrysalises. His ideas often reflect the life and history of his home country Japan’s Okinawa prefecture. He is an artist based in Berlin and New York City.
Dr Renate Wiehager
has been the director of the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection in Stuttgart and Berlin and of the Mercedes-Benz Contemporary exhibition space in Berlin since 2001. She was born in Bremen in 1959. She studied art history, theology, literature and philosophy. She has published over 250 publications on international contemporary art as well as about 300 papers on 20th-century and contemporary international art in professional journals, anthologies and catalogues.
Mercedes-Benz Art Collection
The Mercedes-Benz Art Collection provides an open space for discussion of contemporary issues and phenomena. It is designed for both employees of the company as well as members of the public interested in art. The Mercedes-Benz Art Collection is continuously being expanded and thus also reflects current developments in art.
More information on the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection can be found at mercedes-benz.art.