Review of ‘Heart of an Old Crocodile Exploding Over a Small Town’ @ Temporary Gallery by Denisa Tomkova

For KubaParis, Berlin-based art historian Denisa Tomkova wrote a review on the group exhibition „HEART OF AN OLD CROCODILE EXPLODING OVER A SMALL TOWN“ that took part at Temporary Gallery Cologne.

When Exhibition Invites to Radical Hospitality

Named after one of the exhibited works by artist Bram Demunter, Heart of an Old Crocodile Exploding Over a Small Town, Aneta Rostkowska’s exhibition at the Temporary Gallery (April – June 2019) was a strong curatorial statement which exhibited Rostkowska’s curatorial bravery, engagement with unconventional curatorial practices and awareness of current social and environment issues. It demonstrated itself in her curatorial experiment of a show that oscillated between solo and group exhibition.
Exhibition view ‘Heart of an Old Crocodile Exploding Over a Small Town’ at the Temporary Gallery in Cologne, Photo by Simon Vogel

The exhibition was on the one hand a solo show of Dutch artist Bram Demunter and on the other it was a group exhibition. Demunter’s paintings definitely dominated the exhibition space. However, the other works were presented as equally important for the exhibition’s concept. The exhibition somehow only made sense if all works were read as one coherent unit  in dialogue, a clear result of Rostkowska’s astute curating. Who were the other artists though? Rostkowska describes them as ‘members or collectives’ or ‘groups that are often marginalized in our society’. Her aim was ‘to present what happens when these marginalized views become placed at the centre of our attention.’ One of the exhibited artists was Bärbel Lange who works at the Kat 18 Kunsthaus in Cologne, a studio for artists with mental health issues. At the exhibition we could see her bright yellow paintings of the Sun in various forms exhibited around the three different rooms. The curatorial aim here was to include an artist whose work would otherwise be labelled as ‘outsider art’ in the exhibition without any distinction. Doing so, Rostkowska was consciously trying to dismantle the idea of prescribed high institutional art which excludes those or others in this show.
Bärbel Lange’s work at exhibition ‘Heart of an Old Crocodile Exploding Over a Small Town’ at the Temporary Gallery in Cologne, Photo by Simon Vogel

One separate room was dedicated to a video installation by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Their video documentary Sweetgrass (2009) uses methodology of ‘visual anthropology’ to document shepherds and their flocks in the American West where the nature, animals, humans all depend on each other. Two other videos presented at the exhibition were: the video The Mermaids, or Aiden in Wonderland (2018) by Karrabing Film Collective and a fragment from a documentary film Donna Harraway. Storytelling for Earthly Survival (2016) by Fabrizio Terraova. Karrabing Film Collective is a grassroots Indigenous Australian media group. As Rostkowska explains in her curatorial text: ‘They approach filmmaking as a mode of self-organization and a means of investigating contemporary social conditions of inequality.’ The film has a science fiction-esque character when depicting a distant future. When Europeans can no longer survive for long periods outdoors as a result of the catastrophic impact of capitalism, Indigenous people in Australia seem to be able to cope ok. Aiden, a young Indigenous man, is therefore taken away to be a part of a medical experiment with aim to ‘save the white race’. This film comments on the colonial dominance of the West, environmental crisis and toxicity towards Indigenous communities in a hyperbolic and futuristic way.
Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Sweetgrass (2009), at the Temporary Gallery in Cologne, Photo by Simon Vogel

The exhibition often repeated the theme of mutual dependence of humans and other species. This was also demonstrated in the work of the CMUK interspecies collective. Their work Weekly (2014-ongoing) is a collaborative project based on collaboration between humans and parrots. After a newspaper is passionately destroyed by a pair of parrots named Clara and Karl (†2018) (who the artists Ute Hörner and Mathias Antlfinger live with), the artists take photographs of the attacked newspaper pages. The curator consciously chose three particular photographs related to the concept of passing time and destruction. The other example was Diana Lelonek’s Zoe Therapy (2015-2016). The artist here employs the colonies of microbes (fungi and bacteria) to destroy a Flemish painting representing European civilization with all its sins, including European colonialism.
Diana Lelonek, Zoe Therapy (2015-2016), at the Temporary Gallery in Cologne, Photo by Simon Vogel

After I thought I had seen all of the works at the exhibition, Rostkowska pointed out a small glass vessel on the floor which was a work by Janek Simon and Laurent-David Garnier. Their perfume – which was supposed to give the exhibition the smell of upcoming apocalypse – was entitled Smell (2014). The smell was not very obvious in the room and was a bit lost in the small vessel in the corner. It may also be the case that the perfume had already evaporated, as  I saw the exhibition on the last day. However, once pointed out to me, the smell was disturbing and evoked some sort of catastrophic fire and disaster to come. The work had a strong physical impact on me and it was a lucid reminder of the environmental crisis we are facing today.

I appreciated the aim of the exhibition to engage the visitors’ different senses and making the exhibition space immersive and estranged. All the walls were painted green and the floors were covered in bright pink carpet, so visitors were losing the sense of known spatial awareness. The curator worked on the exhibition design with Mateusz Okoński. This bright design, despite being quite vertiginous at first, worked well with Demunter’s paintings. The colour scheme and the pre-modern medieval like treatment of perspective in his works becomes more visible and is enhanced by the colours of the space. The walls communicated with the colour pallet of his paintings and added to it. The paintings were composed of several layers that the viewer could only uncover after long patient observation. The paintings make references to our social interactions, relationships we have with other humans and with animals. The paintings have references to death, to caring for each other and even to nature and the current environmental crisis.Bram Demunter’s work at the Temporary Gallery in Cologne, Photo by Simon Vogel

My only concern with this exhibition was whether there were perhaps too many important concepts included in one show? Can we, as gallery viewers, care and engage with the issues of the marginalization of Indigenous people, the inclusion of those with mental health issues and our relationship with other species, all at the same time? Can we tackle on the traumatic collective memory of European colonialism, and care and act on the current environmental crisis? I wonder whether they would not stand out more if we gave them attention in their own right. But it seems like that was precisely the aim of the exhibition. To invite us to radical hospitality. A perceptive viewer could have been transformed by the exhibition to a different sensuous place that would encourage a mutual dialogue on current environmental and social issues. When reading from J.M. Coetzee’s short story ‘The Old Woman and the Cats’, Rostkowska explains that the plot evolves around the figure of the old woman who is a carer and focuses on the concept of radical hospitality. This hospitality means to welcome and care for everyone and everything without a choice and without any assessments. French philosopher Jacque Derrida believed that hospitality is always unconditional, and as such, is a very radical and ideal concept that cannot be turned into policy. Can we take from this exhibition precisely this? To open ourselves to the mutual dialogue with other humans, species and with nature around us? It seems to me that the exhibition was inviting us to focus our attention on care and hospitality as a whole, rather than making any judgments on the issues around us.

Aneta Rostkowska reading J.M. Coetzee’s short story ‘The Old Woman and the Cats’, Photo by Saddie Choua