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Dancing on the ruins of the future

Annika Toots (1/2021)

Annika Toots focuses on the dystopian landscapes in the works of Mari-Leen Kiipli and Britta Benno.


"A landscape is always a timescape."
Jean-Luc Nancy1


It is the end of July 2020, the middle of a balmy and long-awaited summer, when nature is at its most vibrant and plentiful. Mari-Leen Kiipli's exhibition "Husa"2 at Haapsalu City Gallery is like an organic extension of this external abundance, indoors where you can find shelter from the summer heat. Concrete, glass, iron rails, running water, interspersed with runner beans intertwined with man-made materials: the gallery of this resort town provides a view of a future where there are no people left who would lay down asphalt or concrete, dig, cut, saw and mow, and nature will simply reclaim everything, one piece at a time. Which it will, whenever it has even the smallest opportunity.

Some time later, a concentrated version of this fragile, fragmented landscape can be found in Tartu at Kogo Gallery,3 this time in dialogue with Paul Kuimet's photo collage "Crystal Grid" (2020) depicting tropical plants from the botanic gardens of different cities. This dialogue moves beyond (or rather, backwards from) the future wasteland of Kiipli's Haapsalu exhibition, towards traumas caused by modernism, and even further: to the traumas of colonialism. As if in a footnote, Kiipli's dystopian future landscape is complemented by a divergence between man and nature that occurred with the development of science, and by the desire to subjugate and colonise nature,4 one of the symptoms of which are botanical gardens.



Mari-Leen Kiipli
Installation view in
Haapsalu City Gallery
Courtesy of the artist




Modernism, which gave birth to crystal palaces and the Industrial Revolution, thus creating an illusion of progress and a bright future, as well as of humankind as something above and outside of ecology, has resulted in not only an ecological crisis, but a crisis of time: the inability to imagine a better future.

Already in the muddy and dark autumn of 2020, when the warmth and light of summer seem like a hazy dream, and due to climate change I am more worried about seeing snow at all, I am stepping into a similar dystopian world of the future at Britta Benno's exhibition "Ruinenlust in Lasnamäe"5 at Hobusepea Gallery. In a post-human urban landscape, among the ruins of Lasnamäe, strange dinosaur-like creatures are now bustling about in the lush vegetation, with a baroque harpsichord piece playing in the background.

There has been no sign of people here for a long time.




The title of Britta Benno's exhibition, "Ruinenlust in Lasnamäe", refers to a fascination with ruins and the pleasure of wandering among time-worn architectural skeletons. Ruins, the meeting place of culture and nature, are at the core of Benno's and Kiipli's exhibitions, in both cases constituting a breeding ground for flora and fauna that grow independently of humankind: into a wilderness. While culture has historically been associated with masculinity and nature with femininity, Mari-Leen Kiipli's "Husa" reinforces a sense of wild and feminine victory with a pair of sensual women's boots, intertwined with metal rods and runner beans, juxtaposed at Kogo Gallery with the nature-taming crystal palace motif in Paul Kuimet's works.

The landscapes of Kiipli and Benno speak of the future, although the nostalgia associated with ruins has mostly been about longing for the inaccessible times and places of the past, already in several waves since the 18th century. At the end of the 20th century, its nightmarish events – wars, modernisation and the loss of faith in the future – resulted in a new wave of ruinenlust, characterised as a nostalgia for a time when humankind was still able to imagine a different, better future.6 The memory boom of the 1980s and 1990s, which obsessively dealt with the past, led to a feeling that in a sense, humankind was indeed standing still, being nostalgic, rummaging through the past, longing for lost times and places, dealing with past traumas and, "contemplating a past that is refusing to pass".7

Slowly but surely, this nostalgic fear of the future has been compounded by ecological anxiety and grief, also known as Anthropocene trauma. One of the causes of Anthropocene trauma8 is slow violence, caused worldwide by alienation from nature, colonialism, global capitalism and modernisation.9 Unlike many ecological disasters, slow violence is not directly perceptible or visible; it is characterised by a certain delay and a supra-generational aspect: it is violence with long-term consequences, first and foremost affecting poorer social groups and areas.

Slow violence caused by climate change, air pollution, radioactive pollution, ocean pollution and ocean acidification, deforestation, etc., has been characterised as long dyings. Since slow violence is unnoticeable and takes place over an enormous time scale, it is difficult to depict it in any way. That means that the unimaginable must be imagined.

Slow violence is strongly associated with the sense of time and its changing. If capitalism has shortened our sense of time,10 then the ecological crisis has increased people's awareness of time, and changed the perception of time and space, linking it to the concept of "deep time" and forcing us to see beyond just a century or two, and to perceive time before the Anthropocene, which is shaping our everyday lives. Our present is closely linked to the distant past as well as the distant future, and that is perhaps most clearly felt with regard to the energy crisis. Rob Nixon has referred to this interregnum between different energy regimes where we currently live in as borrowed time: borrowed from the past and borrowed from the future.11

However, in the uncertainty of this present borrowed time, the focus is no longer on romantic ruins of the past, but on images of a future in which humanity no longer exists.




Stef Craps has also referred to future dystopias related to climate change as anticipatory memory.12 This mainly refers to the way in which literature and cinema often relate to the present: by looking back on its impending extinction as a species. The present has become the object of future memories. On a smaller scale, this is also reflected in the way people experience events or moments by thinking about what they can post about it on Facebook or Instagram so that they can look back to it in the future; experiencing events in the anticipation of retelling them later. In the case of a climate catastrophe, however, in the end there will be nobody left who could carry out this remembrance and mourning: so, we are mourning already in advance.

The dystopian deserted wastelands of Mari-Leen Kiipli and Britta Benno can be considered to be representations of slow violence as well as anticipatory memory: timescapes where the past, the present and the future collide. Both "Husa" and "Ruinenlust" are cautious memories of a time and place shaped by climate crisis and invisible slow violence, which humankind has inflicted on itself and its surrounding environment. These are landscapes where there is new life and dancing on the ruins of culture; where everything man-made crumbles and decomposes, and other vital organic lifeforms have come to the foreground.

While dystopias have been associated with the incapability and impossibility of imagining a better future, and rather with accusations of not acting when the opportunity arose, then although there is no actual hope in the works of Benno and Kiipli, they acknowledge that life will go on even after the disappearance of humankind. And this gives a certain lightness to both of their works. Entering the exhibition hall, the viewers find themselves in a strange position: as bystanders, they can see life that continues after the disappearance of humankind. Our time has become a past that is a part of this landscape only as debris, absence, a trace and a footnote. In this absence, however, there is a kind of dark poeticism.

The question, then, is about perspective: does nature take over everything in the post-human landscape, or is balance perhaps restored, piece by piece, as there is nobody to pour asphalt or concrete, to dig, cut, saw and mow?


1 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005, p 61.

2 Mari-Leen Kiipli's "Husa" at Haapsalu City Gallery, 4. VII 2020–2. VIII 2020.

3 Mari-Leen Kiipli's "Husa" & Paul Kuimet's "Crystal Grid" at Kogo Gallery, 6. VIII 2020–5. IX 2020.

4 Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

5 Britta Benno "Ruinenlust in Lasnamäe" at Hobusepea Gallery, 25. XI 2020–14. XII 2020.

6 Andreas Huyssen, Nostalgia for Ruins. – Grey Room 2006, No 23, pp 6–21.

7 François Hartog, Time and Heritage. – Museum International 2005, No. 57 (3), p 16.

8 Richard Crownshaw, Cultural Memory Studies in the Epoch of the Anthropocene. – Memory Unbound: Tracing the Dynamics of Memory Studies. Eds. Lucy Bond, Stef Craps, Pieter Vermeulen. Oxford: Berghahn, 2017, pp 242–257.

9 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

10 John Berger, Twelve Theses on the Economy of the Dead. – Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance. New York: Pantheon, 2007, pp 4–5.

11 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, p 69.

12 Stef Craps, Climate Change and the Art of Anticipatory Memory. – Parallax 2017, No 23 (4), pp 479–492.

Annika Toots is an art historian, curator and doctoral student at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

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