Photoinstallation "Where traditional species die out mankind loses something of its history and culture"

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg.

Ursula Schulz-Dornburg deals with the appropriation of nature by humans. Since the eighties, she has been researching wheat and other cultivated wild plants. Her interest is directed towards the cultural adaptation of these plants. Being basic nutrition, their history has been linked to the cultural history of many peoples over thousands of years; they play a central role in social, cultural and religious life. Wheat, for instance, has been cultivated for more than 9000 years and has produced innumerable sorts during the continuous cultivation process. Through the development of biogenetics this development process has, however, been twisted around today. More and more efficient sorts are bred which take the place or native wheat sorts all over the world, especially in developing countries. These are stored in seed banks or, being a stepchild of science, they are just lost.

In Ursula Schulz-Dornburg's photo installation "Where traditional species die out mankind loses something of its history and culture", 63 photographs of grain heads of diverse sorts recall through their beauty and variety the loss of the diversity of species and cultures in our society: each head contains a history unknown to us. Photography here becomes a medium of conservation beyond the point of extinction. In its culture transcending entirety it is also a symbol for the universal character of this plant and recalls our responsibility to the world. The small, numbered aluminium boxes, each set with one grain head in an architectural way, are memorials, too. The sublimity of the single head emphasises the significance of each sort. These boxes, corresponding to the ones in which the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg, the world's oldest seed bank, keeps wheat seeds, together with the photographs the artist took of the institute itself, its rooms, galleries, boxes and catalogues, opens up a further level of the work. By referring to the collecting activities of the Russian biologist Vavilov, who since 1916 collected over 250,000 varieties of different cultivated sorts, but who also paved the way for gene technology as the founder of gene centres, Ursula SchuIz-Dornburg not only refers to the double-edged character of science, but also to its dependence on economy and politics. The Vavilov Institute, as a centre of genetic diversity, lives on an existential edge. Being understaffed, it can hardly meet the demands of conservation, while another department – the gene technology one – at the same institute receives generous subsidies. Against the background of the encouragement of biogenetic diversity as demanded at the Environmental Summit in Rio in 1992, Schulz-Dornburg's installation, as well as the one of Mark Dion, is an activistic appeal to politics and society. What is interesting is that Ursula Schulz-Dornburg simultaneously emphasises the example of a successful synthesis of nature and culture, for wheat, as a cultigen, is a symbol of the positive co-existence of man and non-human nature. While Mark Dion in "One Meter of Meadow" turns his attention to a nature beyond human perception in order to criticise a man-centred world view, Ursula Schulz-Dornburg draws our attention, via the cultigen, particularly to the human view on nature. The connection between the ecological and the cultural-historical level leads, through the clarity and conceptuality of the installation, to a reconsideration of a holistic co-operation of culture and nature.


Heike Strelow

exhibition catalogue: Natural Reality, Ludwig Forum for International Art, Aachen, 1999

© Ursula Schulz-Dornburg