Mother of Pearl — we meet on the floor
We meet on common ground – here, where the tangle of trees and plants unfurls its verdant tentacles enough to allow a glimpse of the St. Florian Monastery. There, where a medley of noises stemming from human and animal life meet and overlap: from one side, the sound of football players at the local club and vehicles on a street a little farther off; from the other the sound of birds and frogs, and always the sound of water – whether from the neighbouring hydroelectric power station, or from the pond that whispers beneath the wooden floor.
An irregular hexagonal platform marks our meeting place. It rests on wooden piles at the edge of one of the ponds located on the sprawling grounds of the St. Florian Monastary: a carp pond that forms part of the “flora pondtemporary” art space. Our floorspace is sheltered by a partially open, rudimentary architectural structure – a pavilion. The locally sourced timber from which it is constructed has been carbonised. This means that the surface of the wood has been heat-treated and thereby rendered more durable. In contrast to the black sheen of this carbonised coating and the multiple shades of green that are visible from the ground is the iridescent, variegated chroma of the circular window that is recessed into one of the walls. Above us, a rooftop garden carries further the same synthesis of nature and culture – a union that consistently weaves its way through the entirety of Mother Of Pearl – we meet on the floor.
A shell is a shell is this pavilion
The Mother Of Pearl pavilion was designed and built over a year-long period by the artists Liza Dieckwisch, Ae Ran Kim, Jungwoon Kim, and Klara Paterok. The structure itself is inspired by the stylistic idiom and the function of the Korean jeongja ( 亭†子†), a word that roughly translates to “pavilion”. The jeongia functions in Korean culture a place of encounter both public and intimate – one that is open to anyone, regardless of their social background or milieu. The jeongja offers a space in which discussions can be held, tea ceremonies take place, and people meet. Ideally, a visitor would remove their shoes before entering – this is another Korean tradition and is a simple way to foster a serene, respectful atmosphere that can further enhance the sense that the pavilion is to be seen and used as a communal space. As is often the case with pavilion-style architectural structures in the West, jeongjas are positioned within the landscape in such a way that they offer the visitor a pleasant view of the surrounding flora and fauna, while the structure itself beautifies the landscape. A jeongja allows those who visit it to sojourn in nature and behold the natural world; it immerses both itself and all those who spend time inside it in the natural environment.
Shells have long been an object of fascination in the art world: they were admired, collected, and exhibited in centuries past, primarily due to their diversity of colour and form. During the baroque era in particular, which spanned from the late 16th century through to the end of the 17th century, shells of all kinds could be found in collections known as Wunderkammer. It was here that aristocrats would store their valuable “curiosities”: the human was viewed as a microcosm of the natural, and human-made artefacts were showcased as equivalent to objects that had been collected from the natural world. The baroque St. Florian Monastery, too, houses a collection of hundreds of mollusc shells, which are displayed atop decorative pedestals and kept inside protective glass cases. The widespread interest in the shell casings or imprints left in limestone led to shells being sketched, photographed, and replicated extensively. During the rococo period, the unbridled enthusiasm for mimesis – the imitative representation of the natural world in art – reached its zenith in the form of the highly stylised rocailles, with seashell-shaped ornamentation becoming a characteristic feature of the architecture and external architectural decoration produced in the era that followed the baroque. What is also interesting in this context is that the replicas of the irregular shell shapes rendered in stucco – a mixture of plaster and lime – also evoke a material resemblance to the shells themselves.
This highly abridged art-historical excursus on the shell illustrates how its relationship to art praxis has evolved throughout the course of history. Meanwhile, however, Mother Of Pearl – we meet on the floor takes an entirely different approach to the relationship between architecture and shells. The pavilion takes shells for what they really are: molluscs that forge a complex relationship with their surroundings and within whose clutches is shielded a living organism. Shells are not viewed here through a detached lens as something passive, dead, or immobile, but rather as active organisms.
This conceptualisation is also the result of the artists’ having studied the site on which the pavilion is located – the ponds of the St. Florian Monastery – and having meticulously researched their history and function. The ponds were constructed during the baroque era for the purpose of breeding carp and also to be used as ice ponds. As such, they provided both a source of nourishment for those living in the monastery and a supply of ice for the local brewery.
Within the ecosystem of the pond, the carp also act as hosts for the swan mussel, whose larvae enter into a symbiotic relationship with the fish, which then enables them to grow. The swan mussel then goes on to live on the silty floor of the pond, where it slowly moves about, extracting its food by churning up the mud.
It is not only the mussel as a living organism that is of interest to artists, but also its finely wrought aesthetic qualities. The “mother of pearl” in the exhibition title refers specifically to a productive element: to that which can be produced between two walls. In the shell itself, this progeny takes the form of the pearl, or the iridescent nacre that lines its walls; within the walls of the eponymous pavilion, it manifests as discussions, communal meals, and artworks, among other things. The pavilion is permanently accessible to the public.
Intertwined: where human and non-human meet
In recent decades, the multifarious relational networks that pervade the world around us have once again become more apparent. With Mother Of Pearl – we meet on the floor, the shell is employed as an allegory via which we are able to step away from conceptions of the natural as the ideal, replacing them instead with ideas of humanity’s state of entanglement with all other living creatures, and its complex relationship with the world around it.
The dualism that was established during the Age of Enlightenment between mind and body or mind and matter can be deconstructed – also with the help of art – on both a material and a conceptual level: what does it mean to do away with the opposition between nature and culture, human and nature, urban and rural; to cease to pit these concepts against one another? Instead of constructing dualities, how can we as humans reconnect with an approach to the world that acknowledges the interconnectedness of culture and nature, and that enables humans to encounter plant and animal life anew? In the process of researching and building Mother Of Pearl – we meet on the floor, artists
Liza Dieckwisch, Ae Ran Kim, Jungwoon Kim, and Klara Paterok explored these questions by closely examining the ecological and cultural connections in and around the ponds of the St. Florian Monastery. What this translated to in real terms for the artists was researching the history of the area and speaking with the people who live there, looking closely at how extensive the biodiversity is around the exhibition site, soaking in the tastes and smells of the site, and ultimately standing kneedeep in the muddy depths of the pond while they erected the pavilion’s foundational pillars.
All those who, like the artists, have no desire to isolate themselves, but prefer instead to come together, have the opportunity to convene here on the common ground of Mother Of Pearl.
Art historian, Düsseldorf
Thanks to the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, Vienna
Special thanks to our crowd