The Voice of Nature

In the abandoned greenhouse, nature has taken over: the glass that is supposed to separate inside from outside, the domesticated from the wild, utility plants from weeds, has been smashed. In the debris, ground elder and empty flowerpots share the space that was once an orderly arrangement of plants for human consumption.

Annika Thörn Legzdins’s photographs, especially in the series “La Serre”, question the distinction we humans make between wild and domesticated nature – showing that our image of wilderness is indeed a cultural construction. At the same time, however, what we regard as wild nature risks real extinction: the oceans are being depleted of fish, and rain forests are being devastated in order to become cultivable land for crops that end up feeding animals in the meat and dairy industries. The habitat of wild animals is shrinking at an alarming rate.

But the strength of Annika Thörn Legzdins’s photographs is that they manage to convey something else as well. They hint at the fact that even if we cannot approach nature without the mediation of concepts (like “wilderness” and “domestication”), nature escapes our attempt to define it. The photographs draw attention to the fact that we are dependent on nature to a higher degree than nature is dependent on us. If we define ourselves as the opposite of nature, and try to elevate our human culture to such levels as to never touch the ground, we ultimately risk losing everything.

When the German twentieth-century philosopher Theodor W. Adorno tries to think of natural beauty anew, he is well aware of the pitfalls of such a concept. He steers clear from a naive romanticism, which would claim an immediate access to nature itself. Adorno points out that the experience of natural beauty has become extremely difficult in our highly nature-dominating society. The tourist industry has turned so called immaculate nature into a commodity. This is why Adorno claims that natural beauty has to be conveyed through art. According to him, what is at stake in what he calls authentic art is in fact conveying the “more” of nature. Nature, as we know it, is not all that it could be, because in our attempt to dominate nature, we have distorted it. And at the same time, we have distorted ourselves. The history of human civilisation is characterised by an attempt to control nature both outside ourselves and inside ourselves. We have denied our dependence and participation in nature. According to Adorno, art is able to remember the destructiveness that thus far has accompanied human history. Art lends a voice to suffering nature, and through this expression of suffering, art also manages to hold on to the thought of a different approach to nature, an approach characterised by recognition and respect rather than denial and domination.

Annika Thörn Legzdins’s photographs remind us of the fragility of human existence in the face of the forces of nature. Removed from “immediate” nature, they are able to reflect on the problematic relationship between humans and nature. A strange kind of beauty of the photographs in the series “Circumstances” is apparent because they convey the feeling that this is what nature would look like even after the catastrophe. When we humans have managed to make our own existence on this planet impossible, life (at least in some form) would still go on without us. Adorno writes concerning the Scherzo of Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony that it “prophetically mocks the thin fragility of culture, as long as it [i.e. culture] nurtures catastrophes that could swiftly invite the forest to devour the devastated cities”.[1] Is this perhaps what Thörn Legzdins’s series “Memento te mortalem esse” wishes to warn us against? Not just the finiteness of the individual, but the possibility of the extinction of humanity as a species. In one of the photographs we glimpse the roof of a house, in another a city in the far distance, like a mirage. It is as if we suddenly had nature’s perspective on us. We are infinitely small. The process of decay will devour us all.

Camilla Flodin, PhD in Aesthetics, researcher at the Department of Philosophy, Uppsala University

[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), pp. 8–9.