Reset Modernity!

ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany

In 1995, the French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour drew attention to the rift between the aspirations of modern humankind and our abilities to meet them in the book We Have Never Been Modern. According to Latour, it’s this gap that prevents humankind from realizing the modern project. In the exhibition, ‘Reset Modernity!’ – the closing project of the festival GLOBAL in which ZKM took on the effects of globalization – Latour and his fellow co-curators Martin Guinard-Terrin, Donato Ricci and Christophe Leclercq take this thesis further: modern man is entirely at an end, because he refuses to look into the abyss of this chasm. ‘Reset Modernity!’ intends to bring the system back to its initial condition.

‘Modernity gave us the facility to distinguish the past and the future, north and south, progress and regress, as well as radical and conservative’, is written right on the first page of the field guide Latour wrote as an aid to the exhibition. ‘But in a time of profound environmental change, this compass is spinning wildly’. No more orientation – but what do you do then? One starts, for example, to think about whether it really made much sense to break with all the old traditions in hope of freedom. At least that’s what Pauline Julier’s film, after (2012), which opens the exhibition, suggests. The meaning of traditition is discussed over an image of a burning house. Then the exhibition expands into six sections called ‘procedures’. For example, in ‘Procedure A – Relocating the Global’, Charles and Ray Eames’s 1977 film Power of Ten is shown. Satellite images slowly zooming in on the earth can be seen – back then, this was sensational, but now it’s something any Google Earth user relies on. Despite this, it’s an illusion to believe that man can -appreciate the world globally. This section asserts that mankind always operates locally, since knowledge, as Donna J. Haraway has expressed, is always ‘situated.’


Armin Linke, Operating theatre, remotely controlled surgery, Modena, Italy 2006. Foto: Courtesy © Armin Linke. 

Armin Linke, Operating theatre, remotely controlled surgery, Modena, Italy 2006. Foto: Courtesy © Armin Linke

Der Zeichner des liegenden Weibes (1525) by Albrecht Dürer can be seen within ‘Procedure B – Outside or Inside the World’, which deals with the subject-object relation. Dürer believed he could observe his object from the outside, a belief that led to the development of one-point perspective. In contrast, today the subject is thrust right into the middle of whatever it’s analysing at the moment. Jeff Wall’s photograph, Fieldwork (2003) supposedly verifies this, functioning as an antithesis to Dürer. It depicts an archeologist, Anthony Graesch, together with a member of the Stó:lo tribe, excavating one of their abandoned settlements.

One of the central sections of the exhibition, for Latour, is ‘Procedure C – Sharing Responsibility: Departure from the Sublime’. For hundreds of years, humans fell to their knees before nature’s wonders, speaking of the sublime and making giant paintings in which humans were subordinate to nature. According to Latour’s argumentation, this is no longer the case, and the relation is now reversed: it’s nature that gets forced to its knees when confronting man’s acts of -violence – and man must finally take responsibility for this. Simon Starling’s One Ton II (2005) says as much: the exact amount of metal salts that can be extracted from a ton of raw ore was used to produce this five-part photo series, which depicts the devastation caused by Anglo American Platinum Corporation mines in South Africa.


Pierre Huyghe, Nymphéas Transplant (14-18), 2014.  © Foto: Ola Rindal. Courtesy of the artist, Esther Schipper, Berlin, Hauser and Wirth, London, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. 

Pierre Huyghe, Nymphéas Transplant (14-18), 2014.  © Foto: Ola Rindal. Courtesy of the artist, Esther Schipper, Berlin, Hauser and Wirth, London, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

‘Procedure D – From Countries to -Disputed Territories’ addresses the recent battles for allocation in an era of scarce resources, while the section on religion, -‘Procedure E – Finally Worldly!’ concerns the paradox of modern humankind having shaken off the shackles of religion, while continuing to find itself in a religious war. And finally, in ‘Procedure F – Innovation not Hype’, technology takes centre stage. According to the thesis here, modern man has lost all contact to this technology. He no longer knows how it’s manufactured and no longer knows how it works. In order to restore contact, Thomas Thwaites built a toaster out of the materials available to him by hand for The Toaster -Project (2011). This project is among the quirkier contributions to the exhibition, along with Sophie Ristelhueber’s photos (Untitled, 2011/15), which show the underground piping of a fountain in Versailles. -Nevertheless, whether it’s idiosyncratic or highbrow art or scientific models, you come out of this exhibition – which is intellectually demanding yet still accessibly constructed – almost a bit dazed in rumination. High time to press ‘reset’.

Translated by Michael Ladner

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.

Issue 24

First published in Issue 24

Summer 2016

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