The exhibition Light is Time Thinking About Itself is a solo show by Antje Liemann. It opened briefly at MUŻA in March 2021, but was closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. It has been rescheduled to open again in August 2021.
“la luz no absuelve ni condena,
no es justa ni es injusta,”
Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Endgame creates a scenario of doomed characters in a doomed world, the moment before extinction. Two characters cannot leave the bins to which they are confined, another is blind and confined to his wheelchair, and the play’s only mobile character eventually abandons his master to his fate. They are the sole survivors of an undefined apocalyptic event; as Hamm says, “Outside of here it’s death”. His servant Clov prophetically opens the play with the words “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.”
Living through the global events of the last twelve months, and witnessing reports of devastating environmental damage that has increasingly come to light, it is tempting to read Beckett’s work as prophetic, and to believe that we are drawing ever-nearer to a world that is – as Clov describes it - ‘corpsed’.
Ice is retreating, permafrost is melting. Water-levels are rising, and we are told that human-made materials now outweigh the Earth’s entire biomass. How can we attempt to process the enormity of this information, and of the disastrous self-inflicted situation we find ourselves in?
Perhaps the first step is post-anthropocentric thought – that is, imagining a world after humans, allowing us to acknowledge the imbalance of power that has come to exist between humankind and the natural world, which may allow us to recognise our colonisation and capitalisation of all of the Earth’s resources and rethink our relationship with the natural world.
Thankfully, the human spirit has the capacity for to imagine a world where the humanity has managed to destroy itself, and to imagine it as a positive place. Without human industry, nature – here seen as Zoe, or life - can thrive and reassert itself on the planet.
Our default vision of the end of the world is usually dystopia – a Bladerunner-like tangle of the wreckage of post-humanity, or a less dramatic but equally bleak Beckettian world. But the egocentricity in this vision assumes that without humankind, the Earth is somehow impotent and unable to regenerate. (It also assumes that in wiping itself out, the human race will take the natural world with it.) The restrictions which societies have placed upon themselves in the face of the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic have given us a glimpse of what might happen in the natural world if humans were not necessarily free to roam at will. For a moment in time, reports of birds finding mates more easily, wild animals approaching previously out-of-bounds areas, and domestic animals taking over villages abounded. Nature had seen an opportunity, and grasped it.
Antje Liemann, takes a glimpse of a post-human world and pushes it to extreme, imagining what will happen after the humankind’s dominion over the Earth. Will that be the end of the world? In Liemann’s imaginary, familiar landmarks have been taken over by gargantuan species – Fungus Rock has become an apiary of gigantic proportions, while the ancient site of Mnajdra is repossessed by giant orchids. Zoe has made herself at home. So no, is the answer, because, ultimately, the earth abideth forever. . . The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose. Without the destructive Anthropos, the sun also rises, the earth continues to turn on its axis and Zoe will again have space to thrive.
However, while it’s tempting to read these works as an acceptance of what is to come, Liemann’s work does not predict, or dictate – rather it proffers an idea – not what will happen, but what may come to be. It may be tempting also to apply a moral reasoning to humankind’s behaviour, but the Earth does not exact a judgement. Nor does it benevolently react, Gaia-like, to perpetually sustain life.
Liemann’s film documentary askes four pertinent questions around humankind’s relationship with the earth, and the – egoistically inconceivable - possibility that our existence on the planet may not be infinite. Thus, presenting a multiplicity of answers, she is asking us to think about the questions asked, and to grapple with the answers ourselves. She is not show-and-telling – she is setting us along the path to reason for ourselves.
While Liemann’s proposed scenario was spurred by a very recent phenomenon, she is working here, not in hours, weeks or years, but spanning millennia – light-years. We know that to look up into the night sky is to look far into the past. And that the light of the sun when it reaches us is tens of thousands of years old. Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim were built many millennia ago. And it may take many more millennia for humankind to reach its final demise – so long, that light and time become intertwined, the sun also rises, the world still turns, and light rebounds upon itself, and self-reflects; light becomes time thinking about light.
Liemann’s objets-trouvés are reminiscent of an abandoned world – they are the detritus of a bourgeois life left behind, from when mass-produced china figurines – courting couples, woodland creatures, even the powerful eagle - once adorned a 20th century sitting room. Now, though, they are left alone; but through Liemann’s intervention, they are reborn, reminiscent of ancient hybrid beings existing in a part-humanoid, part-natural state. Their switched heads inadvertently allude to megalithic headless statues found in Ħaġar Qim, with hollows indicating that their heads were purposely interchangeable, but also hint at something more sinister. Their endgame has provided them with freedom, and they now exist in their own menagerie with a double-banishment of sorts, from both the natural and the human world – a ceramic blade-runner; anthropos and zoe combined.
The dream-like state of the stasis of lockdown ad absurdum has caused all of us to lose a grip on our own versions of reality. Do these figures represent us, or do they live in our collective, yet isolated imagination? Perhaps they speak of the millennia over which humankind went from living in proximity to the natural world, to our current, industrial-digital state.
Humankind is mirrored by Endgame’s once-enthroned Hamm – the guilty-party, destined to be abandoned. “Yes, one day […] there won't be anyone left to have pity on you.” Humankind has been pitiless in its domination and colonisation over the world and virtually all its natural resources. Is it therefore inevitable that it self-destructs?
Whether humanity survives, is – in the grander scheme of things – immaterial. Nature is neutral about morality in general. Extreme weather events leading to loss of life, are not nature’s judgemental retribution, but ultimately have their roots in human activity. Similarly, light does not absolve or condemn; la luz no absuelve ni condena – no matter if artists in particular, have long seen light as closely linked to morality.
In her interview with Liemann, ornithologist and environmentalist Marie Claire Gatt says that ultimately, our future here on planet earth, is “very closely linked with the decisions that we take today, to keep the world inhabitable tomorrow”. What’s needed, she says, is “a strong paradigm shift in our values.” Extreme self-awareness and self-questioning can walk us towards post-anthropocentric thought, which, in turn, may allow us to acknowledge that the longevity of the human race is not guaranteed. Like light, we must travel impossible distances over millennia, to imagine many possible futures. Because ultimately, what happens to us will depend not on Gaia’s judgement of humanity, but on our actions on the Earth today.
 Paz, Octavio. La vista, el tacto, A Balthus. In Árbol Adentro. 1976 - 1987
 Beckett, Samuel, Endgame, 1957
 Laville, Sandra. Human-made materials now outweigh Earth's entire biomass – study. The Guardian 9 December 2020
 Ecclesiastes 1:5 “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” King James Version (KJV)
All photos: Elisa von Brockdorff