Tom Heaven visited next artist in residence artist, Nicole Schuck, in her studio in Berlin and spoke to her about her forthcoming work for the Kranich Museum.
Tom Heaven: Your drawings have been described as visual stories, although they often look similar to precise, scientific illustrations. What role does story play in your art? How does it differ from traditional models of narrative in art?
Nicole Schuck: Good question. And to that I’d ask back… what is the traditional model of narrative in art?
Ok, when I think about traditional narrative models I maybe think about Hogarth or religious images, where there is a specific point in time and everything is very dramatic and so on. Perhaps there is a literary story that everyone knows.
No, my stories have more to do with spotlights on specific aspects of nature and man. I do two things. On the one hand I draw, but I also give story-based tours and do performances where I walk through a specific region with the public for three or more hours. I then create a combination of the documentary, what I have observed myself and the things that other people have told me about, and the fictional. For me these drawings are similar and for that reason, when I do performances or story-based tours, there is never the classical narrative form of a story. You don’t have a plot point and then at some later point the end, rather there are aspects: aspects of landscape and aspects of… I mean there is no landscape in that sense, rather its all a form of cultural landscape. We don’t have natural ancient forest anymore and for that reason animal habitats and human habitats are one.
What you see here is a work about Gravenhorst. I was there for a long time last year and went on investigatory walks with animal specialists. We were in the forest a lot. For me it was important to go on these walks. It has to do with walking through an area and getting a feeling and a smell for it, to ask the question ’What is that?’ And the forest there for example is really earthy, which is in great contrast to the Brandenburg forests round here (in Berlin). The forest here is so sandy and oh, there are nice theories that Berlin is always in a state of change, because it is built on sand. In Gravenhorst there are a lot of moors and for that reason this really black water and it smells of moor and is really dark. There are still Fire Salamanders. Fewer. They are threatened with extinction.
What I do, so to speak, is to show the landscape through the animal. So you can recognise a piece of the Teutoburger forest here. Rock, movements. Like topographical maps through animals, that’s what it’s about and then combined with human paths, which at the same time is again a piece of the skin. At what point you join and find your own story is then left up to you. It is an offer.
That’s what I mean by stories, also in relation to this animal (points to a large format drawing on the studio wall). This is a weasel. It is, in reality, only so big (measures a small distance between the two index fingers). It was a really small animal that I found. It was dead. You see that the animals in my drawings are never complete. Here is the head and on the other side the body. So that is actually in front (points to the chest of the weasel) and here is the head, over which runs the road map of the area. When I showed the work in Gravenhorst, someone said ’Oh, that look just like the Elter Dune’, which is a dune that is located in the region. The drawing really reminded him of the dune, where he spent a lot of his childhood. And so suddenly an animal hide becomes a grass meadow or a very dry meadow.
I started reflecting on landscape through animals when I went to Iceland. I hiked round the island with a tent and rucksack for two and a half months. When you are always outside, you naturally think a whole lot about these questions of longing in relation to the landscape. You continually meet these groups of people, who arrive with tents and after two or three days say ’It only rains here, I can’t stand it’. You have these projections beforehand, in which you think that life in the midst of nature is so fantastic and that’s where we all want to go back to. But hardly anybody can actually hold out in these conditions, because they are so demanding. But animals, they always fit in perfectly. It’s nothing new that I’m talking about, but still it makes you think differently about this being-in-the-landscape. Also especially because the glaciers in Iceland are melting so quickly, you see that quickly. But what then? If palms started sprouting up in the landscape, for example? Then a polar fox couldn’t exist there anymore. I mean, it is happening everywhere across the world, that animals no longer have a place in the landscape. What humans can do is to disappear into the distance, we can always take a step back and consider: ’Do I still fit in, do I want to go somewhere else, maybe for a while’. I bring out these questions. Animals see their own body as landscape.
Field research is a fundamental part of your working method. I’m thinking about your four and a half month stay in Iceland, but also many of your other projects. Why is field research important for your practice?
I’ve already spoken a bit about field research as a very important layer in my work. You won’t find that I suddenly start to make these layers obvious in my drawings, so that I show that on day X I saw that and that. Rather it feeds the drawing and provides the basis from which they develop. If I didn’t go on these investigatory walks in the areas, an important part would be missing. Then it would just be illustration, but that’s not what’s about. The walks with the scientists are very important. I really enjoy working alongside zoologists and biologists, also from BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) and NABU (Nature and Biodiversity Union) and talk to them a lot with them about the local fauna. Of course that is also very important in arriving at and reflecting on specific issues. For example when I was on Darß (part of a peninsula joined to Mecklenburg Vorpommern) in March, nearby there is a crane information centre in Groß Mohrdorf, they are one of the most important institutions for crane research and protection. The experts at the centre explained to me, for example, that overhead pylons are very dangerous for cranes. That is interesting, because it means that the pylons structure the space of the birds. In this way you think about other aspects, than when you just stand in the meadow and say ’beautiful bird’.
You have already made a number of works that deal with nature, landscape and human existence on this part of the Baltic Coast. Could you tell us about that. What impressions of this area have you had so far?
I found it beautiful in March, when the birds came back and there were relatively few people. For that reason I had the feeling that I came across the places where the birds are supposed to be more easily. That was also funny, because often there was nobody there, but also no cranes. No one can say with any certainty when the cranes are due to arrive. At some point there is a core period when you know that ’ok, depending on the weather and the wind direction and if both are right, they’ll pass by fairly quickly’. I found it great, that my movements also depended on these factors. ’What’s the weather like, how is the wind?’ And then I had to quickly move. Then I had to look for the animals. And that was a lot of fun, the way that I had to look through the landscape. Where do I have to go to find the animals? There is a place on Darß, called Urwald, Darßer Urwald. It is a fairly primeval forest. I went walking there, it was a very bleak day and suddenly I came across a pair of courting cranes. Of course no one tells you where they are, because they want to protect the birds, otherwise all the crane-tourists would head straight there. That was a beautiful, surprising moment.
My gaze changed quite a bit after this month. On my return I started to look up a lot into the sky. I noticed that my orientation was actually quite different, directed upwards and my hearing had become trained to the cries of the cranes. It had done something to me, to my senses. The cranes seek expanses where they have a wide view of their surroundings. To sleep, they head back to the water where nothing can happen to them. I found these observations fascinating.
What plans do you have for your time as artist in residence at Kranich Museum?
I began my research in the local area and tried to meet the people who specifically concern themselves with the crane. Then I visited the places where the cranes are found and took lots and lots of photographs. I’m now at the stage of elaboration and interpretation. I’m there again for a month again in September. Then the cranes are coming back, which interests me, because of the curve from when they land in March, disperse, have their young and fly away again in September. Then I’ll take a look at the material that I have and out of it my work for the Kranich Museum will come about.
On top of that, what really interests me, is of course the migration of the birds in itself, how long they fly for and where to. What’s also interesting in the system of transmitters. The young birds have a transmitter attached to them and you can follow their route, often to the south of Spain, quite well. There are people who really move with a bird. So they adopt a bird and travel with the bird. They’re often pensioners, who have a lot of free time and well… it’s great. It’s probably like a pet, that doesn’t belong to you. You can’t domesticate it and you can always observe it. Strange. Yep, it’s really something special everything that’s bound up with crane research. I’d never have guessed, that people would do that. Why do people do that… this longing for and projection onto a wild animal. In Groß Mohrdorf and other places there are viewing stations where people come during the peak point in the migration. It must be terrible in September. Thousands of people are there at these spots and it’s all about who can get the best pictures. They spend the whole time looking through a lens and no one actually looks directly at the bird. I once asked a man with a good knowledge of nature and the local environment ’What is so fascinating for you about these animals?’ and he said ’It’s not about the single animal, but the abundance’. That is also a philosophical question, isn’t it? The abundance? That takes a bit of thinking about, because for me the individual crane is already totally fascinating.
Translated from German by Tom Heaven.