Fotograf Magazine

Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen

Artistic Work as the Unearthing of the World’s Unconscious

“Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen work across objects, installation, and film that explore process of production as cultural, personal, and political practices.” The fact that in the brief profile in the heading of their website Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, an artistic duo with Israeli and Belgian roots respectively, speak about “production” and “practices” and not artistic work is certainly not without significance. Although, since the start of the decade, they have been directing their work chiefly at the art world, their education in the field of design is not without relevance for their artistic approach, and their early artwork is close to the speculative areas of this field.

We find several projects dating back to the first days of the collaboration between Cohen and Van Balen at the centre of which the objects of interest are animals that have been more-or-less domesticated – pigeons, dogs, fish, and rabbits. Here, the “production” represented the dystopic level of the relationship between humans and animals. In the project Life Support (2008), Revital Cohen radically and thoroughly thought through the pragmatic aspect of this relationship, when she proposed instruments that would sustain the functions of the human body (a respirator or a dialysis machine), which were based on using the metabolism of animal bodies. In the project Pigeon D’Or (2010), Tuur Van Balen presented his objective of “cultivating” pigeons with the help of a specific type of bacteria whereby they would secrete soap instead of the much disliked excrement. The personal, culturally conditioned relationship we have towards selected animal species successfully conceals the dominant dimension of the relationship between humans and animals, which is fundamentally asymmetrical – placing the “weaker partner” in the position of a living raw or other tangible material, or a finished product. The suppressed contradictoriness of what is often a personal, sometimes to the point of intimate, relationship, and the “extractivist” approach of society as a whole moves to the forefront in both of the previously mentioned projects and opens up the topic for reflection.

The culmination of this line of thought in the early phase of Cohen and Van Balen’s artwork is to be found in the projects Kyngio Kingdom (2013), Sensei Ichi-Gó (2014), and Sterile (2014), which thematise the animal- product phenomenon. Kyngio Kingdom may be viewed as an introduction – it portrays the current form of goldfish breeding in Japan and reveals its historical dimension as associated with the Japanese emphasis on the cultural alteration of nature. In the other two projects motioned above, Cohen and Van Balen extended well beyond the limitations of “speculative design” to tackle technical, ethical, and political aspects of the transformation of a living organism. The end result of Sterile, which was completed in collaboration with Professor Yamaha Etsuro, consisted of a “limited edition” of forty-five goldfish without reproductive organs. The radical conclusion to contemplating living organisms as products may be found in the last- mentioned project – Sensei Ichi-Gó – a model for an instrument that allegedly enables the automatised production of sexless goldfish.

Cohen and Van Balen have gradually shifted from their interest in the culturally conditioned dominance of humans over living nature to non-living nature – specifically rare metals and minerals and how they are mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This Central African country, with an unsettled colonial past and a no less dramatic post-colonial present, entered into the context of their work with the first experiments with a process for the reverse mining of rare metals from discarded electronics. During their projects H/AlCuTaAu (2014) and B/NdAlTaAu (2015), they were not yet working directly in Congo – where the artisanal mining of minerals is still underway despite various efforts to restrict it. In the frst of these projects, they retrieved aluminium, copper, tantalum, and gold from electronic devices that had been abandoned in a bankrupt factory. One year later, working with hard drives acquired from a London-based company specialising in the eradication of data from hard disks they obtained neodymium, aluminium, tantalum, and gold from discarded hardware. They presented both projects in a similar way – they had the metals they obtained cast into the shape of special artifcial nuggets of strangely pure composite ore, which they displayed next to the discarded machines that had served as the “notional” mine.

The two above-mentioned projects marked the start of an extensive series, which makes up the core of their work over the past several years. The project Retour (2015) is a loose continuation of B/NdAlTaAu, within the context of which the flakes of gold mined from the motherboards of discarded electronics travelled back to Congo, where they were scattered over the soil in a gold mine. The photographs showing the glittering bits of gold set against the background of the soil contain something magical and dreamlike – they definitely do not directly reflect any sort of conflict or problem. The treatment of the image as a lyrical condensate, behind which tangled paths of materials, goods, money, and bodies are concealed, is one of the essential artistic strategies in the most recent work of Cohen and Van Balen.

In 2016, Cohen and Van Balen had the opportunity to participate in the Container Artist Residency (onboard the deck of a transoceanic cargo ship). The output from this residency project – a two-channel video entitled Dissolution (I Know Nothing, 2016) – combines footage from Chinese factories and views of the ocean surface passing by combined with views of Congolese mines and shots from the family archive of Tuur Van Balen, whose grandfather was a doctor in the former Belgian colony. The dreamlike nature of the image flow allows us to view Dissolution in a such a way that it looks as if the unconsciousness of today’s world, hidden as it is behind the infrastructures and trajectories of global capitalism, is speaking out to us.

In the text entitled Mine, published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Rare Earth (2015), Van Balen reveals fragments of his family history, through which even his personal identity and experience are woven into the complex and dark fabric of colonial relationships. A dreamlike (nightmare) scene appears in the text, including a stuffed sculptural group portraying a pack of leopards who have just chased down an antelope. In 2016, the prototype for this image – a museum artefact in the Royal Museum for Central Africa – became the basis for the project Leopard, Impala (2016), which may be used to show in yet another way how the personal, the cultural, and the political are revealed in Cohen and Van Balen’s work through accentuating and diverting the production process. The seemingly abstract object Leopard, Impala is a precise copy of the shape and size of the metal supporting frame of the aforementioned museum exhibit. What was hidden before is now offering itself to be seen. To “transcribe” the shape of the metal supporting frame, Cohen and Van Balen used materials that point to something that is, conversely, hidden to a great degree today – the murky, often illegal trade in raw materials obtained in Equatorial Africa. Neon tubes, the colourfulness of which is attained through the use of rare earth minerals, are joined together with the help of elastic natural rubber and mammoth ivory. The choice of the materials is thus in no way random, but rather a direct part of the construction of the meaning of the entire work, when, in addition to the previously mentioned geopolitical presence, it also refers to the now rediscovered realm of magical, or alchemical, thought.

This brief introduction to the oeuvre of Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen is primarily intended to bring the way they work to the forefront. In their artistic practice, object making (in which they employ the essential meaningfulness of the selected materials) is tightly interconnected with the production of lyrical images (which provide the viewer with access to the non-narrative semantics of object-based work). Neither the form nor the content of their work stems from a static, detached observation of the world, but rather from some kind of a floating motion seeking to establish a connection to something that ultimately cannot be fully grasped. This paradox of impossible connection then gives birth to the deep poiesis of their art.

Jan Zálešák