Dance of the Praying Mantis

Joachim Koester’s Bringing Something Back at Bergen Kunsthall manifests a sensuous cinematic holism that merges everything from biology to history and neuroscience.

Joachim Koester, Tarantism, 2007. Film still. 16mm black and white film, 6.31 min.

The solo exhibition of the Danish artist Joachim Koester at Bergen Kunsthall is a nearly closed-off and seamlessly connected world. A monotone palette of greys and darkness dominate the show. The first room features strange aluminium prints of camouflaged insects hung against grey walls. The central medium in the exhibition is film, though. While the first room includes a work played on a cubic monitor, in the other rooms we find analogue film projectors. These rooms are therefore darkened. In this twilit world, cinema is summoned to immerse the spectator in a holistic interlocking of biology, technology, history, neuroscience and dance.

The aluminium insects are set in motion in Praying Mantis (2016), where the camera captures the movements of praying mantises and the shivering of leaves and blades of grass. The celluloid images convey a certain nostalgia with their reduced colour palette and soft focus. The shots are sutured together by the slow and steady rhythm of the montage, like a dream produced by nature itself. In the other films, nature’s little shakings, reflexes and quirks are translated into different registers. HOWE (2013) employs the same filmic aesthetic as Praying Mantis, consisting of extreme close-ups of a machine that reveals minute mechanical parts in motion. The consistent microcosmic perspective and the recording of tiny motions, affects and electric signals suggest the circulation of the same energies and affects through the circuits of machine, organic body, plant life and cinematography.

Joachim Koester, Maybe this act, this work, this thing, 2016. Film still. HD video, 20 min.

Tarantism (2007) shows people alone, in pairs and in bigger groups performing convulsive and explosive movements, as if they were being jolted by electrical charges. The most sizable work is Maybe this act, this work, this thing (2016), with a large chess-patterned board laid out in front of the video screen. Two female dancers in eclectic, vaguely historical costumes perform a minimalized flamenco of some sort. Yet, there is no music, only their stomping, breathing and meaningless utterings. There is colour, but quite attenuated. Set against a black background, the images’ delicacy recalls the chiaroscuro effects of Baroque painting. The dancers oscillate between being instinctive creatures, machines and human beings. The films are accompanied by audio installations which present variations of a deep and steady rumble as if channelling the hustle and bustle of life and matter.

In addition, there are vitrines filled with books and other scholarly objects. They were produced by the French curator and writer Yann Chateigné Tytelman, who was invited by the artist to contribute. According to the information sheet, the vitrines are “drifting, speculating and expanding on ideas drawn from Koester’s works”. I was not sure whether all these biological, philosophical and literary references really enriched the experience of the exhibition. To me, the theoretical context provided by the vitrines’ content seemed to work against the artist’s aesthetic of circulating energies, affects, nerve signals, utterings and movements.

The vitrines, it seemed to me, petrified this flux, shepherding it into fixed concepts in the form of suggested influences and preliminary readings, even if the materials were in fact an unbounded, speculative expansion of Koester’s work. While one might also consider the vitrines as an attempt to incorporate the domain of ideas into Koester’s holistic system, the visual layout of the exhibition did not make this inclusive relationship sufficiently tangible. With their static textual content illuminated by dazzling light, the vitrines stood out as disparate and isolated components. However, for me this was the only let-down in an otherwise intriguingly coherent show.

Joachim Koester, Bringing Something Back, Bergen Kunsthall 2018. Installation view. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.