Parasite Paradise by Ludovic Bernhardt

The Crystal World, a 1978 novel by J.G. Ballard, is set in a spellbinding tropical forest where trees and plants gradually transform into masses of rock crystal. The trees, further to this magical transformation, convert as they move forward all objects and living species that lay on their paths into crystal sculptures. The value of this process is clearly attractive to humans and their thirst for power and wealth, yet such a conversion resembles more that of an extensive dying process as danger and disease coincide with the spread of the sparkling stone. Ballard, through his exploration of a surrealist science-fiction universe, is manifestly fascinated by luxuriant natural forces (here a tropical forest) that carry not only paradise-like magic but also a parasite-like disease.

Literature like drawing sometimes appears to harbour similar antagonistic forces. When drawing and painting convey a mythical promise of some kind of paradise closely related to the idea of nature, they also sometimes provide glimpses of parasitic forms that throw such hope off balance.

It seems thus that Olga Karpinsky, Nathalie Noé Adam and Désirée Wickler have chosen to entitle their exhibition Parasite Paradise because their work incorporates this mysterious connection: the title proclaims that a parasite, both in the open and metaphorical senses of the word, intruded in the artists’ sacred activity. In their work the parasite is not only an organism that lives exclusively off another, it is more broadly a harmful, malignant and infectious element that invades and feeds off the produced signs. We must consider here that the exhibited drawings and paintings, themselves as graphic signs, possess a biological facet. The three artists are involved in such a biology of signs with its relation to parasitic behaviour, and offer a sensitive exploration of this antagonism. They investigate the ‘foreign matter’, the ‘vampire’ contained in the artists’ activity coupling it with the inherent pleasure and bewitchment of nature and nature’s bloom, as in Ballard’s emerald forest.

We know that nature has been perceived by some artists and thinkers as the environment for paradise (from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights to Rousseau’s Noble Savage) and that its idyllic superiority, in such context, is placed in contrast to human society and its impurity; mankind as parasite, humans as polluters of the original harmony, humans and their tainted society. But we also know that mankind has been able to perceive nature as a form of untamed paradise while simultaneously feeling dwarfed by its sublimity, swallowed by its dangerousness and subjected to its demiurgic whims; nature as a terrible and pitiless being. Nineteenth century Romanticism covered this subject in depths. Today, in an era of programmed environmental catastrophes, in a time (also known as the Anthropocene Era) when a new artificial polluting stratum is gradually covering our planet, artists tend to refuse to be simplistically nostalgic about the loss of nature or to disregard its terrifying facets. Some explore the worldwide dimension of the techno-scientific catastrophe. Others direct their interest towards other areas. This is the case for our three artists who concern themselves with the biological dimension: the conversance between plant and animal/ human biology, the biological sphere as a whole. In their work I sense a keen interest in concepts relating to what is pathological and what is normal in the living world. To better understand this feeling, one can refer to the French philosopher Canguilhem who went against the dogma that there is “[a] real identity of normal and pathological vital phenomena”. According to Auguste Comte, another French philosopher, the pathological is a derived form of the normal. Canguilhem declares on the contrary that disease is a different ‘pace of life’; it forces one to ‘[live] another life, even in the biological sense of the word’ and forces one’s organism to alter its previous states. There is no identity between normal and pathological states.

Starting from these concepts and adapting them to art wilfully by simple analogy, it becomes clear that in Nathalie Noé Adam’s drawings both normal life and parasitic life are examined. In her work, plant life and human organic life are struggling, trying to distance themselves from one another; each one the other’s parasite. Her conceptualisation might be close to that of Comte for whom illness and normal life are set at the same level. With Nathalie Noé, plants play a vital and invasive role destabilising human life while asserting their natural luxuriance.

Conversely, in Olga Karpinsky’s work, these two notions appear to contrast more. Her prints show the normal and pathological states as distinct, the latter overturning the former. The natural and delicate normal state, however, is claimed as a balancing element constitutive of life and threatened by deviancy. A surprisingly pure vision of the biological state of plants makes her wonder why the animal/human biological state involves a parasitic identity. Olga Karpinsky’s prints reveal a strong taste for the sophistication of the biological sphere and its creative dimension.

Désirée Wickler’s night environments are filled with compact and primeval mysteries seemingly contaminating all natural life. Humans, animals and trees engulfed in darkness are set in magma where negativity plays an obvious biological role, a magical negativity. The parasite appears to be closely related to the environment, nothing there to distinguish the natural habitat from the dark mass. In this mystical wilderness both nature and ‘parasitic’ state coexist.

The drawings, prints and screen-prints exhibited by the three artists are thus graphic experimentations infused by difficult concepts such as the abnormal, deviant, parasitic and negative states of the biological, plant and/or human realms.

The notion of Paradise promised in the title still remains to be defined. We could naively accept it as being the opposite of Parasite. The title, however, brings about the idea of twinship between the two terms; one letter only differentiates them: the T interferes and takes over the D like a parasite would, which indicates that twinship and parasitic interference are two inseparable concepts. The works of the three artists are indeed playing with the refined idea that there is no paradise without parasite; that paradise, the wonderful garden providing ‘delectable produce’, the enclosed garden dedicated to happiness, cannot exist without the parasite (negative, viral, invasive, nocturnal) that will take advantage of its existence both as foreign matter and as alter ego. The parasite is indeed paradise’s opposite (an alien, an intruder) as much as its twin, the one that will identify with the other so deeply it will want to take its place. This takes us far away from the idea of a virgin paradise to one associated with desires (inherent to life processes) of contaminating what is far too well protected. The artists’ images investigate, each in their own way, this essence of paradise with its dual desire of eternal bliss and inherent abusive intrusion.

By Ludovic Bernhardt, artistic consultant