No. 81
Article by:
Liz Hew

Catharsis: the word brings to mind undulating ocean waves breaking upon a shore, leaving behind a white frothy residue as they draw back; renewal and rebirth; a powerful release; a deep exhale after a held breath; letting out a long-suppressed cry; a hopeful butterfly emerging from a spindly cocoon.Catharsisis also the name of Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s meditative installation at London’s Serpentine Gallery — part of a string of global art exhibitions established by K-pop boyband sensation BTS.

The project, entitled CONNECT, BTS, aims to bridge five international cities — London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Seoul, and New York — to create an extensive network and community of artists and art-lovers alike, mirroring the global fanbase of the illustrious group. Each of the twenty-two artists involved “contributes their unique philosophy and imagination,” according to the official site, giving them a chance to explore the dichotomies outlined as “the relationships between art and music, the material and immaterial, artists and their audiences, artists and artists, theory and practice.” That the exhibitions are free and accessible to all has not only opened up the world of art to a new, younger demographic (albeit mostly K-pop fans), but introduced older members of the public and veteran patrons of the galleries to BTS, their message, and their ethos.   

It’s a breezy Saturday in February — a day before Storm Ciara is due to hit — when I make my way across the expanse of Hyde Park and along the lined meandering pathway, towards the Serpentine Gallery. It’s a crisp day to enjoy a leisurely walk, with dozens of dog-walkers and duck-feeders meandering through the picturesque grounds. The Sackler Gallery — where CONNECT, BTS is actually homed — is an architectural work of beauty; a former gunpowder store repurposed and designed by the award-winning British architect Zaha Hadid. The iconic white curvature of the Sackler’s roofing is comfortably visible from afar, and as I cross the bridge over the Long Water, I can already perceive exhilarated clusters of teenage girls posing for selfies outside the gallery, throwing up peace signs in their BTS merch t-shirts. They, and so many others, are united in this ephemeral moment: to check out what the London branch of the installation has to offer, as a means of extending support for their favourite seven-piece ensemble. Catharsis itself is quite tricky to find. The installation is located outside, within an enclosed garden area, which is accessible through a set of double doors that take you from the main gallery space, through to the resident upscale restaurant Chucs. Although the physical form of Catharsis is simple and unfussy — a singular outdoor-proof large screen, fringed with ornamental grasses and shrubbery, like feather reeds — the focal point of the installation, and what is displayed on-screen is far more impressive.

What art and BTS fans alike would see is precisely this: a highly-realistic digital rendering of a fictionalised North American forest; an amalgamation of the wild and untouched terrains of lush mountain ranges; rays of sunlight trickling in through towering canopies of cedarwoods and coniferous trees, illuminating the fresh movement of rocky streams. Throngs of birdsong echo throughout the animation as ambient music plays, and the snap and crackle of leaves and tree branches accompany the piece as the camera slowly pans through the forest, capturing visuals of the sky above and the abundant undergrowth. The trajectory of the camera gradually moves upwards and outwards, showing us the sweeping landscape of the misty plains in its entirety: fringed stoney outcrops and the sloping outline of mountains along the horizon, as the sky slowly darkens and this world is met with purple hues of dusk. The animation re-starts submerged underwater, so that small skittish fish dart around as the sounds of bubbles swirl past. Again, we are brought to the stream’s surface, moving through the cat-tails and brightly-coloured flowers, as butterflies dance across the screen. Algae-stained rocks rest alongside the banks, as the camera returns to its original position to capture the ferns and hedges of the forest floor. 

It is a mesmerizingly quiet and reflective world, if not for the natural buzz of the rich ecosystem and its native flora and fauna. The digital piece, which you can watch live here, is undeniably arresting in its visual and foley qualities, leaving me transfixed to the spot. For a few minutes, viewers are transported to a virtual universe, completely devoid of human presence or activity, and it feels extremely therapeutic. I understand why the name ‘Catharsis’ has been given to this installation; it is an apt descriptor for roused feelings of purity, cleansing, and re-birth, which are all rooted within the realm of nature. In the same way as a daily walk in the outdoors is recommended for improving mental health — synonymous with boosting feelings of happiness and fulfilment — so are the same sentiments conjured here at the Serpentine, albeit artificially. The exaggerated slowness of the camera’s movement, too, imposes concentrated attention on the subject matter— your eyes are forced to absorb as much of the woodland greenery as you can, during the languorous virtual journey. The overall result is a feeling of stillness at your very core; that life itself has somehow slowed down, and that you are inevitably merging with the majestic, ancient redwoods of an old-growth forest.

For New York-based Jakob Kudsk Steensen, it is evident that the intersection of technology, nature, and animation has helmed his creative interests, offering a point of inspiration for his artistic projects. A quick glance through the portfolio of work on his website and Instagram page reveals a fascination with the ways in which nature and ecosystems can be expressed and celebrated through digital means:  — how far can virtual art manipulate and challenge representations of life forms and natural habitats? Along with Matt McCorkle, an American sound artist and audio engineer, extensive fieldwork was undertaken in parts of North American forests to capture their authentic soundscape, which were replicated for the re-imagined ecosystem of Catharsis. That the sounds present in the installation are mapped out in a 3-D configuration only adds to the immersive, cocooning, all-encompassing experience. Steensen’s advocacy for ‘slow media’ also provides an effective focus on the sheer, grandiose, and almost terrifying beauty of the world; reminiscent of the artists of the 18th century Sublime movement, who depicted nature in all of her overwhelming glory within a singular painting.

Visiting the exhibition and seeing Steensen’s Catharsis project first-hand made me think of the many instances ecological appreciation is present in our contemporary culture. Take, for instance, the awe-inspiring American plains of survivalist action-adventure game Red Dead Redemption 2, released by Rockstar in 2018. As players traverse the West, Midwest, and the South on horseback through the eyes of rogue outlaw Arthur Morgan and later, John Marston, completing gun-toting missions and various nefarious or honorable activities, so does one take in the magnificent animation of the landscape. Widely acclaimed as one of the best depictions of the natural state of the American wilderness, RDR2 is considered a work of art through its accomplished storytelling and the depth of its characters, its unmatched level of visual and graphic design, and its astonishing attention to detail. Its open-world setting permits players to explore towns and villages across five fictitious states; all of which are influenced by real-life locations across the US as they would have existed in 1899, at the turn of the 20th century. Whenever I chance upon RDR2 gameplay, usually watching second-hand via my boyfriend, the game never fails to make me pause and admire its virtual reality: the cloud-streaked starry skies of the Midwest, and the dim glow of the campfire against the outline of pine trees and forests that stretch far into the distance. There are the dreamy views of the mountain-lined horizon during sunrise, with Arthur Morgan sat atop his horse in the foreground, positioned on an equally high grassy outcrop. A cursory image search of ‘Red Dead Redemption 2 landscape’ on Google begets a spectacular array of visually-exquisite screenshots from the game; several of which are comparable to the works of German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (such as Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818), and almost indistinguishable from the Catharsis-universe of Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s imagination. Annihilation, a sci-fi horror released in 2018 and starring Natalie Portman, features an otherworldly expanding zone called ‘The Shimmer’, where an alien presence causes life forms — both plant and animal — to mutate grotesquely. A team of scientists must investigate this quarantined region, rife with menacing chimeras capable of refracting human voices, and in doing so, expose themselves to the devastating physical and psychological consequences. The overgrown space of ‘The Shimmer’ features botanical freaks of nature; human skeletal remains that have become entwined with various vines and foliage. The alarming lack of human presence taps into the fear of the untamed essence of nature, and its ability to corrupt, grow, and expand. Aspects of the world of ‘The Shimmer’ can be seen in Steensen’s Catharsis forest — a land where ecosystems can continue to flourish undisturbed by the hands of mankind. There is a return to an apocalyptic, pre-civilization state of the wild that both worlds delve into; a portrait of how nature can regress when it is truly left untouched.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog


Steensen has described Catharsis as a digital “portal” that “collapses various ecological timelines,” which evokes the historical past of our earth and brings to mind the current trajectory towards which our planet rapidly hurtles. The installation’s collapsing of spatial and temporal realities allows us to reflect on the dire, present age of an ecological crisis — one from which we cannot escape nor deny. As the life-destroying process of deforestation continues, and wildfires continue to ravage entire regions of the world, we start to question how we can make sense of it all: how can technology be used to salvage what is left of nature? How can nature and technology be merged to form a new medium, if one is even possible? Are nature and technology inherently paradoxical, seeing as technology has fundamentally arisen from a period of industrialisation and the destruction of nature? The steps that Steensen and McCorkle have taken — alongside numerous examples in gaming and film — indicate an attempt to capture, or even archive, the natural world through the language of digital medium. There remains a lamentable possibility that the sight of old-growth forests may one day become a rarity within our lifetime; and if this were to materialise, digital technology may be the only means in which younger generations can witness the magnificence of nature. The use of VR systems to immerse oneself in the wilderness would become much more commonplace in the future, for recreational or educational purposes — so that one would be able to trace back along this genealogy of salvaging nature with digital tech, to stumble upon an artistic installation, enigmatically called Catharsis.