Genealogien Arbeiten von Uli Westphal

June 4th – October 11th 2009

The works of Berlin artist Uli Westphal are closely related to Biology and its classification-systems, but set emphasis on different subject matters. For example, instead of showing the genealogy of elephants, he visualizes the development of their depictions. The works stand in a dialog between culture and science. He poses questions on how nature is perceived, depicted and understood in these different contexts. His works derive from collections, simulations, animations and classification-systems. These are based on actual, existing, natural phenomena, but they tell most of all about the development of human conceptions of nature.
A peculiarity of this exhibition is the integration of three of Westphals works into the permanent exhibition of the museum.

The work Elephas Anthropogenus investigates the depictions that Western-Europeans have made of the elephant during the course of history.
Since there was no real knowledge during the middle ages, of how this animal actually looked, illustrators had to rely on oral and written transmissions, to morphologically reconstruct the elephant - thus reinventing an actual existing creature. This led to illustrations that still show the basic features of an elephant, but that otherwise completely deviate from the actual appearance and body shape of this animal. Based on a collection of such depictions, the work traces the evolution of Elephas Anthropogenus, the man-made elephant. The result is a genealogical tree diagram, in which the imagery is arranged according to taxonomic aspects.
In this case Westphal uses the visual language of natural science to give form and structure to the development of a cultural image of nature.

The work Mutatoes deals with contemporary perception of nature. The Mutato-Archive is an extensive photographic collection of non-standardized fruit, roots, fungi and vegetables. Edible plants have developed, especially due to the industrialization of agriculture, into organisms whose morphology is shaped by societal ideals of beauty and perfection.
Today we have a clearly defined idea of how, for example, an apple or a tomato should look.
We encounter variations and deviations from this well accustomed norm mostly with mistrust.
Westphal uses the word 'mutatoes' as a collective term that comprises all produce that contradicts these optical guidelines. The aggregation of these specimens into a larger collection reveals the strict borders that man has drawn between the cultivated and the wild.
The Mutato-Archive serves to remind us of the great variety of shapes that, as a consequence of this segregation, fall into oblivion until they eventually disappear.

The work Coleoptera is an animation produced by the fast progression of over 2000 silhouettes of different beetle-species. The individual beetle silhouettes are sorted according to their body-shapes, so that the slight variations in their appearance create a raw impression of movement. The different species turn into a single but constantly transmutating organism.
Beetles form the biggest order of insects and account for about 25% of all described species.
The work Coleoptera is an attempt to make the immensity of this biodiversity comprehensible. It does so by using a purely visual, and therefore rather subjective classification.
The work is a collaboration with the American artist Kristen Cooper.

The work Chimaerama is a sort of random generator that recombines segments of hundred Victorian animal-illustrations into one million new creatures. A 22 hour long film shows these combinations at a rate of 12.5 images per second. This flow of images can be paused by means of a switch - like in a slotmachine - and the chimera that was generated in this moment becomes visible.
The work refers to elements from zoology as well as from the history of science:
In past centuries, people used to describe a new found animal-species by combining the body parts of already known animals. A sea lion, for example, was described as a dog with feet like those of a goose and skin like that of an eel. As a generator of novel lifeforms, the work also deals with crossbreeding as a driving force of evolution: The constant shuffling of genetic makeup forms a major aspect of evolutionary processes.

Westphals works show that the need to structure the world, to group things into classification-systems and families is not only a peculiarity of the natural sciences. These mechanisms help us to understand the complexity of the world and to divide it into smaller, more manageable entities. They can therefore also be used in cultural contexts as tools of cognition. These systems however, remain artificial constructions, whose forms are dependent on the meaning and function that we give them.
Westphals works integrate themselves very well into the context of the Phyletisches Museum, which was founded by Ernst Haeckel as a place dedicated to the meeting of art and science.

More Informations on the artist and the exhibited works can be found here.