Lothar Baumgarten has opened up new possibilities of artistic expression and reflection through an oeuvre that questions Western systems of thought and representation as well as the ways our perception of and relation to other cultures are constructed. In his work, Baumgarten confronts and deconstructs the ordering principles that determine the manner in which cultural difference is approached, making him one of the first artists of his generation to communicate the awareness that it is impossible to separate the history of Western art from that of colonialism.
Early on he became interested in the life of indigenous communities and their modes of social and cultural organization. Convinced of the need to dismantle the postcolonial canons persisting within the fields of ethnography and anthropology, he was already working at the start of his career on projects like Unsettled Objects (1968–69), in which he shows how the systems of presentation and classification in ethnographic collections have been (and still are) used as tools for imposing Western perspectives on the world.
The latest stage in this process is The ship is going under, the ice is breaking through (2016), the two-hour sound piece he has devised specifically for the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid’s Retiro Park. Baumgarten, who has worked on and off with soundscapes for four decades, concentrates here on the fragility of the domed glass structure of this impressive nineteenth-century building to create a sound sculpture from a series of audio recordings of ice thawing on the banks of the Hudson River in upstate New York, which he registered in the years 2001 to 2005. Through meticulous spatial and sequential editing and montage, he manages to produce the spectacular illusion of the apparent cracking and blasting of the glass structure above. Baumgarten’s projects invariably take heed of and connect with the specific architectural grammar and circumstances of the places within which they are installed.
In terms of its colonial history, the Palacio de Cristal was built in 1887 for the Exhibition of the Philippines, Spain’s last colony. Within the transparent architectural presence of its glass corpus, the deafening sound of the ice becomes a tonal analogy for the crashing stocks and assets of the insatiable “shark trading” of financial markets; it concerns greedy speculation about unlimited economic growth and the resulting impact on the dramatically changing global climate.