Catalyst is a new feature that asks artists to select an object, memory, or anecdote that has served as a stimulus in their work.
Julius von Bismarck is a Berlin-based artist who spent his youth in the desert landscape of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Through photography and sculpture, he investigates how nature is depicted and perceived. In a recent solo show at Marlborough Contemporary in New York, he exhibited a photograph he took in Venezuela of a lightning bolt striking a palm tree in a straight line that seems too fantastical to be real. In this first edition of Catalyst, von Bismarck, speaking via Skype from Berlin, narrates what led up to that pivotal moment and describes lightning’s place in his practice.
Around 12 years ago, I was sleeping in my car on a mountain off the coast of Italy. Before I fell asleep it was a perfectly nice, sunshiny day. And then all of a sudden, I was woken by this loud noise and my car was surrounded by fire. I thought I’d been shot at because you don’t expect an explosion while camped on a hill in Italy. It took me about half an hour to realize I’d been struck by lightning. The car kept me safe from the electricity, but the shockwave of the thunder felt as if a hand grenade had exploded right next to me. The force was so intense. It sounds like a cliché, but being hit by lightning gave me an idea.
For the last three years I’ve been traveling to Venezuela because they have thunderstorms there every night. My goal was to shoot a rocket into a thundercloud to make a lightning bolt strike exactly where I wanted it to so that I could photograph the strike. This is usually not possible because lightning is wild and you cannot choose when you want to see it—you simply have to wait for your chance. That’s kind of part of the whole philosophy of my work: the relationship between us and the wild—“nature,” or whatever you want to call it.
It had been done before, but in a very limited way at a lightning research facility in a Navy base in Florida. They did it using a similar technique, but not very often. They were quite limited, too. In Florida you don’t have many thunderstorms, so they could do only a couple every lightning season, when they had some funding. I met some of the scientists who worked with that program, but they couldn’t really help me, as they didn’t know much themselves about what they did. It hadn’t been done often enough to learn how to do it the best way. I think they stopped the funding and experiments at a certain point because it wasn’t creating valuable data. So, I decided to just build my own equipment. I went to hobby rocketeering festivals and then I tried to get a license to do it, which is really complicated. I also found out how I could get these rocket engines without having a license and figured out how to smuggle them around the globe, which was important in order to get it into Venezuela.
I was with a group of scientists in a small village of fishermen who live on stilts on a lake. It’s far away from any other city and expensive to get to because you need gas and drivers, so we were kind of stuck there. This meant that we spent more than a month together at a time in a small hut. Things started to get a bit crazy. We were shooting the rockets and then recovering them, and that kept us busy every fucking night and day. It didn’t leave us any time for anything relaxing. In order to make it work, I had to be a pretty harsh boss, as I saw my budget disappearing. We sort of hated each other a bit in the end.
I’m interested in the question of control: who is controlling who, and who is saving who or putting who in danger? Are we endangering nature or is nature endangering us? This becomes very interesting when you consider lightning.
“Nature” is a very positive word now—it’s not a wild danger anymore. It’s a positive goddess that we have to save and so the Christian god doesn’t seem to be very important anymore. Nobody cares about his opinion. It’s more the opinion from nature that counts, and that opinion is hard to read. We’ve never managed to domesticate lightning and make it do what we want, and that’s why it was important for me to straighten a bolt, which is one of the last remaining acts of controlling nature. Of course, it’s a symbolic act—an image that I’m creating.