At the beginning of June in Brussels, a very specific performing art festival took place, presented at the two beautiful spaces of the Kaaitheater, an art deco building opened in the 1932 on the site of a former Luna Park, and the Kaaistudios, a more recent industrial place renovated in the 1994.

The festival was entitled Burning Ice #5. We, the gardeners...This short review investigates the relation between nature and culture explored in several art works inspired by nature as well as the tensions arising from this relation. This relation has a great significance for all cultures, even when it was drawn to defend men from the scary lands of the unknown. The starting point of this review begins with a reflection on how we can protect nature from culture, how we can understand this binary relation by modifying and re-formulating our considerations about ecology, that is, how we can transform our anthropocentric point of view in the direction of a more sympathetic attitude towards the questions surrounding nature nowadays.

From the Tuesday 5th to Saturday 9th of June many performances accompanied videos, installations, exhibitions and talks by several international artists. Some of the artworks almost took the form of documentaries dealing today’s tendency to go back to nature by becoming a farmer or a shepherd, like in the Els Dietvort‘s project The Black Lamb. In this project, she documented her move from Brussels to an Irish sheep farm. Here the dream of the reconciliation with an ancient culture becomes a struggle for survival to the contemporary and metropolitan people, who are not willing to give in to the primacy of nature made of animals and farming.

In terms of live performances, two of them were noteworthy and really effective, though very different from each other. The first one was The Extra Sensorial Garden, a work by Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen ( with the collaboration of the dancer Manon Santkin. This performance actually is an immersive installation experienced by the audience with their body and their senses – except the sight.

We, the audience sat around a table. In front of each of us there were a pretty eye mask and a pair of headphones. The two artists explained the different phases of the performance and what to we were requested to do, giving us some simple advises, like: “don’t try to take a peek from the mask”,  “just let yourself go to the different sensations coming from the ‘extra sensorial garden’”. One after another they stood up and took us somewhere else; after a while we lost the sense of direction. We held to our seats as if they were the only certainty in such condition. And then, we started to perceive through the mask different shades of colours gradually blending into others. This gradual transformation of colours was accompanied by different sounds reminding us of a garden.

This was an invitation to get lost in a virtual and fictional garden, created to stimulate the senses of the visitors, through sounds, like the sound of the rain, of a fire, of flies; by the colours that we see through the mask, like the green shades changing into yellow, or blue, or red.
At the same time it was possible to perceive the variations of temperature, as well the sensory information being exchanged between each other. This carried the audience on a personal trip into this artificial but nonetheless very real garden. One of the most interesting things of this performance is the physical reaction of the participants during the virtual immersion. You know that there are no flies around your head or there isn’t any fire burning behind you, yet the body has some physical reaction from that kind of stimulus, feeling in danger or relaxed. It’s a very good place to reflect about how much we are affected by something that actually doesn’t exist in the real world in the form to which we are accustomed.

As in other virtual environments, the visitor is brought into an altered sense of reality, where he/she loses her previous coordination and is unable to choose how to behave in it. In this immersive performance everything depends on how you react to a sensorial experiment, and since you are alone in your coloured blindness, it becomes a very personal and subjective experience. Second, it depends on your affinity with nature; it also depends on your memories and the power of suggestion that this extra sensorial garden imparts on you. This work also blurs the boundaries between reality –even though it’s created artificially, consisting in the sound and the light perceived and heard by the participants– and our mind –our mind imagines the scent of flowers or the view of trees and grass. So it is a very personal experience. At the end the audience was brought back to the table and we were invited to explain and share our lived sensations. At that moment we really realized how much the experience was different for everyone.

This is a very interesting work as the two artists coordinated carefully every element: the coloured floodlights opposite the blind audience, the sound and the choice to let the audience sit on a chair and not lay on the floor, giving them the sense that they are completely surrounded by this virtual environment.

The second performance was the work of the Italian artist Cristian Chironi, from Bologna ( Cutter  is an imaginary journey across the world realized using illustrations from several books on nature, ranging from the undersea world, to the great mountains, to the desert and then to the last earthly paradises where the nature is still intact  and preserved from human’s intervention. The concept of this performance is simple but at the same time very multilayered. A man at the table – the artist, as the only human presence on stage – turns the pages of a book while a camera hanging above the table captures and projects them into a big screen in front of the audience. Using a cutter, Chironi engraves the figures on the pages, offering the spectators the same images of nature, but in a different shape, thus creating a sort of narrative by images.

The narrative emerges from a sequence of pictures and from simple actions of the performer, in order to complement the sequences of the pages. For instance, we are led into a deep-sea landscape to which the artist adds some soap bubbles, by blowing them over the pages while wearing a scuba mask. The scene is funny and charming at the same time. In fact, although we can see the tricks and smile at them, we are fascinated by the imaginary world we see on the screen. We have three levels of action: the first is the action of the author, his real presence that reveals us the fiction we see on the screen. The second is the past action of the author on the book, as an action already done, but acquiring a new life thanks to the performance. The third action is the live movie crated from the interaction between the previous two levels.

The sound plays an important role in the piece, describing the virtual journey that we experience through the different books shown by Chironi each time; it sounds sometimes opposite to what the images suggest, sometime it plays with them, sometime the performer himself talks- for example, when he cuts the petals of a flower and asks the question “she loves me/she loves me not”, or when he mimics echoes when he shows the images of high mountain peaks.

Cutter aims to re-establish a relationship between human and nature using two historical objects such as the books and the photographs. These two elements were responsible for establishing a formal separation between society and the natural environmental. The book is the instrument that have led men toward a culture of thoughts and ideas, where nature could be described, yet from a distance; photography is the medium that can capture the aura of nature, and give back its virtual image. So here it is possible to taste an opposition between real and artificial, connected and passed by the physical mediation of the performer. The books become three-dimensional and the camera’s projection makes us believe that they are real.

Another aspect of the piece is the concept of subtraction. It consists of the subtraction of pieces of images which are cut away from the page and, thus from their original context. The artist creates an absence immediately recovered by another image beneath the page: it re-shapes nature, or the image of it. But subtraction also refers to the absence, in that moment, of real nature, presented by human technologies in the form of photographs, camera, projector, recorder and, at the same time, the absence of a true relation between man and the natural environment. This is actually one of the main points of this edition of Burning Ice #5