Flo Maak (born 1980) studied fine arts with Wolfgang Tillmans and Willem de Rooij at the Städelschule, Frankfurt am Main, and Cooper Union, New York City. From 2013 to 2017 he was professor for fine art photography at Chung-Ang University, Seoul. After a one-year scholarship at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig, he now lives in Berlin.
His work is based on photography, extends to installation, text, sculpture and video, and explores the relation between pictorial and exhibition space. His works are thematically diverse, whereby questions of autonomy, sovereignty and mutual dependency, especially in human-animal relationships, and the destructive consequences of human economy are recurring subjects. Starting from photography, he usually develops large installations in which the images are extended into space through architectural interventions and sculptural elements. Text also plays an important role in his work, either as part of the images, title or accompanying wall text. He always emphasises the visual aspect of his concept-based works.
Maak has also been cooperating with filmmaker and artist Lasse Lau for many years. Together they've been enquiring into the history of queer protests and the relationship between sexuality and food, whereby John Harvey Kellogg, as the inventor of cornflakes, a pronounced opponent of masturbation and patent holder of a chastity belt, has taken up a broad space in their joint works.
During the bangaloREsidency, Flo Maak plans to further develop his project “seascapes”, which explores the worldwide network of the seas and its role in the transmission and transformation of life forms and forms of life. To this end, he will explore the port and beaches of Kochi and work with local experts.
Selected solo exhibitions include “Technologies of the Kitchen” at Pro Arts, Oakland (2017), “Friendly Patterns” at gallery Bernhard Knaus, Frankfurt (2017), “In/Off The Grid” at 공간291, Seoul (2016), “DANGER” at Corner Art Space, Seoul (2015), “-graphie” at von Cirne, Cologne (2013), "Nichts tun wie ein Biest" at Bielefelder Kunstverein (2009), "Trompe-l'eil Polizei" at Frankfurter Kunstverein (2008) and "silent specters" at JET, Berlin (2006). Selected group exhibitions include “Europe in China” at Sculpture Museum, Quingdao (2017), “On the Possibility of Life in Ruins” at Huset for Kunst og Design, Holstebro (2017), “Scattered Showers” at Frankfurter Kunstverein (2013), “After Prisma” at Villa Romana, Florence (2011) and "I Animal! (You Human)" at Perla Mode, Zurich (2010).
After an intensive week in Bangalore, I travelled on to Kochi. I had expected to find a great variety of animals and plants due to the tropical conditions. But it was not the flying foxes or the colourful kingfisher bird, unknown to me from Germany, that caught my attention, but the crows searching for food on the beaches of Fort Kochi. These birds, which are omnipresent in Berlin as well, are obviously very adaptable. They seem to be the only species, besides humans, that have become native to very different climatic zones and can therefore be found all around the world today. While I still had to come to terms with the sultry heat myself, I began to take pictures of crows every day, watching how they skilfully searched for food, fighting over fish, frogs or rats and simply appearing everywhere I went. They accompanied me throughout my entire stay in Kochi and so, in addition to my planned work, I created an independent series of pictures with crows which I would like to publish later this year, either on its own or together with pictures of crows from other places.
Before my arrival in Kochi I had planned to realise a work about invasive marine species there. Large container ships transport seawater in ballast tanks along their routes and have thus in the past brought smaller organisms such as mussels to places where they were previously not found. A small proportion of these new arrivals have then spread rapidly and displaced other species; in these cases we speak of invasive species. Internationally, the discussion about so-called "invasive alien species" has grown for several years. With increasing international trade and due to changing living conditions for animals, plants and humans as a result of climate change, typical local species are disappearing and new ones arrive. However, this discussion does not only reflect a changing global situation. The biologist and Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Banu Subramaniam, has shown, for example, that in the USA, after September 11, 2001, the public debate on invasive species has become more extensive and aggresive. Thus, racist stereotypes and fear of the "other" also influence the perception of so-called alien animals and plants.
To my surprise, there is little concern in Kochi about introduced creatures. This is probably because there is still an enormous variety of species in the sea and on land, but possibly also because the place has a long history of international trade and frequently changing colonial powers in addition to the different religious groups who have been living together peacefully there for a long time. The "other" and the "foreign" therefore does not seem to be perceived as a threat so much.
During my research I came across a plant that is considered invasive in Kerala and which immediately fascinated me because of its name. In Malayalam, the local language, it is called Communist Pacha, whereby Pacha is best translated as green. In biological taxonomy it is listed under the name Chromolaena odorata. The local names of plants often also refer to the importance and benefits that the plant has for the local population. For example, Chromolaena odorata is called Devil's Weed in Australia and other places, which clearly shows how much it is hated there. Often local names of introduced species refer to distant places to emphasise their strangeness. In Germany, the same plant is called Siamkraut and in many English-speaking countries Siam Weed. Until 1939, Siam was the name of a country which largely corresponds to today's Thailand. But the plant originally comes from Central and South America. Seen from Europe, both Southeast Asia and South America are far away and – as we know well – the colonial view has confused East and West before.
In Kerala, Chromolaena odorata was accidentally introduced in the 1940s and spread rapidly. One of the reasons for its name is that the plant spread as quickly in Kerala as communism did there in the 1940s and '50s. This can be seen as a positive or negative association depending on the political point of view of the observer. In the positive reading, the plant's resilience is also often compared to that of Kerala’s Communist Party, which has repeatedly provided local government since its inception and has, especially in its early days, helped to overcome blatant forms of inequality in Kerala’s society.
To learn more about the ecological significance of Communist Pacha in Kerala, I interviewed the biologist TV Sajeev of the Kerala Forest Research Institute. Together with his team he observes the spread of invasive plant species in Kerala and develops recommendations and control measures. First of all, he made it clear that Communist Pacha is only a problem in the forests, because it is used by people in the vicinity of settlements, for example as a medicine to heal wounds or it is removed when it becomes rampant. This regulation does not exist in the forest. Nevertheless, he is not panicky about Chomolaena odorata, rather he observes that this plant itself is now being displaced by other invasive species. I actually had difficulties finding the plant in larger populations. On the roadside, in the woods around Thrissur, where I was told it was widespread, I hardly found it. The only place, where I found significant populations was on Vypin Island off Kochi and on Kakkathuruthu Island.
At the end of my conversation with TV Sajeev, he pointed out that illegal mining in Kerala repeatedly leads to land erosion and landslides that destroy human and animal habitats, and that he and his staff have begun to map these activities. In Kochi I was told that the future of many people there and on the surrounding islands are threatened by rising sea levels. The communist weed on the roadside, thus seems not much of concern to most people.
My work is not finished yet and I will continue to edit my photographs and video recordings over the next few months, as well as continue my research, before presenting my finished work in the Pepper House Residency exhibition during the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December 2020. I would like to thank the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, namely Dr. Claus Heimes, Maureen Gonsalves and Riya Matthew and the team of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, and especially Jith Joseph and Gautam Das for their great support.