The Exquisite Unknowability of Umwelt

Humans are innately curious.  From ancient people discovering iron and making tools, to trillion-dollar expeditions to the far reaches of our galaxy, we strive to find answers to our questions.  However, what if there are things we cannot know, hypotheses we cannot test?  How do we reconcile ourselves to the unknowability of certain phenomenon?  Are they indeed unknowable?

Biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944) coined the German word umwelt to describe the environment or surrounding world of an organism.  Each organism inhabits their own unique, subjective environment, both within themselves and in relation to the outside world.  Organisms interpret signs and symbols, interacting with stimuli and eliciting responses.  The concept of umwelt has been explored in fields from philosophy to biology and psychology.  For humans, we interact with our environment and surrounding world with our physical bodies, gaining responses through our five senses.  These responses may prompt us to alter or continue with our actions.  Humans however are not the only beings on this planet.  We share our home and its precious resources with animals, insects and plants.  All living beings.  These organisms all have their own unique umwelts.  While scientific research can advance our knowledge of these umwelts to a certain degree, the variable and subjective nature of umwelts, varying from animal to animal, insect to insect and indeed plant to plant, present us with an interesting dilemma.  There are some things we cannot know, codes we know exists but cannot crack.  How do we address this unknowability?

Art presents a way of investigating umwelt.  Through art we can embrace the bodily discomfort of unknowing.  The exquisite unknowability of the unique environments inhabited by other organisms.  Artists Christina Lowry and Rosie Lloyd-Giblett have taken umwelt as their stimulus for a range of works which explore that unknowability.

Lowry’s works engage with umwelt in three stages.  Humanity’s insatiable quest for knowledge and the subsequent impact on insect species is represented in A Longing #1 (2024) and A Longing (Bugs on Floor) (2024).  These works dialogue with the Victorian-era obsession with collecting and displaying specimens, a drive for knowledge which ultimately contributed to species decline.  Three dimensional printed bugs fill an antique cloche, their bodies piled haphazardly, demonstrating the death which had to occur in the pursuit of knowledge and status.  Like many plastic objects today, the bugs were considered disposable, their lives and inner environments unknown and subsumed by human needs.

Lowry’s second work explores the umwelt of the Processionary Caterpillar (Ochrogaster Luniver).  These hairy caterpillars march in long lines, sensing their companions before and after them.  This complex system of sensory perception was tested in the early twentieth century by scientist Jean-Henri Fabre, who in seeking to understand their abilities, maneuvered the caterpillars into a circle.  This circular march became their last, condemned by human curiosity to march until they died.  Lowry represents the caterpillars and their umwelt through the floor installation Concantenation (2023).  All that remains of the caterpillars is a circle of dust and a few stray hairs.

The final works in Lowry’s exploration of umwelt, Unknowable Birds (2024) gives visual form to the unknowability of umwelt.  While we know other organisms have umwelt, it is the unknowability which Lowry is representing.  Lowry takes birds as her inspiration for this series of photographic works.  Like the caterpillars who sense their companions, birds may flock together traversing thousands of kilometers across continents or perform intricate dance-like routines in murmurations in the skies.  These photographic works are ethereal, with the bird silhouettes seemingly dissolving into the paper.  Recognisable as birds yet inscrutable, the works conjure the unknowability of the umwelt.

Botanist and poet Dr Robin Wall Kimmerer advocates for the view of animacy within the natural world.  All organisms, Kimmerer wrote, have animacy, life within.  She advocates for dialogue between humans and plants, gestures of respect and seeking of permission.  Reciprocity with living entities, asking what we might give and do, not only what we can receive.[i]  This belief in animacy and respect for all organisms echoes in the concept of umwelt.  Respect for that which we cannot see, even if we do not understand it.

Lloyd-Giblett, in her series of works, explores her own umwelt as well as the umwelt of trees and plants.  At peace, barefoot in nature, Lloyd-Giblett creates works which react to, with, and around the natural environment.  Working en plein air, like the Impressionists, Lloyd-Giblett does not attempt to capture nature.  Instead, she records her bodily reactions to the natural world, reacting to its prompts, allowing it to impact on her.  She does not sketch the landscape, rather she documents her reactions to its stimuli.  Lloyd-Giblett is giving visual form to her umwelt, documenting how the umwelt of the plants impacts on her.

Tree Totems (2023) stand tall and proud, monuments to the specimens from which they draw their inspiration.  Working in acrylics and charcoal, the works are imprints of barks, dirt, leaves, trees, landscape, topography and emotion.  Gestural, sketchy, earthy, mark making suffuses the works with unspoken feelings and bodily reactions to the environment and the plants.   Their tall forms echo the tall forest forms in which they were created.  Like monuments or totems, these works honor their ancestors, tell stories and convey emotions and links to a moment in time.  They record the internal umwelt of Lloyd-Giblett, influenced by the umwelt of the surrounding trees.

The towering Tree Totems are accompanied by three sculptural books, Garden of Stones – ancient rock formations (2023), Echoes of the Wollemi – natural rhythm (2023), and Echoes of the Wollemi – natural camouflage (2023).  While the Tree Totems offer a more spiritual encounter with the environment, the books bring a physicality to the space.  The gestural, emotive marks are augmented by tearing, shaping and folding, echoing the complexity of the physical environment.  Rubbings, monoprints and blind contours all record Lloyd-Giblett’s experiences within the environment like a diary or archive.  The pieces unfold like books or maps, yet the information contained within is emotive, not cartographic.  The works speak to the physical impacts of the environment on Lloyd-Giblett’s body, barefoot, crouching, under the sun and in the heat, trees providing respite and shade.

Lloyd-Giblett’s works attempt to describe the impacts of the plants and environment on her umwelt.  Treading softly and respectfully through the land, she will also inevitably impact the umwelt of the surrounding organisms.  Lowry’s works theorise on the umwelt of animals.  In many instances, human impact on the umwelt of other organisms is obvious.  Population declines and extinctions are tangible results of umwelt disruption.  Yet it is the deep, inner umwelt of the organisms which remains unknown.  Artists such as Lowry and Lloyd-Giblett allow us to ruminate on the infinite possibilities held within the umwelts of the organisms which surround us.  Umwelts which ultimately may remain unknown to us, providing that exquisite tension which only art can explore.

Bree Di Mattina

[i]Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (USA:  Penguin Books, 2013), 55.