Sunday, June 24, 2018


Steinbockovich: Art, Folklore, Science and Dada

In the hearts of old Alpine ibex when the cartilage of the aortic valve has calcified, a bony, cruciform structure is formed. This structure, known as a “Herzkreuz” (or heart-cross), was the most coveted trophy in alpine culture. An unlucky coincidence of biological process and religious icon triggered a wave of overconsumption. Ripping the heart from a recently hunted ibex might yield a powerful Christian amulet, capable of performing miracles. High in the Alps, miracles were needed, as villagers struggled through deadly winters. They would emerge from catastrophic avalanches to witness Alpine ibex happily grazing on mountaintops. People admired and fetishized the ibex; they wanted to tap into their ability to survive and thrive. In addition, Alpine ibex possessed seemingly preternatural powers, including an astounding vertical jump, nimbleness on tiny mountain ledges and an ability to endure perilous terrain and climate. By harvesting ibex trophies, mountain dwellers hoped to attain the attributes of the animal. These amulets functioned as interspecies transplants: it was believed that a cruciform remnant of an ibex heart, worn directly over the human heart, would increase health, while deepening religious faith. Though humanity’s passion for Alpine ibex was heartfelt and sincere, it nearly extinguished the species. The “Herzkreuz” and other peculiar trophies, combined with new firearm technology, caused the mountain goats’ near extinction in the 19th century. Since then, generations of industrious scientists and naturalists have returned the ibex to prominence throughout the Alps. Contemporary artists channel humans’ passions away from trophy hunting towards understanding. As an alternative to consumption, art can honor ancient interspecies connections through ritual, conversation, expression and conservation. 

“Steinbockovich” emerges from this context. He is a mythical, white Alpine ibex, based on folklore and present-day ecological research. He is a performance art embodiment that invites participants to see through the eyes of an ibex. Steinbockovich draws inspiration from a cautionary folktale about the white ibex that reminds us of the fragile equilibrium between human development and nature. Here is a brief recounting of “Avarice and Avalanche: the Legend of the White Ibex.”

Long ago, in a remote village in the Pennine Alps, lived a great hunter. It was said that he could claim any trophy in the mountains, regardless of high altitude or treacherous terrain. When the hunter heard stories of a completely white-furred ibex living near the summit of the Bietschorn, he devised a plan to cull the animal, harvest its “Herzkreuz” and collect its unique skin and horns as trophies. In addition to the riches that the heart-cross would bring, the white ibex was rumored to guard a secret cave, festooned with rare crystals, gold and gemstones. After weeks of planning his ascent and tracking the elusive animal, the hunter finally caught a glimpse of the ibex’s gleaming white coat, near the Bietschhorn’s apex. Cleverly, the huntsman traversed the peak in order to approach the ibex from downwind. As he peered around a final ridge, the pursuer found his target just 10 meters away. Undetected, the hunter drew back his bow and aimed squarely at the heart of the massive beast. Just before releasing his arrow the huntsman heard a voice that seemed to originate from the ibex itself. “My white coat is a sign of purity; I preserve the equilibrium in nature. Do you wish to continue to enjoy the wealth of these mountains?” Lowering his bow, the stunned hunter listened intently as the ibex explained, “If you spare my life, nature will remain in balance. You will always have meat and I will reveal my cave of treasures to you. Your entire community will thrive.” Appreciating a good bargain, the hunter discontinued his pursuit and returned home with an overflowing sack, stuffed with gold and gemstones. Stoked by mineral wealth and abundant natural resources, the huntsman’s community flourished. There was always food on the table and prosperous trade with neighboring villages. Decades passed and the hunter aged; he doubted his constitution and virility. He longed to prove that he was still the bravest, smartest and manliest. In his memory, the stern bargain of the white ibex had faded to a whisper. So the hunter planned another campaign to the Bietschorn, in order to finally claim the heart of the white ibex. In preparation for his quest, the hunter hammered a special projectile from metals unearthed in the treasure cave. This magnificent arrow displayed the hunter’s best craftsmanship. Its shaft was painstakingly whittled from durable and aromatic Arolla pine, (the same trees would serve as camouflage during pursuit). The fletch bristled with red, white, and black feathers plucked from the elusive wallcreeper, whose colorful plumes always guaranteed swift, straight and true flight. Ready for all contingencies, the huntsman began his climb. When he reached the Bietschorn, the hunter traversed the peak with great agility and felt invigorated. “My strength hasn’t waned,” he thought. Once again, he gazed upon the ethereal beauty of his trophy’s white pelt and could hear the animal’s heartbeat calling him. As he nocked his projectile, sun glinted from the golden arrowhead. Drawing back his bow, the pursuer skillfully adjusted for distance and the whistling mountain wind. Righteousness and confidence bloomed with the tiny white flowers at the hunter’s feet; his trophy was assured. While releasing the bowstring, the hunter’s firm footing betrayed him. As he plummeted from the ridge, the hunter’s eyes locked with the rectangular pupils of the white ibex, and the shanked missile soared wide of its target. The huntsman’s body fell more than a thousand meters and was never recovered. Scattered pebbles, loosened by the hunter’s boots, collided with stones that tumbled into rocks, liberating boulders. The resulting avalanche filled the valley and completely buried the hunter’s village. All was destroyed.

Recently at the Dent de Lys, (a peak not far from the Bietschorn), two real, white ibex were born. But contrary to the legend, these ibex provoked controversy. In modern-day Switzerland, game wardens seek to protect their animals from the introgression of foreign DNA [cross-breeding with domesticated goats]. At the Dent de Lys, the warden feared that the white ibex were not “pure” ibex, but hybrid ibex/farm goats. So great was the warden’s concern, that he killed one of the beautiful animals and sent its tissue to the laboratory for genetic testing. The results proved that the rare coloration was the result of a low frequency allele, genetic drift and inbreeding. The coloration was not an impurity, but a naturally occurring mutation. The warden’s apprehension about introgression was unfounded and the killing unnecessary. This tragedy at the Dent de Lys constitutes another type of cautionary tale. The quest for genetic “purity” does not reflect the nuanced twists and turns of evolution. Scientists regularly discover crucial and unexpected links between species. Recently, even Homo sapiens have learned of adaptive benefits gained from the introgression of Neanderthal DNA. Evolutionary evidence reveals the foolishness of racial bigotry, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

In today’s society, with globalization threatened, borders fortified and walls erected, Steinbockovich blurs the boundaries between “purity” and “hybrid.” He embodies both the legendary ibex from the Bietschorn and the modern-day ibex from the Dent de Lys. An inbreeding equation (from population genetics) emblazons his heart; it quantifies the price of “purity” and the legacy of ethnic balkanization. Steinbockovich was born in Z├╝rich and emulates the Cabaret Voltaire Dadaists. Like his Dada ancestors, this masquerade facilitates non-verbal artistic exchange and transcultural expression. For Steinbockovich, now is a crucial time to reinvigorate the anti-war, anti-capitalist proclivities of the Dadaists. His trophy-heart beats with revolutionary passions. For the Dadamobile, (a performance art celebration of Dada in Boston), Steinbockovich gathers with choreographer Nathan Andary, artist Jane Wang, like-minded, lab coat-wearing Alpine ibex and Mobius performance art group. Together, they create a series of performances entitled: “Dadabex: consequences of overconsumption and other modern tragedies.” Through ritualized movement, reenactment of ibex hunts and Hugo Ball-inspired chanting, “Dadabex” explores universally relevant conversations on consumption, competition and commonality. Participants are invited to join high-altitude imaginings, where Dadabex literally open their magical hearts and offer “souvenirs” to onlookers. These souvenirs supersede the collection of hunting trophies, recently in the news as the Trump administration has lifted bans on the importation of big-game trophies. All are invited to experience the world through the eyes of real and mythical Alpine ibex, currently displaced in Boston.



Audience instruction
performed by a rather giddy and intoxicated crowd.
October 16th 2014
Le Cabinet, Mulhouse, France