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dominium terrae

Falk Wolf and Till Krause


dominium terrae – rule over the Earth: this in many ways awkward concept was the title we chose for our exhibition project in Schillig on the coast of the Wadden Sea in northern Germany. Its ramifications range from the proposal, barely two decades young, to describe the present era on Earth as the Anthropocene – implying that the human impact on the planet has achieved geological dimensions – to the biblical story of the Creation from which our title derives:

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28)

Familiar as this passage is, its meaning and implications are nevertheless difficult to grasp: the history of its exegesis ranges from the conclusion that the world should be improved to meet human criteria by transforming deserts and miasmic swamps into verdant farmland that feeds the population, to demands for unbridled subjugation and exploitation. The theological literature on this question fills several shelves, and readings of the text have been tempered, not least in response to Carl Amery’s accusation that Christianity is much to blame for the ecological crisis precisely because of Genesis 1:28. Some draw attention to the historical context for which this verse was written, arguing that “subduing the earth” must above all be seen in the light of Babylonian captivity, when the people of Israel had no command over their land. Others conclude from the angle of creation theology that God intended men and women to “inhabit the land and put it to good use”. From that point of view, it might translate as “take possession of the Earth”. This could be construed as protecting and preserving it while cultivating it in the interests of health and prosperity.

Although the poetry of this archaic language inspires a certain fascination, the term dominium terrae also provokes an immediate reluctance. “Dominion”, at least in our language community, has become a highly suspect term that we are loathe to accept either in relations between people or between people and their environment. Aware of extensive destruction in cultural and natural contexts alike, many are cautious about positive maxims like “responsibility, protection and preservation”, seeing them as founded on a manorial claim to sovereignty. Critique of this kind suggests a search for perhaps less controlled and more balanced approaches, extending beyond the notion of responsibility that has been anchored in statutory areas of (natural) protection.

Others detect in the omnipresence of human influence grounds for designating a new geological age, the Anthropocene. It has prompted desperately urgent calls to nurture and preserve the planet, but equally it has strengthened a very different belief in the practical need to seize all-out control in order to maintain the Earth’s functionality, manage it for the better or enhance its utilitarian benefit, and even embark on geo-engineering.

It is a notion with multiple facets, and that is what so intrigued us about it: there is even a connotation of “trampling underfoot” in the verse. Everything seems possible: from subjugation via remodelling to protective safeguarding. What the passage definitely conveys is an ineluctable relationship between humans and their surroundings, although it fails to explain how exactly that relationship ought to be tackled. The commanding tone without a clear command in Genesis 1:28 seemed to us symptomatic of a situation that unfolds in especially dramatic ways in Schillig on the Bight of Jade.

To illustrate this, we only need to consult a zoning map of the Wadden Sea National Park of Lower Saxony (pages 8/9). In a sense, the map is a portrait of the area, but also of the contradictions that characterise life with and in this landscape. The National Park is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Wadden Sea. The Wadden Sea is a unique, extremely sensitive ecosystem, and as such worthy of protection. The zones in the National Park are intended to ensure this protection. The core zones are in green, the intermediate zones are in red and the recreation zones are in yellow. They determine how much human impact on the ecosystem is allowed, and when and how people can enter and make use of these zones, e.g. for commercial gain or for recreation. The white incisions that cut across the Wadden Sea are particularly striking: these are the shipping lanes into Bremerhaven, around the new JadeWeserPort (Germany’s only port for deep-sea container vessels) and to Wilhelmshaven with its oil terminal and military naval base. In other words, the map governs where humans must refrain from exercising their dominion in the interests of protecting nature, but at the same time it visualises how a landscape perceived as a single space is subjected to different human laws simply by taking a step in any direction. The line that divides the core zone from the shipping lane on the map determines where ships can travel or navigation channels can be dredged and where not. To bring us back to the terminology of dominium terrae: where humans exercise control by subjugation and where by preservation.

Yet this dividing line, and the apparent determination of what can happen on one side of the line and what on the other, is at odds with the realities of this natural terrain. A damaged oil tanker will probably run aground in the white zone, but the cargo it discharges into the sea will not stop at the border of the core zone. By the same token, sea currents constantly displace sandbanks, islands and mudflats, and can only be contained by powerful feats of civil engineering to protect the white zones.

Looking at the map and the landscape, then, can tell us two things: the landscape and human access to it are far more layered and contested than we can tell at first glance as we look out across the sea from the beach at Schillig. Moreover, this landscape is woven with far greater complexity than cartographic boundaries can express. Within the definitions, much is ill defined, and the rules may quite possibly be useless. Situations like this can be unsettling, because intended designations and guarantees do not keep their promise.

By responding to this uncertainty and placing our art project under the similarly uncertain heading of dominium terrae, we felt we could contribute to the overarching theme which gave rise to the event in Schillig: the art project Joys and Hopes, Grief and Anguish initiated by the Catholic Church in Germany in 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. Fifty years ago, guided by its theme of aggiornamento, “bringing up to date”, the Church enquired into people’s concerns and aspirations and committed to make these its own. Fifty years later, the Church reviewed the impact of this process, inviting artists in eleven places in Germany to pose the question in their own way and from today’s perspective. Alongside cities like Cologne, Görlitz, Trier and Munich, the choice of exhibition venue fell upon Schillig. This little holiday resort in the diaspora attracted special attention in the Diocese of Münster and beyond because of a new church beside the dyke which was consecrated in 2012 – a rare event in an age when churches are more likely to be profaned and converted. Moreover, the extremely vibrant pastoral care for tourists makes it something of a contact zone between religious observation and secular recreation, where the Church’s devotion to people in all their diversity, so prominently featured in the Council documents, is constantly put to the practical test. In this context too, those questions about how we treat nature and the landscape, fundamental to the exhibition’s conception, inevitably find an airing in a place like Schillig.

Schillig is not merely located next to the Wadden Sea National Park. In front of the dyke at Schillig is one of the biggest campsites in Europe, with space for thousands of people. Behind the dyke, there are also hotels and holiday homes. By contrast, only about a hundred people live here permanently. People come to Schillig for recreation because they appreciate the bracing sea air and relish being directly exposed to the mudflats in provisional shelters like caravans and tents. Container ships, tankers and warships are constant companions in the Schillig panorama, and there is a view of JadeWeserPort, the new deep-sea docks at Wilhelmshaven. Even the multi-faceted farmland before the dyke offers worthwhile views, but it is above all the sea, a particularly sensitive natural habitat and at the same time a theatre of global commodity flows, that dominates the gaze. The contrast between the ecosystem Wadden Sea and its industrial use can be observed first hand. The Wadden Sea is explicitly advertised as a promise of unspoilt nature, making it a location factor for the tourism business, but the industrial uses are latent – visible yet unspoken.

The landscape has its own dynamic, steadfastly dodging such determinations. Twice a day, low and high tides radically transform it; in winter, the campsite disappears, with more and more animals occupying the space and storms submerging the surface, so it is not only the appearance of the place that alters to the rhythm of the seasons, but also its social structure. Our first line of approach was to note the complexity of manifold relationships in this landscape by artistic means. One example was Tue Greenfort’s awareness of the mussel as an agent operating in the mudflats, where it undermines assumptions about industry and conservation as inherent opposites: the mussel is an extremely sensitive creature in the Wadden Sea, which is why water quality is so crucial to the fishers who harvest mussel meat on an industrial scale. Mussels are filters, and so pollutants accumulate in them. Any interventions in the Wadden Sea, even the tiniest adjustments to shipping lanes for large vessels – not to mention massive interventions like the construction of JadeWeserPort – can affect the mussel banks directly and over huge areas because sediments shift as a result. If the natural landscape conditions in the Wadden Sea are harmed, mussel fishing loses its economic basis. The mussels demonstrate, so to speak, that in a cultural landscape like this there is no pure black and no pure white, but only innumerable shades between.

We were invited to Schillig by the Bischöflich Münstersches Offizialat, the Catholic Church in the Oldenburg region of the Münster Diocese, who offered us unconditional trust and tremendous friendly support as we initiated a process with no predefined outcome. Together with Bob Braine, Tue Greenfort and Klara Hobza, we explored Schillig from the flats to the campsite and down to JadeWeserPort, conversing with users of this landscape, mudflat guides, mussel fishers, people from the port, people from tourist management, the church and the local pub. The result was four projects nurtured by Schillig’s specific situation and circumstances. They could not have happened anywhere else quite like this, and it was our particular good fortune that we were able to show these works born of observing the place in the place itself.

The exhibition conditions were unique, and it is worthwhile to cast light on them from different perspectives in this book. Apart from Petra Lange-Berndt’s essay, which reflects on the undertaking as a whole and the artists’ separate projects from the standpoint of an art historian, we were keen for contributions from individuals who had been directly involved in Schillig:

Lars Bratke, the Catholic parish priest in Wangerland, takes Bob Braine’s Land and Water Tattoo Series as the cue for his text. Together with the Bischöflich Münstersches Offizialat, he was in a way the local host for the exhibition. During the project development phase, he was an important partner for us, full of ideas, a catalyst, introducing us to many facets of Schillig, establishing contacts, helping too in quite practical matters, and not least he and his parish accommodated a panel – a display board and artwork alike – which was put up right outside the church.

In Günther Dupuis, a former seaman, we were lucky enough to acquire an extraordinary personality to look after the people who came to look around. He spent two months with the exhibition and its visitors between the sea and the campsite in Schillig. There was such character to his attitude and the way he saw things that he set his stamp on the exhibition no less than each of the four art projects. In his interview, his gaze wanders from the works of art to the Wadden Sea horizon.

Josef Wiengarten describes the exhibition from a visitor’s angle. His text stands proxy for the very divergent perceptions and reactions the exhibition elicited. These ranged from a fear of coming too close to indifference, (less frequently) bewilderment and even open rejection, and various forms of participation. Body painting, dinners, battles in the mud and strange formations of mussels contained enough elements to continue pulling in holidaymakers of all ages in search of amusement, and some random passers-by went on to engage intensively with the exhibition and its implications.

Both Günther Dupuis and Josef Wiengarten not only recount their multifarious personal perceptions and interpretations of dominium terrae, but cast many a challenging glance at the relationship between the exhibition and the local public. Motives for artistic experimentation in a place like this, and the experiences and phenomena that arise out of it, are wide-ranging and contentious, and in our opinion they cannot ultimately be reduced to a common denominator. After more than two months of artistic activity on the campsite at Schillig, nothing has been agreed, resolved, comprehended or completed. And so this book, like the exhibition, is an attempt to complement our perceptions and interpretations of the space around Schillig with phenomena of a curiously distinct artistic nature.

We thank everyone who contributed in small ways and big ways, in their different roles, to the smooth functioning of this project: first and foremost the Bischöflich Münstersches Offizialat, in particular in the person of Hubertus Aumann, who supported us in all our needs, offered friendly advice and even helped to install and dismantle the exhibition. We thank Walter Zahner, the overall curator of the art project Joys and Hopes, Grief and Anguish, for his initiative and companionship. We are particularly grateful to Günther Dupuis for his endurance in doggedly inhabiting the exhibition ensemble for two months, for ensuring its smooth functioning and looking after the visitors. We thank Wangerland Touristik GmbH, especially Thorsten Sassen who provided project coordination, and also Frank Onnen and the Schillig campsite for their technical and logistical support on site. We are grateful to the Catholic parish of Wangerland and Martina Hinz for their hospitality and help, and to Father Lars Bratke for those vital discussions about Schillig, when he shared with us his special view of the place. The Wadden Sea National Park of Lower Saxony and the Jiu-Jitsu Centre Samurai in Wangerland merit thanks for their unbureaucratic, spirited assistance during the shoot of The Sludge Slaughter of Schillig. Thank you to Bob Braine, Tue Greenfort and Klara Hobza for following our call to Schillig, and for the enthusiasm with which they pursued and carried out their projects, and to Andreas Eschment, Nancy Kerezsi, Josephine Kulow and Sandra Müller for their aid and all-round support. Thanks to the authors and producers of this book, and to Ulrike Hofer for working meticulously with us on the details and, indeed, the conceptual whole. All our other helpers, partners and critical companions are acknowledged at the end of this book. Never could this exhibition and book have happened without our generous donors and sponsors: the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, the Stiftung Darlehnskasse Münster and the EWE Stiftung. We conclude with a very special thank you to them.


1) This term coined by Paul J. Crutzen proposes that humans have had an enduring impact of global dimensions on the planet. – Paul J. Crutzen, ‘Geology of mankind’, in: Nature, vol. 415, 2002, p. 23.

2) The German version is taken from Das Alte Testament nach den Grundtexten. Translated and edited by Vinzenz Hamp and Meinrad Stenzel, Aschaffenburg, 1957, 10th ed. 1961, p. 2. The English text is from the King James Bible.

3) Carl Amery, Das Ende der Vorsehung. Die gnadenlosen Folgen des Christentums, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1972.

4) Simone Rappel, “Macht euch die Erde untertan”. Die ökologische Krise als Folge des Christentums?, Paderborn et al., 1996, esp. p. 63.

5) For example, Norbert Lohfink, ‘Macht Euch die Erde untertan’, in: Orientierung, vol. 38, 1974, pp. 137–142, here p. 139.

6) Rappel, “Macht euch die Erde untertan” (see Note 4).

7) The art project is documented in: Friedhelm Hofmann (ed.), Freude, Trauer, Angst, Hoffnung. Das Kunstprojekt der Katholischen Kirche, Würzburg, 2016.

8) The concept introduced by Marie Louise Pratt is applied in cultural studies above all to places where different cultures and languages meet, especially in the colonial context. – Marie Louise Pratt, ‘Arts of the Contact Zone’, in: Profession, 1991, pp. 33–40.

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