Mastering the Elements

by Jana Hartmann

Mastering the Elements is a photographic research on the scientific exploration and eventual conquest of nature from the beginnings of alchemy until the present day.
The ambiguity of the title of the series hints at a changing perspective towards our natural environment. While the alchemists’ transdisciplinary view on the world strived for a deep understanding of nature’s inner workings, the 18th century saw a transition towards reductionist, fragmented and increasingly abstract natural sciences, seeking dominance over nature’s bounty.
Juxtaposing the alchemical approach with modern scientific practice exposes various issues associated to today’s prevailing understanding of nature. It reminds us on the historical narrative of nature in which all natural elements were active partners – interrelated and dependent on each other – rather than passive ressources/objects. It also emphasizes that ethical considerations are of continued – in fact ever growing – relevance in natural sciences. While evaluation of and accountability for the potential consequences of their individual research was at the core of alchemic practice, this has since been socialized and transferred out of the scientific community – thereby urgently necessitating a broader social discourse about the direction and objectives of modern-day research.
History is abundant with scientific findings that had a profound impact on society and the lives of individuals. Hence it is also imperative to acknowledge that the underlying research is not intrinsically unbiased but subject to its respective social and historical environment as well as to varying commercial and political interests.
In her work Jana Hartmann addresses various topics that have captivated the curiosity of researchers throughout history and in which the borders of scientific understanding continue to be pushed ever further. Examples being the concept of matter which today is advanced by quantum physics or the pursuit of prolonging human life, reenergized by discoveries in the fields of biogerontology and transhumanism.
Mastering the Elements has been conceived and developed through an animated exchange with natural scientists, historians and philosophers.
The selectively framed photographs were taken from scientific experiments in laboratories, natural history exhibitions, studio models, and nature itself. By complementing them with excerpts from alchemical writings, scientific papers, and ethical viewpoints, an intriguing cross-disciplinary dialogue between multiple narrational perspectives –the visual artistic, the allegorical alchemistic, the philosophical, and the scientific – is initiated.