“Hi Cati, how are you, are you ready to see the end of the world? 🤣”
I’ve been working with Vivian Vivas for months on the exhibition Grados de ser. She arrived in Barcelona ten days ago without a very clear plan for the show. Despite working with video, she doesn’t want her work to be seen on a conventional screen. The video piece is part of larger installation. Our six-hour time difference—I live on the east coast of the United States—means that the problems and their eventual solutions reach me on a delay. Sometimes I like it better that way.
Google Maps isn’t that helpful when trying to reach the Tambopata research center in the Peruvian Amazon. The app can’t suggest a possible route from Lima, the capital. It’s long and arduous but not impossible: from Lima you take a two-hour morning flight to Puerto Maldonado, a city in the eastern interior of the country. From there you take a five-hour trip by colectivo (bus) to the Tambopata River. You have to make it before nightfall to catch a motorboat that goes up the river, two hours in the curious and silent presence of a crocodile, to the research center’s small dock. Then three more kilometers on foot through the jungle.
Thanks to an arts grant, Vivian has traveled to the Amazon to conduct some research, although she hasn’t yet decided what exactly she wants to investigate. She takes out the camera and starts filming. The initial idea is to record sound as far away from human noise as possible. Vivian has already been to the Amazon; in Colombia and Bolivia and Brazil. On this new trip, she wants to escape from archetypal images and focus on a new approach to ecology. “I am very conscious of the camera as a colonizing element,” she explains, adding, “there’s an excess of images about the Amazon. Being a woman with indigenous DNA but no connection to that heritage, I wanted a more conceptual connection to nature without it being too confusing.” Vivian’s research focuses on mourning; first a mourning over individuals, second we mourn for humanity, collectively, historically, now Vivian wants to mourn for ecology.
Moths use a navigation system called transverse orientation in which they travel by keeping their bodies at a constant angle to a light source (usually the moon) in order to maintain their line of flight. 150 years ago humans invented the now ubiquitous light bulb, which distorts the moth’s navigation. Unused to a light source so close to earth, many burn to death. Researchers at the center turn on light traps at dusk, simple light bulbs behind sheets, to attract all kinds of insects including the tiger moth, the main research subject of a biologist who has been accompanying Vivian.
It’s easy to locate the beginning of Vivian’s interest in researching grief through her work. Following the strictest episode of COVID lockdown, Colombia, unlike other countries, reserved its few vaccines for those over eighty. Gerardo and Andres, Vivian’s father and brother, fell ill with COVID. While her brother has the chance to recover at home with the assistance of his wife, her 62-year-old father has to be hospitalized and isolated. Only Vivian, who at 33 is the only one in her family who has been vaccinated because she lives in the United States, can visit him in the hospital, so she travels to Cali to be by his side. Since she can’t settle at home with her mom either, she rents an apartment near the hospital, but just two weeks after her arrival in Colombia, her father passes away. “I was the one who had to go to the clinic, see the body and touch it,” she explains. “What struck me the most was that that inert body was no longer my dad. It was his body, of course, but I had no relationship with him.” That experience of familiarity but at the same time strangeness with the death of a loved one deepens Vivian’s interest in metaphysics and the properties, principles and first causes of being. “I was very interested in what happens to the body after death. I loved watching people sleep, for example. I find it beautiful. Those parallel worlds really catch my attention,” he says.
Chinatown, New York
I walk past The Magic Jewelry, the aura photo store and remember the first time I was in Vivian’s studio in 2021, at Columbia University on the Upper West Side. After the experience of her dad’s death, she was explaining to me that she wanted to do some photos with a smoke machine, I think looking to manifest the absence of the body as a ghost of the soul. I suggested she go to Chinatown to have her aura photographed. Each photo cost $40. Every week for months, Vivian went to the store to have a photo taken, her consistent aura, always red and violet, invading her silhouette with color and hiding her face. According to the store’s website, red signifies vitality, motivation and courage. And also an intense temperament. Violet indicates spiritual life. It must be that all these qualities are necessary for the complex, expensive, logistically impossible, fascinating and stressful productions that her works require.
For the lay viewer, the moths attracted by light are all of us. We are so on a metaphysical level -a mere semiotic trope-: the artificial light that deceives us, the light of the screens that dupes us, or perhaps the search for an illumination -enlightenment; that is, illustration- of a truth that does not exist, of a reality that does not reveal itself. But we are also moths on a literal and biological level: moths and humans are made of the same matter, the same atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Vivian’s artistic research is framed within a current of thought known as dark ecology (dark ecology), developed by Timothy Morton, a professor at Rice University, and associated in turn with a philosophical current known as Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). OOO rejects the privileged position of human experience over non-human objects. It is a rejection of the anthroponcentrism of Kant’s continental philosophy.
So countercultural and conceptual is dark ecology that in a way the only way to approach it and understand its principles is through art. And Vivian’s strategy tries to show (rather than symbolize) that sense of the uncanny, which we can translate as the strange, the uncanny, the unsettling. Inside Dilalica, for Grades of Being, Vivian has created a fake desert of earth, volcanic stone and cactus. Eight antique televisions emit a light signal, as if to lure the moths (and the audience) almost from another era. At the same time, a series of contemporary devices that we use every day to share content - iPhones and iPads - emit small fragments of videos of lush vegetation and insects recorded in the Amazon jungle. The experimental sound, made in collaboration with sound artist Carlos Pablo Villamizar, emits noises dissociated from what would be the ambient sound of the Amazon. We enter then into an impossible spatio-temporal overlapping of decontextualized contexts, where the desert coexists with the jungle, and technology is interspersed as another species in the middle of the landscape.
I don’t know if it is possible to escape one’s own identity. Vivian tries. Or at the very least, she obviates in her resume the fact that she is from Cali, Colombia. The reason is blunt: the predisposition of interlocutors to believe that this makes her a Latin American person (woman, many would say) and that as such she must deal with certain themes in her work. Vivian’s mother always wanted her to be an artist, she even named her after an Italian painter she discovered while reading the newspaper. She recently wrote to Vivian and compared her three months’ rent debt in New York to the six months’ debt that distressed Gabriel García Márquez while, locked up in that house that was not his, he struggled to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. Vivian follows a path guided by an indefinable light, but, unlike the moth, she does not end up in the trap and dies, but emerges from the adventure with flying colors, each of her works a feat.
A week before the inauguration, one Thursday at 8:30 in the morning, Vivian contacts me by video call and shows me the soil, the volcanic stones, the cactus… Everything begins to take shape. In this call, for the first time, the budgetary tensions, the technological limitations, the problems… I immediately send Louis, my co-director, some images of the exhibition. Amazed, he replied, "I can’t wait to go! And he adds in our Slack channel: “Excuse me for a few technical questions: How will we get all that material out? Will it be expensive to dismantle? Will the bathroom be accessible? Does it smell like anything?”. I answer what I can.
“Welcome to the end of the world,” Vivian says to me from that invented landscape that the gallery has become. “Maybe it’s the beginning,” I reply.