‘Incomprehensible’, ‘obscure’ and ‘arcane’ are some of the preliminary observations in mainstream magazine articles describing the sculpture installations and performances of Argentinian artist Eduardo Navarro. I don’t blame them. Horsing around in horse and turtle costumes, like a high school comedy-sketch-gone-wild, these costume performances might seem like a bit too much for the uninitiated.
However the superficial absurdity belies the serious issues confronting the predominant ontological view of our existence in the contemporary world. In Horses Don’t Lie (2013) performers were dressed in horse-like outfits with a wood frame on their backs that resembled the skeleton of a horse and told to ‘think like a horse’ by meditating while walking. This was based on the work of animal behavioral scientist, Dr. Temple Grandin who discovered that animals think in images, and not in verbal language, as does autism patients, like herself.
This theme of role-reversal was explored again in Timeless Alex (2015) when Navarro dressed himself up in a turtle suit, and crawled across the roof of the New York New Museum, taking a full 4 hours this time, as the central issue is about time and how it defines our lives verses how an animal like a turtle views time.
While the title might be a little baffling as to who ‘Alex’ might be, the performance itself was based upon and is probably in remembrance of the story of the last Pinto Island tortoise (named Lonely George) found alive in the Galápagos Islands in 1971 before the species became extinct, after feral goats were introduced to the island, upsetting the ecosystem.
This performance brings to mind what this turtle might have been thinking, since it refused the prodding of scientists to mate and would rather die and end it all, while we, the general public, indulge ourselves and live at a frantic pace in our inter-connected, synchronized society, where things happen or ‘unhappen’ instantaneously.
As we rush about trying to get more things done, making connections across time and space to pack more events into our lives according to our concept of ‘living’, we might get bored watching Navarro the turtle crawl across the roof and think that turtles move too slowly and are therefore ‘wasting their lives’. However as events happen faster and faster in our world, our concept of time has actually become what Navarro calls ‘a self imposed restriction’, a jail in which we have to obey certain self-imposed rules according to our conception of time and of living.
An animal’s inability to live in the past, or contemplate the future, of communicating with a language of images, is the kind of discourse these performances are seeking to impart.
In Poema Volcanico (2014): A Journey to the Center of Printed Pictures, Navarro climbs to the center of an active volcano (but not too active) in Ecuador with a guide in search of art. While volcanoes have been the subject of art for centuries, nobody to my mind has ever let the volcano itself create the artwork somehow, or see it as an animate object capable of self expression. For Navarro, the mission was to go to the crater of the volcano, see how it was doing and ask it to paint a painting (or for a song and dance).
Two trips to the crater were planned; the first to see what it was like and what the volcano could do, and the second to carry it out. Through the advice of a local volcanologist the presence of whats known as ‘fumaroles’, a hole where hot, sulpheric air would escape from the molten lava beneath could be the location and a method for the volcano to produce its art. Here, at the volcano’s nostrils, the intersection of man’s world with the volcano’s insides, Navarro found that by letting the fuming sulphuric air change the colour of litmus paper, the volcano could express itself.
After months of preparations, adjusting to the altitude, getting a fireproof suit, making a custom backpack out of weaving material and bamboo rig to hold pieces of litmus paper flat, Navarro decends the abyss and drops the backpack, his ‘volcanic typewriter’ into a fumarole, and retrieving it after an hour to find litmus paper with varying shades olive, yellow, orange and red; the volcano’s ‘poem’.
In Sound Mirror (2016) Navarro turned a giant horn into a listening device for trees, which he installed in a museum to allow visitors to listen to leaves ruffling in a palm tree outside one of its windows. And in We Who Spin Around You (2016) performers were dressed with ‘solar reflection disks’ around their waists, which through slow movement, one could appreciate the passage of the sun and movement of the wind blowing through the leaves of trees behind.
While these artworks and performances involve some aspect of nature, specifically an interaction with nature, they display at their core, a deep adherence to an object-oriented branch of contemporary philosophy which has its roots in eastern philosophy and religion; that everything has its own existential being, whether we can see or understand it or not.
It is a rejection of our anthropocentric tendency to see everything in terms of our own existence; of 20th century phenomenology which claims that things are only real insofar as they are sensible to us, or of ‘correlationism’, the effects they have on us. In the end these works try to show the ontological aspect of objects, even invisible ones; how they exist, act, and “live” beyond the realm of our perception.