by Sara Pena
What´s next? And a related question: Who is saying what´s next? The installation adapts to the space it inhabits, the sculptural elements lure us into a rocky desert, a narrow canal leads the attendants from a fountain to a pond. There is a fuzzy figure waiting at the end, submerged into the water. It is Govanni Vetere breathing through a plastic tube. This unusual landscape of accumulated terrain and scattered vegetation force us to our adaptation. Nothing else happens. Vetere discretely remains underwater, leaving us to our exploration of the surrounding space. The Italian artist is no stranger to the romantic concept of nature and his power. As he says, in the past, the power of nature was perceived from a safe distance in the mind of the viewer; today, in the face of global climate shifts, there is no safe distance from which to view nature.
People are rather reticent to assume that the rising sea levels are endangering all living organism. This work can´t be reduced to a sci-fiction representation of a subaquatic future of the human race. What it aims is to engender a sense of respect and ecological awareness. Operating between empiricism and imagination, the performance examines the theory of Homo Aquaticus conceived by Jacques Yves Cousteau, who prognosticated a future evolution of the human species capable of living underwater. A return to the origin of life.
- Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where did you grow up, how did you “find” art, how did your love of art develop?
I grew up in Rome, but I always wanted to run away from the monotony of the eternal city to discover a more dynamic place. I chose to study in London for its many opportunities and experimental artistic environment. London is the place where I found my interest in art, visiting galleries and meeting young artists who inspired my career.
- Who or what inspires you? Anything at all. Or rather, are there certain things that you think about when you’re beginning a work? Certain ideas that influence your work?What really inspires me is the fact that my practice continuously shapes itself and quickly mutates into new forms. This means that every time I make work I follow an unknown direction that leads me to the understanding of something unique. I like to follow these unexpected findings that come out of my work so I can continuously expand and develop my practice further.
This process of learning makes me feel limitless. I can really push the boundaries of things and reach the deepest sides of my self and other people with my work.
- What is your aim as an artist?My aim is connecting people’s bodies with my work through an accessible and universal language. I also explore the sea and its pelagic organisms as a dwelling environment for the human being.
I want to deliver an image of absurdity that provokes a question and an emotion; that persists in people’s mind even after experiencing it in first place. I want to be incisive and penetrating, upsetting and joyful; I want to drive people’s attention to the sea. Its potential importance is being underestimated, and its urgent conservation represents, for me, a priority in the climate crisis we are encountering.
- Water and his relationship with the body has an important presence in your work. Where does this admiration and curiosity come from?I have a very controversial relationship with water, I spent a large part of my childhood on boats and my father sailed the sea. However, the sea has always intrigued me in a more visceral way. Rather than seeking an active domination of it, I feel a curiosity that goes beyond its romantic approach or its escapism from the terrain world. Nature is out of our control and it is a priority to question the future of our society in the land. If land really becomes uninhabitable for our species, where do we go?
- Do you consider yourself as a visionary?The hypothesis of living underwater has been developed by many scientists, artists and movie makers. Jacques Yves Cousteau lived underwater together with six scientists for more than two weeks inside a metal structure called Conshelf II; Sir Alister Hardy developed a theory that proves our past ancestors comes from an aquatic creature and not from the Apes. NASA has created NEEMO project, an underwater marine biology chamber where scientists are sent for weeks to further expand the knowledge of living underwater; in Italy a group of marine experts created the first underwater garden where basil and other land vegetal are being cultivated.
It is clear that the possibility of living underwater is closer than we think. Therefore, my role is connecting the dots, analysing the past in order to better understand our future. I want to explore and experiment a thread that persists for many years now and translate it into my own work.
- In your work, you put the viewers in a compromising position, if they want to see the exhibition, they have to adapt to it in the same way our society is trying to adapt to the climate change we are currently suffering. Would you consider this work as a warning?I am interested in an active participation of the viewer because I believe that by challenging the public, the understanding of the work and its level of engagement increases. The body is the filter through which we understand the world, it represents the connection between perception and comprehension, thus the body has to be addressed and activated if the artwork wants to be effectively understood.
Immersing the spectator into a live experience increases the risk of shifting their position of safety into the one depicted by the artwork, which is often out of their comfort zone. In my recent installa- tion ‘Squid Dinner’ I invited visitors to get out their comfort zone and immerse their bodies into the futuristic landscape. People were forced to project themselves into the hypothetical habitat and to actively experience the consequences of it.
To perform means to understand, and to understand my work one needs to perform it.
- Do you think one day human kind will be forced to live underwater?
I am not a scientist so I cannot predict the future of human beings on Earth, but as an artist I am interested in generating a possible interpretation of it, aiming to explore the effects that it may cause to our understanding of everyday social interactions.
Adaptation is an inevitable never ending process. Generation after generation humans and all living creatures are adapting to the changing environment and its conditions. The more the environment changes, the more one has to adapt, of course. I like to believe that eventually we will desperately seek for new space to dwell and when land becomes hostile the ocean will open its doors - from homo sapiens we will become homo aquaticus.
How our understanding of space will change under such extreme watery conditions?
- What is the role of the ceramics in the whole exhibition? What made you make them in that material?Working with ceramic is a process of learning where I am able to establish a relationship with the material and discover interesting shapes of unrecognisable underwater plants. My sculptures and installations focus on the concept of survival and adaptation of those organisms and creatures that live in a habitat threatened by extreme environmental condition.
Thus, the sculptures I make appear to be endemic plants of the utopian/dystopian environment that my practice suggests.
- There are behaviours not allowed in nowadays society, do you feel more free to overcome these boundaries in your performances? Or you try to maintain your daily-life gestures?During my performances I tend to stay still and try to move as little as possible. Even though my movements do not seem to overcome everyday societal behaviours, performance will always challenge the interpretation of reality. How does it feel to contemplate a man breathing underwater? How does it feel to jolt your perception of the world?
These questions arise while experiencing my work and represent the fundament to critically analyse the preconceived structures imposed by society.
- Your work also has a research side. Following the evolution of your performances over the last years, did you come to any conclusion?By exploring my relationship with water through my own body, I enhance an active process of re- search. After exploring different performative actions in a fish tank and other underwater conditions, I realised that the human body is more aquatic than I thought.
While investigating into the history of human evolution, I came across Sir Alister Hardy, a biologist whose ideology is against the Ape Theory. Hardy argues that the human being comes from a much more aquatic past. Our posture, our lack of fur, the fact that we can hold our breath and we can store fat all over our body, brings us closer to the same species from which the dolphin has evolved.
Starting with an understanding of our past, my research now focuses on the future -a projection of an imaginary society under the water. My intention is not to find a solution to climate change but to drive the attention on certain topics that require priority. Glacial melting, sea levels rising and global warming show us that nature is out of our control. We must start acknowledging its needs and valuing our relationship with it.
Survival and adaptation are the two main elements of my research, not just of human beings but of other organisms such as corals and palm trees. I am now conducting a research on the concept of gardening, spanning from ancient Mesopotamia ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ to the most recent nurseries of coral reefs in Florida. How would gardening change if human life would evolve under the water?
- Any future ideas or projects that you have in mind?For my next project I am working along with professionals, architects and biologists, to understand how normal and conventional activities can be performed underwater, starting with gardening. For this reason I will be visiting the first underwater garden in Liguria, Italy, called Nemo’s Garden, a few hectares of basil, tomatoes and other land products growing dozens of metres below the sea surface.
I would like to take the concept of underwater gardening into a gallery and to make the experience accessible to visitors.