Kunsthalle Basel

Julia Rometti and Victor Costales

19 Jun - 24 Aug 2014

Exhibition view
Vamoose, all cacti jut torrid nites
19 June – 24 August 2014

In the multi-faceted works of Julia Rometti (1975 Nice, France) and Victor Costales (1974 Minsk, Belarus), nature becomes a space of inscription for philosophical and literary narratives in which natural objects and forms are the agents. Site-specific installations combine found objects and plants in their natural state with hand-crafted and industrially manufactured goods such as wool rugs and concrete floor tiles. The artists also employ appropriated photographs, their own works in film, and reproductions of literary and academic essays in order to reference specific subject areas. The narratives that are generated in this way incorporate semi-factual, semi-fictional characters and concepts. The artists thereby pursue the issue of perspective, which they render visible in their works by means of transpositions, translations, repetition and recurrence, permutation, imitations and transfers.

A Berber rug lies on the floor of the main gallery space (Room 10). Lozenges, zigzag lines, dots and crosses in dark brown are irregularly worked into its pale cream ground. The rug, large enough for an entire family to sleep on, displays the characteristic features of Moroccan Beni Ouarain rugs: the typical colours of brown and pale cream and in particular, too, the pattern of geometric shapes that seem to move. Like other Berber rugs, those made by the Beni Ouarain are one-off pieces knotted by one or two women – often mother and daughter, sisters-in-law or female neighbours. They thereby follow no pre-set design but, in accordance with ritual principles, create patterns out of wool, weaving techniques and geometric symbols. The positive force (baraka) invoked by these symbols and materials accumulates within the carpet until it has acquired the strongest possible protective aura. As weaving progresses, the loom rolls up the completed section of the rug, so that only a strip measuring about 50 cm in width is visible at any one time. In this way the weavers’ powers of invention and memory are constantly activated during the production process. The rug becomes an illustration of knowledge and desires and a chronicle of experiences, including everyday occurrences that influence the imagination.

Julia Rometti and Victor Costales have placed small wrought-iron objects on and around the rug. These three-dimensional objects take up the woven symbols and, combined with other signs from the tifinagh (the alphabet of the Berber Tamazight language), yield the words Tamtruyt Tamkunt, which can be translated as “magical anarchism”. Some of these objects sit directly on top of the woven signs, while others are positioned freely on the rug. Rometti and Costales make the Kunsthalle exhibition space an extended support of this symbolic language of signs, insofar as they arrange some of the geometric, serrated symbols, which can be expanded at will, on the herring-bone slats of the parquet flooring. For Julia Rometti and Victor Costales the concept of magical anarchism, Tamtruyt Tamkunt, describes a (utopian) attitude towards the world that results from the story of what might have happened in the wake of the – real-life – encounter of a Spanish anarchist with a group of Amerindians in the Bolivian Amazon. Azul Jacinto Marino is an imaginary character who embodies magical anarchism, and is also a theoretical concept that can assume a wealth of different forms. These range from the political stance of magical anarchism, via Amerindian perspectivism and the anthropological method of controlled equivocation, to the botanical nomenclature of the blue hyacinth. First and foremost, Azul Jacinto Marino are three variations of blue, which demonstrate the multiple meanings of one and the same thing.

The twenty prints comprising the Cartographies of fragmented undulations (Marine transgression/regression) (Room 10) on the walls are also blue. Like the geometric symbols in the rug, they translate reality into an abstract language of signs. Rometti and Costales used blue carbon paper to make frottages of the wave-like patterns on the pavement in different parts of Mexico City. These undulating lines are scored into the concrete sidewalks to prevent erosion in this earthquake-prone metropolis. Cartography usually employs systems of abstract signs to represent information on a reduced scale. These representations convey an idea of what a geographical location and its features look like in reality and thereby complement or correct the cognitive map in the viewer’s mind. The (hypothetical) Cartographies of fragmented undulations, by contrast, directly illustrate the physical reality of the location, insofar as they reproduce, as images transferred on a 1:1 scale onto a thin type of paper known in Mexico as “Revolution paper”, the abstract lines that document and symbolically ward off the threat underlying the visible surface. The dual nature of the work is taken up in the subtitleMarine transgression/regression, whereby marine can refer both to the shade of blue and to the sea; and a marine transgression namely occurs when the sea advances to cover large areas of land.

Azul equivocation (Room 11) is the title given by the artists to the installation of overlapping palm leaves, naturally imitating a chevron pattern, beneath the glazing in the ceiling. The shadow cast by the leaves into the room varies according to the level of sunlight and travels over the course of the day. Equivocation, “to call by the same name”, is the use of a word that carries multiple meanings. Equivocation thus lies like a shifting field across the architecture and changes our perception of the room and of the works on display inside it. The crisscrossing lines of the shadow hint at a different way of seeing: their shapes are part of the repertoire of signs belonging to the first stage of visions provoked by psychoactive plants.

Perspectivism, the idea that the way in which the real world is perceived is determined by the individual perspective or vantage point from which it is viewed, was introduced into Western philosophy by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the 18th century. He cites the example of a city, which offers a different prospect when viewed from different sides and is thus a complex of multiple perspectives of the same place. In the Amerindian cultures of the Amazonian Basin, perspectivism is not just a philosophical concept but a fundamental belief and methodology that constructs the social behaviour sphere and directly governs conduct. It starts from the idea that all entities – people, animals, plants, spirits or stones – possess a consciousness that enables them to develop their own ontological worlds. As the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro argues, we should therefore think the universe not in multicultural but in multinatural terms. He transfers the concept of perspectivism to his anthropological method of “controlled equivocation”, which in turn serves as a leitmotif in the artistic practice of Rometti and Costales.

Succulent strategies – Estrategias suculentas (Room 10) contains instructions and tools for constructing a different perspective and a perception of a different kind. Steel structures made of reinforcing rods, and concrete posts of the type used to demarcate the boundaries of pieces of land, serve as anchors to the real world. Standing between them are various types of cacti from Latin America, all of them known for their psychoactive properties and for their entheogenic usage. Spiritual experiences are termed entheogenic when they involve the use of mind-altering substances and result in visions of encounters with realities hidden from our consciousness. Visions are new images of what is perceived as real. In the rituals of different cultures across Latin America, the consumption of entheogens is widespread and has an ancient tradition: the columnar San Pedro cactus, for example, of which Succulent strategiescontains several specimens, is known to have been used in ceremonies in much earlier Peruvian history, as visually documented in ceramics, textiles and wall reliefs. The original name of this species, wachuma, was changed to San Pedro two to three hundred years ago with the rise of mixed-race mestizo cultures and in allusion to Christian symbolism. The usage of the San Pedro plant as a central element of certain ceremonies and rituals is a reflection of the mestizo syncretism of Indian practices, Christianity, and Mediterranean esoteric magical concepts that were themselves shaped by Arab, classical, pagan, cabbalistic and other influences. In contrast to the indigenous cultures, within which the consumption of entheogenic plants is closely bound up with strict and exclusive rules, the use of the San Pedro cactus was and is much more widespread among the mestizo. From this point of view, the title Succulent strategies is not only a reference to the ability of succulents to survive in challenging environmental conditions, but can also be seen as an allusion to the (survival) strategies of different mestizo practices that have managed to keep the use of these plants as entheogenic drugs largely secret right up to the present, despite repression by the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of colonisation and despite government policies on drugs.

Taking up from Succulent strategies is the work Xochipilli in Magenta (Room 12), a 35mm slide installed in front of the window in the last room in the exhibition. The slide shows a statue of the Aztec god Xochipilli, his body entirely covered with plants that play a role in rituals destined to expand knowledge through altered states of perception. Xochipilli, whose name means “prince of flowers”, is the god of love, music, dance, song and beauty and here offers a new perspective – quite literally, as we look through him – on the outside world.

The legibility of signs and pictures lies in the willingness of the viewer to adopt a different viewpoint and is not necessarily only linked to the consumption of certain substances. Thus Worn contingencies without shadows (Room 11) and the film Rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno(“A rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan”; Juvenal) (Room 11) offer other possible explanatory models and tools for the contingencies of this world. Worn contingencies is a group of large pebbles from the Riff region of northern Morocco, all carrying traces of paint. The stones were originally painted in order to serve as markers placed on the ground. Rometti and Costales are interested in the backs of these stones, where streaks of paint form random constellations that it might be possible to read – like coffee grounds, tea leaves or cloud formations. The “black swan” is a metaphor of unpredictability: it describes an event that comes as a complete surprise but which is subsequently often rationalized, with the benefit of hindsight, as having been preceded by various signs. Understanding these signs is once again just a question of perspective and a conscious choice of vantage point.

The show itself is like a rug that weaves together, with the aid of sympathetic magic, materials and objects that are potentially all signs for communicating multiple meanings and tools with which to construct and enact a shift of vision. The title of the exhibition is the shuttle whose thread binds the individual elements together: Vamoose, all cacti jut torrid nites is an anagram of the two artists’ names, of which others are offered in the catalogue. The letters are thereby rearranged into words that, although they exist, often remain erratic in combination. An intervention conducted within set rules but reliant upon chance, thus gives rise to a new way of looking at what we have and thus points up its multiple nature. As soon as the “loom” of this exhibition is set in operation, whether intentionally or by chance, the equivocation of its objects and the polysemy of its signs open up a new perspective.

The exhibition is made possible by the generous support of Martin Hateburand Isaac Dreyfus-Bernheim Stiftung