THE LIGHT SEEKER/KEEPERS
Caroline Don't Go Into The Light - Artists Links, London, UK
by Ariane Koek
This is the tale of two artists. And two lovers, too. One is a film maker from Uruguay who looks as if he carelessly shrugs on his clothes, stepping straight out of a Jean Luc Goddard movie, with watchful eyes and a crown of hair laced with silver. The other is an artist, who appears as tall as the sky, treading the earth with the care of a mermaid, a waterfall of golden corkscrew hair tumbling down her back. He is called Victor Lema Rique. She, Fernanda Chieco.
Both are other-worldly, somehow fittingly so, lured to England from South America by a love of Virginia Woolf and her modernist stream of consciousness novel 'To the Lighthouse', published in 1927. The artist-lovers sit, in-be-tween worlds and moments, one deepening Autumn evening in 2008 at the start of their journey, in St James's Park in London, under trees whose leaves are singed with scarlet and orange. They talk of how the beam of Virgina Woolf's prose has caught them in its glare and never let them go. That's why they are in England for five months - to go to not just one lighthouse, but to many - however impossible or dangerous they may turn out to be. To enable them do this, they have an accomplice, they tell me. And a strange one she turns out to be. Or so their story goes.
Carolina is a young student in Sao Paulo, they say, who has a passion for gardening and anything to do with the sea. She knows everything there is to know about ships and tides, fish and coastal maps. One day, out of the blue, she sees a light coming out of a drawing of a lighthouse that is hanging on her wall. She feels compelled to find the light and follow its sweeping arc wherever it leads her. Or so they say. And so her quest begins, bringing Fernanda and Victor in her slipstream to these English shores. But the truth is stranger still - because in fact she does not exist. She is just a metaphor for Fernanda and Victor's first artistic collaboration together: both its reason and its subject. Without her, they wouldn't exist as a couple working on a shared artistic enterprise:
"Us working together “only exists” because of her so weʼll only get rid of her (or sheʼll get rid of us) when we have decided the work is finished. Differently from many other artistsʼ partnerships, in our case, the subject itself ended up establishing the identity of our collaboration."
This is how they explain the presence of this stranger in their midst, Carolina, who is also referenced in decades of popular culture, like in the 1970s horror movie Poltergeist. 'Carol Anne - Don't Go into the Light!' is the epic cry at a turning point in the film. Or the same words turn up again in 2006 in that bricolage-showcase of popular culture, the american cartoon, South Park. Or again in the 1980s in Brazil, when Carolina was one of the most popular names of the day. The truth is Carolina has existed long before Fernanda and Victor:
she is a thread across time. And so with this timely timeless companion, Fernanda and Victor start beating their way to 12 lighthouses during October and November in 2008, along the leggy rugged coast of southwest of England. They discover lighthouses with names like Longships and St Just, Tater Du and Godrevy. Some can be only reached by sea. Others are perched precariously on cliff edges. Another one is found, unexpectedly, inland, stranded like an upturned whale hanging by its tail. Fernanda and Victor document everything, like the British adventurer William Dampier who is another source of inspiration for their project and who had even landed on the shores of Brazil:
"William Dampier was our inspiration to the explorerʼs aspect of Carolina: the way he investigated the world throughout his trips around the world as well as his drawing/writing documentations. For her, he is a sort of Google from the 17th century. In his diaries, he performed cut and paste of information, using his buccaneerʼs skills, to recreate the world filtered by his own eyes. During his time, in some ways he lit up and fired peopleʼs imaginations regarding the unreachable, and hardly known lands. "
Thus following in William Dampier's transverse-reverse-converse footsteps across time and place, Fernanda and Victor photograph, film, write, draw, sketch their way to and from all the lighthouses, recording every detail right down to the GPS coordinates. But where will their journeys lead after they have been finished? And how will two such distinct artists work together as artists, never mind as lovers? Carolina is like a protective shield with whom they guard themselves against what may happen. A talisman, or a charm, some would say. Or an angel. A charming angel of a metaphor, who unites them.
Yet at first glance Fernanda's and Victor's artistic work is worlds apart. It is difficult to second guess how Carolina is going to work her magic between them. Fernanda's work is intense and illustrative, with fine lines, a detailed intimacy and a raw sexuality. Her drawings are like the surrealist Leonora Fini's - exquisite in their illustrative detail and powered by imaginative scenarios, full- frontal in their celebration of the naked body, drawn with flowing delicate lines. Mushrooms impossibly bloom from a woman's vulva or between her breasts. Men and women copulate copiously and riotously in illustrative detail across the bareness of white paper, sometimes connected by the throat by a line pumping of blood. Fernanda describes her work as being 'like a medical textbook, a folio of classical drawings and the physical laboratory of a lunatic inventor.' Her work is represented by the celebrated Gallery Leme in Sao Paulo.
In contrast, Victor is an established video artist who works in film and has shown at international video art festivals. He started his career as a painter, but then moved into multi-media, investigating the worlds of architecture, literature and human experience in drawings, videos, performances, short films, radio soap operas and published texts. His work is highly literary and ideas driven- engaging with the world of philosophy, psychoanalysis and theory. Kant and Foucault litter the texts often accompanying his work which can be described as questioning, exploring and opening up psychological scenarios. It's engrossing to think how these two artists will work together - and what will happen both personally and artistically.
In the first days in the artists studio at Spike Island in Bristol, when the artistic journey on paper is about to begin and the physical journey has stopped, Fernanda sends out an initial outline of how they will work together. It is a togetherness which is initially a-part of the whole enterprise:
'We will dismember our trip on 12 parts, which are directly related to each lighthouse we have been to. As for each part we will develop a story, which will be represented in different medias, based on our true experience added to fictional elements. We have decided work apart for a few days, each of us developing stories/sketches/ideas based on each lighthouse we have been to. Having done that, we put our material together and then we create a third material, which our body of works will be based on.'
Ironically the book which has inspired 'Carolina Don't Go Into the Light,' To The Lighthouse', is one which can be read as a manifesto on the necessity of the individual artist being alone in order to make art. The text shows Virginia Woolf's belief in the solipsism being the necessary condition for creativity. And so it is, in her novel, that Lily Briscoe stands apart from the Ramsay family, cut off from them, as they play on the metaphoric rocks and go about family holiday on the Isle of Skye in Scotland whilst she paints. Lily can only do this by never emotionally connecting or becoming part of the family, standing in between the polar and gendered opposites of the philosophical and coldly rational Mr Ramsay and the emotional and poetical Mrs Ramsay. In the meantime, the light in Virginia Woolf's story and prose oscillates between the three of them: the male, the female and the figure of Lily who unites both male and female principles and cuts an androgynous figure. Perhaps Carolina is Fernanda's and Victor's Lily - the lone creative questor, uniting opposites of every kind.
Like Virginia Woolf's novel, too, Fernanda and Victor's work is an inquiry into the belief in the power of the individual to create art, which is an abiding driver of European and American modernism in the 20th century. This idea of the individual artist dates back to the Enlightenment and the philosophy of the primacy of self. In the 21st century however, this notion of the individual as artist is being dismantled and cracked apart by the open source creativity inspired by the web and the internet. In the 21st century digital age, time and space are no longer borders, but instead are superhighways to travel on. We can contact anyone at any time and any where. And there is more to it than even that. Web culture blends individual creativity with openness and lack of ownership, suggesting that an artist is the curator of an idea, not its sole owner and originator: any idea can be open to everyone and shared with others who are free to join in. Creativity is not something you keep to yourself.
This is where Fernanda and Victor's work is located, here and now, but even more dangerously and precariously so, by aligning the personal with the artistic relationship too. It is a collaboration, which has the potential to put everything on the line for these two distinct and very different artists - not just the work itself. The artistic process will make or break it all, but they are optimistic and have faith in this together apart-ness:
I think that in some parts of our collaborative process there is a discrepancy. However, we're using our divergences as tools for making the works. Like the way we put our ideas individually, and then we gather them to create something out of it. It's a bit like an alchemic process of putting two elements together in order to get a third one.
I think there is a point of distance in our work, but at the same time there is a counterpoint, too. I observe a particular and clear distance in the physical compositions, techniques, traces, etc. but in other way there is a great connection when we look at our processes of creation before the execution of our individual work.
They come together to share ideas and directions for their painting and their stories. That is where their artistic process meets - in the conceptual discussion, which happens between them, and their response and readings of their adventures to the lighthouses and to the people and the places they encounter. But the openness to creativity being achieved outside the self does not stop just with them as a couple. Other collaborators are invited to take part in the artistic process too, with Fernanda and Victor sending out a call to artists and writers to join Carolina. One man is filmed telling the story of a friend who went into the light and possibly committed suicide. The appeal he makes on film is at the same time one for his disappeared friend to get in touch as well as a warning to Carolina. Another woman rushes from her home, at the dead of night, hurtling out into the street with her apron still on. She begs Carolina not to go to the light. No-one sees Carolina's purpose as anything but dangerous. How will she survive? A musician from Finland composes some music inspired by the story.
But the togetherness does have an apart-ness. At least at first. At the beginning of the Spike Island residency, when Fernanda and Victor are starting on the pictures, they work truly apart and separately at opposite ends of the studio. Victor draws in charcoal fantastical towers, which are at once the lighthouses, but also at the same time are something completely different. Some are like futurist skyscrapers, others like brutalist architectural drawings or ziggurats from ancient times. All stand as iconic and ready for a game as giant chess pieces. He also leaves or creates great white spaces - hollows sometimes, at other times platforms on top of a structure or stretched out like an apron in front. It's to these places that Fernanda then comes to work, bringing her delicacy of line and a different intensity, as naked figures squirm, wriggle, squat, kneel and stand in a kama sutra of postures and positions.
"This is Tater Du lighthouse. It's the one which took us ages to find - two goes in fact because the GPS coordinates were wrong."
Fernanda says this, standing in front of a huge swathe of paper, which runs half the length of one studio wall. A stubby lighthouse stands in the left hand corner, and in front, on a platform of activity, naked faceless and face- obscured women squirm, wriggle, kneel in an array postures and positions. What links them is that their hair is profuse, curling like snakes, sometimes covering their faces, sometimes binding their wrists or legs together, at other times clothing their whole bodies so they are one walking-length of hair. The picture is profoundly uncanny and surreal - suggesting both male and female surrealists like Max Ernst and Meret Oppenheim. The women are bound and gagged by invisible tides of wind, thrown into postures of abjection, suggesting a sexual enslavement and abject rapture too.
On the second attempt to get to Tater Du, Fernanda and Victor noted in their diary and script of their excursion, that the gates were locked, and more besides:
"There are three signs hanging, which say:
1st sign-TATER DU HAIR SALONLet the winds comb your hair Open daily from 10am - 10pm
2nd sign- CLOSED
3rd sign-ACCESS FORBIDDEN"
"That's why the women's hair is all over this picture" Fernanda says.
"The place is a hair salon, where the wind is a hair stylist, who combs and styles your hair in so many different ways."
Opposite the Tater Du picture, another picture runs the whole length of the other wall. Two lighthouses, one which isn't so dissimilar from the Empire State Building, the other like a Le Corbusier tower, stand on opposing shores, their beams intersecting in the middle of a turbulent chiacurso sea. In the crossbeam, stands a giant pig, with perky pickled eyes and a wrinkled snout, standing in the midst of a pool of potatoes. Every bristle on his body is picked out - even the piggy-pinkness of his skin in fine detail - in contrast to the great monolithic black and white representations of Lizard and St Ann's lighthouse, drawn by Victor.
"Do you know that when there was once a shipwreck off one of the coasts, that the only survivor which was found was a pig floating amongst a tide of potatoes?" Fernanda is smiling as she tells tales. "And do you know, that where the pig was found are the great rocks known as the Manacles? Thousands of years across, this was in fact a giant natural statue of a pig in the middle of the sea, just like the Colossus of Rhodes. The Manacles is but a fragment of what used to be there, and there are plans to reinstate it with a giant pig hologram."
Telling tales is an essential part of the couple's artwork - picking up from Virginia Woolf and the narratives we weave out of existence. Fernanda is writing stories which tell of the couples' journeys and encounters to the lighthouses - but do they tell the truth? And when exactly were they written too? Before or after the event - or even after the picture have been made? She tells another tale this time, about St Johns, lighthouse that turns light into music. The tower is not a lighthouse in a conventional sense: it doesn't house a beacon or one of those huge oscillating mirrors. But instead, apparently, St John's is a conduit for all the light in the world, which then gets sucked down its tower to be stored underground in a chamber where it is transformed into sound. It then emanates as strange music from the scores of foxholes which stud the landscape around St Johns - much to the locals' surprise and wonderment. A composer Fernanda and Victor met on their travels has even made music inspired by this.
And of course this tale is reflected in the large picture on another wall: a stubby squat building, shrouded in darkness, below which and underground is a pyramid-shaped chamber bathed in light, in which naked women clap and chant. These pictures with their accompanying myths are pure fabrication - in the best senses of the word. They are made with the artistic tools which Victor and Fernanda have at their disposal to release their imaginations: words, pen, charcoal, music, video and their experiences to the lighthouse itself. It is difficult to know where the lines between fact and fiction begin and end - the unsettling experience of reading modernist fiction which Virginia Woolf deliberately played with, when she mixed her memories of her mother and father, with fiction in To the Lighthouse.
Fernanda is adamant that the tales they are telling in their work and in words cannot be told in her mother tongue of Portuguese:
"I have thought and dreamt about these ideas in English. So the stories are written in English because it is through another language that I discover new ways of seeing, finding the lighthouses and telling tales. They are stories and experiences which just could not be told in Portuguese. They would be something completely different"
And five months later, as the artistic project is coming to an end in the UK, the way Fernanda and Victor have worked together has changed. Whereas at the beginning they worked at separate ends of the Spike Island studio, they now can work on literally the same paper, side by side, even if Fernanda describes Victor's work as messy, whereas her's is neat and particular. But the practice remains the same: Victor makes the first marks on the paper, making the setting and frame for the whole work. Fernanda brings the colour, making the connections between inside and outside worlds and the stories they are both telling.
They also reveal in their last few days in the studio, that the drawings in a sense start writing stories before they have finished them. Hence the blurring and the sense of giddiness when Fernanda spins yet another web of words in the freedom of a foreign language.
Then Victor and Fernanda throw open the doors and hold an open studio on the day before they leave. People drift in and feel compelled to stay when they hear the stories and glance at the huge pictures which line the walls with their surreal intensity. A psychoanalyst breaks into the silence with a candour which in England is shattering. "You have to be lovers. Only lovers could have made these works."
And so Carolina - and by default, Fernanda and Victor come into the light - though the work has yet to be finished. The light is now being carried back to Brazil to be completed and pursued still further on different shores, in different light.
Light is said to have three primary characteristics - intensity, frequency/wavelength and polarization. All these oscillate and change, but the three physical ingredients of light always remain the same. The artistic process of 'Carolina Don't Go Into the Light,' reflects the very subject Fernanda and Victor are trying to capture - the properties of light. Like 'To the Lighthouse', the work oscillates in its intensity, timing and movement between the opposites it investigates. Fernanda and Victor are light seekers who have become in their personal and artistic journey, light keepers too, bringing it home to Sao Paulo. Carolina goes into the light - and is coming out the other side. But in what final form is yet to be seen as the work continues In Brazil. 'Carole Anne don't go into the light' might have been the cry in a 1970s horror movie called 'Poltergeist'. But in this particular case, the horror would have been never to have gone there in the first place. And never to have even dared.