What’s the difference between a test tube and a post-apocalyptic landscape? Between an aquarium and the primitive ocean? Time and the presence of people. The idea of someone watching. Controlling.
In one of these alternatives that presence does not exist. What always exists is the development – natural or not – of an autonomous microcosm, of an ecosystem far from the trace of human danger. Before or after the catastrophe – it may not matter – but close to what we have come to call the natural environment, aka Nature. A concept we have always struggle to relate without falling into the dichotomy between pure pre-Adamic innocence versus capitalistic utilitarianism.
It’s difficult not to think of Stalker (1979), Andrey Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, when discovering Paulo Arraiano’s Biophilia. This isn’t only because of the wonderful dreamlike and disturbing aesthetics of the works – raising critical questions of the anthropocene, climate change and environmental catastrophes – but also because they seem to investigate closely related problems of the horizon of the future – all the science fiction aesthetics that we see in them, the interior self and even a certain personal spirituality intimately connected with the environment.
Nor is the title of the work accidental, “biophilia is an innate and natural affinity of life or living systems. The term was first used by Erich Fromm to describe a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital”. Aristotle was “one of many to put forward a concept that could be summarized as ‘love of life’. Diving into the term philia, or friendship, Aristotle evokes the idea of reciprocity and how friendships are beneficial to both parties in more than just one way, but especially in the way of happiness”, the text clarifies. In this sense, what comes into play in this case is our relationship, as human beings, with nature, the so-called capitalocene and the bond between human and non-human life. And, indeed, what interests me in the way that the work has been installed is that recourse to the idea of the aquarium, to the protective bubble inserted in the heart of a “transparent body made of glass skin and metal”. There is something eschatological in this double mise-en-abyme that awakens feelings of nostalgia and fear. Both at the same time. Maybe because mankind seems absent here. We are in front of pure nature. But a double nature in a way. A supposedly pure nature on the outside. And a sort of artificial nature – guarded and perhaps generated – inside.
What is the true version of it? The one we are destroying outside or the one we are trying to save inside? Is there such thing as a true nature?
Because, in fact, here the visitor finds himself in a kind of intermediate space, in the Emmanuele Coccia sense, of a place where “reality becomes sensitive, becomes a phainomenon”, i.e. visible. The spectator seems to be wrapped in a natural world – and he is – but without ever having real access to it, he always finds himself with a crystal that mediates that relationship, transforming all possible contact with “the world” into an image. In fact, “the extreme aspect of exteriority is only populated with images”, as Coccia reminds us when trying to define a new subject-object approach he calls “sensible life”. Plato’s famous fable of the cave is still very present – with an external, unattainable and pure world and an interior, unknown and malleable reality – although here we start to understand a logic beyond classical metaphysics. On the one hand, the big window continues to be the impossible attempt of a realistic representation of the world, with all that this refers to: romantic painting, the birth of frame or the idea of screen. We can’t escape that tendency to romanticise nature when looking outside; a kind of “theologisation” of the natural, a paradisiacal idea of a (falsely) welcoming, somehow anthropomorphic, environment. On the other hand we find a curious transparent aquarium that seems imagined to re-create or save life. Or at least save natural life. There’s an idea of an innocent nature present, but the clearly artificial installation immediately defuses that temptation. Here’s a second chamber “a uterus made with hi temperature sand, lava stones, water, aquatic plants and smoke.” And it does seem like an autonomous biosphere created to house life. But, at the same time, it also looks like a relic: a grave or a cabinet made to preserve something that is disappearing.
Although it clearly functions as a self-sufficient universe, it is in this case impossible to ignore the human dimension – what are these wheels for and where to move this universe? We are here in an indeterminate zone, outside an aquarium but inside a building, looking but also maybe being observed, in this exact in-between area of the axolotl in Julio Cortazar’s famous short story. The aesthetic display works with the idea of metalepsis, postmodern irony, the infinite 71 representation that blurs the absolute referent; the cave has become a parody. There is no longer any metaphysical dichotomy. Quite the opposite. We are facing what Coccia calls the “metaphysics of mixing.” Not from a fusion with the natural but instead from the appearance of the artificial in the natural, a reflection on transhumanism and a certain technobiology. The glass (bio)forms look like mollusks or aliens and the screens are now born from the earth.
Between the comforting temptation of landscape, the danger of natural extinction and the emergence of technology. In that ethereal and unstable mist that surrounds the embryo and that the building encloses. Outside and inside. Dominating or letting go. Monitoring the reality and being absorbed by it. Because if it is true, as the title implies, that humans have to reconnect with their innate biophilia, perhaps the most important question is not what bios we want or what bios await us, but what is the right way of loving – what philia we want. That is to say, how far to stand from what we cherish, how to look at what is loved and how to interact with it. Without objectifying it but without sanctifying it either. If it is also true that life is “the ability to preserve and produce images”, as Coccia says about sensible life, our gaze is then intimately linked to our way of caring. And Arraiano’s installation is, as well as an attempt to “love life” again, also an attempt to look at it properly again. A way to be a good stalker. Maybe the same way as the protagonist of Tarkovsky’s movie enters what he calls The Zone.
Aurélien Le Genissel