Joao Ribas on Ernesto Caivano

The stars are the matrix of all the plants, every star in the sky only the spiritual prefiguration of a plant, just as each herb or plant is a terrestrial star in spiritual form, which differs from the terrestrial

plants in matter alone…

Crollius, 1624


We are connected to every part of the universe, as with future and prehistory.

Novalis, 1798


As the unfolding of Western thought evinces, archaic forms often seem, in the clarity of hindsight, to reach beyond their time and towards what can only be later articulated by novel ones.  If the character of cinema is largely predicated on the narrative structures of its direct antecedent, the 19th century Victorian novel—say in the prevalent use of analepsis, or ‘flash-back’— it is only by virtue of the technology of the former that the later fully comes into view. Perhaps, as Benjamin suggested, only with the existence of cinema can the scope of the epic be comprehended. It is thus as if the correlative of such reality must wait for later form in order to be rendered, the way the internet fulfills the dream of the 18th century Encyclopedists.

The same can be said for the logic of Western thought itself—for the epistemic complexities that define the putative narrative of human understanding. As modern science attempts to dispel what was hinted at in earlier mythic form, it often merely corroborates the character, if not the truth-value, of such modes of storytelling.  The task of poetry or myth becomes then to find an answer to T.S. Eliot’s apt questioning: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge”; “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Precisely this mythopoetic function of narrative lies at the core of the tale of ecstatic self-obliteration and parallel destiny that permeates the work of Ernesto Caivano, a story of courtship, denouement and return, lived in the possibility of communion. A syncretist amalgam of folklore, fairytale, and scientific speculation, Caivano’s narrative serves as a search for meaning lost in our own abundance of information. Polygon and Versus, the Wagnerian heroes of the tale---in their lost wandering towards voluptuous self-effacement—are woven through what is an allegory of human progress, yet also a warning about all that is lost in our supposed successive gaining of further, deeper understanding.

Accordingly, Caivano takes as his starting point the very origins of humanist understanding, in the reconciliation of competing stories about the nature of the world that marks the Renaissance (the work itself reflects the graphic style of one of its paragons, Albrecht Dürer). In the post-apocalyptic world of the late Middle Ages—nearly half of the population having been killed by Bubonic plague—an ordering of knowledge emerges which precedes the distinctly modern character of scientific reasoning. It is through a complex universe of polyphonic similitude, sign following sign onto the face of God, that the early Renaissance episteme approaches the ordering of the universe.  In rigorous unity, a beatific world of related concordances and analogies, of allegory and sympathy, folds into itself science, magic, and the wisdom of ancient authority (in the Homeric figure). This symbolical vision---St. Paul’s videmus nunc per speculum—finds parity between magic and scientific speculation, between the science of optics and Alchemy, or the poetics of a divine hermeneutic and the mechanics of Newtonian physics.

Everywhere the Renaissance mind sees a signature of divine creation-- what Constable called the “hieroglyphics” of the natural world. In such a sympathetic universe, phenomena are so many mirrors: the pelican, known to sacrifice its own flesh for its young, becomes an emblem for the suffering and sacrifice of Christ. Stars become the cosmic prefiguration of plants.  Caivano finds in this Renaissance scale of understanding the cultural origins of both perspective, and thus the modern character of perception, as well as of the coded allegories of chivalry and courtship, the veiled symbolism of sexual union.

In contrast to this fullness of sign and symbol in the world lies the retreat of phenomena into the limits of representation. As a result, Bertrand Russell’s “twofold human impulses” of mysticism and logic become diametrically opposed. In place of the chain of correspondences that defines the neo-Platonic universe—where microcosm mirrors macrocosm---enters a fallacy of positivism: the belief that the deeper one could peer into levels of reality, the more fundamental truths could be discovered. Thus the smaller something could be split, the truer it ought be as a result. In fact, the opposite turned out to be the case: the laws of quantum mechanics have upset almost everything scientific thought could claim about the physical universe—the complexity of which now seems a lot closer to mysticism than logic. As a result, the figures of mythic speculation seem more and more to presage the complexity of contemporary science (as say how ideas of ‘synchronous particles’ relate to the logic of correspondences), or at least to suggest a version of its eventual unfolding.

In their paradisal state, the agents in Caivano’s allegory traverse a Blakean landscape permeated by such a world of signs and correspondences (where blue stands for male, or Versus, and red for female, or Polygon, for example). The origin point of the tale---titled After the Woods---is in fact the exhausted aftermath of orgasmic fulfillment. The moment of conception is also the moment of the Fall, of the collapse of historical time into the pre-scientific notion of eschatological time. The lovers are transported into the world of the narrative, and thus separated, precisely by an act of union. Their own disintegration leads to the increasingly entropic landscape—the modeled shards, oscillating between molecular and cosmic, that appear in the sweeping Echo series of drawings—overcome by strife and technology in the attempt at eventual reconciliation. The crystalline forms of the Gambit drawings stand as symbols of deferred elation, remnants of diffusion and disintegration; the genetic information implied in mitosis is suggested by abstract geometrical forms of the Chroma Transmission drawings; while coded relays are sent by the separated lovers, themselves allegories for a Hegelian Bildungsroman of human self-consciousness, through majestic epicene birds called “philapores,” dispersing traces and echoes of their longing through the Baroque detail of their open wings.

The return of the lovers to their prelapsarian state relies precisely in the rearrangement of all knowledge—in an Edenic world of totality.  What Caivano has wrought in his work, as a result, is the taxonomy of an entire order of a universe, an index of motifs that stands as one of the most expansive in contemporary art. These he draws from myth, in its classical amalgam of tragedy, luck, and fate; folktales, in their reproduction of social cohesion through a cautionary moralism; and fairytales, with their normative ethics of fulfillment. In confronting the nature of narrativity, the truths we find in the stories we tell about ourselves, Caivano follows the basic typology of narrative structures that can be traced from Beowulf to Die Zauberflote and The Lord of the Rings (separation, trial, and return) or what Vladimir Propp called the “morphology” of such elements.

Yet to these archaic forms Caivano relates the kind of speculative science—as say in the form of nanotechnology, or manufacturing at the molecular level of matter—that seems to affirm the underlying logic of symbolic narratives. In this there is an implied normative dimension, in the fact that the injurious potential of science moves faster than the ethical or moral understanding these narratives attempt to convey. So as we peer into farthest point of the universe we see its actual beginning—the distance time and history itself—so the origin of the story is also its eventual culmination, but only through 1000 years of wandering.


João Ribas


João Ribas (b. 1979, Braga, Portugal) is a widely published critic and Curator at The Drawing Center in New York. His writing on art, cinema, design, and literature appears in a variety of publications worldwide, and he has contributed essays to numerous exhibition catalogs and monographs. He is the curator of several retrospectives, group shows, projects, and surveys in the United States and abroad, including, Frederick Kiesler: Co-Realities, Drawing Center, New York, 2008 and New Economy, Artists Space, New York, 2007.

Tom Morton on Ernesto Caivano

To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

- William Blake, Auguries of Innocence (1800-03)


Mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of men.

- Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertuis (1940)


I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as there were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me.

- Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760-7).


The most extensive computation known has been conducted over the last billion year on a planet-wide scale: it is the evolution of life.

- David Rogers, Weather Prediction Using a Genetic Memory (1990).


We were all of us, once, irreducible. At the moment of our conception, a sperm and an ovum combined to create a zygote, a single cell that contained our entire genetic code. Soon, though, the process of mitosis began, and the zygote split into a clump of two, then four, then eight cells, which would, after trillions of further divisions, finally resemble something we recognize as ourselves. We might imagine our brief zygotic state as one of perfection, in which we existed as pure information, and pure potentiality. Then, time had not worked on us, and reality had not begun to shape us to its own, difficult purposes. If this is so, then perhaps mitosis, our very first existential step forward, is a kind of Fall.

The ink drawings in Ernesto Caivano’s ongoing project After the Woods (2003-present) turn on the cleaving of a cell, and the human wound that act of cleaving leaves. While the tale they tell begins, according to the artist, ‘with a black dot’ (something that speaks of both the simplest geometric entity, the point, and the novelist’s full stop), he has yet to put this Big Bang moment down on paper, so it is perhaps best to take things up a little later, in the narrative equivalent of the Plank epoch. A man and a woman, Versus and Polygon, make love, their gametes meeting to form a new life. At the moment of mitosis, they are summoned to a parallel world (once, but no longer, inhabited by humans) by its sentient ecosystem, which separates them for a thousand years by placing Versus in a chivalric past, and the now-pregnant Polygon in a sci-fi future, mocking their union and mimicking the rapidly dividing cells of their unborn child. The purpose is to challenge them, but this is not an Old Testament narrative in which obedience is tested by temptation, and hereditary shame forms the wages of sin. Rather, the lovers’ task is to learn how to communicate with each other, and in so doing give the ecosystem an insight into a species that, as a result of as-yet undisclosed events, long ago ceased to be a part of it. It’s perhaps useful, here, to take a look at the couple’s names. ‘Versus’ suggests aggressive opposition, and more specifically the scientific term used to describe the variables in a line graph (say speed and time), the Versus computer programming language, and perhaps even the seminal Italian semiotics journal Versus, founded by Umberto Eco in 1971. ‘Polygon’ evokes a simple two dimensional geometric figure made up of at least three lines which divides the plane on which it exists into two regions, that inside it and that outside it, but also polygon modeling in 3D computer graphics, the POLYGON electronic warfare tactics range on the French-German border, and the Semipalatinsk Polygon in Kazahkstan, the primary nuclear weapons testing facility of the Soviet Era. Each of these monikers speaks of (violent) division, but also of attempts to transmit information. The male protagonist of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) may have skeptically wondered ‘What’s in a name?’, but for Caivano’s sundered pair, it’s something close to destiny.

Stranded in their different time zones, the lovers undergo metamorphosis, or perhaps evolution, he into an armoured paladin, she into a spaceship (we might reflect, here, on the similarities between their shining shells, which speak of protection against hostile elements, and a certain questing spirit). These changes allow Versus and Polygon to change the world around them, respectively influencing the development of flora and fauna and of technology, the ‘natural’ and the ‘man-made’. Across time, they attempt to communicate with each other by shedding parts of themselves into their environment, which broadcasts this DNA- or programming code-like ‘information’ through various means, including the feathers of Philapores, an elaborately plumed species of bird which, while it is incapable of conventional flight, can travel through matter, including logs, dust and waterfalls. (Along with their predators, the Chevelure – a hybrid of a goat, bear, sloth and lion that represents humankind’s hedonistic, Dionysian impulses – we might imagine the Philapores as apocryphal entries in Jorge Luis Borges’ 1957 bestiary The Book of Imaginary Beings).

For all the apparent binary opposites in play in Caivano’s project (among them male / female, nature / technology, reason / mysticism) what he points to, ultimately, is the interconnectedness of all things. From a certain point of view, even the lovers’ longing to be back together obscures the fact that they are really not apart. If we could perceive the temporal as we do the spatial - that is to say simultaneously - we would realize that time is something very much like a single object, a tuning fork along whose length vibrations thrum forward, and maybe back, too. This, though, is not our default vision of the universe. Contained within our bodies, and our consciousnesses, we imagine ourselves as hermetic entities, while all the while we are atomizing, our physical and metaphysical beings gradually reducing themselves to an oddly fertile kind of dust.

In Caivano’s White Cube show, the presiding metaphors are dispersal, seeding, and growth. In his drawing Landings (all work 2008) we see what might be an orrery or star map, at the centre of which is a dense black circle, which recalls both the profane Sol Niger of alchemical tradition, and the ‘Solar Anus’ described by George Bataille in his 1931 short text of the same name. (We should note that the French philosopher begins his text with the words: ‘It is clear that the world is purely parodic, in other words, that each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.’). From this motif radiate a number of thin, straight lines, which here and there thread through further circular motifs, some simple black orbs, other resembling models of hydrogen atoms, or symbols belonging to a secretive and sacred geometry. In the mythology of Caivano’s After the Woods, Landings relates to the moment of impact when Polygon was transported to the parallel world’s future, whereupon she scattered what the artist refers to as ‘code’ through space-time, like ripples on the surface of a pond, or matter foaming from the fountain head of a fresh-born universe. But if she appears to operate, in the piece, along the lines of a Pythagorean Monad (the symbol of which is, tellingly, a black dot in the centre of a perfect circle) or Aristotlean Prime Mover, such a figure is not necessarily implied in Caivano’s three series of drawings Echo, Gambit and Chroma Transmissions.

In the Echo series, we see numerous tiny particles, formed into shapes that bring to mind both dust clouds rising from beaten rugs, and the counter-intuitively impermanent appearance of the Milky Way. Other analogies, of course, suggest themselves – swarms of insects and the hot belching of volcanoes, bacteria gliding across a slide and the grey dappled face the Moon shows the Earth – and we get to thinking about the formal chime of the micro and the macro, of the poet William Blake’s entreaty to ‘see the universe in a grain of sand’. Has some form of entropy set in on the lovers’ faraway planet, or do these grouping and regrouping particles (with their chaos, and their order) speak of the irrepressibility of life? Similarly, the Gambit series swims with what might be the shattered fragments of a gemstone, with all the loss of value that that implies, or the dry, flaky remnants of a butterfly pupa, shucked off now that its incubating work is done. For the artist, the term ‘Echo Gambit’ describes the risk we take when we put something of ourselves (most obviously a child, but perhaps also an idea or even a legacy of kindness or its lack) out into the world, which essentially is that we will have an influence that will outlive us. Every entity, every event, is blessed or cursed to take this gamble - even now, if we had ears to listen, we could still hear the echo of the Big Bang ringing in the air. Perhaps this message speaks through the Chroma Transmissions drawings, which are characterized by long, intersecting bars of sequenced colour that zap across the surface of the paper, like a message speeding towards in recipient. The shapes created by these bars resemble complex polygons, geometric figures that do not have a well defined inside or outside. Given Caivano’s female protagonist’s name, his Chroma Transmissions series seems to hold out the hope that bodies and minds will evolve, barriers will be overcome, and – despite the specters of distance and loss, and the dull ache of frustrated desire – the interdependence of all things will be laid bare.

Caivano’s invented universe is in many ways very different from our own, but it also holds a mirror up to it. Advancements in applied science, notably nanotechnology and genetic engineering, have eroded the breakwaters between what we once considered the ‘natural’ and ‘technological’ fields, while quantum physics currently posits explanations of the physical world which would appear every bit as fantastical to an Enlightenment rationalist as those of a crazed mystic. In one sense, After the Woods is a Petri dish, a controlled environment in which the artist might isolate and test ideas, just as the sentient ecosystem did to Versus and Polygon. There’s always a chance, however, that a Petri dish will break, spilling its contents into the world, to pollinate or infect it with its spores. Given that Caivano’s method of communication is the artwork offered up for public consumption, its arguable that this has already happened. Far from being stranded on a distant planet, the lovers, it seems, never left home.


Tom Morton

Tom Morton is Contributing Editor for frieze magazine and a Curator at The Hayward Gallery, London.