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.