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.