Geometry and Landscape

Aurora García

Landscapes have always been present as a broad concept in Javier Riera’s work since his beginnings as an artist. In his previous periods, his painting evoked the union of inner nature with the external, in the awareness that this unity is not forced. Instead, it responds to principles in which the cosmos and the psyche are in intimate connection. Nonetheless, it is the force of the mind which illuminates the substance and phenomena of the universe, allowing them to be acted upon (which does not always mean fully understanding and mastering them). Jung stated that “the psyche perturbs a cosmos ordered in accordance with natural laws; and if at some point, by splitting the atom, we come to have some influence on the moon, this will have been achieved by the psyche. It is the axis of the world and, beyond being the prime condition for the existence of the world, it also represents an intrusion into the existing natural order…” (1). In other words, without Man’s mental activity
–without the exploration that the spirit and the human sensory sphere engage in by observing our surroundings– the existence of the universe would remain outside our intelligence and our imagination. It would mean the end of the greatest distinctive trait that Man has, compared to other types of animal life. Man cannot separate himself from Nature because he is also Nature despite being distinguished by his intellectual capacity: the very ability that allows him to illuminate that link and to act on his environment, broadening his personal and collective horizon. But it is a different matter when such action is taken in a way that systematically destroys and annihilates the natural environment. This sort of situation is, unfortunately, providing much cause for conversation in this era of big business and control, when everything seems to be within the grasp of quite a number of unscrupulous hands.

The Man-Nature union is so indissoluble that Nicolas Grimaldi observed: “as Balzac foresaw, when nature speaks it does nothing more than respond to our own voice.” (2). That sentiment expressed by the great French writer of 19th century realism takes on very different shades of meaning (although stemming from the same opinion about the connection that we are concerned with) in the theory that fed the so-called Philosophy of Nature in Germany. Its primary mentor, Schelling, tried to reconcile idealism with Nature, highlighting Nature’s visible spirit in contrast to the invisible spirit, also Nature, of the Self. The postulates of that Naturphilosophie were born and spread in a Romantic background that gave rise to great artists whose legacy continues to this day. In this sense, Javier Riera has confessed his attraction for the figures of Friedrich and Carus right from the start, though the formalization of his work has followed a different course, in keeping with the media and languages of his era.

Carus, for example –also known as a theoretician, primarily for his Nine Letters on Landscape Painting (1831)– was knowledgeable in a broad range of fields. So it was not incongruous that he earned degrees in both philosophy and medicine, studied geology and botany, and dedicated himself to painting. This context, in which Goethe’s “boundless knowledge” held so much influence, gave rise to a framework and to a splendorous period in German culture. Carus hoped to access the nature of Nature, which he considered an immense living organism. On a trip to the Scottish Hebrides with Federico Augusto de Sajonia (Carus was his doctor), the sight of Fingal’s Cave in 1844 solidified his interest in the physiognomy of the landscape. Thereafter, he devoted himself not just to drawing the outer aspect of the beautiful, surprising basalt formations outside the cave and especially the formations within that cavern by the sea, but also to paying scientific attention to them. Thus, as he wrote, “the study of all natural objects leads us to consider an exterior aspect and an interior aspect. The exterior gives us the intuitive idea of the whole, while the interior offers us the parts. Only the two aspects together give the complete idea of the general essence of this natural object”. (3) A different visit to Fingal’s Cave also inspired one of his contemporaries: the Romantic composer Mendelssohn, who wrote the Hebrides Overture, Opus 26, in 1829 immediately after experiencing the prodigious sound of the water in that place.

Perhaps Carus’ greatest contribution to landscape painting was that he reclaimed, for art, the necessary link between the superficial and an object’s structural, internal, component aspects. This link brought with it the model for inspiration. That double line of knowledge is not essentially different from the one followed later by that great innovator of pictorial language: Cézanne. He, too, wanted to understand the entrails of his mountain, the so-often painted Mont Sainte-Victoire, very near to Aix-en-Provence. Cézanne came to profess his interest in geology alongside his belief in using basic geometry (cylinders, spheres, and cones) to depict nature, surely because the geological viewpoint imposed that order on the brush for him, in keeping with the natural ordering of the territory, in specific, of the previously mentioned calcareous mass near his home. Cézanne also shows how the modern artist is not removed from the advances achieved in the field of science, just as his innovations in artistic expression would immediately leave traces in later avant-garde movements like Cubism. Indeed, Picasso would detest the lack of solidity in impressionist painting, which diluted reality, though he would come to appreciate the special systematic energy in the work of the master from Aix. Cézanne died in 1906, the same year that Cubist painting was being developed by the genius from Malaga, who would be joined by Braque in contributing to that groundbreaking movement.

We cover all of this because it may serve to briefly highlight where the very different path currently being followed by Javier Riera can be placed in the context of achievements in the history of contemporary art. Some three years ago, Riera’s research on different aspects of landscapes shifted its focus from paintbrushes to media derived from photography, projecting geometric forms (often not lacking in symbolic meaning) directly upon Nature. His 2008 exhibit in the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid reflected changes he has made in his approach to landscapes, without substantially cutting himself off from his earlier work as a painter. On that occasion, Riera exhibited a set of photographic works that are the result of a complex process. The first step is to select the locale to which he travels physically just before dawn, to project previously prepared slides of computer-generated simple or compound geometric forms. These light-images –projected primarily onto vegetation in the dark landscape and in the first glimmers of daylight– opened him up to new conceptual possibilities in which factors relating to time, for instance, took on a greater reality than in painting. The artist as an individual, on the other hand, remained more in the margin of the content of his work, and the abstract impulses of his first expressionist period are replaced by the protagonism of the impulses of nature outside himself. The superimposition of the projected geometry upon the landscape also gave emphasis to a double question which remains elemental for Riera: the conviction of the basic order that guides the formation of nature, and the aim to not hide the symbolic meaning that this has generated in Man over the course of millennia.

In the second part of Human, Too Human, Nietzsche realizes the following: “I see that all the landscapes that consistently please me contain, in their diversity, a simple figure of geometric lines. Without any similar mathematical substratum, no area will come to be an artistic gift for the gaze. And it is possible that this rule can be applied symbolically to Man.” (4) In a few lines, the philosopher sums up his attraction to a natural harmony of geometric relationship which he links with the qualities of art. But he won’t be alone in that thought. Rilke, in turn, said something similar: “Art is the passion for the totality. Its result: serenity and balance of the numerically complete.” (5) Now then, Javier Riera has no intention to undertake a work that is purely descriptive of the exterior aspect of the landscape, moreover so unstable and continuously modified before our eyes by the temporal action that changes of various types make, including ones of light. Instead, he emphasizes other, more real factors that highlight the the effects of time, while delving deeper, although in an ambiguous way, into the idea of the non-gratuity of natural forms, indicating in passing the symbolic richness cultivated over the course of centuries from the sustaining geometry of those formations. It consists of an effort which contrasts to a strong degree with the course of contemporary society, where “the more [the observer] contemplates, the less he lives; when the more he is willing to recognize himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desire. The external nature of spectacle in relation to man as an active agent manifests itself in the fact that his own behaviors cease to be his own and instead become those of someone else who acts them out for him. The reason the observer does not feel at home anywhere is that spectacle is everywhere,” (6) Guy Debord pointed out.

The keys which illuminate Javier Riera’s recent work –and we refer now specifically to the work conceived for the exhibit in the Barjola Museum, in Gijón– follow very different courses than those highlighted by Debord in the previous citation. The spectacle offered by the projected images does not detach from Nature nor from the spectator’s conscience with the aim of alienating him and offering him a panorama far removed from his life and thinking; on the contrary, the succession of photographs –conceived primarily from ideas of temporality and geometry applied to the landscape– come to harmonize with the human condition itself, which like Nature in general is subject to the dictates of time and its ruptures, but is also by necessity linked since its inception with the history of a culture which it enriches until the present. It is as if the artist wanted to open the observer’s eyes wider to the background they form a part of, since Man can thereby advance in his own knowledge, delving deeper into the understanding and into the enigmas of the natural environment, with the help of a good guide. To break ties with Nature is a dangerous fiction of this technological era where Man prefers to be in the clouds (in a figurative sense) rather than placing his feet on the ground from which he comes and is a part of.

Engaged in similar work (in terms of their immersion in the relationships between Art, Nature, and Science) one finds international artists of Riera’s same generation, like Olafuer Eliasson and Carsten Nicolai, to cite only two successful names, both convinced that Art is a path for Knowledge, attentive to a reflexive approach which is necessary in this era of so much meaningless product with attractive packaging that the powerful marketplace of a consumerist society saturates everywhere and whose dazzling also affects creativity, and many of today’s artistic images. In response to that, contemplation with Art can be accompanied, beyond visual images as in the case of Nicolai, by investigations with sound. This art shows that the use of technology has the capacity to generate something positive for Man’s cultural enrichment. But the proximity to science is not also at variance with the consideration of the symbolic terrain, through which human cultures have expressed themselves since ancient times, and the discoveries of the present do not need to discard, as if they did not exist, the legacy of the past. Mircea Eliade lucidly wrote that “images make up openings toward a trans-historic world. This is not the least of their merits: thanks to them, different “histories” can be communicated.” (7) And that is, in short, what Javier Riera seems to look for in his work Secuencias (Sequences), a projection of around 150 composed images where he thrusts geometric forms into the landscape and which has the double value of fieldwork (action) and of laboratory with computer.

They are images, those by Riera, which speak of the un-explorable passage of time and of the transformations this produces, although, in general, they deliberately renounce giving detailed clues of the present. In this sense, they tie in to a trans-temporal atmosphere which comes to enliven memory from the landscape, the closeness to science, and the possibility of reverting to symbol, often contained in the same geometry and its derivations. Secuencias is moreover a work of phenomenologic roots where the emphasis is placed on the perception of temporality, for, now following Bachelard, “the phenomenology of the imagination must take on the work of capturing the ephemeral self. Precisely, phenomenology teaches by the very brevity of the image.”(8). Riera treats said brevity by allowing each image to be viewed by the spectator for three seconds, a span of time that echoes the rapidity of his photographic shots in a landscape illuminated at first only by the projector’s spotlight in the dark moments before dawn, and later also by the quick evolution of the light of daybreak, which winds up diluting the projected illumination (and image). In other works, which don’t make up a formal series like that of Secuencias, there are moments when the artist prefers to act upon the landscape in those moments between the fall of day and the entrance of the night. These works are made independently of one another, even if they are part of the general concept which Riera is developing and can be shown successively on the same screen, as we can see in the twenty slides projected on the wall of the area before the Trinity Chapel in the Barjola Museum.

The geometric forms cast by the light on the landscape, superimposed on it in an actuation which has to do with painting where layers of color and various motifs accumulate upon a base, usually transparent, just as, in Secuencias, the dodecahedral planes are viewable between the pines. In other words, the geometry doesn’t want to annul Nature, but rather to fuse with it, probably appealing to that natural organization recorded by science. And, different from numerous actions made upon the natural environment since the end of the 1970s by what is called land art, Javier Riera’s interventions, as he himself declares, “are ephemeral and don’t leave any tracks upon the landscape, they happen and they disappear.” But the author confesses something more: “I feel as if there were something latent in the spaces in which I work, something which in a certain way is shown or made through my work.” A country place whose semblance, when viewed, doesn’t seem to obey the mathematical proportions of Euclidian derivation, would give cause, on the other hand, to the possibility of relating it with the modern geometry of Nature that includes fractal geometry. Fractals are those semi-geometric forms that the natural environment presents, whose repeated structures correspond with an ordenation of origin on different scales. They are not restricted to the mineral world, but are also found in vegetables and even in the atmosphere. With regard to the work Secuencias, the projected union of the platonic body par excellence, the dodecahedron, symbol of the universe in its full regularity and in its gyrating capacity (it can contain the sphere and be contained by it), with the green mass of dissimilar tree canopies lead us from the general to the particular, which likewise is contained by the totality. The connecting thread between classical geometry and the contemporary geometry of Nature would be highlighted, on the other hand, by which the artist also expresses his interest.

While Secuencias focuses its attention on the landscape, it doesn’t ignore its relationship with the architectural space for which it was conceived: the Baroque chapel annex to what was the Jove-Huergo Palace, which finished its construction in 1676 and is the current headquarters of the Barjola Museum. The projection is made in the frontal area of this Trinity Chapel, a white wall which serves as the full screen, until the opening space of the archway at the midpoint where the cupola of the old presbytery is partially supported. The lateral walls house two facing stone niches, of the same size, in which their curved and divided pediment are notable. These small altars are empty today and, in a certain way, Javier Riera has incorporated them into his work, as he has done with the rest of the space, for they enter into a luminary harmony with the frontal projection: imperceptible at the beginning to reveal themselves fully at the end, when the projected images are wiped out by their blinding clarity.

Secuencias brings with it, in the words of the artist, “the sensation of certainty of the everyday and that of peeking out at what overwhelms us.” The succession of images based on the same motifs (the geometric and the natural) only altered by the evolution of light leads us to think about something which Didi-Huberman has emphasized on numerous occasions when speaking of the life of the image, that its attributes don’t consist in reaching the full and evident reality, but rather at most in illuminating with a burst, with a glimmer, a part of the real. Because reality greatly surpasses what we come to see, and to perceive. On the other hand, it is necessary that we do not confuse the terms: the velocity at which the artist’s elaboration of the images in Secuencias takes place is the fruit of a real reflection on time, which so affects the phenomena of the universe, as well as Nature and the thinking of Man. Nonetheless, the spectator perceives the sequence more slowly because he heeds the linked details of its metamorphosis. The complete opposite of what happened with the visual blitz of images to which the present has made us accustomed and which don’t usually lead to more than temporal indistinction. In this respect, Lipovetsky and Serroy maintain that “the dialectic of the lived times and dead times, which establishes a counterpoint between each other, and toward feeling quickness in contrast to slowness, as the progressive elaboration of an acceleration of dramatic value that is built at a growing rate, is no longer in circulation: now it is uninterrupted velocity and not hitting the brakes”. (9) The authors of this affirmation referred primarily to what is happening on the big screen, but that is extrapolatable to other fields of the contemporary realm of the image which, in their turn, affect cinematic production and, to a certain degree, also the visual arts.

Javier Riera, in the coherence of his work, has known to use the sequence of images to speak of the transformation of light in direct experience, body to body, with that brevity that likewise brings with it changes in the perception of things. His sequence is a crescendo inspired in a short and real span of time, a temporal and cyclical space where the luminous qualities never repeat themselves exactly. In Secuencias there is indeed a progressive development and a growing rhythm, that marked by the evolution of the light, as in a very different way the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets made in his 1971 work, A White Wall, a set of ten analogic photographs in black and white, orderly collected in a single frame that also included the pencil drawing of the diagram about the process. The work responds to the action of the artist upon a space in the wall recorded by his photographs, a crescendo from total clarity to complete darkness, making use of the exclusively numeric image that appears in progress when the light allows for it and which is lost in the absence of illumination. To make it, Dibbets mathematically reduced the exposure adjustment of his camera as he shot, with complete independence of the evolution of the actual daylight, something which he did take into account in another conceptual work from 1970, The Shortest Day in the Van Abbemuseum, where from the interior of that museum located in Eindhoven, he photographed the exterior light of a winter solstice every ten minutes between the moments before dawn and the fall of night.

But let’s go back to Riera’s work that we are commenting on. The artist does not modify neither the diaphragm nor the velocity of his digital camera over the course of the multiple takes he makes of the landscape following the rapid natural luminous evolution in less than an hour. With the growing exterior light, that means the image which remains visible, that of Nature, gradually burns itself out until it disappears, as earlier it had obscured from the growing clarity of the dodecahedral figure thrown from a projector (normally fed by a portable generator) onto the vegetable mass of pines. We have already noted that while the process in situ of this work develops with a certain speed due to the requirements of shaping the continuous variations experiences by the light with the camera, what reaches the spectator is a well-connected series work, where the programmed three seconds for each computerized slide are enough to perceive what is shown there without haste.

While the screen of Secuencias adjusts itself to the size of the frontal and closed space of the chapel, occupying it completely, in the complementary and at the same time independent work located in the open space which serves as the access to the unsanctified area where the abovementioned series takes place, a simple (visible) slide projector throws various images upon a small annotation on the wall. Different from what happens in Secuencias, here there are different geometric forms which are projected onto diverse landscapes. That is to say, each slide depicts the communion of a fragment of nature and a figure derived from geometry without finding a repetition in any other photograph from among those which make up the selected set. At the same time, the area dedicated to this projection receives external light from above, which produces a less-contrasted illumination of the images. Thus terrestrial and aquatic landscapes, taken from a variety of perspectives, appear in part in harmony with the superimposition of lineal arrangements, of planes and even of volumes, in larger scales with respect to that exhibited on the topography.

Those computer-generated geometric forms, very loose at times, frequently illuminate details of the vegetation and the terrain, as if they were transmitters of energy and didn’t just limit themselves to interrelate symbolically with the natural order to which we alluded at the beginning of this text. They can be interpreted as metaphors of thought that direct their force at the energy that exists outside of them. But here we enter into a highly ambiguous area where many other hypotheses can fit. In any case, we found ourselves before artistic works settled into a wide connotative array where the observer, depending on his cultural background and his own gaze, can find multiple significative paths without ever closing off any of them in irrefutable interpretations. Because, even when an artist makes use of geometry, this doesn’t cease to be a work rooted in the subjective, removed from the rigor and language of science, characterized by a tendency toward the unambiguous and the demonstrable. Art, on the other hand, has the capacity of entering into the enigma of aspects of nature and of life whose indefiniteness would not be manifested in other ways. Art raises questions that other methods, more immersed in rational praxis, usually skip over, although they stumble upon them on the path.

Now that a German museum, in Wolfsburg, dedicates a large exhibit to Rudolf Steiner and to the traces, direct and indirect, that his anthroposofy have had on a sector of contemporary art from the avant-garde represented by Kandinsky and Mondrian, to the figure of Beuys and to recent artistic manifestations, we think that Javier Riera is not very distant from this far-reaching wave that vindicates the close relationship between Man and Nature and the Cosmos. The creative thinking of the Austrian philosopher tried to reconcile scientific bases with the presence of the invisible, with the great enigmas of existence, convinced as he was that, for themselves, the natural sciences, whose objective is the investigation of the tangible physical world, are not able to penetrate into other areas which concern human nature, including the substratum of the spirit. In contrast with those ideas capable of crossing the notion of time in search of an enduring harmony, what is abundant in what Bauman called “our modern liquid society” is that from which immediate results are obtained. “The values are values to the degree that they are suitable for instantaneous consumption and in situ.” (10)

Javier Riera, with his trans-versal glance that joins order with reality and imagination, is of that class of artists which delve into appearances to find deeper vestiges. In his work, what we see leads us to what we do not see and, stemming from the capturing of the ephemeral, opens the door to the truly enduring, which is nothing more than the always-renewed energy existing in Nature and in human thought projected upon it and, as part of it, able to illuminate it.

  1. G. Jung, Arquetipos e inconsciente colectivo, Paidós Ibérica, Barcelona, 2003, p. 162.
  2. Nicolas Grimaldi, “L´ Esthétique de la belle nature”, en Philosophie et Esthétique du paysage, Champ Villon,
    Seyssel, 1982, p. 122.
  3. C.G. Carus, “Esquissse d´une physiognomonie des montagnes”, en C.D. Friedrich y C.G. Carus, De la
    peinture de paysage
    , Klincksieck, París, 1988, p. 135.
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, El viajero y su sombra, EDAF, Madrid, 1985, p. 199.
  5. Rainer Maria Rilke, El testamento, Alianza, Madrid, 1985, p. 63.
  6. Guy Debord, La sociedad del espectáculo, Pre-Textos, Valencia, 1999, p. 49.
  7. Mircea Eliade, Imágenes y símbolos, Taurus, Madrid, 1989, p. 187.
  8. Gaston Bachelard, La poética del espacio, Fondo de Cultura Económica, México D.F., 1986, p.194.
  9. Gilles Lipovetsky y Jean Serroy, La pantalla global, Anagrama, Barcelona, 2009, p. 79.
  10. Zygmunt Bauman, Mundo Consumo, Paidós Ibérica, Barcelona, 2010, p. 316.

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