OBJECTS OF CERTITUDE, OBJECTS OF DOUBT . KIKI MAZZUCCHELLI
On exactitude in science
“... In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guild struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.”
[Suárez Miranda: Viajes de Varones Prudentes, book IV, chapter XIV, Lérida, 1658.]
Borges, Jorge Luís. A Universal History of Infamy.
Among the several instruments carefully arranged on the long table that occupies the gallery’s main room, one object in particular can be considered to encapsulate the questions that permeate the whole series The Art of Navigation. El horizonte adelante, El reflejo de una estrella atrás (Horizon Mirror), 2012 is a piece formed by a delicate bronze frame-like structure which holds, on one side, a mirror, and on the other, a piece of non-reflective glass, perfectly aligned and symmetric. Here, Manuela Ribadeneira recreates the system of reflective mirrors used in sextants, instruments employed to calculate the angle between the stars and the horizon in order to determine the position of ships in the ocean. It is especially interesting to note the coincidence of form and symbolism in this unique object that can fully express the retrospective and prospective gaze that characterises Ribadeneira’s work. Like some of her previous projects, this series mobilises precise historical references in order to produce a reflection on present and future.
The Art of Navigation is a project started in 2011 for the Mercosul Biennial, in which some central themes of her work such as the notion of right over a territory and the transposition of European knowledge systems to the Americas in colonial times are examined specifically in relation to the Portuguese colonisation of Brazil. The artist says that, particularly in the case of Portugal, the claim of possession of overseas territories were based on scientific discoveries above all1. As one of the most fascinating examples of this typically Portuguese practice, she mentions a letter from Mestre João to the King D. Manuel of Portugal in 1500, in which the author narrates the arrival of Cabral’s fleet on the Brazilian coast. At the very beginning of the document, Mestre João displays his knowledge of the science of cartography to establish the local latitude using an astrolabe. Significantly, it was in the same document that the Southern Cross constellation was first presented, henceforth becoming the main astronomical reference for navigating the southern hemisphere and constituting a new paradigm for determining our place in the world.
In her extensive and broad research around the colonisation of the Brazilian coast and particularly around the idea of taking possession of a certain territory through science, Ribadeneira examined not only historical narratives but also sought to understand, as far as possible, the functioning mechanism of old navigation instruments employed by the Portuguese colonisers to guide them in their Atlantic crossings. She diligently gathered a variety of publications including detailed descriptions and illustrations about these objects and - in order to collect samples and information - visited peculiar places such as the National Maritime Museum, in London, and the factory that manufactures equipment for Royal Navy submarines in order to collect samples and information. All these elements have contributed to the creation of a series of objects that reference, more or less explicitly, the original instruments.
In some cases, such as in The Art of Navigation (2011), a work that shares its title with the series, the relationship with the original instrument is more evident. This small bronze piece, shaped like the pointer of an old astrolabe, with a small perforation through which light can be projected onto one of the flaps, vividly evokes the image of the original instrument, at the same time transforming it into a poetic object. In fact, this object is completely useless, as it omits many of the elements necessary for navigation. This effacement also relates to a certain imprecision that characterises these instruments. Indeed, as demonstrated by Borges’ short story that opens this text, science is only capable of producing a perfect representation of the world when it absolutely coincides with it. Curiously, when shown in São Paulo (or Porto Alegre), this equally sculptural object, formally akin to the three-dimensional works of artists such as Max Bill or Franz Weissmann, enters into a dialogue with the constructive tradition of Brazilian art.
Among objects which involve the reconstruction and subversion of the original instruments, Ribadeneira also includes some ready-mades that reference later scientific developments. The enigmatic and fascinating curved glass tube filled with a clear liquid and containing a bronze sphere seems perfectly acceptable as an artistic object, although one may doubt its practical utility. However, this highly fragile and beautiful object is employed today by British Navy submarines during emergencies in case all modern electronic navigation devices fail to work. The artist simply appropriated this instrument and called it When All Else Fails (2012).
These poetic detours - which the series The Art of Navigation is subjected to - intensify its mysterious character. We are taken by an instinctive desire to manipulate these pieces in order to try to figure out their purpose, which remains inevitably obscure. According to Ribadeneira, her objects ask the following questions: Where am I? Where am I going? How do I get back to where I came from? Moreover: How can we get lost? In this shifting and interweaving of meanings, these questions become almost metaphysical. But above all, the artist is interested in “the lack of certitude in all apparent certitude that systems provide”. Astronomy, cartography and other traditional scientific systems are thus invoked in her work in order to comment on the period of enormous doubt we live in today, when it is extremely hard to predict what will happen next or to have faith in any kind of system (economic, political, religious).
Her interest in scientific instruments is also the foundation of another group of works in the exhibition Objects of Certitude, Objects of Doubt. This time, Ribadeneira takes as her starting point a recent episode in which a breadcrumb was accidentally dropped by an owl into one of the vents of the Large Hadron Collider, in Geneva, causing it to overheat and disrupting its functioning for a few days. For this new series of works, the artist produced several bronze cast objects which give a material existence to the mental image of the breadcrumb. Its organic shape and the disorderly manner in which they are displayed on the gallery’s first floor evoke the idea of chaos that contrasts with the order that reigns on the ground floor. Once more, the exactitude of science is called into question, as pure chance provoked the collapse of one of the world’s most sophisticated contemporary scientific instruments. It is also ironically fitting that this work is being shown for the first time in Brazil, where the popular name for the famous Higgs-Bosom particle that supposedly originates matter is largely translated by the local media as “God’s Particle”, as opposed to the original English term “God Particle”.
1. All quotes by Manuela Ribadeneira were collected by the author during October 2012 in e-mail exchanges and studio visits.