In a lecture entitled Life in the Universe, the late Professor Stephen Hawking speculated upon the development of intelligent lifeforms in the cosmos. Hawking defines life as ‘an ordered system that can sustain itself against the tendency to disorder, and can reproduce itself’.
This definition is key to understanding Juan Antonio Olivares’ 2018 installation Fermi Paradox II. Olivares translates Hawking’s abstractions into an existential thought exercise. The tension between the principles of order and disorder becomes the struggle of humanity’s will to live in the face of the universe’s crushing void, and physic reproduction is cast as intimate love that is both creative and destructive.
Frustrated yearning is at the heart of Fermi Paradox II. Named after the conflict between the lack of evidence for and high probability of the existence of extra-terrestrial civilisations, the installation builds on an earlier work of the same name. Whilst the 2017 installation featured a lone cassis madagascariensis shell complaining of its solitude and inability to find other intelligent life, the second iteration increases the number of shells to five calling to each other in chorus. As bleak in its meditation upon loneliness, this new work also materialises the Fermi paradox in an irony of its own. From each shell bursts forth an individual voice, locked into its own form, not in dialogue with the others but speaking as if into a void. However, together they produce a single entity, a sonic landscape with as much depth as the universe itself.
This tension between our individual isolation and togetherness in humanity has a rich history of being played out on a cosmic stage. The universe is the perfect space in which to rehearse this anxiety by letting the human community take on our own individual loneliness. However, as Juan Antonio Olivares makes plain, our deep yearning for companionship is not salved by the fact that this is a shared suffering. The only solution for this miserable brotherhood is love: not desire alone, but love’s inherent directionality, moving to encompass more than itself. It is in this vein that the words of Gabriela Mistral, the first Chilean woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, weave themselves into Olivares’ cosmic tapestry. Mistral was a proponent of lyric poetry, a form that in medieval times became the premier medium to express passion. The aim was not simply to prove one’s love, but to create it in the other person, acting like a mirror to reflect love into another and ignite the fires of passion within them. Love appears as a creative principle that allows humankind to continue in the face of entropy – if not to thrive, then at least to remain alive.
But this creative principle of increase can be destructive as well as creative. Olivares suggests that humanity’s intellectual over-evolution is our downfall, giving rise to existential doubt and a constant feeling of unfulfilled yearning. Our emotional growth has left us dissatisfied with what we have and therefore apt to destroy both it and ourselves. This tendency has been previously explored in Allora and Calzadilla’s 2014 film The Great Silence, in which a parakeet monologues about the ‘great ear’ transmitter in Puerto Rico used to send messages into space. The bird laments the fact that humans are looking for an alien civilisation when his fellows form a communicative society living right under our noses. If only we would take the time to stop and notice them, rather than trampling over their habitat, looking upwards for something else – the promise of something better, something we don’t even know is there.
Juan Antonio Olivares is less concerned with the environmental and political implications of this human obsession with space, playing out his anxieties on the cosmological rather than geographical realm. But his work has the same bleak irony as The Great Silence, dealing in the messy implications of our irrepressible interest in space.