Juan Antonio Olivares participated to ARTUNER’s exhibition in Turin The World’s Your Oyster with an engrossing sound and sculptural installation titled Fermi Paradox II. Mainly known for his video artworks (such as Molèculas which was exhibited in a solo presentation at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York earlier in 2018), Olivares’ practice is characterised by his extremely empathic and sharp insight into human emotions, hopes and anxieties.
Fermi Paradox II, like others of his works, is extremely touching and powerful in that it seems to be speaking to mankind as a species, and simultaneously to the individual, putting themselves in relation to it. It is perhaps Juan Antonio Olivares’ use of archetypal objects that remind us of our childhood, of a purer time (the teddy bear in Molèculas, the shells of Fermi Paradox), that makes the viewer listen closely, gradually shedding layer after layer of our daily armour, until the work can speak directly to our tender core.
In this interview, we chat about his inspirations to create the work displayed in Turin, but also about his practice at large.
Alisei Apollonio: Have you ever read Lord of the Flies by William Golding? In the beginning of the book the children, protagonists of the novel, who find themselves stranded on an island after a plane crash, discover a conch shell which emits a very powerful sound when blown into. The shell becomes at first a symbol of humans’ ability to create order and civilisation out of chaos, but gradually loses its symbolic power as events progress towards their climax. It’s fascinating you have chosen cassis madagascariensis as the protagonists of your installation. Did you make a connection with Lord of the Flies at all or is it sheer coincidence? How come you chose the shell?
Juan Antonio Olivares: I did read this book, but when I was a teenager! I haven’t thought about it in a long time but I remember loving Golding’s visceral descriptions of the landscape on the island. I also love the premise of the ‘castaway’, which was an influence for my previous video Kokomo Lost.
I tend to work from impulses, that I don’t always understand at first. I found that cassis shell through a vendor on the street in Mallorca, and I couldn’t leave the island without it. I had it in my studio for over a year and I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do with it. At one point I read a response to the Fermi Paradox in a philosophy periodical that sparked an interest in researching Enrico Fermi. Some time after it kind of hit me that the shell could be a vessel to propose my own response to this paradox.
Humans are of course going to great lengths to give an answer, and put an end to, the Fermi Paradox. Indeed in Puerto Rico in the municipality of Arecibo there is an enormous transmitter/receiver radio telescope, searching the universe for other developed, communicative civilizations. So far, is has just been listening to the so-called ‘Great Silence’. I was wondering if, since you have Puerto Rican origins, the location of this telescope has in any way inspired you to tackle this theme? If not, what else has?
I was kind of circumstancially born in Puerto Rico (I only lived there from 0-2 years old) so I’ve never been to the amazing SETI in Arecibo, but the entire project does fascinate me—its persistence and the unexpected banality of the search. I think what interests me about the Fermi Paradox is that the question is more about what constitutes our understanding of life, rather than the factual probability of extraterrestrials. Life is a kind of abstraction at a cosmic scale. The voices coming from the shells in Fermi Paradox II are an implication of their souls, a mirroring of our humanity.
Both Molèculas, which you exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York earlier this year, and Fermi Paradox II can arguably be described as portraits of sorts, capturing extremely personal and yet universal feelings – of an individual or a whole civilisation. Do you also look at your works as portraits? And if so, what draws you to this genre?
I suppose I make characters. Many of the subjects I want to explore can be more fruitfully conveyed through a protagonist. I also tend to think of my works as letters to the viewer. A portrait is a type of relation with the viewer, and I’m interested in establishing this type of connection.
The Fermi Paradox is one of the big questions humanity is trying to solve, and yet not even the strength of science alone has been enough to provide us with an answer, This is not the first time you have referenced scientific principles in your work: here, these dilemmas are given poetical readings, physical realities are re-interpreted as paradigms of emotional, interior life. Could you tell us more about your interest for science and the potentialities of art in relation to it?
In a way I am perverting the scientific with the less quantifiable aspects of humanity: our emotions, our impulses, our unprecise memory. Digital programs can encourage a scientific rigor, but I try to transmute feeling through them. While I deeply respect scientific thought and its social function, my reference to it is not emulation. I prefer visceral and subconscious approaches to making and looking at art.