Video essay, 15′ 30”
Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, +MSUM, Draught Series
Discussion and opening: Thursday, 15 February 2018, at 7 p.m.
Duration: 15 February 2018 — 15 April 2018
To be a thing at all—a rock, a lizard, a human— is to be in a twist.
How thought longs to twist and turn like the serpent poetry!
—Timothy Morton (Dark Ecology)
Robertina Šebjanič is working the fields of living systems (bio-art) and sound art, thus creating interactive, ambient, responsive and immersive installations, dealing predominantly with the cultural, political and biological realities of marine and aquatic environments, not least for their obscured visions in the human imaginaries. In Piscis ludicrous / Transfixed Gaze (Lygophilia) she showcases a non-human-subject, the Mexican salamander known as axolotl – one of many non-furry friends that have long transfixed the human mind – through different narratives:
axolotl as a species that is facing extinction in its natural environment;
axolotl as a subject of scientific research considering its extraordinary regenerative abilities and the promise of everlasting life;
axolotl as a cultural heritage representing biopolitical and decolonial relations, showing the connections between mythology and the contemporary world.
The artist creates an immersive and poetic visual soundscape and encourages viewers to reflect – on the level of sensory experience – on new (ecological) realities in the time of the Anthropocene (notwithstanding moral judgment). With her field-recording (audio-video) equipment, the artist entered into the axolotl’s living environment and discussed this ecology with several scientists, ethnobiologists, farmers (chinamperas) and other experts who monitor significant changes in this ecosystem.
Axolotls, trapped in the reality of ecological disaster, have taken – through the centuries – many shapes in the imaginaries of the humans who encountered them. A sixteenth-century Spanish naturalist recorded its Nahuatl name and came up with piscis ludicrous – the ludicrous fish. (Henderson, 16) In a short story “Axolotl” by Julio Cortázar, the narrator is transfixed, experiencing his own metamorphosis transforming into an animal: “I stayed watching them for an hour and left, unable to think of anything else.” The video essay offers a multilayered view of the animals, with the viewer experiencing the transfer that Cortázar writes about. It challenges the perception of the relationship between the non-human-subjects and human. It explores if and how we are able to perceive the parameters of ecological needs of other species in the time of a dark ecology.
Axolotls intrigued the ancient Aztecs because of their fascinating appearance and regenerative powers, and were believed to be a manifestation of the god Xolotl who was the ferryman of the dead to the underworld and the God of Fire. At the same time, they were part of their culinary tradition and folk medicine.
The axolotl’s mythology and scientific facts, merged with popular culture, invite viewers to gain a more profound view of interspecies cohabitation in the contemporary world. This is a story about a particularly complex case of such cohabitation. Since the end of the 19th century, the number of axolotls has increased, although only in laboratories, where they are examined for their biological advantage of perpetual youth. On the other hand, humans are the cause of the (imminent) extinction of axolotls in their natural habitat and the lakes surrounding Mexico City, where axolotls originally live(d) in the darkness of the swamps, and thus are losing their symbolic meaning as a connection of the past and future.
Given all the scientific interest in the field of regenerative biology and the promise of prolonging human life, it is almost impossible for humankind to see axolotls as they are – non-human-subjects in the process of inevitable extinction.
The project thus opens the questions: Who observes whom? Who is seen as a monster and who is perceived as an optical illusion?
Cortázar, Julio, “Axolotl”, in Literaria, Buenos Aires, 1952.
Henderson, Caspar, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. A 21th Century Bestiary, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Morton, Timothy, Dark Ecology. For a Logic of Future Coexistence, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
Voss, Randal S.; Woodcock, Ryan; Zambrano, Luis, “A Tale of Two Axolotls”, in BioScience, Volume 65, Issue 12, 1 December 2015, p. 1134–1140.
Lygophilia is a series of research-based artworks initiated by Robertina Šebjanič to explore the love (Gr.: philéō) for darkness (Gr.: lúgē) and the unknown dwellers in places inhospitable to humans.
Robertina Šebjanič (SI) based in Ljubljana, is working in the cross-field of art – technology – science. Her art – research focus is oriented towards the exploration of water habitats and marine life, which serves as a starting point to investigate and tackle the philosophical questions on the intersection of art, technology and science. Her ideas and concepts are often realised in collaboration with others, and result in interdisciplinary artworks. She is a member of Hackteria Network and Theremidi Orchestra. She received an Honorary Mention @Prix Ars Electronica 2016, was nominated for STARTS2016 Award and White Aphroid Award. Robertina is a part of SHAPE platform 2017. She performed / exhibited in solo and group exhibitions as well as in galleries and festivals: Ars Electronica (Linz), Kosmica Festival (Laboratorio Arte Alameda, Mexico City), Le Cube (Paris), Art Laboratory (Berlin), ZKM (Karlsruhe), re:publica (Berlin), Mladi Levi (Ljubljana), Strictly Analog (Ljubljana), Piksel Festival (Bergen), Device Art 5.015 (Klovičevi dvori, Zagreb, Croatia & Eastern Bloc, Montreal), Eyebeam (New York), PORTIZMIR#3 (Izmir), Kiblix Festival (Maribor), Kapelica Gallery (Ljubljana) and elsewhere. Homepage: http://robertina.net/.
Piscis ludicrous / Transfixed Gaze (Lygophilia), video essay, 2018
Camera, editing, sound: Robertina Šebjanič.
Exhibition curator: Ida Hiršenfelder.
Text: Robertina Šebjanič and Ida Hiršenfelder.
Voices: Polona Torkar, Matija Drobne.
Sound design: Rok Kovač
Interviews: Tzintia Mendoza, CIBAC-UAMX: Dr. José Antonio Ocampo Cervantes, Arturo Vergara Iglesias, Alan Roy Jimenez Gutierrez, Angelina Saldaña; Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas UNAM: dr. Jesús Chimal Monroy in Brianda Berenice Lopez Avina,El Laboratorio de Restauración Ecológica UNAM: dr. Luis Zambrano.
Translation and proofreading (Slovenian): Tamara Soban.
Proofreading (English): Paul Steed.
Technical support: Uroš Veber (Projekt Atol), Tomaž Kučer.
Production: Lygophilia series, 2017-
Projekt Atol, Ministry of culture of Republic of Slovenia, Sektor, CIBAC-UAMX (Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas y Acuícolas de Cuemanco Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana Unidad Xochimilco), Arte+Ciencia at UNAM (The National Autonomous University of Mexico) in 2017 art/research residency at Arte+Ciencia at UNAM lead by María Antonia González Valerio with the assistance of Roberto Rojas Madrid and the Transitio_MX 07 festival, at the Centro Multimedia celebrado en Centro Nacional de las Artes (CENART).
Advisers / Special thanks: Tzintia Mendoza, CIBAC-UAMX team: Dr. José Antonio Ocampo Cervantes & Arturo Vergara Iglesias & Alan Roy Jimenez Gutierrez & Angelina Saldaña CIBAC-UAMX dr. Jesús Chimal Monroy and Brianda Berenice Lopez Avina at Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas UNAM, Arte+Ciencia UNAM team: María Antonia González Valerio, Roberto Rojas Madrid, Dr. Luis Zambrano (El Laboratorio de Restauración Ecológica UNAM), Alejandra Ramos (UNAM), Francisco Martinez Perez, Secretario Auxiliar de la Cantera Oriente (REPSA), Pedro Soler, Miha Colner, Sarah Hermanutz, Annick Bureaud, Ale de la Puente, Ida Hiršenfelder (MG+MSUM), Kristijan Tkalec (Rampa Lab), Gregor Aljančič (Tular Cave Laboratory), Transitio_MX festival at Centro Multimedia celebrado en Centro Nacional de las Artes (CENART).