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Francis Alÿs

This review of Francis Alÿs’s show “Knots n’ Dust” at Beirut Art Centre appeared in the March-April issue of Flash Art International:

Paradoxes are knotty statements that fold back on themselves, as in “Sometimes winning is losing / Sometimes losing is winning.” Finger written by the artist on a windshield, following a sandstorm that covered Beirut in a film of dust, these words appear as bilingual (English and Arabic) captions in one of four postcards commissioned for Francis Alÿs’s first solo show in this war-torn region. The sepia-colored photographs from which the cards are made recall Tornado (2000–10), a half-hour video that captures the artist’s repeated attempts to penetrate “dust devils.” In conversation with Beirut Art Center director Marie Muracciole at the opening, Alÿs likened the experience to being inside a monochromatic James Turrell installation.

At its core, “Knots n’ Dust” associates two disparate images and actions bound together by a spiral motion that informs the show as a whole. The lone man pitted against the whirling mass of the tornado has his counterpart in a female figure ceaselessly doing and undoing a knot in her hair. This intimate gesture is captured in a vast body of animation drawings that make up Exodus 3:14 (2014–18). To reach the animation proper, projected onto a matching paper support amid the 640-odd drawings on view (roughly half their total number), visitors must walk around them, performing a spiralling movement with their bodies.

Placed next to Exodus 3:14, Untitled (The Liar, The Copy of the Liar) (1994–95), an earlier work in which Alÿs explored the convoluted nature of gender and sexual identity, invites a similar reading of the new animation piece. Indeed, its mostly female protagonist has male hands, just as a contralto tenor sings the haunting lyrics of the looping soundtrack: “I am that I am” — yet another paradoxical formulation, this time drawn from the Bible. Fittingly, the biblical passage in question (whose exact reference happens to tally with the irrational number π) relates how God in the guise of a burning bush bids Moses to lead the Hebrews into Canaan, the promised land that lies in the Levant.


Sean Scully at Cuadra San Cristobal

This Critics’ Pick of Sean Scully’s show at Cuadra San Cristobal in Mexico appeared on

Displayed in stable stalls and outdoors at Cuadra San Cristóbal, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Sean Scully’s paintings and sculptures gain a lot from their unusual setting. The Luis Barragán–designed private residence and equestrian center is all vibrant color and clean lines. Although his palette is much wider than Barragán’s own and his bands of color are fuzzier around the edges, the artist’s works resonate with and meld into their semi-rural surroundings. Take Landline That Pink, 2017, for instance, whose very title pays homage to the architect’s signature hue.

The juxtaposition of Scully’s and Barragán’s work brings out the latter’s use of color as a material in its own right, as well as the architectural elements of the former’s output. Mounted on the walls in a row of stables strewn with pungent sawdust, oil-on-aluminum or copper paintings are categorized into four groups by their titles, as “wall,” “window,” “landline,” or “robe.” These recurring words offer a way to read the alternating horizontal and vertical stripes—brick-like and pleated patterns that edge toward figuration. In the context of a horse’s stall, the barred openings of the pair of paintings that constitute Untitled (Window), 2017, evoke a prison. The sequence of paintings presented in the stables culminates with Ghost, 2017, the most obviously representational of the works on view, featuring an American flag whose fallen stars lie in a heap beneath a phantom revolver that has taken their place. Stark against a blanched rectangle, drained of blue, it is a poignant comment on the gun culture rending the United States apart.

Daughters of Persephone

This essay appeared on in the context of Sharjah Biennial 13:

Jupiter replied . . .  ‘Proserpine shall return to heaven, but on only one condition: that no food has touched her lips since that is the law decreed by the Fates.’ He spoke and Ceres felt sure of regaining her daughter. But the Fates would not allow it, for the girl had broken her fast, and wandering innocently, in a well-tended garden, she had picked a reddish-purple pomegranate fruit hanging from a tree and, taking seven seeds from its yellow rind, squeezed them in her mouth.

—Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book V[1]

First Seed

Persephone and the myth of the pomegranate seeds cropped up in conversation a few months ago, during “The Golden Feast,” a meal consisting of food and drink that were that color, which my friend Hermione hosted at her place in the East End of London. She and her boyfriend, Curtis, came up with the idea after I stumbled on them sipping a turmeric-flavored golden latte in a Shoreditch café around the corner from a local gallery, where they had come to see me in conversation with the artist Peter McDonald about his show “Mushrooms of Language.” This may be why, when making provisions for our “trip” two weeks later, a pomegranate caught her eye in the fruit aisle of the local supermarket. “I got the pomegranate for us,” she explained afterwards, “because of its bejeweled, numinous qualities—like something you’d find in an underground cave.”

Dense clusters of luscious bead-like seeds, still attached to their rind, were already laid out in a bowl with some blueberries on top, offsetting the seeds’ ruby color, by the time I arrived with the cubensis. Hermione carefully placed the gold caps on a matching glass plate bearing fanciful gilded motifs. “We should probably leave the pomegranates for later,” I said, mindful of the instructions I was given not to eat or drink anything until the mushrooms took their full effect. “Surely, they’re an ally?” Hermione ventured.

Somehow she had gotten things back to front. In Greek mythology, the seeds that Persephone unwittingly consumed in the underworld—whether tricked into doing so by Hades, her ravisher, or acting of her own accord—nearly caused her to remain there forever. Yet in Hermione’s version of the story, as related to those at “The Golden Feast,” eating pomegranate seeds became a gesture of defiance: Persephone partook of the food of the dead while looking Hades straight in the eye, knowing full well it was not allowed.

Instead of eating the glossy, firm seeds that Hermione had encouraged me to squeeze between my teeth, I took to dropping them onto the wooden floor of her room. (At this point, the mushrooms had clearly started to work their magic.) Amazed by the muffled thud, I kept repeating: “There’s no echo,” grasping for the right analogy. The floorboards had become porous, as if made of cork, cushioning and absorbing the sound of the pomegranate seeds, not unlike the walls of an anechoic chamber, also known as a chambre sourde in French, which literally means “deaf chamber.” I had visited one in Paris a few months before. It struck me at the time that the discombobulating absence of an echo was akin to a body bereft of its shadow.

Anechoic chamber at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), Paris.

Second Seed

Memory is to a smell what an echo is to a sound: something that carries it, prolongs it, and gives it a body. For what became the artwork Essence/Seeds from Brazil, 2017, the artist João Modé had wanted to work with a fruit scent. He was looking specifically for the essence of caju, a fruit from his country, and found instead a fragrance evocatively called “Seeds of Brazil.” So inconspicuous as to be easily missed at the top of a landing, a tiny white bowl containing an essential oil of that name was the source of a delicate, warm aroma lingering in the air at the back of the house, which faces the Hagia Sophia and its rounded dome.

Land, 2014/2017, Modé’s second offering for “BAHAR,” a series of exhibitions and performances that brought me to Istanbul in May, took over a room located on the ground floor of the Abud Efendi Mansion. The second of four off-site projects staged as part of Sharjah Biennial 13, “BAHAR” (meaning “spring” in Turkish, Farsi, and other languages), organized by the curator Zeynep Öz, took as its starting point the word crops and explored, among other things, the themes of seed dormancy and the awakening of the seeds coinciding with the arrival of spring.

Sourced from a nursery on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, across the Bosphorus, plants from all over the world—one hundred-odd species of them—mixed their roots and foliage to form an indoor jungle in Modé’s Land. That this “multicultural micro-forest” should contain a pomegranate shrub seemed fitting, given its widespread cultivation in the Mediterranean region and beyond. Farmers grow pomegranates even in Brazil, though the trees are not as big and beautiful, the artist told me, as the ones he had seen on his travels in Turkey and Greece. In fact, it is a Brazilian custom to ring in the new year by eating seven pomegranate seeds (“just the smooth part covering the seed,” Modé specified) at the stroke of midnight. The seeds themselves—or the seeds within seeds—are kept in one’s wallet for the whole year to bring luck and prosperity.

Installation view, João Modé, Land, 2014/2017. BAHAR off-site project, organized in Istanbul as part of Sharjah Biennial 13, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

The New Year’s Eve ritual doubtless says more about the Brazilian obsession with the lucky number seven than anything else. And yet Persephone and her consort Pluto, another name for Hades, seem to lurk behind it like a half-forgotten song. Pluto, whose very name held the promise of wealth and riches, is Hades in his more auspicious guise. The child that the harvest goddess Demeter conceived out of wedlock in a thrice-plowed field was venerated alongside his mother and spouse in the secret agrarian cults reenacting the story of Persephone’s abduction and Demeter’s search for her daughter at Eleusis in Attica. Pluto shares with them such agrarian attributes as the stalk of grain, and is often portrayed with a horn of plenty, a cornucopia.

Third Seed

While in Istanbul, I arranged to visit the artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu. She suggested we meet at her studio, a stone’s throw from the Golden Horn. If you craned your neck, you could get a fine view of the start of Galata Bridge from a narrow side window. Somehow we got onto the subject of the exhibition “COLORI,” curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where Çavuşoğlu’s Red/Red, 2015, which I had missed in the 2015 edition of the Istanbul Biennial, was on view. Over coffee, the artist told me how she found out about the crimson pigment traditionally made from the now-nearly-extinct Armenian cochineal, an insect found in the Aras (or Araks) river valley, and eventually tracked down a man who still extracts the red color in a laboratory, using a secret process. She traveled to Yerevan, Armenia to meet him and managed to obtain twelve grams of the extract, which she used to paint a series of monochromatic panels and book illustrations inspired by illuminated Armenian miniatures. To prove her story, which made artistic research sound like detective work, Çavuşoğlu produced a small vial containing what was left of the precious substance.

Installation view, Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Red/Red, 2015. SALTWATER, 14th Istanbul Biennial. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren

The deep red ink was the color of a pomegranate. It brought to mind Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film—the Russian title Цвет граната is translated as The Color of Pomegranates—which is loosely based on the life of the eighteenth-century Armenian bard Sayat Nova. (Sayat-Nova was the title Parajanov had intended for the film, but he was forced to remove all references to the poet’s name to get past Soviet censors.) Filled with often-abstruse symbolism, the successive tableaux informed by the aesthetics of Persian miniatures obey a dreamlike—and occasionally nightmarish—logic. Color, above all red, is deployed to dramatic effect, as in the famous opening shot featuring three pomegranates whose juice seeps through a white cloth, gradually revealing the contours of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia. The pomegranate motif is threaded through the film. The fruits usually come in threes but, in one disturbing scene, a group of young monks vociferously bite into hard, uncut pomegranate fruits as the pensive, Christ-like poet looks on. Incidentally, гранат (granat), the Russian word for pomegranate, also means garnet, the dark-red gemstone whose crystals bear a striking resemblance to the seed-lined chambers of a pomegranate.

Fourth Seed

A baroque-rococo masterpiece, lodged within an even older hospital complex in the heart of Naples, the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili is a thing of beauty. Accessed through an arcaded loggia, itself reached by means of twin, pleasingly curved staircases, the entrance room is fitted with wooden cabinets displaying neat rows of blue and white maiolica vases and jars; each had a unique design that, in the absence of labels, allowed the apothecaries to know which ointments and drug compounds they contained. This antechamber, where medicines were dispensed, leads into a more lavish grand salon and library, whose frescoed ceilings and sculptural ornamentation obey an elaborate decorative scheme, replete with Masonic symbolism.

Inside the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili (Historical Pharmacy of the Incurable) in Naples.

The back rooms—including a small laboratory full of alembics and other implements used in pharmaceutical preparations—were closed for restoration when I visited, having been urged to do so by a friend, who knew I would be traveling to Naples for an opening at MADRE, the nearby museum of contemporary art. Our guide offered to give us a quick tour. Amid sundry objects tucked away in a narrow passageway stood a sizable marble urn mounted on a pedestal. Framed by a floral motif, a bulging fruit sculpted in high relief on the urn rose above a green marble backdrop.

The guide informed us it was a melograno—Italian for pomegranate—the emblem of fertility. Made of choice Mondragone marble, the urn was designed to hold the equally precious acqua teriacale, for which the pharmacy was famous. Owing to its elaborate preparation and an ever-expanding list of rarefied ingredients—ranging from opium, myrrh, and saffron to viper’s meat—theriac was the most expensive of drugs. Its reputation as an effective antidote known to the ancients, as well as a universal panacea capable of curing all illnesses, was only starting to be challenged by the mid-eighteenth century, when the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili was built.

Among the virtues attributed to the concoction were its aphrodisiac and hallucinogenic properties, according to our guide. In her eyes, the former accounted for the prominence of the pomegranate symbol—not without some irony, given that the hospital specialized in the treatment of venereal diseases such as syphilis. As to the latter, it would appear that Bufotenin—a psychoactive substance naturally occurring in the skin of certain venomous toad species—was to blame.

Fifth Seed

The day after my visit to the Farmacia, I saw a tour guide pointing out the flowers of a pomegranate tree—or several—growing among the ruins in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum. A couple nodded knowingly, but I had never seen a pomegranate in blossom before. I resisted the urge to pluck off one of the poppy-colored blooms set amid dark green foliage; fortunately, they were out of my reach. That very afternoon, I spotted some more pomegranate trees and shrubs near the vast outdoor swimming pool behind the Villa Oplontis, a few stops away on the Circumvesuviana railway line. The Roman villa that Poppaea Sabina, emperor Nero’s mistress and later his wife, had elected as her secondary residence lay at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, like Herculaneum, and it met with the same fate when the volcano erupted in AD 79.

Red and yellow ochre are the dominant tones of the wall paintings unearthed at the Villa of Poppaea in Oplontis, long buried beneath protective layers of volcanic debris and ash, and remarkably well-preserved as a result. One of them depicts Hercules (after whom the Greek colony of Herculaneum was named) in the Garden of the Hesperides. Conceived with the central niche of the caldarium in mind, this fine, naturalistic fresco shows the barely-clad hero standing beside a large tree, his right arm extended in the direction of two round, reddish fruits placed on a nearby boulder, as if to taunt him.

Fresco c. 90-25 BCE depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, the Villa Oplontis, Naples.

These appeared to be Hera’s immortality-granting “golden apples,” the ones that Hercules was tasked with stealing in his penultimate labor, except that they looked neither golden nor like apples. They resembled pomegranates more than any of the other fruits associated with the goddess. Fruits tend to be indeterminate, and easily confused, in biblical as in mythological accounts. Apples, especially, are fated to stand in for all (forbidden) fruits. The trees in the Garden of the Hesperides, grafted from the branches the Earth goddess Gaia gave Hera on her wedding day, may have borne oranges, pomegranates, or pommes tout courtA pomegranate—from the Latin pomum for “apple” and granatum, meaning “seeded”—is, after all, an apple with many seeds.

Sixth Seed

Casa Melograno, on the island of Stromboli, near Sicily, is one in a cluster of holiday homes built around an older, more imposing private residence that locals still refer to as “Il Castello.” The two-story mansion, with its fine stone-framed windows, stands out among the modest whitewashed houses in the Piscità settlement, near the end of the habitable stretch of Stromboli. The name leapt out at me on the morning of my arrival on the Aeolian Island, straight off the night ferry from Naples, as I walked past the house and spotted a lone pomegranate tree in its front garden. I was looking for La Lunatica, the villa where I would be staying for about a week for a residency with the artist Gaia Fugazza, the curator Daria Khan, and the photographer and publisher Giovanna Silva. It lay hidden behind Casa Melograno, at the bottom of a narrow path that skirts Il Castello. On a moonlit night, when the palm trees cast long shadows across the road, it looked like a haunted castle.

We were there to conduct some unorthodox “research activities” in preparation for a group show in central London, and to gather materials for a publication linking the two volcanic portals to the underworld through which Jules Verne’s heroes go down and come back up again in The Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). With that in mind, on the evening slated for our ascent of the active volcano, we agreed to meet back at the house where Geko—a longtime resident of the island who set up the local plant nursery—was to stage a shamanic drumming ceremony, following our descent from the mountain. The pulsing rhythm of the drum is meant to induce a trance-like state, ideally resulting in an encounter with one’s inner animal guide. To set the whole process in motion, Geko had instructed us to visualize an opening of some sort—be it a cave or a well—leading into the earth. But owing to sheer exhaustion from the six-hour climb, or a failure of imagination, the drumming did not do much for me. My companions fared somewhat better.

Silva told us the next day that the opening she pictured was a cave she had visited years before in a sanctuary at Eleusis. We had just finished reading aloud passages from classics of katabatic literature (stories narrating journeys of descent into the underworld), inspired in part by the drumming session, out on the terrace of La Lunatica. The cave in question, known as Hades’s grotto, lies on the grounds of the sanctuary dedicated to the god who abducted Kore, Persephone in her maidenly guise, and brought her back up through a well located on its precincts—or so claimed the priests who presided over the Lesser and the Great Mysteries, celebrated respectively in spring and at harvest time in Eleusis.

In The Greek Myths, Robert Graves suggests a number of possible locations where the Rape of Persephone or Proserpine (“the fearful one”) may have occurred, ranging from Sicily to Crete to Attica. Ovid sets the scene in a glade of everlasting spring surrounding a deep pool by the name of Pergus (the modern-day lake of Pergusa), near the walls of Enna, a city at the foot of Mount Etna in the center of Sicily—tantalizingly close to the Aeolian Islands. This is where Dis (Pluto) beheld the maiden, as she was gathering flowers with her companions, and snatched her. Nothing remains of the temple dedicated to Demeter who, with her daughter Persephone, was the object of a cult at Enna, but a grotto from which Pluto was believed to have emerged is thought to be the navel of Sicily.

Hades’s cave and sanctuary at Eleusis, Greece.

Seventh Seed

The Fates had decreed that whoever ate or drank in the underworld would be condemned to remain there forever. As a result, Persephone, who consumed between three and seven seeds—according to different versions of the myth—while she was held captive by Hades, would dwell each year in the underworld for as many months. This is one account of the origin of seasons, since during the months Persephone spends beneath the ground—not unlike a seed (“a sweet young seedling” is precisely how the grief-stricken goddess describes her lost daughter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter)—Demeter goes into mourning and the earth no longer bears crops; conversely, the moment when Persephone comes back and is reunited with Demeter marks the onset of spring. Part chthonic deity, part vegetation goddess, Persephone personifies the dormancy of the seeds and the rebirth of nature.

Each of the seven “seeds” above explores an image—or cluster of images—connected to the pomegranate and its potent symbolism as both a fertility emblem and food of the dead. Together they make up an anatomy of the fruit and a travelogue of sorts: I brought the seeds back from travels—for work and pleasure—that spanned a period of three months, from April to June 2017. The physical journeys were doubled by other “trips,” induced by the use of magic mushrooms, shamanic drumming, and meditation techniques. I’m not sure what all these connections reveal other than that, when we become interested in a given subject, we start seeing it everywhere.


[1] From a translation by A. S. Kline,

Nicola Tyson’s grotesque bodies and faces

This essay appeared in Nicola Tyson: Beyond the Trace Exhibition Guide at The Drawing Room, London:

Drawing may be the starting point for Nicola Tyson’s better-known work in painting, but for the artist it is also an end in itself. Most of her drawings, in fact, are made for their own sake. ‘When working in a sketchbook, it’s only those [drawings] that feel like they could be developed further, through the introduction of colour, that I pull out and use as the basis of a painting,’ Tyson insists.1 In those instances, she tends to project what may have been a rapidly executed drawing directly onto canvas, before beginning the painstaking process of fleshing it out with colour.

The artist has often distinguished the slow and deliberate manner in which she paints from her more intuitive and quickly executed drawings; but that’s not to say that all her drawings are dashed off. ‘The larger drawings can be extremely slow to complete because they may involve shading and cross-hatching,’ she explains. ‘I feel my way to completion – much as I do with paintings – and may leave and return to them over many days or weeks.’ The recent and new works on paper brought together for Beyond the Trace at Drawing Room vary considerably in their size, the materials used (ink, graphite, acrylic paint) and format (vertical, horizontal, square).

The scale of the work determines the thickness of the paper support; for her larger drawings the artist tends to prefer thicker, more resilient paper stock. Opting for graphite or ink does not radically alter the way the artist works since, as she puts it, she ‘very rarely need[s] to erase anything: ‘mistakes’ are incorporated or used as a springboard for gear changes in mark-making’. Tyson admits that working like this can be nerve-wracking but for her it is ‘the only way to get to and keep on target in finding a ‘truthful’ image – one that grows itself’. To understand what she means by this, we must delve deeper into the intuitive and fluid – as opposed to rational and deliberate – process of working that the artist favours when attempting ‘to lay down the energetic structure of the drawing’.2 To get at the truthful image, she lets the hand guide her, ‘bypassing that rational decision-making, pattern-recognition, problem-solving part of thinking’. The hand, not the eye. Tyson confides that she has been known to draw with her eyes closed on occasion, at least to start with, and that she barely looks at the image until it is done.

In drawing as in writing, the hand appears to have a mind of its own. Tyson acknowledges that the hand responds to signals from her brain, whether it is the brain seated in her head, her heart or her gut, elaborating:

‘When sketching or laying down – capturing, it feels like – the basics for a more involved drawing, it feels as if I must let the hand find the image and try not to interfere, until I feel I have captured the necessary information, a presence. Successful images – ones that are alive – will appear unfamiliar to me, in that I could not have thought them up, contrived them.’

Underscoring the sheer material variety that illustrates the versatility of the drawing medium is Tyson’s quest for an ‘unfinished’ quality: ‘The danger is in over finishing, once the process slows down. I try to leave the drawing at a point where the viewer gets to finish it […], by observing those energies at the point when they are just about to fall still and stop. This is the case in painting too – to keep the image alive so that it completes each time you look at it.’

The series of five enigmatic life-sized ink drawings from 2016 perfectly illustrate the point the artist alludes to in the above statement. These works – each of which features the bare outline of a female figure spanning the full picture frame, practically from head to toe – are quite literally life-sized at 182.9 x 106.7 cm. Their slightly tilted heads, turning torsos, arms either outstretched or akimbo, and above all, legs striding forth, unnaturally foregrounded and noticeably wider towards the bottom, forcefully convey a sense of movement, of barely contained energy. The limbs peter out, appear to be stunted or barely suggested, as in the twin circles that stand for hands (or is it fists?) and elsewhere for ovaries in Uteryne (2016). The title offers a possible reading of the image with its prominent central lock motif representing, on one level, the female womb. Yet the crenellated end of the contraption, which is also the hemline of a short skirt, makes this viewer think of the chastity belts which crusading knights would use to lock the ‘private parts’ of their spouses, guarding them against temptation during their prolonged absences.

In ‘Nicola Tyson in Conversation with Herself’, the artist notes, in response to a question she puts to herself regarding the word ‘frock’, that the term ‘private parts’ is something of a misnomer when it comes to female genitalia, given that ‘women’s ‘parts’ aren’t private property – they’re viewed as available to, yet are policed by, the patriarchy… indeed are its private parts.’3This may explain the emphasis given to said ‘private parts’ not only in this series of images – most notably the one titled Pencil Stub (2016), featuring an outsized vagina dentata and breasts with unusually large nipples staring at the viewer like a second pair of eyes – but also in some of the tall and rather narrow graphite drawings on view in Beyond the Trace. Untitled (2008), for instance, depicts a spindly figure whose torso, decked with gaping white breasts, takes the place of a face deliberately left out of the frame so as to generate ambiguity. The breasts and hint of a navel become surrogate facial features, not unlike in René Magritte’s highly disturbing painting Rape (1945).That said, the artist is keen to distance herself from surrealist dream (and nightmarish) imagery, as well as automatic drawing techniques associated with the likes of André Masson, which spring to mind in relation to Tyson’s own largely intuitive process of drawing. For one thing, Tyson does not wish to be labelled in any way. Also, from the 90s onwards, she has been striving to go beyond what she calls her own ‘learned male gaze’ in order to find ‘new imagery that could tell us something about ourselves (women) that we hadn’t seen represented before – the intuitive female body as experienced – lived in – not a surreal one of the art historical kind.’

Tyson’s transgressive, porous and permeable bodies, with their exposed sexual parts and prominent orifices, align her work with the grotesque sensibility. The grotesque, from the Italian word grotto, has its roots in the Renaissance rediscovery of Roman frescoes depicting hybrid creatures caught in a dense web of floral patterns. Yet the wider concept owes as much – if not more so – to Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic study Rabelais and His World (1965), and his understanding of the ‘grotesque body’, as illustrated by the family of giants and other larger-than-life characters who people the French sixteenth-century author’s subversive literary oeuvre. Tyson’s tall drawings – in particular Untitled (2009), with its outsized turbaned head that evokes a Charles Rennie Mackintosh rose pattern, and the bulbous, Bellmeresque, maimed and contorted body of Untitled (2009), ending in exquisitely drawn hoofs – partake of this sensibility.

In its contemporary and painterly guise, the genre has been dominated by male artists whose work ‘tends towards provocatively sexualised depictions of women’, as Jonathan Griffin points out in his essay on ‘The grotesque’ published in Tate Etc.4 Griffin counts Tyson among the female artists – alongside Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenman and Tala Madani – who in recent years have turned to making grotesque images of women in a bid to claim the grotesque for themselves and counter the male hold on it. In his eyes, the feminist artists who exemplify this trend, ‘share a sensitivity to the interior experience of the female body, and the ways in which that inner space projects into the outside world’, effectively dissolving the boundaries between self and other.

This kind of sensitivity is reflected in two new works made especially for the show at Drawing Room, The Selfies (2017) and The Secret (2017). These twin horizontal graphite drawings were intended as a counterpoint to the verticality of the other works on view. The format is dictated in part by their subject matter; each represents two women, in marked contrast to other works in the exhibition which, by and large, feature solo figures. Some of these are the artist herself under different guises – most explicitly so in the colour monotypes, referred to as ‘self-portraits’ rather than as ‘portrait heads’, a more neutral label that leaves the identity of the subject open.

The Selfies show two female heads side by side, as if tied together by their hair, respectively shorter and longer, which forms a flowing boundary between the artist’s fictional self and her other half. ‘I wanted to return to exploring characters in relationship to one another,’ Tyson says of these two drawings. Whether lovers or merely friends, their closeness suggests an intimacy, just as the two faces, seen in profile – one leaning in towards the other, as she gazes into the distance – subtly convey the exchange of confidences in The Secret. The ‘selfie’ is to a ‘self-portrait’ what a ‘snog’ is to a ‘kiss’: a refreshingly pop way of deflating loaded art historical subjects (Snog, in the 2015 ‘daily drawings’ series, is a case in point). On top of that, the two female ‘sitters’ in The Selfies are crying – one has ray-like tears streaming down her cheeks and the other dark puddles beneath her eyes beside other tell-tale signs of disarray. In her Anti-Selfie series of photographic self-portraits, the Dutch artist Melanie Bonajo systematically records all the occasions on which she has cried. Tyson’s The Selfies also wilfully subvert selfie norms and the expectation that women always have to smile, look pretty and appear available. Tyson pokes fun at this in ‘Dear Man on the Street’, the first of her mock-epistles published together as Dead Men Letters. In this one instance, she takes on not a famous male artist but rather the obnoxious passer-by who tells her to ‘smile’, prompting her to do so when she least feels like it.

In her monotypes Tyson uses colour to further sabotage such ‘mandated behavior’. Despite the bright red lips and playful polka-dot patterned orange frocks in Self-Portrait: Coy (2016) and Self-Portrait: Worried (2016), these figures are hardly alluring in the traditional sense.  There is nothing remotely sexy about the featureless faces, by turns gaunt and bloated, framed by ever receding brown hairlines and clothing items whose random shades and patterns (‘green shirt’, ‘black turtle neck’, ‘dots’, etc.) spell out different modes of fatigue in the acrylic works sharing the title Self-Portrait: Tired (all 2016). At the close of her interview with herself, Tyson describes these monotypes as a species of printing, since the acrylic paint is first applied to glass and then printed onto paper in reverse. Yet they also represent another way to draw, as the marks we see are the result of strokes made on the back of the paper. This ‘back-to-front way of working’, as her interviewer calls it, has the advantage of allowing her to ‘drop directly into color’ and move beyond the confines of the graphic line.

1Nicola Tyson, in an email exchange between the author and the artist, 6 September 2017. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from this interview.

2 Jenny Bahn, ‘The Shape of Things’, interview, Office magazine, 2017

3Nicola Tyson, Works on Paper catalogue (New York: Petzel Gallery, 2016), p. 78

4Tate Etc.,Issue 26, autumn 2012


Kasper Akhøj and Eileen Gray

This review of Kasper Akhøj’s “Welcome (To The TeKnival)” at Villa Sauber, NMNM in Monaco appeared on

Kasper Akhøj, 63V52017, 2017, laser-exposed gelatin silver print, 20 x 16″.

When Eileen Gray’s ill-fated 1929 architectural gem E-1027—a beautifully proportioned white modernist villa overlooking the sea at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, near Monaco—opened to the public in 2015, the controversial restoration project that started in 2006 and saw successive teams of architects and administrators undoing and redoing each other’s work was far from over. Taken on five separate visits to the site between 2009 and 2017, Kasper Akhøj’s black-and-white photographs chart the progress of such work at the house. Variously displayed individually, as pairs, and in constellations, the set of fifty-nine framed laser-exposed gelatin silver prints in varying sizes is based on the shots Gray, who was also an accomplished photographer, took herself upon the estate’s initial completion. Her images were used to illustrate a special issue of L’Architecture vivante, a magazine edited by her lover, the Romanian architectural critic Jean Badovici, for whom Gray designed the villa. The cryptic name E-1027 stands for their joint initials.

Delicate gray adhesive letters beside the photographs on view combine the reference numbers from Gray’s photos with the dates of Akhøj’s visits, calling attention to a corresponding shot from her portfolio, as in 63V52017, 2017. Yet for all his rigor, the remakes bear only a passing resemblance to the stylish originals. Mostly sold at auction in 1992, iconic furniture items that were an integral part of the interior design either are missing or have been replaced by replicas and stand-in objects, such as makeshift tables, dusty chairs, and sundry building tools. As well as pointing to the tentative and provisional nature of conservation at E-1027, Akhøj’s works are a poignant reminder that architecture rarely stays true to its designer’s original intention.

Performa 17: Afroglossia and Circulations

This interview with Performa curators Adrienne Edwards and Charles Aubin appeared online in Mousse magazine:

Agnieszka Gratza: As well as being Performa’s chief curator and director, RoseLee Goldberg is overseeing the South African pavilion this year, and you’re looking after Afroglossia while Charles Aubin is curating Circulations, Performa17’s performance and architecture program. Perhaps you could start by explaining how you divide tasks.

Adrienne Edwards: Typically what happens is that RoseLee has some instinct or inclination about what she might like to focus on in the next biennial. And so, in 2015, she said to me, “I think we should do a geographical focus on Africa,” and I thought, great, since my areas of expertise have always been the African diaspora and the Global South. There’s a profound openness at Performa; you might get a prompt, but the curators themselves actually develop programs. Each curator owns their platform in the context of the biennial, and then that platform gets assigned a set of producers who work closely with the curators and the artists to make whatever we’ve dreamed up over a two-year period happen.

AG: Besides Afroglossia and Circulations, there’s a third research theme which is Dada. Who looks after that? Or is it subsumed into the other themes?

AE: With each biennial there’s a historical research anchor that operates a little differently than the curatorial platforms. That historical anchor doesn’t always end up as a program in the biennial. In 2013 we did Surrealism, and then Russian Constructivism and Futurism. Dada came up early on as a result of the centenary of Dada. It is something we were thinking about over a two-year period leading up to the biennial. For example I did a program called “100 Degrees above Dada.” I invited Yvonne Rainer and Adam Pendleton to collaborate. I saw in both Adam’s “Black Dada” project and the way Yvonne works with language some Dada sensibilities. They developed a beautiful film together called JUST BACK FROM LOS ANGELES, which features the two of them.

AG: Let’s focus on Afroglossia, which is a term you coined, I gather. Could you explain what you mean by it?

AE: “Polyglossia” is the word I’m drawing from. The afro is replacing the poly. The “many” of this term has been used to point to the multiplicity and complexity that is Africa. Glossia is referencing the voice, the fact that there are many voices from one geographical area. All the artists in Afroglossia are born in the 1970s, except the guys in the Nest Collective. So they came of age around independence, and there’s a historical fashioning of the individual in that context and its relationship to the collective. There were some shared sensibilities, a desire to point to something opaque but working with it in a fairly abstract way, whether that be in language, the way they use imagery, or how they draw upon sound and music.

AG: Africa is vast, and yet it’s often treated as if it were a country—the United States of Africa. But it isn’t. Why should Morocco and South Africa have any more in common than, say, two countries at opposite ends of Europe?

AE: You’re right, Africa is not a country, and I remember having extensive discussions about the fact that there’s a kind of impossibility to even trying to approach Africa in such a way. And yet there’s also a historical, utopian project around pan-Africanism that’s even bigger than just the continent of Africa. It encompasses the entire diaspora. Even if pan-Africanism is a complicated, historically failed project, it’s been useful in imagining the possibility of a kind of African commons. That said, that’s not really what Afroglossia is about. These are different voices out of various countries, and I don’t think I’m trying to connect them any more closely than that.

AG: I noticed that there’s a particular focus—despite the diversity of the places where the artists come from (many of them also live in New York and other Western places)—on Nairobi and East Africa. The Kwani Trust, Wangechi Mutu, and the Nest Collective all have ties with this region.

AE: The amount of things happening in Kenya is mind-boggling. It is just so rich in terms of real experimentation that is interdisciplinary. The Nest is primarily known for their video and film work but they’re also in fashion, and they make art animations and drawings. Performance itself as a notion gets stretched a bit in the context of the biennial. With Kwani, the journalists, writers, and people who collect oral histories are looking at lived experience in a way that is politically engaged and also cultural. They have poetry and music nights, all kinds of ways in which they animate the cultural scene of Nairobi.

AG: Would you say that there’s an emphasis on literature and the spoken word in your program, as the “glossia” in the title suggests?

AE: It’s certainly evident in the work Yto Barrada is doing, something that is all about voice: her mother’s voice, correspondence, records and interviews of figures her mother was with on a tour of the United States in 1966. Teju Cole is known not only as a critic but also as a novelist and an essayist. And Tracey Rose is working with two writers: one in the United States, one in Cameroon. They’re developing a script as part of a poetic performance that, like Yto’s, is about sieving archives, narratives, and oral histories.

AG: You said that the notion of performance is stretched in the Performa biennial, which seems right to me; as a result the performative element is somewhat elusive.

AE: Each project is like a container for the various ways and artist works. So with Yto, for example, you’ll see her textile works, her photo prints, her film, you’ll hear her sing; they’re all these things that people could experience in one way or another in relation to Yto’s work, but this time it’s all sitting in one space.

AG: But that one space doesn’t appear to be very distinctly about performance.

AE: It depends on what your expectations of performance are. For me, performance is interdisciplinarity. There’s a live component, but it’s not the only one. These kinds of commissions have always had various visual art elements in the experience.

AG: Would you say that there are any overlaps between Afroglossia and the South African pavilion?

AE: All the other pavilions, since we started the Pavilions Without Walls in 2013, have been with European countries. There’s an infrastructure and an apparatus in place to support the presentation of European artists around the world. Such a thing does not exist for a country like South Africa, so it was very important for us and RoseLee in particular, who is from South Africa, to do a deep dive into that country. There are some overlaps with Afroglossia and shared sensibilities, certainly an interest in the ethical, social, political dimensions of art making.

AG (to Charles Aubin): The Glass House, where you are working today, is one of the iconic architectural venues your program will occupy. How did this particular project within your program come about?

Charles Aubin: A year and a half ago, I mentioned in passing to Jimmy Robert that the Glass House is a strange extension of the New York architectural landscape, with all the different pavilions that Philip Johnson built here on the site. Jimmy told me about Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel, a book he’d read by Jeff Wall on Graham’s work. In Jeff Wall’s text there’s a whole section discussing how at dusk the artificial light inside and the darkness outside create a choreography of reflections of the self in which the transparent walls become mirrors. And this is where Jimmy started bringing in questions of identity and representation.

AG: And in particular black representation, I gather.

CA: Exactly. And the more research we did, the more interesting this site became because of either repressed histories or some elements of Philip Johnson’s biography, in particular his romantic relationship with the Harlem Renaissance cabaret figure Jimmie Daniels.

AG: Which seems fitting given the overall emphasis on Africa and its diaspora in Afroglossia especially.

CA: Adrienne and I have conceived of the two programs Afroglossia and Circulations on their own, but we have sometimes posed similar questions that can be addressed through performance. With the Glass House but also Marching On—a project with Mabel Wilson and Bryony Roberts commissioned by Storefront for Art and Architecture—political questions of identity were very much our concern. Bryony has been researching the political role of marching bands in African American communities and parades coming from military US tradition at a time when African Americans had participated in world wars, but were not granted the same civil rights.

AG: You’re also editing a publication with Carlos Mínguez Carrasco from Storefront for Art and Architecture.

CA: The way that I conceived of Circulations was as a curatorial platform with a discursive aspect in the shape of a symposium on November 11 and a book that Carlos and I are coediting. One of the impulses for the book and the program is the renewal of interest in ephemeral, event-based actions from architects since the 2008 financial crisis. That’s something you can see in The Other Architect show that Giovanna Borasi, who will be speaking at the symposium, curated at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

AG: I was struck by the variety of “performative” disciplines in Circulations, from poetry to singing to choreography and marching bands. Did you opt to give as wide a spread of possible fields that architecture can have an impact on, and vice versa?

CA: For me, performance is not so much a discipline as a tool. It allows visual artists to expand on their work in space, and it’s this kind of nexus where an artist can actually borrow from different disciplines. It’s more of a strategy, if that makes sense.

AG: Could you comment on the title Circulations?

CA: I was interested in this idea that architecture is a space where bodies are allowed or not allowed to circulate in different ways, and that there’s a kind of implicit choreography that is somehow directed. Politically, it’s a complicated moment and I wanted to open up this notion of circulation toward more political concerns: Who gets to circulate and how does that happen? This question is embedded in François Dallegret’s Bubble circulating in different parts of the city, trying to create this kind of movement.

AG: Dallegret’s Bubble, which embodies the degree zero of architecture, has never been realized until now. Was it easy to construct?

CA: The Los Angeles–based architect François Perrin, who had curated a show of Dallegret’s work, came up with this idea that we should build the Bubble for the first time. To be honest, the most simple and minimal forms are somehow the most complicated ones to make. The Bubble, as Dallegret conceives of it, is a place for reprogramming interactions between inhabitants. That’s why the choreographer Dimitri Chamblas was brought in as a dance workshop leader. For us, dance was going to be a tool to activate the Bubble.

AG: This kind of reprogramming is also at the heart of Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley’s practice. Their biennial offering, The Newcomers, was originally going to be a nomadic architectural installation. What came of that?

CA: The very initial idea, which proved impossible to realize for security reasons, was a suspended structure that would be assembled and disassembled and moved every day over a period of ten days. We were looking at various sights. Among the different options we had 28 Liberty downtown, an iconic International-style skyscraper, which contrasted with what Ward and Alex were planning in terms of a more nimble, ephemeral mode of thinking about architecture. An architecture that mutates or produces its own constant reshaping.

We Come from the Sea

This essay, which starts from a quote by Joan Jonas, was commissioned by TBA21-Academy Journal:


Speaking at the first of the Structured Conversations (“Unpredictable Oceans and the Monstrosity of the Sea”), held at Cochin Club in Fort Kochi, Kerala during the opening of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale on 13 December 2016, artist Joan Jonas mused:

We come from the sea. We don’t think about it very often but […] our semi-circular canals are similar, our eyes are similar, we have backbones. And the fish grew little legs and came out of the sea and then developed into what we are today. There are different theories about how that happened. My idea is that we have a memory of that. Somewhere in our unconscious we remember that we come from the sea. It’s not a memory; it’s a feeling; it’s in our DNA. I think that’s where all these stories come from and our desire to go back to the sea, our desire to swim under water, which I love to do… I did love to do.

This dense cluster of ideas, from which the present essay stems, would be developed and illustrated by Jonas the following evening, in what the artist insisted on calling a “demonstration talk” (to distinguish it from a fully worked-out performance) staged in the public Vasco da Gama Plaza. Modestly titled “Oceans – sketches and notes”, the talk with its performative elements was an experiment that – by her own admission – marked a new departure for the artist, even though some of the accompanying images and music, notably by Jonas’s habitual collaborator Jason Moran, had appeared in previous works, above all her project for the US Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, They Come to Us Without a Word (2015). Taking over the pavilion, the installation prominently featured bees as well as various aquatic species and yet, as Jonas explained during the Structured Conversation, by “they” she meant specifically the fish.

Jonas’s remarks spoke to me for a number of reasons. An avid swimmer, like Jonas, I always felt that nothing quite compared to the sensation of well-being verging at times on euphoria that full immersion procures – and nowhere more so than in the sea. But in May 2015, what had hitherto been by and large a leisurely pursuit took on a more adventurous turn. Just as Jonas’s installation in the US Pavilion was being unveiled, I was asked to write about swimming in the sulphurous waters of the Santorini caldera at the outcome of a week-long residency hosted by the Santozeum Museum in Thera. Volcanic swimming, as I soon discovered, can be quite addictive. In the last two years, I have swam inside crater lakes and sea-flooded calderas from São Miguel in the Azores to Hachijo-jima in the Izu Islands of Japan; around volcanic plugs and islets in Iceland and California, off of Stromboli and Nisyros; in the acidic pale green waters of Ijen volcano, a working sulphur mine in East Java. I knew I was hooked but could not easily explain to myself why I took to this somewhat eccentric pursuit with all the eagerness of a budding collector.

Some of the swimming, writing and thinking on the subject of swimming as an aesthetic and quasi meditative activity, which for me felt as natural as walking and breathing, have taken place in the context of self-assigned “immersive residencies” in Li Galli, on the Amalfi Coast, once thought to be the dwelling place of the mythical sirens (of the half-bird, half-human variety) and hence known by the alternative name of Le Sirenuse; at Roni Horn’s VATNASAFN / LIBRARY OF WATER in Stykkishólmur, a small harbour town on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland; and, most recently, in preparation for the “Growing Gills” project involving a research residency on the Aeolian Island of Stromboli facilitated by the Fiorucci Art Trust. The working title for this collaborative venture that brings together four female artists, all of us keen swimmers, seemed fitting for a project setting out to stage long-distance group swims in an extreme natural environment. Yet it took on a whole new meaning once I started unravelling Jonas’s poetic statement in an attempt to grasp what it implied.

In the summer of 2015, the Portuguese artist Marta Wengorovius invited me to São Miguel in the Azores to help her elaborate the concept for an exhibition that was to take the form of a map of the island.[1] One afternoon we drove out together to Lagoa do Fogo (“Lagoon of Fire”), a crater lake within the Agua de Pau Massif stratovolcano, situated right in the centre of the island of São Miguel, whose shape on a map recalls that of a whale. It might have been the centre of the Earth. As we went down into the caldera, along a path cutting across a thick growth of endemic plant species that looked positively antediluvian to me, the lake’s distinctive crescent shape with its twin udder-like strips of land jutting out into the middle of the waters gradually disappeared from view. The water I swallowed while swimming from a sandy beach to the other, more barren side of the lake, peopled by a colony of seagulls and terns, tasted sweeter than anything I had ever swam in before. Nothing could induce me to go out. From then on, Marta took to calling me “Agnieszka the Fish”.

What on one level is but an idle metaphor, a manner of speaking, when looked at from the vantage of phylogenetic classification is simply stating a fact. To quote British paleontologist Jennifer A. Clack, whose expertise lies in the field of evolutionary biology,

although humans do not usually think of themselves as fishes, they nonetheless share several fundamental characters that unite them inextricably with their relatives among the fishes. If one of the aims of classifying animals is to reflect their relationships and phylogeny, then inevitably humans and other tetrapods fall within the same grouping as other members showing these characters and sharing the same common ancestor.[2]

Simply put, phylogenetics investigates how closely different species are related in evolutionary and historical terms to work out their “phylogeny”; in the case of molecular phylogenetics, this is done by comparing DNA sequences in the genomes of organisms, which contain information about the historical evolution of the organisms in question. Humans as well as all other mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians living today are descended from four-limbed vertebrates known as tetrapods (literally meaning “four-footed”). The tetrapods themselves evolved from archaic Sarcopterygii or lobe-finned fishes about 370 million years ago in the late Devonian period – an interval of the Earth’s history appropriately, for our purposes, dubbed the “Age of Fishes”. As Clack points out, in phylogenetic classification tetrapods are Sarcopterygians (fish with lungs and bony-limbed fins) while humans in particular are Ostreichthyans (more commonly referred to as “bony fish”).

Since we are not only descended from fish but – one could argue – fish full stop, it stands to reason that there should be many similarities between them and us. In the excerpt from the first Structured Conversation quoted at the start of this essay, Jonas briefly evoked the semi-circular canal (in other words the hearing apparatus), the paired eyes and backbone or spinal column we have in common with all vertebrates, not just fish. To these, in the lecture demonstration proper, she added the fact that our embryos have the same shape, just as our skin, hair and teeth are fashioned from the materials fish are made of. According to fish paleontologist Neil Shubin, whose popular BBC documentary series Your Inner Fish: An Evolution Story Jonas invoked in the discussion at the Cochin Club, a “shared anatomy” binds us to fish. If our skeletal architecture and other anatomical features are remarkably alike this is because, as Darwin argued, at some stage in the distant past we shared a common ancestor that displayed these characteristics too.[3]

In On the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin noted the close resemblance of the species at the embryonic stage, which he took to prove his theory of “descent with modification”. After stating his belief that animals have descended from “at most only four or five progenitors”, and in the case of plants possibly even fewer, he posited that “probably all the organic beings that have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form into which life was first breathed”.[4] The concept of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA), from which all organisms currently living on earth are descended, is in keeping with Darwin’s hypothesis. By comparing the DNA letter sequences from a vast pool of genes stored in DNA databanks a team of evolutionary biologists has narrowed down 355 genes that would appear to have originated in the LUCA: a single-cell microbe that lived some 3.9 billion years ago (bearing in mind that the earth began to form 4.6 billion years ago). That’s not to say, however, that life started with the LUCA; it is simply our earliest known common ancestor.

There is evidence to support the claim that the LUCA lived in a hydrothermal deep-sea vent setting, as in submarine volcanoes where erupting magma mixes with sea water, but from there to suggest that life as we know it originated in a marine environment is quite a leap. (Some scientists working in this field think warm pools on land were a more likely scenario, arguing that the energy provided by the sun’s ultra-violet light was key to life’s origin.)[5] Yet the tantalizing suggestion that the LUCA may have dwelt at the bottom of the ocean in a geochemically active environment rich in gases, if anything bears out Jonas’s assertion that “we come from the sea”. For me personally, the deep-sea  vent hypothesis goes some way to account for the elemental appeal of volcanic swimming.

The LUCA pre-dates tetrapods – the first truly terrestrial creatures that emerged from water onto land, which they began to colonize in the late Devonian – by about 3.5 billion years. But the freshwater versus marine origin is also a moot point when it comes to our more recent ancestors. New fossil evidence has challenged the widely-accepted view that the earliest tetrapods as well as the lobe-finned fish from which they descended inhabited rivers and swamps. It is now believed that the earliest known tetrapods dwelt in the diverse ecosystems of intertidal zones, marine lagoons and the like, subject to retreating tides that left behind a network of inland tidal pools, more or less removed from the sea.[6] This scenario can  accommodate Alfred S. Romer’s influential theory, outlined in his pioneering study Vertebrate Paleontology (1933), according to which those fishes that evolved limb-like appendages were at an advantage when it came to reaching the nearest body of water over dry land, in the event of being stranded. On this view, our fishy forebears developed limbs not in an effort to gain ground but rather to regain water.

The many theories explaining why and how the tetrapods left water and evolved limbs fitted with digits that Jonas evokes but does not dwell on are necessarily provisional and speculative. What is certain is that the major evolutionary shift from a body equipped with fins and gills for underwater respiration and swimming to one with limbs and lungs allowing the animal to breathe air and walk was not so much a leap as a gradual process of adjustment. “The Greatest Step in Vertebrate History: A Paleobiological Review of the Fish-Tetrapod Transition”, led by John A. Long and Malcolm S. Gordon, concludes that the complete transition was staggered over some 25 million years and involved various intermediary groups of animals – from sarcopterygian fishes to prototetrapods, aquatic tetrapods, true tetrapods and terrestrial tetrapods – who went from swimming to swimming, paddling and walking, and then to paddling and walking.[7] (The sturdy limbs ending with digits will have been an asset for underwater paddling as much as for venturing out onto land.) These changes in the modes of locomotion went hand in hand with the reduction of the reliance on gill breathing, progressively replaced by lung and subcutaneous respiration, and eventually discarded altogether.

Neither was the transition irreversible. Rather than a move in one direction – from water onto land – driving forward the historical evolution of the group of animals from which the air breathing and walking land mammals that we are arose about 100,000 years ago, a back and forth between land and sea ensued. There have been plenty of instances across the ages of tetrapods reverting to semi- or fully-aquatic lives. Those still around today include cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), sirenians (manatees, dugongs) and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, walruses). Independently of each other and at different moments, all developed bodies fit for survival in water. Take whales, for example, whose closest common ancestor is the hippopotamus; they evolved from walking land mammals and have remnants of hind limbs to prove it. The same is true of sirenians (though their closest relations are elephants and hyraxes), who are fully aquatic creatures that live on land’s edge in marine estuaries, coastal wetlands and rivers. Otherwise known as sea cows (possibly because they are herbivorous), manatees as well as other equally fleshy species of sirenians were still designated as “mermaids” by sailors well into the nineteenth century, and may lie behind the widespread belief in fish women.

Written in 1964, Italo Calvino’s “The Aquatic Uncle” – one of several literary references in Jonas’s lecture-demonstration – beautifully illustrates in condensed narrative form many of the ideas explored throughout this essay. The tale belongs to a collection of twelve short stories called Le cosmicomiche (“Cosmicomics”), each focusing on a significant event, a milestone in the history of the universe. Presented as the recollections of “old Qfwfq”, the narrator and protagonist of the story, “The Aquatic Uncle” is a family saga doubling as a love story, set at the end of the “water period” against the backdrop of earth settlement by prehistoric creatures at different stages of transition from aquatic life to inhabiting dry land. But it is above all a tale of paradoxical return to the sea, flying in the face of the seemingly inexorable march of evolution. On the face of it, the narrator’s betrothed Lll, whose very name has sci-fi overtones, is an unlikely candidate for such a conversion. She and her kin having skipped the swimming phase that Qfwfq and his own less evolved relatives still had to go through, Lll is a land creature through and through, darting forward, leaping about, even standing on her hind paws in one climactic moment – a sort of Future Eve that the infatuated narrator is awed by: “in her I saw the perfect, definitive form, born from the conquest of the land that had emerged; she was the sum of the new boundless possibilities that had opened.”

Enter Uncle N’ba N’ga. The narrator’s venerable relative, who inhabits the muddy shallows of a lagoon that were the breeding grounds of Qfwfq’s fish ancestors, is impervious to all entreaties of his concerned family when they try to get him to come ashore and live like the rest of civilized folk. One day the narrator reluctantly introduces his fiancée to him, dreading her reaction. Nothing could be more at odds with the pioneering spirit Lll embodies than his unashamedly fishy uncle, flapping his gills like a true monster, making rude comments, and propounding unfashionable views about the superiority of water respiration over air breathing. And yet, far from scathing, Lll appears won over by his reasoning. On a repeat visit, she queries: “Don’t you think, Uncle, that if we wanted to learn to breathe under water, it would be too late?” The obliging uncle gives her a demonstration followed by swimming lessons, and soon ousts his nephew from Lll’s affections. As she revels in how finely her paws work as fins, her spurned lover wryly comments about this being a “big step forward”, before assuring her: “Nobody can turn back!” But Lll begs to differ. She has made up her mind to marry the uncle and become a fish again. The future, for her, is aquatic.


[1]“UM, DOIS E MUITOS – UMA ILHA EM EXPOSIÇÃO”, Museu Carlos Machado in Ponta Delgada (31 August-26 November 2016).

[2]Jennifer Alice Clack, Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), pp. 17-18.
[3]Episode 1, broadcast on BBC Four on 9 June 2015.
[4]Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (London: John Murray, Albermarle Street, 1859), pp. 483-44.
[5]See Nicholas Wade’s article “Meet Luca, the Ancestor of All Living Things”, published in The New York Times on 25 July 2016.
[6]Clack, Gaining Ground, pp. 129-132 and Steven A. Balbus, “Dynamical, biological and anthropic consequences of equal lunar and solar angular radii”, in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 2014 470, p. 2.
[7]Physiological and Biochemical Zoology (Sept-Oct 2004), 77: 5, pp. 700-19.