Gauthier Lesturgie // Transfers and translations Transfers and translations - subterranean alchemical procedures in Nuno Vicente´s work.

Sculptures made of earth, water, fire, air (pp. 129-134)

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Proiectio1 »

In 2012, for the first chapter of his exhibitions series « Sculptures made of earth, wind, fire, air », Nuno Vicente collected the corpse of a dead tortoise in Sardinia. Placed in a metal container, the tortoise was then incinerated with a welding torch until only cinders remained. In another container, Vicente mixed the remains with water and a concrete preparation. The base produced was then poured into a rectangular wooden mould. After drying, the artist removed a small grey hollow brick from the mould, which would be used as a bowl to feed passing birds in the gallery.

Transformation of a dead body into a foundation for life echoes alchemical imagery on several levels: the laboratory aesthetic, the use of containers, the several stages documented by the artist leading to the creation of an artificial stone. Also, there is a symbolic resonance in the collection, decomposition, and transformation of raw natural. This cyclic process of the reduction of the tortoise to ashes and then its return in some form to “nature” (as a vessel for bird food), evokes the Phoenix, symbol of regeneration as the tortoise in alchemical iconography.

These cyclic displacements with a selected material through separation and then transformation to achieve a « new » primary function, are made from the passage of one element to an other (the terrestrial animal become cinders, then liquid mixture and last, bowl for birds - thus signifying the four elements which titled the exhibitions series). The use of the cycle through translations of one element into another is a recurring pattern in the artist’s work.

More recently in 2014, Nuno Vicente built a kinetic sculpture made of chrome metal, which he then placed on a mossy ground. The sculpture, a small vertical windmill, was activated by the force of the wind. At the base, a tiny metallic arm digs circles in the earth’s surface as the propeller moves. This foreign sculpture in the landscape reflects the solar light: To reorder light through wind into circles. Again, the title directly expresses these notions of re-order, and the transformation of imperceptible raw materials, here light and wind, into a cyclic motif.

The first principle of the alchemical transformations is stated as the appropriation of the prima material. Here, material is defined as a « black », chaotic, confused mass caught in an indeterminate, constant movement, which the alchemist attempts to materially shape. These operations permit us to read the basic principles of the sculpture, an endeavor that has historical echoes, amongst which is the work of Joseph Beuys.
The German artist developed these displacements not only on a material level but also on a metaphysical one: raw chaotic material (prima materia), extended to the psychological realm. Yet, Joseph Beuys’ work enacts a reversal, which makes visible this path from the disordered to the organized within sculptural processes. In some of his works, he directly goes against this arrangement, ending with the minimal definition of the sculpture as a simple process evolving through, amongst others thing, decomposition, putrefaction and fermentation. In his introduction to the catalogue for his retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1979, Beuys himself explained that « the theory of the Sculpture describes the passage of the whole existing things in the world, physical or psychological, from a chaotic condition, indeterminate, to a determined or organized state [...] This is the reason why the nature of my sculpture is not fixed or finished. In most of these, some processes are following : chemical reactions, fermentation, changes of colors, deterioration, drying. Everything is in a changing condition2 .» Some of Vicente’s sculptures illustrate similar procedures. For example, in Dead bird turn into stone, the artist encircled two stuffed birds in concrete and then placed this in the forest. Over time, the « stone » crumble and merge into the ground - the earth, which is the primary element in alchemical development.
The importance of the passing of time and its visible marks are key parameters of Vicente’s sculptures, notably in the choice of specific materials such as oxide bronze (the tiny bronze birds in Diaries of a birds songs, 2013), or animal corpses, or the medium of photography and the gradual disappearance of the image.
For Waters (2013), each day for an entire month the artist walked to a typical Berlin photoautomat, where he took pictures of himself. Then he placed a metallic box, which was pierced with several holes and contained the black and white self-portraits, into the canal. Progressively, the first photographs were erased in the submerging effect until they disappeared completely. The performative aspect of this work, already analyzed by the curator Kordula Fritz-Srbic, leads us to the notion of ritual. The primacy of the process, the several steps relayed by the documentation more than the final result, also echoes alchemical research. As Jung argued, it is not the creation of the stone (philosopher) that is essentially important, but rather every psychological consequence of the research, which materializes in the obtained object. Ritual practice find its impact through process itself, the realization of the different steps, rather than in the final product (which is often nonexistent).
According to Beuys, the passage from one state to another, based on the same source, applies not only to the physical matter but also to a more « volatile » realm, such as spoken words or thoughts. This resonates with Jung’s theory paralleling the psychological transformations obtained during the working process on the matter by the alchemist. Therefore, the evolution is simultaneously made on the two levels during the plastic creation.

The installation Diaries of a bird songs (2013) challenges the displacement between thoughts and matter, moving from one level to another within the creative process and culminating in the displayed artworks in the gallery. Nuno Vicente named « sculpture » the translation of his contemplations and intimate thoughts felt in nature, which were then written down in a notebook, then read aloud, recorded and pressed into the vinyl to finally become again, in a way, intangible during the sound diffusion in the gallery space. These several stages support once again the alchemical initiative understood within psychological perspectives. The first stage is described by Jung as the phenomenological one, manifested as intellectual elation, which for Vicente happens when he is outside, alone, listening to the birds. Impressions become abstractions, ideas and intellectuals judgements until the « apperception », which articulates the moment when you become aware of perceiving. This corresponds to the artist’s conscious impulse make an artistic work and start to note these impressions. Following this intellectual process, the artist imprints the marks, making a selection within the matter. This is ultimate goal of the alchemist: passing from the metaphysical to the physical, seen here through the artistic procedures until its public display, when the thoughts are (re)pulled from the matter by the reflective viewer.

This is the pursuit of an absurd quest; the notion of failure following the primacy of the process on the finished product is both an alchemical initiative and an artistic one. The search for the philosopher’s gold is, according to Jung, the metaphor of psychological procedures rather than a complete realization of the stone, straightaway self-defeating, at least for a contemporary observer. Thus, for Jung the intertwining between the matter and the psyche is « the only way to consider the things which move the alchemist’s absurdity reflection into the intelligible sphere3 ». When Nuno Vicente hooks fossilized leaves to trees (Fossils of leaves hanged on a forest, 2014), buries a bird turned into stone, or translates his writings in Latin and then in Morse code in order to diffuse them into the air (Thoughts translated to air,2013-2014), he elaborates « sculptures » which find their entire dimensions in the gesture itself: the « making ». His sculptures are first secret and invisible, and are revealed through the displayed documentation in the gallery space,. Borrowing the words of Claudio Parmiggiani4, we could say that these pieces are displaced in the gallery, and seem to be present in order to witness their own absurdity : evidence and marks of a senseless but poetic quest. Run aground in a corner of the gallery, the floating object Device to return (human) conscious to water / light transposer (2013) for the sixth chapter of « sculptures made of earth, wind, fire, air » embodies once again the translation task : and underwater broadcasting of a text, written by the artist, through solar energy. Naturally, using this tool and this language (english) is in some ways inadequate and bypasses the first use of language as a communicative tool between beings, yet the symbolical significance of this gesture remains strong. Perhaps useless artifacts, Nuno Vicente’s sculptures are nevertheless inner gestures, which are materialized through artistic procedures into multiple projections and clues of the artist’s imagination, stimulating both the sculptural concept and the artistic activity itself. Once again with Jung’s words regarding alchemy become pertinent, « Thus, the fact to imagine, is also a physical activity which can be inserted within the transformations cycle of the matter, which determine them and in it turn determined by them.5 »


1 C.G Jung, Psychologie et alchimie (1944), Paris, Buchet Chastel, 2014.

2 Joseph Beuys, ed. Caroline Tisdall, New York : The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979.

3 C. G Jung, op. cit., p. 385.
4 Claudio Parmiggiani, Stella Sangue Spirito (1995), Arles, Actes Sud, 2003.

5 C. G Jung, op. cit., p. 383.

Gauthier Lesturgie



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