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Art faculty member has been examining site-specific art in Switzerland

May 4, 2015

Photo of Ricardo Rivera in studio Assistant Professor Ricardo Rivera has spent much of the past year as a research fellow/artist in residence for Ars Contemporaneus Alpinus in Switzerland.

For the better part of a year, Ricardo C. Rivera, assistant professor in the Art Department and gallery director at the Knight Campus, has been working as one of five artists selected internationally to participate in Ars Contemporaneous Alpinus, culminating in exhibitions in Vailais, Switzerland.

Rivera spent parts of last fall and winter exploring, researching and developing the project at the Villa Ruffieux in Sierre, where he is a research fellow/artist in residence for the project. His familiarity with the town – and its surrounding mountainous areas, which function as "playground" for recreation for the wealthy – stretches back to 2003, when he lived in the area for a residency at the Centre de Réflexion sur l'image et ses contextes.

Situated in a valley that once was home to an isolated and self-sustaining society, and later functioned as a major artery of trade between Italy and Northern Europe, Vailais has become, courtesy of its art and tourism bureaus, home to many large, outdoor projects and sculpture parks. While some might call these works site-specific, Rivera's research and work speaks to a trend that is more decontextualized from purpose, context and geography than one might think.

Rivera explained that many of the large-scale works on display in Vailais really have nothing to do with the surrounding environs, even though they are sometimes quite literally carved into them.

He pointed to artist Michael Heizer's piece, "Tangential Circular Negative Line," which the artist intended to be installed in a desert. Instead, instructions for the piece were purchased at an art fair, and it was installed at the nearby Mauvoisin Dam without the artist's input.

"They become trophy pieces," he said, meaning that while they might be worth a substantial amount, they are completely decontextualized.

By contrast, Rivera hopes to create work that is not only influenced by and of the place, but that also makes it possible for viewers to have a direct experiential relationship with the subject matter. Rather than mediating the work through a static presentation – a print or a painting, for instance – Rivera is playing with the idea of live-action mark-making.

Sierre is an area defined by sharp elevation – deep rifts in the earth made by years of glacial movement have led to mountains of not only massive height, but of impressively steep faces. One such mountain in the middle of town defined much of Rivera's experience there, he said, and so it felt natural to include it in his explorations. "It's kind of funny; no one actually knows what the name of this mountain is," he said of his subject.

To do this, he stands upright in front of a canvas, headphones covering his ears as he listens to the bizarre atonal clangs taken from the gold record loaded onto the spacecraft Voyager II and launched into the beyond for our hypothetical companions out there in the multiverse. In each hand, he has a drawing implement. In early recordings of his work, you can see a form take shape on each side of a linear void – seen vertically, it most nearly resembles an eerie X-ray, buzzing with frenetic energy around Rivera as he works to make the form.

Tilt your head, and you can almost see the mountain, flayed, butterflied down the middle and lain out for our consideration. But that's just one observer's interpretation; for Rivera, representation is not the ultimate goal. "It's the immediate action and resulting evidence of the marks I am most concerned with. I see it as a metaphor for the limitations humans have without technological apparatuses," he said.

Ricardo Rivera working on a laptop.The work is intense, and that's part of Rivera's point. Rather than mediate the mountain, or the experience of it for his audience, he wants to "create a context where everyone has a direct experience," he said. He stumbled upon the approach while giving a presentation at a conference in the staid, woody tones inside the artist's housing ("It's a castle, really. For me, being in this environment makes it hard to make art," he said). Without warning his audience, he threw out whatever script he may have been following for the traditional presentation, and just began to make marks on a whiteboard.

"I wanted to do a performative action that would get across my ideas rather than have to tell people my ideas," he explained.

Improvisation is an important part of Rivera's process; he described his working methods as being somewhat "in reverse." Whereas some artists have a plan they follow to get to a certain outcome – a painting or a piece of sculpture, say – he allows all of his conversations, readings, research and experiences to influence him, driving him to begin making work with no particular endgame in mind.

"Afterwards, I see the connections between different things. I find that, in this way, I'm able to make things that I would probably never make, and I don't set limitations or parameters as to what form it will take. It keeps it open rather than closed," he said.

This is all to say that the body of work for the exhibition now included different pieces of video, drawings, animation, renderings and more. He also spoke of conceptual pieces that touch on the extreme or fantastical ("What would happen if Switzerland became an asteroid and removed itself from the earth?" he said, smiling, pointing at a 3-D rendering of what such an object might resemble. "Or what if the Alps were dammed up so that most of the valleys were underwater, but people who had these high ski chalets had waterfront property? This is obviously never going to happen, but I'm interested in playing with this in a humorous way.") His plan for the moment will be to draw his pieces in real time, but if that's not possible, then he may just record himself in the studio and present those recordings.

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