Exhibition: Viva Arte Viva - 57th Venice Biennale 2017
In his book Tristes Tropiques, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss writes that he wished to have lived fifty years earlier, “in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full splendor of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted, polluted and spoilt.” More than fifty years later, the artist Julian Charrière travels to Bolivia, to the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. It still spreads out before the artist’s eye as an infinitely vast white salt crust scabbed in polygonal patterns. Yet over the next fifty years, the treasure it harbors, the largest lithium deposit in the world, will drive a dramatic transformation of this landscape: lithium, now a vital component of the digital world’s batteries, has emerged as a resource of inestimable value for Bolivia, and mining will begin in the near future.
Charrière is interested in the relationship between contemporary civilization and the world of geology, which has existed since time immemorial and ultimately sustains modern life. Like an anthropologist from the future who studies the present and conceives of the world as a network of human and non-human beings in which people, things, and nature are closely interdependent, making it impossible to isolate the environment, Charrière brings materials back home from his “fieldwork.” From the trip to the Salar de Uyuni, he returns with a large quantity of salt sediment in lumps he uses to build an installation in the Arsenale that oscillates between topography and landscape. Material turns into representation; the installation becomes a negative space of the mined salt that leaves a new cavity, a Future Fossil Space, in Bolivia, while guiding the visitor in Venice through a heaped mountain landscape, its layout hexagonal in imitation of the scabs on the salt crust. The earth’s interior is wrestled to the surface, and the primeval landscape that was buried when the Andes broke open and lakes appeared is brought back to the surface as an essence. With a nod to the hexagonal rooms of the library in Jorge Luis Borges’s story The Library of Babel, the artist’s interest concerns the body of knowledge that is stored in the salt segments. Meanwhile, the title Future Fossil Spaces refers to future spaces that will be created inside the earth by the mining operations, the traces that the digital era will engender and that he brings back into the present by displaying the raw material of the digital as an artifact from the past. The artist-anthropologist designs an early mausoleum for the geological age of the digital, offering, as a counterpart to the internet, a physical and tactile experience. Ironically enough, that experience demonstrates that the enlargement of the virtual world requires a hollowing-out of the world of natural resources. It is a narrative of matter reporting on the virtual, material culture that grapples with the progress of our information society; impartial and as real as it is relevant in a world of plural realities.