Between Heaven and Earth Longwoods Art Project essay by Susan Aberth

In the hands of Grimanesa Amorós, installation art becomes a form of interactive theater that eschews narrative in favor of creating a poetic ambience within which multiple dialogues evolve. A masterful conductress, she mixes textures, lighting, words, music and moving images together to convey a sense of expansiveness that transcends time and promotes the kind of mental and psychological openness optimal for contemplation and leaps of comprehension. This fresh strategy allows the viewer the autonomy to feel their way through the labyrinth of meanings suggested by the artist, and to draw their own conclusions, whether they are political, social, ecological or entirely personal. Subtly weaving in and out of Rootless Algas and Between Heaven and Earth are parallels between current social conditions and cycles of nature. Amorós avoids drawing didactic conclusions from such comparisons, for that would be too easy. Instead, set against the anxiety over and concern for damaged and disappearing landscapes, this exhibition invites us to explore our relationship with that most fraught yet sacrosanct of subjects, nature. In a media saturated world that promotes disjunction and confusion, Amorós’ meditative work provides a moment of sanctuary so that one may pause to reconsider and reconfrm one’s rightful place as an integral part of the natural world.

Amorós is an artist who likes to wander. It is not that she doesn’t have destinations, its just that she holds her expectations lightly so that places and people can speak, surprise, and teach her lessons she could never have imagined. That’s how it was when she traveled with her husband and daughter to the remote island of Flatey, in Breidafjördur Bay off the coast of Iceland. She had intended to sketch the many species of birds to be found there, only to realize that they had all migrated a mere two days before. On this island at the edge of the world, with only a few inhabitants, she felt far from discouraged and decided to explore. The multi-media installation piece, Rootless Algas, chronicles what she found in this isolated nothingness, freed from the confnes of planned projects and prior imaginings.

Flatey possesses a great abundance of seaweed (algae, kelp, etc.), a rootless aquatic plant that drifts through oceans absorbing nutrients without needing anchor. Settling on rocks in thick masses they prevented easy passage to the shore and thus forced the artist to admire their ecological kingdom. As tides move, these glistening ribbons of green rhythmically fow in a graceful, hypnotic dance. For Amorós, an artist uprooted from her Peruvian homeland, this natural spectacle served as a metaphor for survival in our current age of diasporas and migrations. In particular this lesson seems to have resonance for artists who must fnd stability and home in their work and to locate value in fux as an opportunity for discovery and wonder.

The viewer cannot help but feel engulfed in this magical installation of sensuously undulating curtains of hand-made paper algae, uncannily animated with shifting winds and lights. Amorós’ technical prowess in creating these multi-hued strands

of wet-looking abaca paper is breathtaking. In this dream space a video plays whose somber and soulful string music, interspersed with the cries of those ghostly missing birds and the sea, flls the space with a heart wrenching sense of unnamable longing. The artist collaborated with the famous Icelandic composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, who had his own poignant memories of playing on Flatey as a child. The magic of childhood is echoed in the video where Grimanesa’s young daughter (her great muse) soars into the sky on a swing, like a bird in fight. Slow distant and close-up pans of the swaying algae mimic the movement of the tides that, along with the pulling strains of the music create a seamless environment. Time is caught in an ever-present moment full of nostalgia for the loss of self found in overwhelming encounters with nature. Zoom-ins featuring fowering algae, hovering and then spinning like living mandalas contributes to this sense of otherworldliness.


Between Heaven and Earth is a profound meditation on mankind’s fragile but tenacious habitation of perilous landscapes, both rural and urban. At once visceral and spiritual this installation of sculpture, video and sound draws haunting connections between those dwelling places situated high amidst the sky and located in places of dangerous beauty. Whether they are the projects of the Bronx or the mountainous homes nestled under the cliffs of the Fjörd regions of Norway, shelters are synonymous with safety. This work delicately insinuates that safety is perhaps an illusion, or at least a state of mind that enables us to cling, against all odds, to the psychological terrain of our identities.


The video component of Between Heaven and Earth is a visual paean to nature that utilizes vertiginous sweeps of water, earth and sky in order to plunge us headlong into a vast and untamed wilderness. Waterfalls fowing both up and down, huge mountain ranges refected in the eerie stillness of glacial ponds, and ominous turquoise icebergs with the consistency of crushed metal speak of an archetypal place where no amount of human negotiation can prevent unavoidable catastrophes. Winding in and out of this in extremis natural panorama, with extraordinary subtleness and poetic melancholy, are urban vistas no less extreme and certainly no less dangerous. Housing projects (they are from the Bronx but they could be anywhere) rise up like canyon walls, their unornamented facades mimicking sheer rock formations. Shots of fowing rivers are interspersed with fashes of water towers perched atop buildings, hinting at capture and stasis. Cascading waterfalls are transmuted into those large water bottles so necessary to polluted city living, held aloft and poured by an anonymous modern alchemist.

When Amorós traveled to Central Western Norway she was struck by the conundrum of those living in the fatter regions out of the desire for safety and minimal contact with the wider world, who still spoke wistfully of villages so high atop mountains that they could only be reached by ladders. Although these habitats were fearfully isolated and periodically destroyed by avalanches, the villagers worried that future generations would abandon them altogether, irretrievably changing ancestral lifestyles that held the essence of who they were. Their pride in such fantastical feats of survival, punctuated by unforeseeable and certain tragedy, spoke of the mysterious bonds that link humans to place, however diffcult and marginal it might be. In the face of globalization and mass contemporary migrations of peoples this hold is ever more tenuous and transitory.


Embedded in this montage, two scenes of human presence have particular resonance for its visual discourse. The frst, towards the beginning of the piece, is a close-up of the artist’s then six-year old daughter Shammiel looking like an ethereal denizen of fairyland. Gazing at us with a wistful smile she puts her hands over her eyes as if searching, and then the camera cuts to her hand gracefully pointing to and waving at dark waters ringed by mountains. This brings us to another remarkable aspect of the work, the soundtrack executed by the renowned Peruvian singer Susana Baca who collaborated


with Amorós. Baca, also enamored of Norway from her concert appearances there, energizes the video with an abstract vocal piece called Nacimiento de Voces (Birth of Voices) specially created for this installation. This remarkable score, an updated blend of Yma Sumac and Diamonda Galas, with its undulating wails and echoing cries, infuses the scenes with a preternatural sense of longing and power. How appropriate a background for a little girl whose ancient Hebrew name means “angel of heavenly song.” Amorós’ use of her compatriot’s song prods us into recognizing the artists’ own refections on belonging and national identity. Those familiar with ancient indigenous Peruvian beliefs will call to mind huacas, sacred objects and places in nature inhabited and protected by supernatural spirits. These powerful natural sites, thousands of which exist in Peru, are still believed to contain the power to cause good luck or misfortune.

The other striking passage is one of a man lying prone, alone on a barren rocky plane. Gradually his form waivers and slowly dissolves into the earth, implying cycles of life and death. This theme is brought further into the installation sculpturally by a sarcophagus-looking receptacle made up of stacked layers of cast paper in the form of the artist’s silhouette. Amorós has a long history of working in abaca paper shaped by molds and such forms are used in the piece to great effect. If one listens carefully one can determine that the sound emanates mysteriously from inside this human tomb; as in nature, life and death are inseparably intertwined forces. Dozens more of these mold-made silhouettes are hung on the wall, like so many foating souls, momentarily coalescing to form a mountain. Upon closer inspection, these halo-like forms have the rugged texture and weathered surface of newly cut paths through virgin territories.

These two installations by Amorós, Rootless Algas and Between Heaven and Earth, are open doors to other worlds. We can travel far, or sit quietly at the edge but either way she has shared her journeys with us and now they become ours as well.