Visual artist Vivian Zapata creates multimedia, large-scale sculptures. These immersive artworks are made with wood, foam, newspaper, artificial flowers, paint, and frequently incorporate found materials. Her exuberant, fantastic, and eye-catching artworks investigate the ruptured relationship between Western culture and the natural realm and seem to be culled from a dystopian future that reflects this inharmonious relationship. The work incorporates narrative strategies to support nature-endorsing philosophies such as deep ecology and romanticism. The anthropomorphization of nature in her artwork recognizes the interconnectedness between humans and the natural realm, our spiritual and physical similarities, and works against our cultural assumptions regarding this sphere.
Chicago-born Vivian Zapata holds an MFA in visual art from Washington University in St. Louis and a BFA in painting and sculpture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
WHAT IS NATURE?
Rolling rivers, lush forests, brightly colored flowers, chirping birds, the sun glistening through a dense canopy, the slopes of a distant hill, the cool ambient colors after heavy snowfall. What is nature? The natural realm is a physical presence in the world, but it is also a cultural construct. Whenever nature is represented through language or art, it becomes metaphorical or symbolic. My work is concerned with these metaphorical representations of nature. My oeuvre can be contextualized within the work of modern and contemporary artists who create artificial representations of nature that reference landscapes.
It is evident in the way our culture relates to nature that it has a secondary status to human culture. We value nature mostly because of its material worth, which provides the means of our subsistence and comfort. I am conscious and disturbed by humanity’s anthropocentrism. Nature, in the context of my oeuvre, is not a passive, mechanistic entity to be controlled and manipulated at will. I endow nature, the animal and plant realm, with a bodily presence that is fantastic, spectacular, sentient, and reactive. It is a body that is undeniably analogous to our own. I subscribe to the deep ecology idea that all life on Earth is a web of interconnections and that we share special, and more egalitarian, value for this reason. We are all a part of nature, and the animal and plant realm possesses spiritual as well as material qualities that are essential to humans.
It is worth noting that our current societal views concerning nature are predicated on the scientific legacy of the eighteenth century’s Age of the Enlightenment. There are two dominant currents of philosophy concerning nature in Western culture, both of which stem from the Enlightenment. In the book, The Passion of the Western Mind, professor Richard Tarnas differentiates between “two temperaments or general approaches to human existence characteristic of the Western mind” [i]. He refers to the differences between the “spirit of enlightenment” and “the romantic vision” [ii]. In one view, the scientific perspective, nature is esteemed for what it contributes to human knowledge and, consequently, human well-being. Nature, in this view is somewhat dead, machine-like, and indifferent to human exploitation. In the romantic view, nature is more spiritually charged and has more deeply seeded connections to humanity. Tarnas elaborates, “whereas for the Enlightenment-scientific mind, nature was an object for observation and experiment, theoretical explanation and technological manipulation, for the Romantic, by contrast, nature was a live vessel and spirit, a translucent source of mystery and revelation” [iii].
As a contemporary romanticist, I identify with nature and also recognize that our culture is becoming increasingly distanced from it. In the act of imagining narrative scenarios in which nature has agency, I work to project more individualized concerns and emotions regarding our present cultural conditions. Art has the capacity to ascribe metaphorical meaning to nature that can speak to the anthropocentrism of humans. The environmental crisis of our time requires us to think about the natural realm with renewed respect and wonder. Art can help us to accomplish this task. My work employs several strategies to help us see nature in this light of reverence. In addition to discussing my art within the meta-topic of artificial nature, my work also alludes to such themes as romanticism, the kitsch aesthetic, the grotesque body, and the carnivalesque.
[i] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, Ballantine Book (Ballantine Books, 1993).