On “Collective Isolation” and Symbiosis: a Conversation with Beatriz Chachamovits and Khotan Fernandez
Welcome to CAMP Conversations, an editorial space brought to you by The Contemporary Art Modern Project! At The CAMP, we’re firm believers in the power of the intimate relationship between art and those who love art, and we’re happy to champion it in our approach to a nearly-inaccessible industry. CAMP Conversations are written to promote thoughtful dialogue exploring the art industry embedded with our sophisticated brand of snark, involving artists, gallery employees, and our beloved audience.
Even as Miami is still in the throes of COVID-19 as July arrives, nostalgia for our recent past is alive as ever, be it nostalgia for a cup of coffee at your local coffee shop, or a tight hug from a good friend. The same can be afforded to all of us who count venturing out to creative spaces in our usual routines. It isn’t so much that a six-month isolation doesn’t foster creativity, but more so that the personal four walls we inhabit can plummet us into ruts, and there’s no escaping it (for now). Even interactive, virtual creative spaces are becoming so commonplace that they no longer give us the restoration we want.
How do we, as creatives, respond to pandemic, collective social reform, and both’s effect on our internal worlds and the world outside of ourselves? When our work is so steeped in reactions to external concepts, and then the external world shuts down, it’s natural (no imaginable pun intended) to want to use our passions to create refuge for our communities, and ourselves. We, regardless of which point we occupy on the spectrum of “creative”—spectator, steward, creator—want to create as badly as we need to witness.
At The CAMP, we’re responding by taking our typical exhibition practices and expectations, and turning them on their heads.
This month, we’ve given Miami-based artists, Brasilian sculptor Beatriz Chachamovits, and Mexican painter Khotan Fernandez, free reign of the gallery to conceptualize, curate, and produce an exhibition: “Symbiote,” (which, by the way, is now available for viewing by appointment). What happened was a coalescing of perspectives that we could not have predicted, no matter how similar we thought their paintings appeared. The symbiotic creation of “Dyadic Dynamics”, by Beatriz Chachamovits and Khotan Fernandez, on one canvas, speaks to the relationship between self and world, between “unlike” communities, between fear and pandemic and critical interrogation of everything we think we know. The piece itself is a material manifestation of the need for collaboration, open-mindedness, and trust that there is always something beautiful to be found in the not-so-beautiful.
Beatriz Chachamovits is a painter and sculptor whose careful sculptures uplift and criticize our relationship with coral, also known as “rainforests of the sea”; Khotan Fernandez is known for painting barren, unfamiliar worlds that both reflect on and explore natural chaos and irrationality. I had the pleasure of interviewing them both for this round of CAMP Conversations, ultimately learning that circumstances are not only what we make of them, but that embracing what is out of our control can, in fact, be the best course of option.
Hi Beatriz and Khotan! Can you please start things off by telling me a little bit about yourselves and your work?
Beatriz Chachamovits: As an environmental artist and marine researcher, my work deals with the decline of the coral reef ecosystems. I make drawings, sculptures and installations that investigates and highlights the main causes of the state that coral reefs are found today.
The phenomena known as coral bleaching, ocean acidification and plastic pollution are the main starting points in discussing the human effects in ocean conservancy.
I invite the public to discover a complex biological network, where the concept of ecosystem is materialized through organization, symmetry and repetition.
My recent and interactive pieces (like, how to dry kill, to kill with water, and to replenish with water) deals with the ephemeral state of the work and its forever changing quality, much like the ocean itself. It creates kinship with the creatures of the reef, a direct bodily experience to raise awareness and responsibility of this most powerful and endangered ecosystem.
Like the reef itself, my work uses a number of underlying structures – interdependence, diversity and scale – to organize collective empathy. My main interest is to study these phenomena to create dry dives, a way of showing a vailed ecosystem internal to our planet that most people don’t have access to. I am especially interested in endangered species and how to translate scientific based studies into visual arts.
My most recent activity on mitigating strategies for ocean conservancy is creating sculptures that functions as artificial reefs so they can perform their crucial role in deflating the tourism on natural reefs, in providing new structures for corals to attach and grow, generating nursing spaces and new homes for so many reef animals and in helping control sea level rise in coral depleted areas.
Khotan Fernandez: The works are intimate drawings and paintings that somehow embrace the irrational, the chaotic, the unknowable, the day dreaming and open ended meanings. I want them to have a double aspect running by implementing elements that seem familiar but at the same time strange. While doing the works which most are modest in dimensions I would combine them with free hand paper or canvas cutouts from abstract scribbles and paintings done with my 2 year old daughter who seems to celebrate every day the wealth of potentiality. The bold color palette is a celebration of her toys, cartoons and books. They are also a deep-seated appreciation for artist like Mattisse, Paul Klee and Max Ernst.
How did “Symbiote” come together as an exhibition?
KF: The show was proposed to us by The CAMP Gallery, who saw the kinship in our latest “stay at home” works. I immediately liked the idea because in a time full of unknowns, collaboration implies introspection, evaluation, and communication.
Chachamovits’ approach to art making is quasi-scientific. Science and the arts might seem very different, but yet, inquiry and exploration are at the heart of both disciplines. You apply creative problem-solving to achieve things. My approach is more experimental. I look to surprise myself and for the works to have sense of simultaneity, to engage the viewer in a guessing game.
Hence, we came up with Symbiote as the title for the show which means: an organism in a partnership with another such that each profits from being together. It’s also important to mention this was self-curated; we had complete freedom to mount the show the way we envisioned . As a result we also ended up doing a 6ft x 4ft collaboration piece called “Dyadic Dynamics”, and interspersing drawings and paintings and sculptures throughout the whole gallery.
BC: This exhibition was only possible because Melanie [Prapopoulos, founder of The CAMP] saw the complementary nature of our most recent works, produced while in lockdown. As soon as I saw Khotan’s art I accepted the proposition. He has such an experimental approach to his work that felt like we were experiencing the same emotions. We also had the opportunity to do a self-curated show, with all the freedom to choose how to intertwine our works spatially. It was that openness and freedom that lead us to create a collaborative piece and display the works in a intercalary way. Symbiote relates exactly to the relationship formed between ourselves and the works.
The undercurrent of this exhibition seems to be an honoring of the nuances of life as we know it, pre-pandemic and during this period of uncertainty and changing perspectives. What goal do you have in shedding light on the nuanced?
BC: My goal is to reconnect us to the will to live, in a joyful, positive and affirmative way. In a time like this, it’s adamant, so that we can thrive, that we perceive the inter balance and connectivity of all life expressions. The wonders of life don’t seize to amaze me, and my intention is to celebrate nature’s forms, textures and colors. Everything has a primary desire and starts with an impulse and a vision. We need to focus, with clear intention, on what it is that we want to create. I hope to raise spirits by celebrating the explosion of live.
KF: The world is going through an incredible metamorphosis. Art can function as a venue to encourage self reflection, to gain new insights. It allows for dimensions of meaning that words cannot supply, basically, because sometimes it’s hard to make sense of the various relationships and interactions with multiple people and situations. I believe art unlocks restraints and provides some useful tools to cope and adapt successfully.
Those who make art, who create, have intimate relationships with their work, so much so that maybe we can argue art is inherently an extension of our own imaginations and values. Can you discuss the symbiotic relationships you each have with your work?
KF: I think, fundamentally, art is about freedom. But for me, it’s also about experiencing different states of consciousness. To absorb like a sponge and somehow re-contextualize it, there is an intent to transcends the status quo knowledge and symbolic communicative system, to rise above the limitations of written language . Also here I side with Bukowski: “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you in spite of everything, don’t do it.”
But I’m also going to answer this question with a metaphor. Maybe it’s a positive bias view, but I think artists are very courageous in the sense that they are like treasure divers using culture as a skandalopetra to bring back some insight to surface. To answer your question in a more direct way, I’ve taken art as Sancho acts as squire to Don Quixote. That’s my symbiotic relationship with art.
BC: My work is the expression of my inner viewings, hopes and beliefs. It is a reflection of my own existence. My whole trajectory as any artist, the life choices I’ve made, derives from the dedication and knowledge I acquired studying the marine ecosystem. That includes moving to this country and choosing to live in Miami. The ocean is my life source, my fuel in existing and creating. So the way I honor this ever-inspiring energy is by giving it all back to the ecosystem itself, creating artworks that serves, celebrates and amplifies the discussion on ocean awareness and conservation.
What have you experienced during this time of, as Khotan has called it, “collective isolation” that you don’t think would have been possible or known to you if we hadn’t gotten to this point?
BC: This time of introspection has given me the unique opportunity to pause, review and experiment within myself and my art practice. Things that in a pre-pandemic world was not possible because the demands of the contemporary society was to a degree that experimenting freely felt like “wasting time”. But when uncertainty is the main currency in which we live in, being present, active and questioning my reality became a priority. Collective isolation made me more emotionally available to myself. To review how is it that I am both a part of, and apart from this society. Not just how I am affected and how I react, but how I transcend this cycle towards becoming an agent for the new. I became more whiling to step out of patterns that I had set long time ago to explore broader perspectives. Making these works helped me shift the negative state of mind I found myself during this collective isolation.
I hope it does the same for others.
KF: It has invited me to ask more fundamental questions about the structure and priorities of things. To try to really listen to my own nature. To construct a bridge between self-actualization and transcendence. In this show, I have a series called “Oceanic Feeling”, a term coined by Romain Rolland, what he described as a feeling of “being one with the external world as a whole”; Freud later said “if it exists.” It’s a kind of consciousness possessed by an infant who has not yet differentiated himself or herself from other people and thing, and here lies the problem: he never experienced it himself. I think he failed to understand a de-automatization occurring in an adult mind. Rolland maintained that the benefits of the feeling were multiple: it could deliver knowledge of immutable metaphysical truths, guide socio-ethical behavior, inspire creativity.
Can you tell me a bit about your personal and creative rituals prior to pandemic and how, if, they’ve changed?
BC: It definitely changed. Before the pandemic, my work was completely tied to scientific research. I would spend hours in front of the computer looking for information on the reasons why coral reefs are being devastated. Connecting with scientists and marine biologist, diving and engaging on any conversation that would help me build a concept. I had a lot of prep time before going to the studio to produce. And even while producing I would always go back to fact check what I was doing. Now, the work is coming from an emotional place and connection with marine life, which is where life began. An open flow of creation, more experimental, intuitive. Choosing to portray the vibrant array of colors and life under the sea became a tribute to resilience.
KF: The works have become more intimate both in size and content. My two-year-old daughter being a huge inspirational source. I went back to drawing a lot, and I would cut out figures from watercolors we did together. I started to like how they looked, so I incorporated them into the drawings I was making and ran with that idea. Before, I would just go to the studio to paint for hours, primarily using oils
The concept of collaborating intentionally on one (canvas) isn’t unheard of, though it isn’t all that common to witness artists exhibiting side by side work on a piece in tandem. Can you talk me through how the idea came about?
BC: It was really Khotan’s suggestion to create a piece together. I jumped at the idea as part of a new approach to my art practice. To be more receptive, open, vulnerable and available. Times like these highlights the importance to crave open dialogues instead of closed monologues. It was the perfect opportunity to try something I had never done before.
KF: What inspires me to do art is to see art, I think there are indirect and direct forms of collaborations, like how Picasso benefitted from Matisse in many ways, they pushed each other’s visual language forward. Or, Jaspers Johns influenced Rauschenberg, and vice versa, at one point. Another example are the Basquiat/Warhol paintings—some of my favorite artworks. For our collaboration, I knew that the result would be unique if we worked as you say in tandem. You can’t clearly tell who painted what, and there is a lot of over painting, too, but that’s the freedom we gave each other. This side by side approach makes the canvas a potential space where meaningful symbolic communication takes place.
Did you find this an inspiring challenge or was it more of an effortless manifestation?
KF: We worked on the piece for 8 hours straight the first day. To lose yourself in space and time on a painting is a good sign for me, yet like any artwork, you run into challenges. But that’s the great thing about painting, you can change what’s not working.
BC: I see it as a mix of both. It was challenging because this was the first time I used paint in over 10 years. That was a bit overwhelming at first but once we started, once we figured out the background color we wanted, things just magically unfolded. We were able to move past fear. The more challenging it was, the most effortless was the solution. We both had to give up control and open up, to flow, to adjust, to move forth together, like a pair of dancers. In the end it was such a lovely experience to collaborate on something that is neither my work or his’ but it’s now our work and it does have a completely different form.
What lessons have you learned from one another? Do you think they’re applicable to the rest of us? Have there been any realizations you’ve had, spoken or unspoken, that you’ve had as a result of your collaboration?
KF: I appreciate the commitment [Beatriz] has to her work. In a mistaken way, people think artists are undisciplined. From her sculptural work, you clearly see the great focus attention and endeavor it requires to do one of her pieces. Collaboration usually requires communication and compromise, but in the end, it gave great pay offs, or maybe I was just lucky to come across Beatriz who tackled this with an adventurous forward thinking approach.
BC: I believe that the greatest lesson I’ve learned from working with Khotan is the benefits of generosity. To allow someone else to take the lead. As a visual artist we are always tied to our vision of things, the way we want things to be, but it’s so nice to open space and accommodate someone else’s vision and run along with it, make it yours too. What you get is the gift of surprise. It’s definitely applicable to anyone. Collaboration is the way of the future. And there are ripe rewards to harvest. Making this painting with him gave me a wide range of new possibilities to explore within my own work. It was the exact push I needed to find the courage to make my large scale paintings.
Beatriz, you’re an environmental artist, so it makes sense that you create these delicate homages to coral, which speak to both their status as vital habitats and their endangerment. Tell me about your relationship between your art and your activism. Do you find that they inform one another as you continue to develop your perspective and practice?
BC: Art and activism are intrinsically connected in my practice. The way my work functions is by combining arts, science and education so that I can tackle the climate change/environmental collapse in the most effective way. I see activism in teaching others about the ocean, in creating artificial reef sculptures that allows coral growth, in developing experiences in which the public gets to actively participate on and in partnering up with NGOs to create serious mitigation strategies to help the marine environment.
What is the relationship and intention between your sculptures and your drawings as one body of work?
BC: They come up as different expressions of the same life form in all its aspects. Like two sides of the same coin that are complimentary of one another. We can recognize duality as one thing that is inherently tied to its contrary. That way we are able to overcome limitations that keep us from the whole. The relationship and intention between them is to talk about life and death, imagination and reality. While the drawings are an ecstatic and vibrant display of an imagined marine life, the sculptures represent the decadent and almost fatal situation in which they are found right now.
Khotan, you’ve said that you draw inspiration from witnessing your daughter grow and come into her own creativity. How do you conceive of incorporating her work in yours as it relates to your own symbiotic relationship with your practice?
KF: I wanted to tap into her enthusiasm her energy her vibrations. So started using the color palette of her toys and books. I incorporated some of her scribbles and water colors in the form of cut- outs, it just made sense when I saw a few a had made for her on top of my drawings.
The imaginary landscapes you portray seem, at first, alien or even post-apocalyptic. What were you envisioning as you worked—were you at all considering the collective emotional charge of 2020 up to this very point?
KF: Yes it’s exploring alienation, the unknown, Totality symbols as Jung calIs them. I aim for enigmatic scenes that combine personal as well as universal themes, a try to just let it flow but I’m definitely influenced by my surroundings. In the end it’s valuable if a viewer can discern their own engagement with the work. To use it in whichever way is valuable for them.
Baby lightning round! What are your dream projects?
BC: My dream project is to be able to create an underwater museum that functions as an artificial reef along all the coast of Florida to help rebuild the natural reef and decrease the threats of sea level rise and climate change.
KF: There are certain paintings I have done that I know I need to be developed into a series meaning, I need to go deeper into the mind cave. There is more to explore there, but it involves time space and place. That, and a home with proper studio space, that way if a have an idea at 2am I can just go try it.
Is there a piece of yours that you’re most attached to? Why?
KF: Once they are out, they don’t belong entirely to me any more. There is one painting I’m attached to that’s hanging on my dinner table, that I did right after my daughter was born. It encompasses everything I was feeling and really gave me direction for other works.
BC: The piece I’m most attached to is “to replenish with water”. It was my first artificial reef and the first museum commission I’ve had in the United States. I could never in my wildest dreams, a couple of years ago, imagine that I would be doing something that really has an impact on the ocean environment.
Is there a piece, or pieces, that you wish you could experience all over again?
BC: I don’t think that is possible but the idea of creating new sculptures that can be placed in the ocean bed is the thing that has been driving me the most.
KF: You can wish but every experience is unique. I’m open to exploring more canvases with Beatriz if opportunity allows.
How do you think you’d approach each others’ practice if you had to switch for a day?
KF: I don’t think I could, what she does is very idiosyncratic. I honor her meticulous approach.
BC: I would cherish Khotan’s surrealist/imaginative approach as a contrast to my scientific based trajectory.
Do you think art has the capacity to enact change? What changes are you already witnessing in a time of collective social uprising and global public health crisis as it relates to the industry and your personal processes?
BC: Art is the cultural instrument to modify our reality. I have personally experienced that in my work in an installations that promote behavior change towards ocean awareness and preservation. To kill it dry was presented on the floor, blocking the entrance to the gallery, so if you wanted to go in, you would have to step on, jump or cross over the pieces on the floor. By forcing the public to destroy art that resembles something natural and endangered, they could understand how we can be agents of destruction. The reaction for this piece was insane, weeks after the exhibition, people would still call me to share how bad they felt and the impact of their own actions towards nature.
In relationship to the art industry, I’ve seeing artists taking hold of their own careers in an unprecedented way. With all the opportunities to share their work online, artists are becoming more independent. We are much more willing to collaborate in many forms with each other. I see galleries, museums and institutions making huge efforts to create an online presence. Bringing in the public through their computers to participate in talks, workshops, classes and exhibitions. I believe that this online tactic has the potency to expand the audience itself. To give art an easy, more democratic access. Not to mention the new ways art and its media are being made and experienced. So even with all the difficulties we are facing globally, there is always new opportunities to find better ways.
KF: It provides a vehicle for new understandings, and has been essential to human evolution from many different perspectives. Some artists are ambassadors of the natural world, alchemists, and some are very good at providing thoughtful critique. When a work is really powerful, sometimes you fall in love with existence. So, yes, it can promote change. Unfortunately, the crisis has posed incredible challenges to art institutions and galleries around the world. It also exposes and amplifies existing inequalities, and the underlining big problem which I think is lack of opportunity. So I want to finish by saying I’m grateful to be able to present this show in these current times.