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Immerse yourself in Guatemala’s tropical landscape through the work of Vivian Suter

Suter’s retrospective at Tate Liverpool invites viewers to interact with her immersive installation

By Stella Baraklianou

On a windy and grey, overcast day, I headed for the Tate Liverpool to see the works of artist Vivian Suter. This is Suter’s first major and largest retrospective in the UK to date and Nisyros (Vivian’s room) is an installation comprising of 53 works, including a cordoned off area where paper paintings are spread across a bed. The Swiss-Argentine artist, who has made her home in the tropical area of Panajachel, in Guatemala, improvises and constantly re-works her free-hanging paintings. It only seems natural then that the displaying of the work resonates with her method of working in her garden studio.

The first time I saw the work of Vivian Suter was during Documenta 14, an international exhibition devoted to contemporary art that happens once every 5 years. On this occasion the exhibitions were split between the hometown of the organisation, Kassel, in Germany, and Athens. However, perhaps ‘seeing’ isn’t the right word, as it felt more like walking into the stretched canvases. As I followed the suggested walking route of the exhibitions around the Acropolis area and the Hill of Filopapou, I came to the Pavilion. It was there, un-expectantly, that these large paintings hovered high above me, as if suspended under the Greek sun. I was immediately captivated. It is these works, originally commissioned by Documenta 14 in 2016-17 and exhibited in Kassel and Athens, that are now exhibited at Tate Liverpool.

Courtesy of the artist and Karma International, Zurich and Los Angeles; Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels; House of Gaga, Mexico City; and Proyectos Ultravioleta, Guatemala City

One can’t help but be invited to walk around and into Suter’s works, for they are deliberately hanging within the space of the gallery, away from the walls. Upon entering, if you look up you will see a pale canvas with a tropical blue bird welcoming you into the space. Feeling the textures and almost smelling the vibrant layers of acrylic paint, fish glue, and other natural materials used in her paintings, the experience becomes a very physical one. Her self-imposed exile from the fast-paced art world and her travels to Mexico and Central America led her to Guatemala, before settling and building her home in the secluded studio on Lake Atitlan. Her home and garden – an overgrown jungle of mango, avocado, and lemon trees – is part of a former coffee plantation. This is the site that provides her the raw materials and inspiration for her paintings.

"While a painting can take her 20 minutes to create, it has taken Suter over 30 years to re-emerge on the forefront of the art scene."

While a painting can take her 20 minutes to create, it has taken Suter over 30 years to re-emerge on the forefront of the art scene. Suter’s work communicates a sense of time that is both precious and precarious, as she works quickly, with the raw materials around her, in her studio in Guatemala. Through her large, almost childlike strokes of bold browns and reds, yellows, and greens, the immediacy of her surroundings is captured on the canvas. Painting has been historically associated with an investment of time, sometimes equating the length of time with the quality of the work. It is clear here that there are different values, with the canvas serving as a net or a dream catcher of some sorts, permeated with the spirits of the place.

Photography of Vivian Suter at Documenta 14 by Stella Baraklianou

Suter’s home and studio looks out onto the peaks of two volcanoes, Toliman and Atitlan, in Guatemala – it was no coincidence that she chose the volcanic site of the island of Nisyros to complete the work for Documenta 14. Nisyros is a volcanic island with a huge crater in the middle, located in the southeast of the Aegean, in Greece. It was there that the artist worked on her paintings that you can find in her installations. Living in tropical climates means that the artist is used to working under blazing hot conditions, but now these works are located inside the windowless gallery of Tate Liverpool. The only natural elements interacting here are the natural sound effect of the wind penetrating the walls and creating a whistling effect around the gallery space.

"Living in tropical climates means that the artist is used to working under blazing hot conditions, but now these works are located inside the windowless gallery of Tate Liverpool."

Suter was at Tate Liverpool herself for the installation of her exhibition. The paintings were arranged, then nailed onto wood, and hung around the space. The bed installation was assembled in the corner of the ground floor gallery space, with paper paintings around it. The works hang almost claustrophobically together, creating a space of vibrant matter and abstract shapes. In some of the works you can also sense the heat from the volcanic sand and stones of the Greek island, which they were exposed to during their creation.

Photography of Vivian Suter at Tate Liverpool by Stella Baraklianou

On closer inspection, you can also make out the paw mark from one of her beloved dogs, that has seeped in and left a blue trace on one of the paintings. Due to the nature of her materials, the washed out colours, and un-stretched canvases, Suter’s work shows how far nature can overtake the artist’s intent. Many of her paintings were also destroyed during a major flooding of her home and studio. Instead of getting rid of them and starting new paintings, she decided to keep them and exhibit them. While a sense of abstractness can be seen in her work, the washed out paint is also a reminder of how nature can interact with a work of art. It is this that makes Suter’s work so relevant yet poignant.

Vivian Suter’s exhibition Nisyros, (Vivian’s Bed) is on at Tate Liverpool, Wolfson Gallery from 13 December 2019 to 15 March 2020. You can also find Vivian Suter’s work in London, at Camden Arts Centre from January 17th to April 5th 2020.

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