An underwater expedition closes the series of the porcelain egg in an excursion to the bottom of the sea with the mission to find and collect the Homo Aquaticus Egg
Italian artist Giovanni Vetere, 25, speaks from the stables-cum-studio of the Fendi owned villa Hippo Campus. Situated in Tuscany, Vetere is currently one of two artists in residence there. They are the first to be involved with the new Fendi scheme which promotes performance art and installation; the two disciplines, alongside sculpture, define Vetere’s practice. «I create habitats. Imaginary habitats where I make every element. The viewer is a guest and they experience this new world. In my habitat my body is the protagonist and for a moment they are in it» says Vetere of his work today. The recurring image shown is of Vetere submerged in water, eyes shut and breathing through a tube. Surrounding this centre, architectural structures are built, or an underwater world is made through human sized, plant-like ceramics and foliage. The performances play off the foetal, and sit in the state between life and death; birth and drowning.
Often engaging with the theatrical, Vetere has crafted a narrative behind the concept of his sunken body; the homo aquaticus. It was first developed for the 2018 BA Graduate Show at London’s Camberwell College of Arts, inspired by the predictions of a twentieth century oceanographer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau; ‘that the human race will one day move underwater and live in the sea’. In Vetere’s story an Italian scientist drops his son at a desert island and two years later returns to find his child now lives in water – he created a homo aquaticus. «It’s about me in the end. I am the homo aquaticus. I have the desire of being someone else, of being something else. And the scientist is my father, who is an important figure for me. He taught me how to be in the sea, he brought me his own passion for it».
In a new work for Lampoon, Vetere has continued the story, and reinterpreted a porcelain Ginori 1735 egg engulfed by the tentacles of ceramic seaweed. Named Homo Aquaticus Egg, the project will include an underwater film. Follow our conversation as Vetere explains how he started experimenting with water, the physical challenges of giving his performances, and the process of making the most recent ceramic.
Joe Bromley: I wanted to ask about how you work with water. What was it that captivated you?
Giovanni Vetere: My process was organic. At Camberwell I started studying photography, and then went to sculpture, and then felt this need to use my own body. I started to approach water because it was an element that responds very quickly to me and my physical experience. It was a sensual element, water is dynamic and allows transformation. I was interested in Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s documentaries, and he always said that to understand fish, you have to become fish. So my initial aim with water was to become it.
JB: When did you first start using water in your practice?
GV: The first performance I encountered with water was randomly in my studio flat in London. I wanted to put my face inside the water to see what the experience was. I filled up a bucket and put a GoPro in to film what was happening inside, as well as filming from the outside. Watching them afterwards was interesting because I had this hybrid experience. I had a terrestrial and aquatic experience at the same time which is something I am still interested in – the idea of the amphibian. From there, I went on a four month workshop in Holland, and I was asked to make a thirty minute performance of a continuous action. I called it All You See is Blue, and I filled a bucket with water and blue ink, and held my breath as long as I could for thirty minutes repeatedly. Every minute I had to get out of the water, when I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. The images are dramatic because the ink was covering my body, and the room.
JB: I saw those pictures, it looked like you were bleeding blue ink. How did you keep developing from there?
GV: My first successful underwater performance was Bodies of Water, in 2018. For the first time I was able to merge with water – I realised that I had to warm the water up to thirty-five degrees to be comfortable, and I used weights under my clothes to sink to the bottom. And then I needed to create a comfort situation, to convey an image of pleasure in the pain. I wanted to breathe without having to hold my breath, and be at peace under the water. So I used a long, transparent hose, which reminded me of the umbilical cord, and then of the foetus and the womb. It’s not connected to an oxygen tank, so I’m breathing the same air as the room. Otherwise you would see the bubbles, and I would look like a diver.
JB: Those mechanisms were the basis of your graduate show, The Portrait of Homo Aquaticus, but that was on a far bigger scale. Could you talk me through it?
GV: There was this massive stage, a pyramid made in wood that the audience had to climb and at the top of the structure you would experience my performance, which happened inside. There, I lay for five consecutive hours under water. I wanted to give people a very theatrical experience. To be immersed in this hypothetical situation and believe, for a moment, there is an actual homo aquaticus there. I started to use actors in my performances as a way to better convey a story, through dialogue. I briefed them with the homo aquaticus story I wanted people to know. For the live performance there was also a choir, and the story was that they were there to calm the creature. They were singing a lullaby that my father sang to me as a child to make me sleep.
JB: What was the process like, pulling this together?
GV: I had to start six months in advance, to prepare the project and get the permissions – it presented some risks. There was a pyramid, I was inside the water, and there were electric cables to make the water warm so up until the day before, I didn’t even know if I was going to be allowed an audience to climb the structure and see.
JB: Your next show was Squid Dinner, curated with The Orange Garden, in 2018. How was this different to what you had done before?
GV: This time, rather than create an aquarium for the homo aquaticus to be seen, I decided to create their own habitat. So the audience was invited to experience the homo aquaticus in its own environment.
JB: How did ceramics come into play with this?
GV: I started to use ceramics because of a need for me to create organic shapes. Not architectural shapes anymore. I wasn’t aiming to create a theatrical stage, but I wanted to create the environment. I’ve always been intrigued by big constructions, and that is the same with my ceramics. They are so big I can never make them in one piece, I have to do it in sections. Bit by bit, like a puzzle. I start with the base and then I add the second then third pieces on top. I only finalize it at the end, so when I’m making I don’t know where I am going. That’s what I like – because it’s unpredictable. Ceramic is material you can’t really control too much. The more you try to control it, the more you make mistakes.
JB: Interesting, how did you go about making the Ginori egg sculpture for Lampoon?
GV: I received the porcelain egg, and because it was porcelain it could go in the kiln and be fired again. I wanted to make a ceramic sculpture around it, and bake it all together. I started to make tests around the egg and thought about making it a new creature or plant. First I wrapped it with clay tentacles, so I couldn’t get the egg out anymore, and once the tentacles were dry, but not too dry, I added the triangle leaves. At that point the egg was trapped and I put everything in the kiln. It went in the kiln twice, first to cook my ceramic, and then to put the glaze on top. I wasn’t sure what I was doing, because I was trying not to control the process too much.
JB: And how would you describe the final result?
GV: It reminds me of a sea creature, or a sea plant, or perhaps an egg of a new creature. Something unclear and not recognizable. Instinctively, I decided to bring the piece underwater, because to me it belonged there, it belonged to my story and the homo aquaticus. It comes with a film of me telling the story of going on a scientific expedition, and finding a homo aquaticus egg. In the end the project became a performance as I went back to the water with the sculpture. It became dynamic and active and I entered the sea again, with my father, in the boat. In that way, it also brought me back to my roots.