Installation view of Vivian Suter exhibition, Gladstone Gallery, Seoul, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery.Photo: Kyung Roh<br/>
© Vivian Suter, Gladstone Gallery

Art in the continuum of nature

Sophie Prince

This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2023, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Argentinian-Swiss artist Vivian Suter’s contribution to the NGV Triennial 2023 is suspended individual canvases that not only evoke the wonder of a maze-like forest to be meandered through, but also allude to the layered and immersive tropical environment that has directly contributed to the vividly coloured and gesturally marked canvases. For more than four decades Suter has been welcoming the imprint of nature into her work. The artist routinely works outdoors, leaving canvases outside and learning to accept the power of nature when it enters her built space. Located in a remote tropical region, situated on the slopes of a volcano on the land of an old coffee plantation surrounding Lake Atitlán in Panajachel – an adventure-filled three-hour drive from Guatemala City – the artist’s home and studio have informed her choice of materials, which include house paint, fish glue and cheap local fabric, and have shaped the way she thinks, lives and creates with nature.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1949 and raised in Basel from the age of twelve, Suter moved to Guatemala in 1982, sensing that cosmopolitan life and the increasingly globalised art world was a distraction to her practice. Her mother, Elisabeth Wild, was also an artist, although their practices differ greatly – Wild created detail-oriented collages with a geometric slant. Wild passed away in 2020 at the age of ninety-eight, a deeply sad and profound moment for Suter given their close bond and intertwined routines. Mother and daughter lived in Guatemala together and built their own homes on the same plantation, sharing daily life although never shying away from critiquing each other’s work. From a young age, Suter was encouraged by her mother to make art and while still living in Basel she quickly gained traction in the art world system, graduating from art school at only seventeen and landing her first significant group and solo shows within the first four years of her career. Before moving to Guatemala, Suter exhibited widely in solo and group exhibitions, including at Gallery Nouvelles Images, Netherlands; Galerie Stampa, Switzerland; and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Portugal. After Suter’s relocation to Guatemala, the instances of her exhibiting her work became fewer, reflecting her physical detachment from the Western art scene and her decision to focus on making art over networking.

Vivian Suter <em>Untitled</em> undated. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery. Photo: David Regen<br/>
&copy; Vivian Suter, Gladstone Gallery

Suter’s proximity to wild, uninterrupted nature has led her to develop a truly organic and unique visual vocabulary that started to form almost immediately after she moved to Guatemala and into her studio, which features an exposed deck. However, in 2005 an irrevocable shift in her practice occurred when a hurricane triggered a mudslide, covering everything in her studio. The event was a humbling moment that Suter first registered as a catastrophe. However, upon examining the effects of the dried mud, silt and water, which were mingling with her paints, she began to appreciate the effects and realised that she must actively start working with nature as a collaborator and source of knowledge. Today her practice considers, acknowledges and embodies the notion that everything is connected, and is at once about nature, in collaboration with nature and a representation of nature. We can see embodied references to the inextricable ways of the world as Suter non-judgementally brings together humanmade materials and gestures with natural elements such as paw prints, dirt and mud, traces of water, congealed leaves, and twigs. Suter also sees all that she creates as one work – a continuum of layering, burying, resurfacing and rebirthing. As such, canvases are not titled, dated or signed. The process of activating them for display involves the artist selecting a number of canvases that are then installed in response to the specific time and space. Modes for display range from works being pinned onto walls, hung on racks or, as they appear in the Triennial, suspended from a height. The cumulative, non-linear and responsive functionalities of Suter’s practice echo the layering of time, the cyclical nature of life and the slipperiness of materiality – notions that cannot be denied, even if they are often ignored.

There is another significant rupture in the story of Suter’s life and work so far. In 2014 Polish curator Adam Szymczyk came to visit her home and studio with an interest in restaging a group exhibition Suter had featured in back in 1981. Upon arriving at Suter’s studio Szymczyk was met with more than three decades of resolved and relatively unseen work. Consequently, Szymczyk curated a major exhibition of Suter’s and her mother’s work at Kunsthalle Basel. Suter’s practice quickly became revered, discussed and exhibited due to its decades-long engagement with the environment; it was brought forth into the public eye during an era of ever-growing interest in how to deal with the environmental crisis. Today, Suter is commercially represented by Gladstone Gallery (Brussels, Los Angeles, New York, Seoul). Since 2014 she has been showing in group and solo exhibitions across the globe, including at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, Tate Liverpool and Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, and has been included in highprofile exhibitions including documenta 14, the Taipei Biennial and the São Paulo Biennial.

SOPHIE PRINCE is a Curatorial Project Officer, Australian and First Nations Art, National Gallery of Victoria.