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Interview von Stefanie Lucci, 29.12.2003

Text von Dr. Uwe Rüth

Chapter 3
Mario Reis: Riverwork

JG: Your way of working with nature is very particular, almost
scientific. Traveling in Europe, North America, Africa and elsewhere,
you select specific river sites along a projected route. The method is
simple. Once there, you put stretchers with cotton cloth in the
water and nature does the rest of the work. The results are infinitely
variable, revealing the patterns, colours, textures and residue of
each site in microcosm. The nature watercolours give a sense of the
specific micro-ecology of a place. Brought together as an ensemble of
works, from numerous sites, they become a microcosmic study of the
world's waterways, yet each is very specific. What impact do these
works have when exhibited in galleries? What is the response?

MR: Before answering your question, I need to explain my working method in
more detail. I don't simply place a stretcher in a stream and let nature do
the rest of the work. Before placing the stretcher, I have to carefully
select a site that provides the working conditions I need. For instance, the
water level and the speed of the current have to be right. The installation
of the stretcher is the most demanding part of the work. It is truly an
interaction between myself and the river. I actually use the floating water
as my paintbrush. By placing stones on the stretcher, I influence the flow
of the water, and can control the painting's result to a certain degree.
That means I decide where the natural pigments, transported by the river,
will settle down, or where there will later on be lighter parts in the
painting. So from the beginning I compose a painting. That is particularly
important when bringing together several paintings from the same river into
large format grids. Of course, the degree to which I can control the outcome
of a painting is limited. Having installed the piece, I leave it on its own,
and the river then works on it. It is thus influenced by any natural changes
that might occur. It might be rain or snow, the water level could rise or
fall, and animals might come along and leave their imprint. Whatever
happens, it's an expression of nature in its own voice. Each stream has
a specific character. Some paint in a really hard edge manner, others paint
more softly. In this way, each painting, influenced by the interaction between
myself and the river, is a kind of a self-portrait of that specific river.

To answer your question, I must say that when my works are exhibited in
galleries, people are initially drawn to the works because of their colors
and patterns. The texture of the works is very earth-like, and the colors
awaken memories that, at first sight, cannot be clearly specified. As their
curiosity is aroused, they get closer and closer, visually exploring the
tactile sense of the work. It is only after reading the inscription at the
bottom of the piece (the date, location, state, and river's name), that they
realize they are actually looking to a river painting. For most, no holds
are then barred. They begin to ask questions about how the work is made, and
why, and what the starting point was. They want to see river paintings from
their homeland, and think of rivers they know and so on. Most are
fascinated with the concept behind the nature watercolours. They find it
almost unbelievable how different each piece is, and how many colors can be
found in the rivers. They are puzzled by the beauty of the waterways and by
their individuality. The works change the spectators' way of looking at
nature and rivers. They become more sensitized, and begin to appreciate the
diversity and beauty of rivers more and more. The works have a deep impact
on the viewer. Once on the walls, these works change the whole gallery
environment into something totally different. It creates a dense atmosphere,
a purity and clarity that is unusual. The works transform the space and
there is an eloquent calm. Even when shown in a massive quantity they never
overwhelm you, and are like windows into the world.

JG: Jackson Pollock used to talk of how he could control the way
he dripped paint on canvas. Your Nature Watercolours seem to be a
statement against the modernist artist's willingness to control the
process of their creativity. They are not segregated from nature's
processes the way much postModern work is. You once commented that
you are neither a traditional landscape painter nor a post-Modernist.
What do you mean by this?

MR: What distinguishes me from traditional painters is the medium I
use to paint with. It is a direct approach. The rivers in my paintings are
both the object and subject of my work. I am not creating an illusion of
rivers, but catching some of the real essence of the rivers in my painting.
They leave their imprint on the cotton and show us how they are. That is
partly what separates me from the post-Modernists. As you correctly stated,
my work is not detached from nature's processes.

JG: In a strange way your Nature Watercolours remind me of American
colour field paintings, of Rothko, for instance. Yet the effect seems
all the more mysterious and fascinating because flowing water is part author
of these works...

MR: Mark Rothko is one of the greatest artists. I truly admire his works.
It is a pity that he is dead, for it would be interesting how he answered
that particular question. Actually the thought of an exhibition that brings his
works together with mine is really inspiring.

JG: The journey, the nomadic traveling and site visits, all this must
sensitize you to local geography, landmarks, and the earth's bio-specific
character. Is the travel part of your art process?

MR: The traveling, or hiking to the sites, is definitely not a part of
the art process. It is simply how I get to the places where I create my
works. For an artist who works with artificial color, the way to the shop
isn't a part of the art process either. When I began making the river
paintings I did not realize that this would lead to a nomadic life. The
works themselves showed me I would have to travel to catch as broad a
spectrum as possible, a spectrum that would enrich the work. My paintings
have changed dramatically over the years. Fortunately, I am a person that
cannot stand still. I have to move on in order to gather new experiences
that enrich my life wherever they happen. So traveling is, in a way, an
essential part of my nature. I am lucky this is part of my work because I
like to be outdoors and love nature. So I do not consider the traveling to
be part of my art process.

I would again like to return to the art process. The process involves more
than installing a piece in a river. After the pieces are stabilized, I group
them. When putting pieces together from a single stream, I put the emphasis
on a strong composition. My aim is to create a sense of boundless space,
full of light and shadows, floating transitions, unusual perspectives, and
pulsating motions. My color fields change anew with every view. For each
viewer, including myself, they can be perceived in different ways. For some
people, my pieces are very zen, while for others they are an adventure. They
captivate the alert eye, and invite the viewer on a journey through time and
space. Of course, this doesn't happen by accident. It results from the
compositions I create within the art process.

JG: Do you think of your particular brand of artmaking as a celebration of
nature? Does it consist of a reversal of the artist's role from primogenitor
to postgenitor?

MR: I wouldn't go so far as considering my art being a celebration of
nature. Nature does not need me to celebrate. She does so by herself, simply
by being what she is. My role as an artist, is neither as primogenitor nor
postgenitor. In a way it is both. But the main thing, to be even more
explicit, is the interaction with the river, the collaboration between us.

JG: Clean water is an increasingly rare resource. You have created
works on some of the most polluted waterways on earth like the Rhine,
as well as in pristine, largely untouched rivers in Alaska and the Yukon.
There are traces of man-made intervention, of pollutants, in some works, as
much as there are nature traces in others? Is the selection of your sites a
conscious choice or is it random?

MR: The question of pollution is an interesting one. Basically you can
not see the pollution of a river, just the effects. The crudest
one would be dead fish and wiped out vegetation. But destroyed
micro-organisms can only be detected with the help of microscopes and
other tests. Of course, if someone spills oil into a river, one would see
it, and the canvas would catch it too. But most pollution is invisible,
especially for the untrained eye. Therefore, my pieces more often show the
traces of nature.

When I began to do the river paintings back in 1977, environmental
concerns were slowly growing. The Green Party wasn't even founded. To be
honest, my motives at that stage had nothing to do with environmental
questions. I was simply fascinated by fleeting phenomena, by natural forces,
and was trying to find a new expression that involved painting rivers. It
had to be an expression that would show what was really going on in a river
and what makes a particular river unique. I wanted to get the real thing
onto the canvas. As time went by, my river paintings gained a different
impact, because now almost everybody is conscious of the desolate state of
nature. Pristine nature has become as much a treasure as clean water. There
is no denying, however, that my art documents the state of nature, but I do
not see them as a "raised index finger" telling the people: "Look here! That
is pollution! Our nature and therefore our living base is endangered, so
watch out and behave well!" Things don't work that way. It is almost the
other way around. People care for things that they appreciate and love. If
through their beauty and meaning, my works are able to sensitize people, and
leads them to appreciate and love nature more, this would be a fantastic
result. But through art I dare say that one could force people to change their
attitudes by attacking them. Laws can possibly do this. I, for myself, have
great environmental concerns, but this would never be a reason to choose a
specific river. I have to fall in love with a certain place, a certain
river, or a certain color to make that river my partner in action. I do not
go for names or trendy places. Often I inform myself, when possible, about
where one can expect special features that result from geological
particularities, but often I choose river sites at random. I am just
driving or hiking by, and there it is, the perfect river to work with!

JG: Do you eliminate certain of your Nature Watercolours after they have
been created, select which ones will be appropriate or inappropriate for
exhibition? How do you decide?

MR: I never destroy works because I do not like them. This would be of
great inconsequence. I am asking a question and I am getting the
answer. It is not relevant if the answer does not please me. For my
exhibitions I choose the works that I like most and that I feel are the
strongest. The selection of works also depends on the specific space and
location, so every show looks totally different.

JG: There is so little intervention in your art. It's a natural process that
involves reinventing the artist's role as someone who sensitizes the public
to nature. Rather than leaving your expression on materials, materials leave
their impression on your art...

MR: That is true, but only to a certain degree. I will not and can not
influence the material's imprint, the natural pigments and their specific
appearance, "hard edged or soft". The crucial point is putting them
together in grids. Grouping them involves a lot of personal expression. The
compositions come out of my inner feelings, my personal experiences, and the
handling of autonomous material.

JG: Do you ever feel marginalized from the mainstream art establishment?
Does your audience extend beyond the traditional artgoing public?

MR: I would first like to answer that question in general. Every art
that does not follow the mainstream or a momentary trend will be
marginalized, especially when the art involves deep meaning. The tendency is
like that today. Art is approached with an attitude trained by consumerism.
Art is almost treated like fast food. The notion of consumerism is: We want
to have it all, here and now, easy and cheap. No effort please!
Unfortunately, the cultural institutions, being in money trouble, are
beginning to react to public demand by transforming the
exhibitions into thrilling events that attract the masses. To achieve
this they must compromise at the lowest possible level. That
means that in the long run, we will see more and more exhibitions with less
and less quality. Thrilling sensations, nice little shocks, easygoing and
fun. That is what attracts the masses. So for an honest artist, who follows
his visions in a straight manner, it will be ever more difficult to receive
recognition. Making money just for the goal of making money is becoming more
trendy even in the artist community. Many artists out there are jumping on
every train that is leaving the station. But fortunately, for the time
being, there are still a good many people willing to appreciate sensitive
and meaningful art, people who like to use their brains and encounter new
experiences that will enrich their lives.

Another aspect of your question is the notion of categorizing. I am
somewhat troubled by the way the art establishment usually puts my works
into the category of land art. Much more is involved in my work than
landscape. Maybe the title of the works are what created this trap. When I
began working, I chose the title Nature Watercolors to indicate the medium,
just as photography, sculpture, painting, drawing, or watercolor refer to
the medium being used. At the same time, this title refers to the work
itself as being river painting. Though, I have a broader vision of my
paintings. If someone has to categorize them they also fall into the field of
color field paintings, arte povera, abstract art, conceptual art, process
art, and even realistic painting. So, the Nature Watercolors cannot be
easily categorized. They step beyond the borders of definition. The
phenomenon of time is an aspect crucial to my work. Time is not an easy
phenomenon to deal with. One can experience time because nothing is the same
the very next moment. Everything is in a constant state of flux and change.
But time also involves leaving tracks or traces behind. My works make one
aware of this phenomenon. The Nature Watercolors record a fixed period of
time, and at the same time, imaging the process of creation, they emphasize
the constant flow of time as well. The process is like sedimentation. As
time goes by, layer after layer accumulates on the cotton cloth. So what
happens on a large scale in nature is also what happens in the little
stretchers that contain my works. A lot of the natural pigment, that is the
sediment that accumulates on the cloth, is many thousand of years old.
Looking at the works, we can actually see into the distant past. But besides
all that, my work can be appreciated without any knowledge of the process of
creation. They stand on their own.

The audience for my art does extend beyond the traditional artgoing public.
A lot of people from scientific backgrounds like biologists, geologists,
hydrologists, microbiologists, as well as educators, are interested in my
work. So are a lot of people who have never been in a contemporary art
museum. I meet them when doing my work outdoors: farmers, ranchers,
fisherman, people digging for gold and so on. They catch the idea of the
works immediately. I have had many inspiring conversations with these

JG: Early land artist like Robert Smithson whose works imposed on
the landscape, seemed to conceive of nature as a fiction onto which the
artist left his or her imprint. What is your opinion?

MR: You can see it both ways. It depends on your point of view. I don't
have any objections to the viewpoint. For my part Smithson did some
great work. But I chose a path that leaves few traces, other than some
footprints. I do not mess with the environment or change it through my work.
I don't even take out very much. The material residue on the cotton is no
more than a few tablespoons worth and it is on its way to the ocean anyways.
It is actually leaving the environment where I am doing my work. So my
artwork doesn't harm the environment much at all. To say that nature is a
fiction is a philosophical standpoint I do not hold. But I would still
prefer to see the Spiral Jetty at Great Salt Lake than a drilling
construction in the Arctic.

JG: Screen technology, television, media culture and so-called
virtual reality inadvertently send us the signal that tactile living
reality is secondary to the image. Your works are sending out a
different message, that what is out there really is beautiful, and has
its own form, design, and layering process and that it does it all
naturally. Does the artist have a role to play in guiding us towards a more
ethical understanding of how nature works, and how important it is to
our children's future survival on this planet?

MR: I can only speak for myself. I do not see my role in such a defined way.
My pieces do send the message you have described, and if this
message reaches people it is a positive result. Tactile living is the real
thing. Of course, one cannot deny that new technology like the internet
opens up new ways and forms of communication. The internet is able to
connect people all over the world. But face to face communication is
essential to human life. It involves vivid experiences like joy, trust, and
sharing. The matter of trust is a very crucial one. Most of our life is
based on trust and I dare say that virtuality can teach trust and being
trustworthy. So in a certain sense, the new media are disconnecting people
at the same time as they connect them. And that might also be true for the
arts. Experiencing art, for me, is always very sensual, almost erotic. We
cannot deny that we, ourselves, are tactile living realities as is the whole
world around us. Overlooking this would be a total misunderstanding. In the
long run, the idea that the tactile living reality is secondary to the
image could be very misleading. But I do not believe the artist's primary
role is as a teacher of ethics. I strongly object to any guidance that is
exclusive. For my part, if the artist has a role, it is to open peoples'
minds, to sensitize them, to bring new experiences to them that enrich their
lives, and our lives too.

JG: Why this fascination with water?

MR: We could talk about that for hours. Basically it is the unstable
character of water, as well as the fact that we are deeply connected with
water anyway. Water always changes, by nature. Sometimes it is fluid,
sometimes gas or solid. Water is able to carve deep canyons out of the
hardest rock. It acts as an landscape architect, but it also runs softly
through our hands.
My fascination is a very basic one. I would like to let the Roman poet Ovid
answer this question:

..., there is nothing in all the world that keeps its form
All things are in a constant state of flux, and everything is brought into
being with a changing nature. Time itself flows in constant motion, just
like a river. For neither the river nor the swift hour can stop its course;
but, as wave is pushed on by wave, and as each wave as it comes is both
pressed on and itself presses the wave in front, so time both flees and
follows and is ever new. For that, which once existed, is no more, and
that, which was not, has come to bee; and so the whole round of motion is
gone through again.

Ovid, Metamorphosis, 15, 177-185, 234

August 3rd, 2001