Ricardo van Steen's Cosmic Ping pong
One day in April 2012, artists Sandra Cinto and Albano Afonso went to Ricardo van Steen’s studio to discuss the world beyond the clouds, the internet and the dizzy heights of Romanticism, making constant reference to Van Steen’s watercolours. The conversation was continued through email exchange, and went something like this:
S&A – In considering the sky in symbolical terms as something unreachable from our perspective on earth and a direct manifestation of transcendence and continuity, your watercolours place us in a position of seeing and being above the earth, in a beyond-sky. What does it feel like to fly, to be above the clouds?
RVS – First of all, it’s about leaving yourself, leaving civilisation behind, being immersed in a new dimension of time and space. Each of these skies was experienced by people who crossed the planet’s skies in an aeroplane. When they took out their cameras and framed the very scene which captivated them, this means of excluding everything else, even the window frame, was how each of them was able to erase the traces of their reality. The vision from the plane is fleeting, and you cannot ask the pilot to wait for a moment. In the watercolours, this pleasure lasts as long as the viewer so desires.
S&A – Did the search for a beyond-sky perspective arise at the beginning of the project, with the selection of images of captured skies on the internet?
RVS – The search for a beyond-sky perspective was the starting point. For the past year, I have been entering the terms “sobre as nuvens”, “above the clouds”, “au dessous des nouages” and “sopra le nuvole” into Google almost every day. I started selecting a handful of entries which offered a new perspective on the sky. And, thanks to Google’s interpretative talent, I was shown images of satellites, which opened up a new horizon of possibilities. S&A – It is thought provoking to consider the movement and shifts in your skies, of the person making a journey. An image captured up high, posted online, captured by meshes and filters and reconstructed on paper resting on a table. As soon as it is framed and transferred to the plane of the wall, it becomes a window again, and immerses us back into the perspective of whoever posted the photo which produced this sky.
RVS – The perception of the sky is of an infinite horizon. When we first see the watercolours, we do not realise that they are square, the images seem to be elongated and extended beyond the pre-defined format. All of the images are the same size, and when placed side by side, they transmit a strong sense of movement, giving us the impression once again of an infinite horizon.
S&A – The words ‘plane’, ‘time’, ‘movement’ and ‘framing’ make us think of cinema. Each watercolour is like a plane-sequence taking us on a long journey. The images also transmit a sense of plunging and of speed that is evident in the painting of the astronaut in blind flight.
RVS – The cinematic experience is reflected in the construction of a narrative from various points of view, in the commitment to gradually transporting the viewer to another dimension. Although the vision is subjective and based on experience and is therefore dynamic and fleeting, it frames the person flying, establishing a moment of balance in which time is paused. There are also moments when this vision is so wide and unreachable that it recalls the eternal, the immemorial. This combination of rhythms and sensations gradually engages the viewer. The pleasure is not just found in reaching the heights. It is also nice to be floating up there, between the future and the past.
S&A – When thinking of cinema, the future and the past, Georges Méliès’ film A Trip to the Moon springs to mind, with all of man’s fascination with space, dreams of flying and being up high. At first glance, we have the impression that we are looking at photographs. Friends of ours who have also seen your watercolours said they had the same sensation. When we look at them up close, we see the brush marks and strokes. We notice just how abstract and diffuse these images are, in a nod to the characteristics of clouds themselves with their confused and indefinite forms.
The fact that they are black and white lends a nostalgic air of an indefinite, infinite time. Inside this infinite is very silent, but at the same time there is an element of science fiction which places us in a future in which we colonise outer space and the vision from our windows is the immensity of space.
RVS – I think the title Noir stems from that, apart from referring to the colour, of course. It is funny how black and white does not represent a particular era. People have always had two options for representation. From drawings to etchings, and thanks to their evolution, photography and cinema and now digital technology, there has always been a desire to limit the observation of the subject by means of its structural features and its intentions, regardless of the inebriating effects of the colour spectrum. All of the original images to have inspired the series registered colours which I reduced to black and white. This decision was my initial means of appropriating the images. The second step was re-thinking them within a square field, sometimes expanding parts, sometimes distorting the image until it was square, giving the spaces a new meaning. I first came to admire the square format when I got a Polaroid SX-70 camera, a medium which I always used due to the possibility for new framings and the richness of the colours.
S&A – Your research passes through various media. In finishing the work, you opted for a traditional technique, with water – an element inseparable from clouds – the basis for the construction of the images.
RVS – I really admire the old techniques. Watercolours are based on a high volume of water mixed with a minimal quantity of pigment and glue. To obtain dark tones, you have to apply various layers and wait a while for each of them to dry. It is a very old technique thought to be related to the invention of paper and rabbit-hair paintbrushes, both emerging in China over 2000 years ago. It is a craft involving persistence and interactivity with the power of water and the whims of the brush, very Chinese. When I use a satellite image as a starting point, I am connecting extremes of knowledge, for those who know, this force field created by the accumulation of the powers of the two forms of expression, placing the viewer in a previously unknown position.
S&A – Your paintings somehow remind us of Caspar David Friedrich’s work, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818). You invite us to experience the wanderer’s condition in the clouds or perhaps place us in a state of drift among the clouds. It makes us think of Romanticism and the sublime.
RVS – I really identify with the Romantics’ criticism of the excessively rationalist and materialist means of conceiving man and the world. In Romanticism, the vision of the intangible brought a human point of view which was always as high as it could possibly be, far away from everything, but with its feet on the ground. My vision is that of the Boeing 747 and that of the satellite, a machine’s perspective, and the height is up to a thousand times greater than that of the nineteenth-century painters. Nowadays, to take a break and look inside yourself, you need to fly much higher, flee from the pressure for results and the insistence that you gradually come to accept this pigeonholed way of life. And also deal with this incredible attraction sucking you into the virtual world.