Review: Nisyros, Vivian’s Bed, Tate Liverpool
words by Lorraine Bacchus

The perfect antidote to grey Winter days has come to Liverpool from Guatemala in the form of Vivian Suter’s exuberant artworks that pulsate with the vibrancy of their colours.

This is the first UK solo exhibition of the Swiss-Argentine artist’s work and is her largest installation to date, with the ground floor gallery of Tate Liverpool having been transformed into a kind of tropical forest.  More than 50 large-scale canvases have been taken off their frames and suspended from the ceiling in a way that allows the viewer to move amongst them – seeing them from both sides, and smelling the unusual ingredients that have helped form them.  The Gallery does not allow touching, however, which is a pity and is at odds with the hopes of the artist herself.

These are works that are survivors of an extraordinary process, one that involves them being exposed to the elements so that micro-organisims thrive, buried in mud, spread over the floor where dogs walk on them, and smothered in fish glue so that debris from Suter’s storm-battered garden adheres to them.  She is definitely not precious about her work. Even her studios are open-air wooden structures located amid the lush rainforest of Panajachel.  No wonder she finds it curious that galleries everywhere are worried the works will be ‘damaged’ – especially given that an integral part of her practice is to exhibit works outside for long stretches of time so she can observe how the weather and time transform them.

She is one of a growing number of contemporary artists who make work using mutable materials and for whom impermanence is sometimes the point of what they’re doing.  And yet once artists achieve a level of fame and their work is acquired by a museum or gallery it is clearly seen as valuable and all efforts are made to conserve it.  Suter’s paintings come into this category and the Tate is hosting a talk about the challenge facing conservators. (Details below).  It will be interesting to hear whether Suter is collaborating with the conservation process.

It was out of a catastrophe that Suter’s organic way of working came about.  In 2005 a tropical storm destroyed large parts of Panajachel and flooded one of her studios.  Initially Suter was devastated by the damage to her paintings but once she started hanging them up to dry she became entranced by the shapes made from the mud and water stains and the way the canvas curled and wrinkled. Suter had an epiphany: her paintings had become living objects.  From that moment her work was not only influenced by nature but became part of it.  She allowed and encouraged the tropical climate to become an active agent in the creation of the work.

Suter’s life story is as intriguing as her art.  She was born in Buenos Aires to an Austrian mother who had fled Nazi persecution.  In the early 1960’s her family then moved to Switzerland away from Peron’s rule in Argentina.  It was in Basel that Suter began her art practice and where in 1981 she first came to the attention of the art world when she was part of a group show at the city’s prestigious Kunsthalle Basel.

Off the back of this, Suter was offered a solo show but almost immediately she decided that she did not want to be part of the fickle art scene and all the demands it would make on her.  She wanted to concentrate on her work and to go as far as possible with it.  So she took off, first to Los Angeles and then South through Mexico and eventually to Guatemala, which at the time was being ravaged by civil war.  She eventually arrived at the run-down coffee farm in the jungle, where she built her adobe home and where she has lived for nearly 40 years.  Here was a place she could paint in peace.

And so she did.

Then in 2011 things changed.  She was invited to take part in a sequel to the Kunsthalle Basel 1981 exhibition, featuring the same group of artists.  Suter was back on the radar of the art world, the difference being that this time she was not only ready for it but also found it exciting.  She says she had needed to hide away in the past but now she finds it rewarding to show her work, knowing she has her Guatemalan retreat, which is the focus of her life and her painting.

Another remarkable aspect of Suter’s life in Panajachel is that she shares it with her 97-year-old mother, Elisabeth Wild, who is also an artist of international repute.  They live beside each other but not in the same house.  Her mother is a wheelchair user but still making art, most recently collages cut from glossy magazines.  Suter describes how her mother was and is an inspiration to her, that as a child she saw her mother always painting and working.  They have exhibited together, though Suter has said she doesn’t show her paintings to her mother in advance because she is upset by her criticism.  Sounds like a normal part of the mother-daughter relationship! A film has been made about their life together, which is being screened at FACT to coincide with the Tate exhibition.  (Details below).

The titular Nisyros of Tate’s exhibition comes from a visit Suter made a couple of years ago to the Greek island of the same name.  The bracketed addition in the title of the words “Vivian’s Bed” is puzzling and not explained.  There is an actual bed in the show, around which the rest of the works seem to pivot.  It’s a simple, single, Van Gogh type of wooden bed, standing on rugs that are canvas seeped in yellow pigment, and draped in another canvas oozing with Suter’s gestural motifs and colours, mostly pink.

The installation is tucked away in the forest of hanging paintings.  It’s like coming upon one of the Three Bears’ empty beds. What would Goldilocks make of it?  Would it tempt her?  If she’s in Liverpool this Winter she’d be daft not to take advantage of this chance to immerse herself in this feast of tropical colour.   It’s just right.

Nisyros (Vivian’s Bed), Tate Liverpool, until 15 March 2020, Free entry.

Conservation Talk: Vivian Suter, Tate Liverpool, 18.00-19.00, 23 January 2020,  £5.

From Tropical Landscapes to Colour Fields: Exploring Abstract Art Through Nature, every Tuesday, 13.00-16.00, between 11 February & 24 March 2020, £145, Concessions £125.

Screening of Rosalind Nashashibi’s film, Vivian’s Garden, about Suter’s life with her mother Elisabeth Wild at their home in Guatemala.  Accompanying the screening, Nashashibi will be in conversation with Adam Szymczyk, curator and artistic director of Documenta 14, an exhibition that showcased both artists.  Wednesday, 18.30-19.30, 4 March 2020.  Free but booking essential. Book your free ticket here via FACT.