An Incomplete History of Volcanoes

 

In January 2017, Deli Gallery hosted the event “An Incomplete History of Volcanoes” in conjunction with Athena Torri’s exhibition Land of Opportunities and the launch of Christina Labey’s artist book The Crystal Fire, Vol. 1. The collaborative presentation drew parallels between their respective projects and highlighted the cultural and historical similarities between volcanic activity in Italy and Ecuador. The following text weaves together excerpts from the original, alongside a subsequent interview moderated by Liz Sales.  

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I. Project Introductions

Christina Labey: The Crystal Fire, Vol. I is a collection of photographic observations, archival material, and excerpts of text that highlight the similarities of Mount Vesuvius, Campi Flegrei, and the moon. The design of the book is inspired by natural history museum installations and vintage geology books I collect. I wanted to create a form to collect and share all these interconnected ideas I’ve been researching, from NASA’s Apollo program to the deity Apollo — who is ubiquitously represented throughout the region in monuments, such as the Temple of Apollo in Pompeii. The book is a fragmented narrative of these beautiful, yet volatile, volcanic landscapes that are harbingers of both life and death. I love the balance of the scientific and the romantic, the beautiful elements of wilderness alongside the terrifying. The Crystal Fire series as a whole is about collecting observations and historical accounts, and local lore, balanced with photographs of geological and botanical phenomena that highlight our symbiotic relationship with the natural world.

Athena Torri: I grew up in Ecuador, in the middle of a chain of volcanoes (Cotopaxi, Tungurahua, Pichincha, Chimborazo, Cayambe). I used to visit them often with my family. When we were children, we were told that they were sleeping. Then as I got older, there was an increase of civil unrest, and at the same time the volcanoes seemed to be awakening by rumbling and fuming.

The exhibition title Land of Opportunities comes from the slogan of the Tungurahua province, “Tiera de Opportunidades.” Located beneath a stratovolcano of the same name, the province of Tungurahua has very fertile land and therefore opportunities for manual labor. The exhibition title, which is layered in meaning, also highlights views that many hold of South America as a place for cheap labor, a cheap place to retire, a cheap place to grow food, a place to drill for oil, a land and people to exploit. It is viewed as a continent that is disposable once all profit is taken. This is the residue of colonization; it is a common language that we use when we speak of South America. I like to think that these volcanoes are reacting to exploitation and defending the land.

Liz Sales: I’m interested in the installation components in the Land of Opportunities exhibition — the concrete block structures, the iPhone video, and the inclusion of raw sound. Why was it important for you to incorporate these elements into the show?

AT: In March 2016, I found out that Tungurahua was erupting through my cousin’s Facebook status, and almost immediately jumped on a plane to Ecuador. For two full days, I photographed the eruption on film and simultaneously recorded video with my iPhone. The result was a looped video — displayed on an iPhone in the gallery — of the growing ash clouds above Tungurahua. The sound projected in the gallery was the actual, raw audio of the videos. I used the iPhone display as a way to connect the audience with a familiar perspective — we are used to watching news of natural disasters on our phones. I thought that this experience would be more visceral than the more precious treatment of a large, still photograph.

The installation of concrete blocks references the architecture in Ecuador, which is made mostly of heavy materials such as concrete and rebar to help withstand seismic activity. Unfortunately, the poor funding for infrastructure results in unstable buildings, which are very dangerous during earthquakes or eruptions. I wanted the viewer to feel grounded to the work through this material that we have all encountered by having it installed in the gallery. I hoped that these everyday objects would connect the viewer to the same experience I had instead of looking at the work as an exotic representation of a distant landscape that doesn’t affect them.

CL: Volcanoes affect everyone in some way, particularly in regard to weather patterns and global climate, but they can also influence history, politics, and culture. Some of the most interesting examples include the theory that the French Revolution was started because of the volcanic eruption of Laki in Iceland in 1783 (which caused famine and unrest); the eruption of Tambora in 1815 caused the “year without a summer,” during which Mary Shelley stayed indoors and wrote Frankenstein; and the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 inspired the dramatic red skies in Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream.

LS: Last summer, you returned to Italy before publishing The Crystal Fire. Can you talk about how that trip influenced the outcome of the book? Why did you choose Mount Vesuvius as the first volume for this series?

CL: My fascination with volcanoes began on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. One evening, at sunset, I was descending the volcano and was struck by this beautiful and vibrant display of color emanating from this otherwise volatile landscape. The slope was a gradient of pinks and plums, mauves and crimsons, dotted with yellow, white, and green sulfur. The fact that the intensity of these beautiful colors is the result of the extremely hot temperatures from deadly eruptions struck me as an incredibly romantic concept.

Vesuvius was also the first volcanic eruption to be photographed and the location of the first volcanic observatory, so conceptually, it felt it was the perfect place to begin. [1]

LS: The Crystal Fire is also heavily based on research, surrounding the interconnectedness of nature in aspects of art, science, history. For example, you pair your own photographs with NASA archives to highlight the visual similarities between Mount Vesuvius and the Moon. This is juxtaposed with similar observations made by James Nasmyth in the nineteenth century, further highlighting this consilience. Could you talk about your research methods?

CL: I was only able to visit the volcano for a few days, so I spent most of the time working on this project from my studio, mostly reading (both fact and fiction) about the area. I found a lot of serendipitous connections between subjects; for example, James Nasmyth, a nineteenth-century engineer, sat on the edge of the crater of Vesuvius and contemplated the same comparisons to the landscape of the moon long before astrophotography or human spaceflight. His experience at Mount Vesuvius inspired his theory about volcanoes forming the moon, and although it’s not exactly correct, there are still signs of ancient volcanic activity on the moon’s surface. When I developed my film from Vesuvius, it was uncanny how much the images looked like the surface of the moon. It was only later that I read Nasmyth’s travel notes and these two experiences collided.

At other times in the project, the associations are a little bit more abstract, but eventually connect. For example, The Crystal Fire, Vol. 1 begins with a figure of Vesuvianite, a mineral named after the volcano, which is also found in significant geological sites here in New Jersey, particularly the Franklin Mine. There is a short essay by Robert Smithson titled “The Crystal Land” that chronicles a day trip with Nancy Holt, Donald Judd, and his wife; they compare the quarry with the moon.
 

II. Political Unrest and the Volcanic Eruption as Omen

AT: In 1999, the volcanoes we visited as children were no longer sleeping. In school, we regularly had volcano drills alongside bomb threats. Between 1999 and 2000, hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians took to the streets and forced the resignation of president Jamil Mahuad, who had adopted the dollar as Ecuador’s official currency after a banking crisis led to the closure of twenty-four banks, the immobilization of Ecuadorians’ savings accounts, and the collapse of the Ecuadorian sucre (until then the national currency). I remember the day my dad came home discouraged; my mother asked, “How much did you get?” — I did not fully understand what was happening at the time. I later realized that my father, along with many Ecuadorians, had rushed to the banks that day to withdraw as much of their savings as possible. This is when we left Ecuador. Today that period is recognized as the biggest wave of outward migration Ecuador experienced in modern history. Just a few months after we moved to the United States, the Pichincha volcano, located directly above Quito — my hometown and the capital of Ecuador — erupted, and simultaneously the government collapsed. The work in this exhibition is about the relationship between those two moments.

LS: Your personal history is part of a larger historical narrative you explore through this work, dating back several hundred years.  

AT: I found similar events in Ecuador's history that mirror with what happened in 1999. Records suggest that when Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado entered [what is now] Ecuador in 1534, the Cotopaxi volcano erupted, sending plumes of fire and ash into the air and practically reducing the Spanish soldiers to dust. Both the locals and the colonists considered this a divine sign. The Spanish, who had no experience with volcanic activity, were terrorized by this eruption and fled. This is the earliest record I have found by a colonialist that describes a similar instance as the one I experienced. Native folklore also coincides with this story. The Tungurahua volcano is often portrayed as a very generous yet defensive volcano — she is connected to the people that live on her skirts. This makes me believe that she was reactive in times of distress in those areas.

CL: When people live near a volcano, they become attuned to its moods and movements. For Neapolitans, Vesuvius is regarded as a “commentator on the human scene.” The last time it erupted was at the very end of World War II, and locals claimed it was uttering its opinion. The older generation of Neapolitans claim that the plume of smoke from Vesuvius disappeared one day after the war ended. [ 2 ]

LS: Can you talk a bit about some of the ideas surrounding our physical connection to geology, the connection between geological landscape and social politics?  

AT: Folklore in the Ecuadorian Andes tells of the Aya Huma, the spirit of nature’s power. Aya Huma is both the power of nature but also the necessary outbursts of nature. It was a trusted spirit, and warriors saw Aya Huma as an advisor. Through syncretism with the Catholic traditions, this Aya became a devil that today is called diabluma, who is still a big part of Andean culture. Today men dress up in traditional attire and wear a mask to take on this devil; it is said that the diablumas make a pact with the devil to in return get endless energy to dance and lead festivities.

I think there was a disconnect from nature that came with colonization, and the demonizing of this spirit is an example of that. With colonial expansion came the vast exploitation of land in Latin America. It enacted great harm not only to this region but also to our planet. I think the way our postcolonial world operates is still in that mind-set of separating regions to make exploitation feel as though it is not affecting us directly. A timely example of that today here in the United States is the Dakota Access Pipeline.

LS: Mythology and folklore play a prominent role in both your work; can you tell us your favorite myth surrounding the volcanoes in your respective projects?

CL: My favorite myth about Vesuvius is best written by Susan Sontag in her novel The Volcano Lover . . .  

Vesuvius was once a young man, who saw a nymph lovely as a diamond. She scratched his heart and soul, and he could think of nothing else. Breathing more and more heatedly, he lunged at her. The nymph, scorched by his attentions, jumped into the sea and became the island today called Capri. Seeing this, Vesuvius went mad. He loomed, his sighs of fire spread, and little by little he became a mountain. And now, as immobilized as his beloved, forever beyond his reach, he continues to throw fire and makes the city of Naples tremble.    
 

AT: There are many myths about love between volcanoes in Ecuador. For example, there were centuries of war between Cotopaxi and Chimborazo over the love of Tungurahua. Local stories explain that Chimborazo, who is the taita (father), won the battle, and therefore Pichincha, the guagua (child), was born. It is believed that mama Tungurahua is reactive to the cries of her Guagua Pichincha. In 1999, this folklore was considered proven when both volcanoes, which had been dormant for centuries, became active in conjunction.

 

III. Plinian Eruptions

CL:  We found several comparative references to Vesuvius and Cotopaxi, and were particularly struck by the ominous first-person accounts of the Plinian eruptions they both experienced. Defined as an almighty, explosive eruption, a Plinian eruption all but destroys the entire volcano from which it emanates . . . it was named after Pliny the Elder (naturalist, navy commander, philosopher) who died during the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. [ 3 ] His nephew, Pliny the Younger, kept the most famous written account of the event, viewing it from across the bay . . . he describes the scene in a letter to Tacitus in 104 AD.

They were surrounded with darkness blacker and more dismal than night, which was sometimes dispersed by several flashes and eruptions from the mountain. The flames issued from Mount Vesuvius spread wide and towered to a great height — it made a vast blaze, the glare and horror of which were increased by the gloominess of the night.

AT: In 1877, Cotopaxi experienced a violent Plinian eruption in conjunction with the rise of military dictator General Ignacio de Veintemilla, who came to power through a violent coup. De Veintemilla was suspected of murdering the archbishop of Quito, and local residents feared him. It was around this time that Cotopaxi experienced a major eruption, shaking the ground beneath it, and the skies began to darken and pour rain and ash. The eruption melted the snow and ice on the summit and produced mudflows for nearly sixty miles. Torrents of water, hot gas, and rock poured down, destroying factories and farmland, villages and small towns. It took just over thirty minutes for the debris to reach the nearest town, Latacunga. Within eighteen hours it had traveled west, reaching the Pacific Coast. [Quito] was shrouded in complete darkness, and the entire city was coated in a fine layer of ash.

Note: When Alexander von Humboldt visited Mount Vesuvius (with Simon Bolivar) in August 1805. He remarked that “nothing compared to South America. Vesuvius was like an ‘asteroid next to Saturn’ in comparison with Cotopaxi.” [ 4 ]
 

IV: Transcript: Future Turmoil: The Volcanoes Are Rumbling Again

AT: Just a month after my trip to Tungurahua, Ecuador was hit by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed close to seven hundred people and devastated the country both physically and economically. This event really floored me, and it seemed endless. Within the first twenty-four hours there were fifty-five recorded aftershocks; I believe the latest count of aftershocks is over three thousand. This earthquake reminded me of what I already knew, which is that these episodes are unpredictable.

Last year, former President Correa issued a “decree of exception,” which effectively silenced scientists at Ecuador’s Geophysics Institute. The decree also established the “anticipatory censorship” of any other information on the volcanoes, including news that circulates on social networks. I am mostly reliant on friends and family for information, as, if it was not for my cousin, I would not have known the Tungurahua was visibly erupting. I don’t know what will happen next, but currently, a lot of volcanoes are active, including the Cotopaxi, which is dear to my heart and also potentially devastating.

CL: Vesuvius doesn’t appear to be a big threat, but in the last year there have been many articles published about the rising temperature and instability of the supervolcano in the region Campi Flegrei (meaning “the burning fields”), which is also pictured in The Crystal Fire, Vol. 1. Similar to places like Yellowstone, Campi Flegrei is the actual caldera; people walk around and live in it. For many years the inhabitants didn’t even know they were living in a volcano. Naples, and its surrounding neighborhoods, are the most populated active volcanic regions in the world. Scientists are keeping a close eye on the seismology of the area and trying to educate citizens of what to do in the event of an eruption. Some scientists believe that last time Campi Flegrei erupted, nearly forty thousand years ago, it was so strong that it played a role in the extinction of the Neanderthals.

 

LS: Land of Opportunities and The Crystal Fire are both ongoing projects, which makes sense because these landscapes are always changing. Where will the work go from here?

AT: I’ve been thinking a lot about the spirits and demons of the mountains, especially el Diabluma. I’m thinking about the effects of colonization that are residual both in Ecuador and also in myself as a mestiza. I have been making work around Cayambe — the nineteen-thousand-foot volcano where the Diabluma is said to get its power — I was there during Inti Raymi and the Festival de San Pedro. These festivities are intercultural; they merge indigenous and Spanish traditions and are deeply connected to the Cayambe volcano. I am interested in exploring this particular mixing of human and geological relationship.

CL: In a few weeks, I'm going to Hawaii to finish making work for the next volume of the Crystal Fire series. I am currently in the research stage, simultaneously planning backpacking trips across the volcanic craters and gathering resources. The book will balance native folklore and written observations of foreign visitors such as Captain Cook, writings of Mark Twain, sketches of Georgia O’Keeffe. While Vesuvius has often been compared to the moon, the slopes of Hawaiian volcanoes have been compared to Mars. I plan to photograph in the landscape, research the history of the landscape, gather local lore and histories about the volcanoes from native Hawaiian culture, and of course study the colors of the flora and geology of the landscapes.

 

Endnotes

1. One example may be the April 1872 eruption of Vesuvius, Italy. This short and destructive eruption was one of the most violent paroxysms at Vesuvius during the 19th century. The eruption was quickly documented by Luigi Palmieri, irector of the Vesuvius Observatory from 1852 to 1896. His report of the eruption contains a dramatic line drawing of Vesuvius in eruption on April 26, which the caption implied was a sketch based on a photograph taken from Naples. (More here.)

2.  Benjamin Taylor, Naples Declared.

3.  Simon Winchester, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

4.  Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (New York: Knopf, 2015).

 

 
 
Christina Labey