In recent years, the Brazilian artist Regina Vater (born 1943) has gained renewed attention for her contributions to Latin American and Latinx feminist art histories of performance. However, her artistic explorations of ecology and the environment are virtually unexamined. This essay considers these subjects in Vater’s work through an analysis of several site-specific, participatory events that together address ecological themes of waste and renewal.
In recent years, the Brazilian artist Regina Vater (born 1943) has gained renewed attention for her contributions to Latin American and Latinx feminist art histories of performance in exhibitions such as Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 (2017) and Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s (2017).1Radical Women was curated by Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA (September 15–December 31, 2017). It traveled to the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY (April 13–July 22, 2018) and the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil (August 18–November 19, 2018). The Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s from the Sammlung Verbund was curated by Gabriele Schor and Peter Weibel at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (mumok), Vienna, Austria (May 5–September 3, 2017). It traveled to the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM), Germany (November 18, 2017–April, 8, 2018). However, her artistic explorations of ecology and the environment and their relationship to Brazilian mythologies and spiritual rituals are virtually unexamined.2Vater wrote about her interests in ecology and Amerindian and Afro-Brazilian mythology in a 1991 essay, but these interests have been underexamined by art historians. See Regina Vater “Espiritus Sanus in Terra Sana,” New Observations, no. 81 (January/February 1991): 23–24, 26–27. This essay considers these themes in Vater’s work through an analysis of several site-specific, participatory events she organized while living in the United States in the 1980s, including Celebration for a Go(o)d Time (1983) and Ninho de Cobra (Snake’s Nest, 1988), as well as some earlier projects that anticipated these works, which together address the ecological themes of waste and renewal.
In part, these participatory projects reflect the prior innovations of Brazilian Neo-Concrete artists—Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, for example—but they are also indebted to US and European trajectories of feminist-inflected socially engaged art. As artist Suzanne Lacy and curator Helena Reckitt both argue, the development of socially engaged art practices was built on feminist art of the 1970s, particularly its concern with pedagogy, activism, and affective and immaterial labor.3See Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle: Bay Press, 1996), 25–27; and Helena Reckitt, “Forgotten Relations: Feminist Artists and Relational Aesthetics,” in Politics in a Glass: Case Feminism, Exhibition Cultures and Curatorial Transgressions, eds. Angela Dimitrakaki and Lara Perry (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), 138–140. I contend that Vater’s shift toward social engagement in the 1980s similarly emerged from her interest in feminist artistic strategies of collaboration and care.4Although Vater did not initially label herself a “feminist,” she does contend that feminist ideas influenced her and that her work “had to do with feminism.” Talita Trizoli, “Trajetórias de Regina Vater: Por uma crítica feminista da arte brasileira,” (MA thesis, University of São Paulo, 2011), 143. The concept of a feminist ethics of care, developed in the 1980s by scholars such as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings, emphasizes women’s capacity for empathy and compassion toward others as strengths that have not been traditionally valued within patriarchal hegemonies.5See, for example Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983); and Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986). These theories have been critiqued for implying that all women are naturally inclined to caregiving. Kathryn Norlock, “Feminist Ethics,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Summer 2019), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/feminism-ethics. I argue that the Brazilian spiritual practices informing Vater’s site-specific and socially engaged practice enabled Celebration for a Go(o)d Time and Ninho de Cobra, among others, to resonate with ecofeminist ethics of care in their aim of promoting the protection and restoration of nature, which are also core values informing Indigenous and non-Western epistemologies.6However, in Indigenous and non-Western worldviews, the very concept of nature is complex because nature is not conceived of as separate from the human in the same way it is in Western systems of thought.
Vater’s Early Ecological Works
Vater grew up in the upper-middle class Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of Ipanema. She studied drawing and painting as a teenager, before attending the National School of Architecture of Rio de Janeiro.7Vater studied painting with Frank Schaeffer and Iberê Camargo. She dropped out of college in 1964, at the age of twenty-one to pursue her art practice full-time. Regina Vater, interview with the author, Rio de Janeiro, July 29, 2015; and Paula Alzugaray, ed. Regina Vater: Four Ecologies (Rio de Janeiro: F10 Editora, 2013), 210–11. In 1972 she won a prize to travel to New York, where she shifted from making neo-figurative paintings to undertaking more experimental, conceptual art. She began using inexpensive, unconventional, and ephemeral materials, describing her new approach as engaging an “aesthetic of precariousness.”8Vater has acknowledged that her interest in precarity parallels a similar preoccupation in the work of Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña, whom Vater knew in New York and whose work she included in the groundbreaking early survey of Latin American art in the United States that Vater curated in 1984, titled Latin American Visual Thinking. Regina Vater, “Regina Vater,” Gallerie 9 (Fall 1989): 21; and Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Cary Cordova, “Oral history interview with Regina Vater, 2004, February 23–25,” last updated August 24, 2006, https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-regina-vater-12290#transcript. While in New York from 1973 to 1974, she connected with fellow Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica. Though she returned Brazil in the mid-1970s, she later relocated to the United States, first to New York in 1980, and then to Austin, Texas, where she moved with her husband, artist Bill Lundberg, in 1986. They remained there until 2012, when they moved back to the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they currently reside.
By the 1970s, Vater had already begun to develop experimental and collaborative projects that addressed ecology and the themes of waste and renewal. The first of these was Magi(o)cean (1970), her earliest site-specific environmental installation, which she created with friends on a beach in Rio de Janeiro in February 1970, just after that year’s Carnival celebration. The work comprised a pyramidal staircase “altar” made of sand, organic materials found on the beach, and leftover Carnival refuse, as well as statuettes and candles. The inspiration came from altars to Yemanjá, the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé orixá (spirit/deity) of the ocean, which are constructed by practitioners every New Year’s Eve on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro.9Vater chose to dedicate her altar to two saints who appear in both Catholicism and Candomblé: Nossa Senhora Aparecida (the Black Madonna, Rio’s patron saint), the Catholic counterpoint of the Candomblé orixá Oxumaré, the rainbow snake and goddess of hope, and São Jorge, the Catholic counterpoint of the Candomblé orixá Ogun, the protective keeper of the peace and of health. Trizoli, “Trajetórias de Regina Vater,” 237–39; “Oral history interview with Regina Vater, 2004, February 23–25.” Vater viewed the ephemeral work as a ritual to heal from the Brazilian dictatorship’s oppressions, using detritus and debris as a means of regeneration.10“I dealt with garbage because in that moment we [were] dealing with . . . political garbage.” Ibid. Not only is Magi(o)cean an early example of site-specific art in Brazil, it also is the first time that Vater responded to Afro-Brazilian spiritual practices in her work. It marks the beginning of her lifelong engagement in collaborative projects dealing with ecology, ritual and myth, and waste and renewal.
These themes emerged again a few years later in New York in a piece titled Luxo-Lixo (Luxury Garbage, 1973–74),11The title was inspired by an eponymous poem by Brazilian Concrete poet Augusto de Campos. in which she photographed trash on the city’s streets. The sheer amount of refuse shocked her, and she felt this waste revealed the overabundance of US consumerism. To make the work, Vater printed the images and presented them as a slideshow played to a soundtrack (a genre known as an “audio-visual” in Brazil). Revealing US class inequities, she juxtaposed the images of street litter from both wealthy and poor areas with images of shopping and consumerism. For the audio component, Vater collaborated with Oiticica to make a compilation of recordings of commercials that they paired with Oiticica’s voice reading a poem by Vater.12Beatriz Schiller, “Entre o lixo e o luxo, Regina descobre a alegria de criar,” Jornal do Brasil, 1973. Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro (MAM/RJ) Archives, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The work was inspired in part by Vater’s interest in sambaquis, or archeological mounds found on the Brazilian coast that contain the detritus and human remains of prehistoric Amerindian tribes.13Although Portuguese colonizers of Brazil had known about sambaquis since the sixteenth century, it was not until the late nineteenth century that the first scientific expeditions researched these archaeological sites located in the coastal regions of south and southeast Brazil. The oldest mounds are in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and date back to the sixth century BCE. See Gustavo Wagner, Klaus Hilbert, Dione Rocha, and Maria Cristina Tenório, “Sambaquis (Shell Mounds) of the Brazilian Coast,” Quaternary International 239, nos. 1–2 (July 2011): 51–60, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1040618211001431. Just as nineteenth and twentieth-century archaeologists studied the habits and culture of these Indigenous people by examining what they cast away, Vater took an anthropological approach to the trash of modern urban dwellers, believing that it functioned as a type of index of their daily gestures and psychological states.14Regina Vater, “The Artist Explains Her Work,” exhibition brochure, Danna Center Art Gallery, Loyola University, New Orleans, LA, June 9–20, 1975. Jean Browne Papers, Getty Research Institute (GRI), Los Angeles, CA. Luxo-Lixo not only alludes to the ecological unsustainability of a society that produces excessive waste, but it also reverses the anthropological gaze normally directed toward those considered peripheral—a status Vater identified with as a Brazilian living in New York—by retraining that gaze onto those at the center.
Like Magi(o)cean, Luxo-Lixo testifies to Vater’s fascination with refuse and the environment, Brazilian popular customs, and site-specific and collaborative approaches to art, themes that would be consolidated in her participatory art projects of the 1980s. Her interest in environmental issues emerged when the effects of environmental degradation were becoming increasingly tangible globally. Simultaneously, her realization of her displaced identity within the United States as a Latina immigrant compelled her to explore her cultural roots and Brazilian ancestral forms of knowledge about nature. By studying the native rituals of Indigenous and Afro-Brazilian cultures, and incorporating them into her work, she sought to strive toward the “preservation, not only of the environment, but also of the richness of our cultural pluralism which is directly linked to . . . Earth’s physical attributes and wisdom.”15Vater, “Espiritus Sanus in Terra Sana,” 24.
Celebration for a Go(o)d Time (1983)
Vater organized Celebration for a Go(o)d Time in Central Park on May 1, 1983, three years after she won a Guggenheim Fellowship to investigate the relationship between ecology and Brazilian Amerindian and African mythologies and traditions.16“Translations, an Installation by Regina Vater,” Carrington Gallagher, Ltd. Fine Art press release (San Antonio, TX, July 31, 1993), p. 2. Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) Archives, Washington, DC. She conceived it as part ritual, part performance, and, as the title indicates, part celebration. It was inspired by Brazilian Candomblé practices as well as her interests in time and the Tree of Life, a common archetype of the life cycle.17Vater references Tree of Life symbolism in Yoruba-derived Afro-Brazilian practices, as well as in Nepalese and Druid mythologies. Regina Vater, Untitled Document, NJ (mid-1980s?), n.p. Miscellaneous File, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) Library, New York, NY; and Regina Vater, “Statement of Achievements Since My First Guggenheim in 1980,” unpublished document, ca. 1990/1991, p. 2. Funarte Foundation Archives, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In Candomblé, this symbol appears as a real tree, wrapped with pieces of white cloth that is dedicated to the orixá Tempo (meaning “time” or “weather” in Portuguese), who is associated with the outdoors and the life cycle.18Jim Wafer, The Taste of Blood: Spirit Possession in Brazilian Candomblé (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 166–73. In Celebration, a tree was similarly festooned and topped with a white flag, an image also depicted in the artist’s hand-drawn poster promoting the event.19Vater, Poster for Celebration for a Go(o)d Time, 1983. Franklin Furnace Archives, MoMA Library, New York, NY. The event’s video documentation depicts the attendees—including artists Alison Knowles, Catalina Parra, Coco Fusco, and Antoni Miralda, and many children—and their activities.20Many other New York artists were also in attendance. The video was taped and narrated by Catherine Millonaire and edited by Regina Vater. See Celebration for a GOoD Time, 1983, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-kLPoLJt9o. White picnic blankets are spread on the lawn and covered with baskets of eggs, popcorn, rice cakes, and white wine, recalling altars to Tempo, which often include white foods and objects.21Heather Shirey, “Transforming the Orixás: Candomblé in Sacred and Secular Spaces in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil,” African Arts 42, no. 4 (Winter 2009): 74–75. The video’s camerawoman narrates the scene, telling us that “[Regina] invited her friends to join in this ritual to wash away the winter darkness and to feed the time . . . for new hopes . . . new happiness, and joie-de-vivre.”22Catherine Millonaire was the video’s camerawoman and narrator. People dressed in white arrange the food on the blankets, while the camerawoman explains that Vater invited her “friends to come in white and bring white food, drinks, and white flowers for the new times. Anyone who wants may bring stories, myth, and music to perform under the tree.” As a part of the event, Vater lights candles, smudges incense, and drips honey around the tree. Miralda climbs a ladder leaning against the tree to mount a white flag at the top.23The orixá Tempo is also said to ascend a ladder toward heaven, symbolized by a white flag. Wafer, The Taste of Blood, 177. Participants also attach white flag bunting to the tree, and pull the strings taut so they radiate outward, like festive maypole decorations. Later, as everyone gathers on the picnic blankets, musicians play drums and flutes. One woman gives a prepared speech on the symbolism of spring, on rebirth, hope, and fertility, and Knowles performs a “bean ritual.”24The “bean ritual” involved Knowles shaking dried beans in a dish, pouring water into cups, rubbing sandpaper together, and distributing the beans to the audience. In the video, Knowles explains that beans symbolize time because they are one of the oldest foods and they can be preserved indefinitely. These activities underscore Vater’s care for her community and nature, enacted through communal acts of nourishment, celebration, and the honoring of the tree in a shared and convivial collaboration inspired in part by Afro-Brazilian beliefs.
Ninho de Cobra (Snake’s Nest, 1988)
After moving to Austin, Texas, Vater was invited to create a work for a children’s exhibition at the Laguna Gloria Art Museum in 1988.251988 was also the Chinese Year of the Dragon, which Vater describes as a “benign snake that brings happiness.” Regina Vater, Letter to Tadeu Chiarelli and Ana Farinha, n.d., p. 1. Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo (MAC/USP) Archives, São Paulo, Brazil. Her installation, titled Snake’s Nest, comprised eighty-eight black-and-white images of snakes from various world mythologies that were organized into a figure-eight shape (symbolizing infinity and the ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a serpent eating its own tail). These were accompanied by long scrolls of paper onto which visitors could draw their own snakes.26Lucy Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America, new ed.(New York: New Press, 2000), 158. Vater also organized an outdoors event on the museum’s grounds. She hung the paper rolls with the visitor’s snake drawings on trees and invited storytellers, poets, anthropologists, and biologists to give presentations and readings, while children were invited to handle live snakes. As with Celebration, the event was a ludic May first festivity addressing ecology, time, and renewal, thus linking the social with the ecological.
According to the artist, though snakes are sacred in many cultures, in the West they are often seen as evil, and thus are killed by humans.27“Vitória das idéias,” Veja (February 6, 1991): 94. MAC/USP Archives, São Paulo, Brazil. However, in many religions (including in Candomblé, Aztec mythology, and Buddhism) snakes symbolize renewal, wisdom, creativity, and healing. Due to their cyclical skin shedding and regrowth, they are associated with resurrection, an aspect Vater emphasizes. She also highlights their important role in maintaining ecological equilibrium in nature as predators.28Martins, “Artistas premiados doam suas obras,” n.p. As the artist has stated, she intended the event to stress “the sacredness of snakes in many world myths, [in order] to change attitudes about this animal among people raised within Western culture.”29Vater, “Espiritus Sanus in Terra Sana,” 27. Creating a context for shared creation that would celebrate nature’s renewal and honor snakes, Vater provided a space for compassion and care toward a species that Western culture has denigrated. For instance, in Texas numerous snakes are killed annually by motorists.30“Vitória das idéias,” 94. MAC/USP Archives, São Paulo, Brazil.
Ultimately, Vater’s shift toward site-specificity, collaboration, and participation reflects not only a feminist ethics of care, but also her desire to center Indigenous, Afro-Brazilian, and other non-Western beliefs and spiritual practices in her work.31As Vater explains, “I try to operate from the feminine point of view . . . [and] my ideas are very much intertwined with my Brazilian origins.” Vater, “Regina Vater,” 21. Furthermore, although “ecofeminism” is not a term that she invokes in her many writings on her ecological works, this environmentalist branch of feminism developed around the time she organized these works, making it an apt framework within which to interpret them. Ecofeminism had gained prominence by the early 1990s.32Noted ecofeminist scholar-activists of the 1990s include Christine Cuomo, Deane Curtin, Victoria Davion, Irene Diamond, Beth Dixon, Josephine Donovan, Greta Gaard, Lori Gruen, Chaia Heller, Marti Kheel, Ynestra King, Winona LaDuke, Mary Mellor, Carolyn Merchant, Gloria Orenstein, Val Plumwood, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ariel Salleh, Catriona Sandilands, Vandana Shiva, Noël Sturgeon, Dorceta Taylor, and Karen Warren, among others. Yet, within a decade, it became unfashionable and was critiqued as being overly essentialist in its alignment of women’s bodies with nature and its associations with “goddess” spirituality.33Greta Gaard, “Ecofeminism Revisited: Rejecting Essentialism and Re-Placing Species in a Material Feminist Environmentalism,” Feminist Formations 23, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 26, 41. Even so, it was actually much more diverse than its essentialist branches, and its important contributions have begun to be recuperated.34“Ecofeminism” was sometimes recuperated under new labels such as ecological feminism, feminist environmentalism, critical ecological feminism, and global feminist environmental justice. Ibid., 27; Margarita Estévez-Saá and María Jesús Lorenzo-Modia, “The Ethics and Aesthetics of Eco-caring: Contemporary Debates on Ecofeminism(s),” Women’s Studies 47, no. 2 (2018): 123.
Ecofeminism offers strategies of critique that are worthy of reconsideration, and that come to bear on Vater’s participatory projects of the 1980s. While the rejection of ecofeminism may have been rooted in Western academia’s aversion to spirituality, ecofeminist spirituality has in fact manifested in both anti-essentialist activism and in Indigenous perspectives historically overlooked by Western feminism.35Chaone Mallory, “The Spiritual is Political: Gender, Spirituality, and Essentialism in Forest Defense,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture 4, no. 1 (March 2010): 48–71; Gaard, “Ecofeminism Revisited,” 38. It also emphasizes the values of care, solidarity, and compassion, not just toward other people, but also toward the non-human.36Estévez-Saá and Jesús Lorenzo-Modia, “The Ethics and Aesthetics of Eco-caring,” 131. Building on these ideas, we can interpret Celebration and Snake’s Nest as decolonizing ecofeminist projects that draw on spiritual practices and mythologies from Brazil and other world cultures. Through them, Vater encouraged the safekeeping of the natural environment by learning and understanding from, as she stated, “other systems of intelligence here on Earth that are closer to nature.”37Vater, “Statement of Plans” ca. mid-1980s, p. 2. Funarte Foundation Archives, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Describing these and her other ecological works, she explains that they are intended to convey a sense of solidarity and compassion, and that “if we are going to survive, these are necessary qualities to regenerate and rekindle in humankind.”38Vater, “Regina Vater,” 21. In this way, Vater’s rituals of waste and renewal echo ecofeminism’s insistence on a relationality between humans and nature, one that emphasizes the importance of nature independent of human values and benefits.39Estévez-Saá and Lorenzo-Modia, “The Ethics and Aesthetics of Eco-caring,” 124.