With a Roll of the Dice, Artist’s Game Tells a Story of West Coast Science and Spiritualism
April 9, 2019
“It looks like a game and a table, but in fact it’s a book,” explains artist Stéphanie Solinasabout her upcoming exhibition Becoming Oneself at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin. I met the artist in her studio at the Headlands, which is open to the public while she prepares for the show, but she was reluctant to divulge the story arc of this book. As books go, the work is akin to a Choose Your Own Adventure, and she hardly had the time to recount every possible version of the text.
Continuing with the literary metaphor, Becoming Oneself, which will be unveiled on April 14 during the Headlands’ Spring Open House, is perhaps most accurately described as a philosophical travelogue of the French artist’s time in the western United States.
There is a long tradition of French intellectuals traversing the U.S. in an attempt to understand what exactly is going on across the Atlantic. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-40) is the classic text of this genre. Postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard followed suit in 1980s, as did philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy at the turn of the current century. Solinas’ Becoming Oneself follows suit, but with an eye towards the metaphysical.
Since 2014, Solinas has been investigating none other than the dualism that undergirds modern European thought, specifically how the often-conflicting notions of mind and body shape individuals’ identities. At the same time that we are made of body, Solinas says, “we are made of our spirituality; we are made of our deceased friends and our ancestors.”
How then, she asks, can this complexity be represented in images? Indirectly and poetically, her work answers.
This artistic research began in Iceland, where Solinas collaborated with mediums and geneticists to map both the physical landscape and the territory of huldufólk, Iceland’s population of rock-dwelling elves. She later continued the line of inquiry in Rome, where she researched miracles. But she was beckoned by the western U.S., a place where both science and spirituality play pivotal roles in regional identities.
The region is home to Silicon Valley, Caltech and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, as well as flower power, the California Institute of Integral Studies, El Santuario de Chimayó, and, as I learned from Solinas, the supernatural vortices of Sedona. But while matter and mind are often thought of as oppositional, the relationship is more complicated. After all, an artificial intelligence engineer could leave work in Menlo Park and arrive at the Esalen Institute by sundown for a workshop on forest bathing. (This has probably happened.)
The guiding question for Solinas’ research was: “What are the ideas of today that are inventing tomorrow’s identity?” And to extrapolate, will this identity be grounded in techno-utopianism or new age spirituality? In search of an answer, she traveled from Sedona to Silicon Valley, and many points in between, interviewing scientists, shamans and a man she describes as a “repentant scientist.”
While on the road she collected images, stories, video interviews, artifacts and ideas. These elements make up the contents of the book and the material of the exhibition. But instead of mounting these items on a wall, she explains, “pictures are going from my hand to the hand of the viewer.”
To accomplish this, Solinas has created a seven-player game using a roulette board she purchased in Las Vegas, redesigning the gameplay with influences from roulette, tarot, Chutes and Ladders, and other games. One must engage directly with Solinas and six other strangers to experience this text, and the story will unfold according to the dictates of dice. The game is called Río Buenaventura, named after a mythical river once thought to run from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, a fitting metaphor for a region that is so often defined by its myths.
Back in 1981, Jean Baudrillard left the American West with less than flattering sentiments. “The mystical power of California,” he wrote, “consists of this mixture of extreme disconnection and vertiginous mobility captured in the setting ... Nowhere else does there exist such a stunning fusion of a radical lack of culture and natural beauty.”
One will need to play Río Buenaventura for a full sense of Solinas’ findings, but she speaks about the people and experiences she encountered during her research with openness and sensitivity. She seems to embrace her perspective as an outsider without trying to force a specific worldview on what she found here. Instead, she says, the excitement of this work came from the surprising connections she found between seemingly disparate people and ideas.