Nature Paintings


By Adriana Alvarez-Nichol
Co-President, Hong Kong Art Gallery Association
Founder and Director, Puerta Roja Limited

Since 2010 Puerta Roja has strived to build a cultural dialogue and uncover hidden narratives between Hong Kong and its Latin American and Spanish artists. Fernando Prats’ motivations can be traced back to the rugged topography, intense weather and telluric forces of his native Chile. Linking to the profoundly rooted Taoist beliefs in relation to the destructive and creative balance of nature, as well as an understanding of the invisible connections in our universe, Prats’ work comes to life in Hong Kong, where, despite its urban façade, the power of landscape and climate is ever present.

Prats echoes Puerta Roja’s philosophy by marrying a profoundly intellectual and conceptual discourse with a poetic and robust aesthetic. Since representing Chile at the 54th Venice Biennale, Prats has reached international acclaim for devising a brand new and deeply personal pictorial system. Reflecting his focus on the study of environmental conditions, for the Biennale in 2011, he presented three projects documenting his expeditions and ventures, including the Antarctic and areas affected by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in Chile. In the same year, and in recognition of his daring journeys, Prats would exhibit at the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton collective exhibition Somewhere Else, pursuing the idea of travel as a powerful mean for “expeditionist” artists. From the practice of creating works outside of a conventional environment, the artist has developed a process far removed from the instruments of the painter, producing unconventional and unpredictable images generated by nature. The artist records natural actions on smoked surfaces, ranging from movements of animals, to powerful waves, seismographic vibrations and even imprints of geysers shooting water from the ground (an intervention possible thanks to the Guggenheim Fellowship).

In his renowned Paintings of Birds series, featured at Puerta Roja’s Nature Paintings exhibition, the artist’s hand gives way to the free and fleeting beating of the bird’s wings making a rhythmic and majestic imprint on the smoked surface. The motion of the bird is frozen in time through a process in-between abstraction and sequence photography, capturing a linear pattern of movement that is both controlled and random. The artist builds a structure around the canvas, allowing the birds to fly freely between a net and the flat surface of the support. While the marks themselves are produced erratically in a matter of minutes, the conditions in which the imprints are created are carefully orchestrated by the artist – a constant motif demonstrated in his many series of works and arduous creative expeditions.

The exhibition also points to the artist’s environmental bearing by including action paintings produced with wild Andean Condors that today are an endangered species. I believe Prats’ body of work is relevant, now more than ever, as we continue to face sombre ecological prospects. Art is an important vehicle to address such issues and Prats’ work unravels a new perspective on the relationship between human society and the ecosystem. To further pursue this perspective and accompanying the exhibition, the artist will be live-painting a new work from the Paintings of Birds series at the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association’s Symposium at Asia Society, Looking Up: Remapping Hong Kong’s Art Scene in the Era of New Connectivity and Ruptures. In the spirit of Puerta Roja’s commitment to its Hong Kong roots and in recognition of Prats’ focus on raising awareness of human connection to the environment, the resulting work will be donated to the fund-raising efforts of The Nature Conservancy in Asia Pacific. I am deeply grateful to the Board of the Hong Kong Art Gallery Association, Ms. Alice Mong, Executive Director of Asia Society Hong Kong Center and to Mr. Moses Tsang, Global Board Member and Co-Chair of the Asia-Pacific Council of Directors of The Nature Conservancy, for making such a performance and resulting contribution possible. I am also grateful to Caroline Ha Thuc, one of the most influential curators in Hong Kong today for her insightful views on Fernando Prats’ deep philosophical, intellectual and spiritual connection to Asia.

Adriana Alvarez-Nichol, Puerta Roja, Nature Paintings2018

Content may only be used for education and research purposes. All rights remain with the original copyright holder; reproduction for commercial use is unauthorised.


By Caroline Ha Thuc
Curator and Art Critic

“Only bugs can be bugs because only bugs can abide by Heaven.” Only animals know how to act like animals because they know what Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi calls Dao, or the Way: contrary to human beings, they do not struggle against their nature and do not attempt to control or instrumentalize it: they just spontaneously follow their purposeless mode of existence. In that respect, they are superior to human beings.

Embracing their energy, listening to their voices or recording their quivers and flights while withdrawing one’s personal breath and agency might have been perceived by the philosopher as acts of wisdom, at least as a step toward freedom. This is precisely what Fernando Prats attempts to do.

Prats is not a Chinese monk nor a philosopher, but his conception and practice of art are somehow very close to Zhuangzi’s philosophy. The Chilean artist, born in 1967 in Santiago de Chile, draws his inspiration from the nature that has always surrounded him and from a deep feeling that nature makes one with human beings. According to him, this feeling is inherent to Chilean people who are constantly interacting with a telluric and picturesque geography, caught between the Andes mountains, volcanoes, an immense coastline, vast deserts, multiple forests and the polar Antarctica. Prats aptly quotes the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra (1914-2018): “we believe to be a country, but the truth is that we are just but the landscape.”

Visiting the Department of Geology at the University of Chile, Prats noticed on the desk of a geologist a blackened paper featuring thin lines zigzagging and oscillating: it was a seismogram made from smoked paper that had recorded the 1960 earthquake in the Chilean city of Valdivia, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. From that decisive moment, the artist started to use smoke in a ceaseless quest to capture the multiple forms of living energy as they manifest themselves spontaneously. Smoke, for him, refers to his childhood in Santiago, constantly covered by pollution. Metaphorically, it is also what connects the earth with the sky, an ephemeral and formless sign that would reach the celestial spheres and elevates the human mind. In his early works, Prats engaged himself in many mystical artworks embedded in the Christian tradition, but his sculptural columns have been transformed into smoke as he probably found his own emancipatory path toward spirituality.

Working like an alchemist over a fireplace, Prats blackens papers and canvases with a dark smoke that will later be erased by the chosen elements involved in his paintings. The artist used smoke before, usually combined with graphite, in more formal compositions. This time, from the 2001 series called Affatus, he abandoned the traditional artist’s gesture and experimented with new ways of painting, throwing stones on the smoked paper, painting with a lamb’s heart, human hair or with his own tongue. Progressively, he let go his own agency to open up the act of creation, inviting living creatures to interplay: grasshoppers, worms and birds but also sea water or vapor entered the territory of Prats’ painting and left their own traces on the paper. By opening himself to the world, the artist thus absorbs the manifestations of the superior order of nature and simply reveals them without passing judgement.

In this way, Prats hung his smoked paper above fumaroles in the Tatio geothermal fields in Chile in order to seize sulfuric vapor (2006), along steep cliffs to capture the breaking of the waves in Grand Canary Island (2009) or let them absorb the salt crush from the Atacama Desert (2012). When it comes to recording the traces of a natural catastrophe, the artist reaches out to the elements but remains distant, humbly rubbing remains from an earthquake, applying his paper on the faults, broken windows, rubble, photographing the disasters and keeping marks of the human presence before it disappears. In 2009, for instance, he did a series of 53 interventions in Chaitén, Chile where a severe volcanic eruption took place, provoking ash emissions and seismic activities. The town was coated with ash and Prats engaged himself within the natural elements that devastated the landscape.

His process of work is very similar here to photography as he produces both positive and negative images, turning visible edges, outlines and imprints but also revealing the absence, voids and missing parts. There is no materiality anymore, only traces of a transitory, contingent and sometimes invisible presence. Indeed, each artwork offers a fascinating balance between wholeness and emptiness: the manifestation of nature is fully revealed, yet it retains its part of mystery. The artist does not distort reality, he observes and creates the conditions for its revelation. This process does not attempt to forgo art in favor of a natural and contingent gesture but to include the natural gesture within the process of art itself.

“There were four things from which the Master was entirely free. He had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egoism.”(1) For Confucius, the wise man has no idea because he is open to any: he perceives the world without any preconceived idea, without projecting himself. Prats strives to share with him this openness, and humility, accepting and adapting to the world and looking at it without any specific requirement or expectation.

Prats conceives of his painting through the concept of “pictorial geo-logic”, a notion implying an active and mobilized surface, and, indeed, seismograms are the records of ground vibrations and displacements caused by seismic waves but also measurements of the energy generated by the earth. The Chinese have created a term that also could be applied here as it associates the wind, or breath, with the visible: breath-image (qi-xiang). When the wind blows, the herbs bow says Confucius: we are here at the frontier between the visible and the invisible, but also at the source of life. The wind is indeed what bring impetus and what conveys the vital energy or qi. In the Paintings of Birds, the birds’ feathers create that breath, they animate the inanimate and generate, in the painting, an atmosphere of breath-image.

For this series, Prats operates in a more private space, leaving one or several birds flying freely around the canvas: the slightest movement of their feathers removes the smoke from the paper and creates a form that exactly embodies their fugitive impulse. A shape arises, as if an internal organization came to being, yet the composition remains open, abstract, developed in infinite variations. In some parts of the work, one recognises easily the outline of a wingbeat, the friction of a plume, but in other parts lines are creating unfathomable shapes.

Laozi said “the great image has no form”(2) and he probably meant that it contains all possible forms. This variety and un-determination can be seized when comparing the different works from the series, each one bearing a specific rhythm and flow of energy, each one nevertheless so unique and multiple at the same time. Signs of a peaceful wandering or marks from violent bursts: beauty and violence coexist and complete each other. From the overlapped and entwined layers of strokes, one can imagine the outlines of mountains, the contours of rivers or the imprints of a growing vegetation. There are no spatial limits to these landscapes as they seem to constantly exceed their framework. To a certain extent, the form captured by the smoke is an emancipation of the form as it allows it to grow, transform and to embody all possible forms.

The movements of the birds permeate the paper, giving the impression that the work will continue to change by itself, just like a living being. Paradoxically, each work is related to a precise event or a dated action, therefore being strongly rooted in a “here and now”, yet it also emerges as a passage with no beginning and no end.

The act of performance is crucial for Prats as he always physically engages with his work. According to the chosen location, the artist selects relevant species that would best respond to the specificities of the territory: from massive birds such as the Andes condor, fast birds such as racing pigeons to birds like canaries, each one expresses its own impetus and temper. Working as a team, he guides them while respecting their freedom and, somehow, trusting their instinct. Within a short and fragile time-span, the artist and the birds enter in resonance. The wings expand his hand and go beyond it, while a reality emerges. Like the brushstroke of traditional painters, each trace is unique and irreversible: what is done cannot be undone. Prats’ attitude resembles the gesture of the literati artist who was unable to undo what he had executed. Behind the artist’s gesture, one can feel a sense of moral responsibility.

The term Affatus refers to a theory by Ramón Llull (1232–1316), a Catalan poet and mystic from the Middle Ages who invented a sixth sense, located between the palate and the tongue, where air circulates. It is reportedly the means through which animals communicate with each other, and also the potentiality by which human beings articulate their thoughts and connect with each other and with the world. In particular, it allows people to name things and objects around them. This act of naming combined with the marks left on smoked paper and the systematic recording of natural events epitomize an act of writing. Indeed, the entangled white lines and traces resemble an original script.

According to Chinese mythology, writing is not made up of arbitrary signs but composed by natural representations of phenomena and by their expressions. The inventor of writing is Cang Jie, a hero who had four eyes and who worked as a diviner for the Emperor. One text from the Tang dynasty says that he used two of his eyes to observe the sky, and the other two to look at the earth, combining his visions to reflect on the unity of the world.(3) It is actually said that it is by observing the traces made by birds and by wild animals that he had the idea of inventing writing, which means that the animals showed him the way to a language of signs.

In Prat’s Paintings of Birds, the feathers resemble brushes that would dance on the paper, whirling and fluttering around, alternatively combining gentle touches with larger traces, thin or thick circular movements according to the part that touched the surface, from the tip to the bottom of the wing. Each sign is autonomous but seems included in a circulation of movement: there is continuity within the discontinuity. The rhythm and shapes of the brushstrokes expose the intimate nature of the birds, their vital energy and deep essence. The animals are indeed taking possession of the space, imposing their scale and mode of being. They produce both a writing and a landscape. Prats allows this specific language to manifest, turning visible the hitherto hidden sources of their sensations and innate ways of being.

When a man has freed himself from a desire-based existential mode and conventional values, and thus embraces the Way, he stops struggling with deliberate action and becomes one with Nature, following spontaneously its path and responding to its natural flow. He wanders in the world, open and mindless, instinctively enjoying life and melting with the elements. This is often the life of artists who know how to listen to nature and to their inner nature, conscious about the deep unity that connects them and allows them to go beyond their mere human condition. The art of Prats is an art of disclosure: revealing this intimate relationship between things is a way to expose the invisible forces of nature and to let the flow of the world come in. His practice functions like a mirror that would embrace everything without retaining anything but the beating of a wing and the breath of the Earth.

(1) Confucius, Analects 9
(2) Cited by François Jullien, La philosophie inquiétée par la pensée chinoise, Seuil Paris 2003 p.325
(3) Shuduan by Zhang Huaiguan quoted by Jean-François Billeter, Essai sur l’art chinois de l’écriture et ses fondements Allia Paris 2010 p.263

Caroline Ha Thuc, Hong Kong, Wandering with Nature, Fernando Prats, 2018

Content may only be used for education and research purposes. All rights remain with the original copyright holder; reproduction for commercial use is unauthorised.