Over 39,000 years ago, early humans pressed their palms against the slick limestone walls of Pettakere Cave in Indonesia. Stark sketches of animals, many now extinct, lay side by side with handprints. Though first preserved in shadowy caverns, the impetus to dissect and classify has continued down through the curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance to the global simulacra of the internet which so defines our own time.
The following series of images represent artist Ryan Parra’s own attempts to explore the mysterious and paradoxical relationship between humanity and nature. Beginning with a photograph of a living cave’s mouth-like ceiling, we see our modern artist’s own hands, covered in thin latex gloves, seemingly grasping for answers to the same questions which vexed our ancestors: what are we and where do we come from?
Parra’s exploration of both these questions and their answers drew inspiration from a wide range of historical sources, but it might be the curiosity cabinet which had the greatest influence. These cabinets, or wonder rooms, were extraordinary collections of natural objects attempting scientific explanations of the world. Popularized during the Renaissance, the cabinets were as much status symbols as objects of scholarly merit. They were sometimes vast rooms filled with unique and invaluable artifacts, while at others they were forgeries hawked by carnival barkers, such as the infamous Fiji Mermaid, which was made of a monkey’s upper body sewn to a fish tail.
In these pages, dried psychedelic mushrooms grow between well-ordered diagrams of phalanges. Scabrous plant hearts share shelves with surgical implements. Dead birds lay amongst planets and stars. The shadowy dancers and syncretic beasts contained here within show that while the journey towards understanding is full of dead ends, false starts and fleeting epiphanies, we have walked it for at least forty millennia, which tells us more about where we came from than any point on a map.
I will be forever jealous of the knowledge and value that our ancestors had for the environment's flora. Everywhere, they were surrounded by potential balms, poultices, pain relievers, euphoriants, and entheogens, using these systems as tools for the sustenance of their bodies and edification of their spirits. As pharmacology continues to advance, I believe it is important to have a sophisticated understanding of the plants from where it derived and knowledge of their traditional uses. This rich botanical history, along with practices of ethno-botany (such as shamanic practices), the exploration of plants as a system of knowledge, the organization of agriculture for the purpose of sustaining the masses, the history of plant illustration, and the history of the naturalist's perspective all heavily influence my work.
Urban areas continue to thrive and expand at a rapid rate, resulting in negative effects in biodiversity throughout the lands around them. As scientists are seeing a decline of biodiversity in wilderness areas, they are often finding the opposite trend in highly populated urban areas. This rise and fall of biodiversity is one of many reasons for my research on edible, medicinal, and psychoactive plants growing in the Tempe/Phoenix valley, as well as my fieldwork on plants out in their natural environment throughout the Southwest. With this in mind, I hope to shed light on the rich variety and the importance of plants growing near and far from our homes, and by incorporating styles from still life paintings and botanical illustrations throughout art history, while also including descriptions of each plant's traditional uses, I want to remind viewers of the role plants have played in our evolution of knowledge and well being for tens of thousands of years.
The title, Vivarium, reflects this interest in our unique relationship with nature, and sets the theme of curiosity, containment, and control. Vivarium, meaning “place of life,” is an enclosed space with plants or animals for observation or research purposes. For me, this act of concealing fragments of nature expresses a sense of power one has over something, much like science with nature, while also expressing great affection and love towards that same thing. It is in this binary friction that fundamental characteristics at the root of our own nature are revealed, as are issues evident in the modern perspective of the natural world.
There is space. Then within that space, there is more space. Without that space, or outside that space, there is even more space. Space and space and space, always space, so much space, but never nothing, never empty. Yet, here (and on occasion there), there is room, and this is something there is never enough of. Room to think, room to breathe, room to move, room to let the mind wander freely and light upon whatever it might fancy and not feel the least bit bad about the time spent, squandered, slipping away.
Here there is no desperation in presence. Perhaps, on occasion, there is insistence in presence, but more often than not, there is a happenstance in presence, a circumstance in presence. Wherever something can be, something is, and just happens to be. The surprise of green in otherwise endless dune; a hippie’s ponytail of growth sprouting and falling at embarrassing length out of the barren pate of rock worn down by the love of a good river who has long since gone and ain’t coming back, and the earring doesn’t make you look any younger, man, it just makes you look sad; a stark contrast of diseased-piss-yellow scrub in white rolling sand to suggest just how preferable to something nothing might be. This is the life that reminds us life is nothing special—that it can and does happen anywhere.
It is one thing to have eyes, an entirely different thing to see. Life has eyes everywhere, but only some of them see, some merely pretend, with or without intent. Some that pretend to see are given away by the care or carelessness with which they turn them up to the sun and let them burn. A camouflage, a disguise—eyes peeled, eyes on you, eyes for you, eyes have it, don’t they? Does no one recognize that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is an asshole and better watch his back?
Then, there was that time you thought you had it all figured out, but the cacti proved you wrong—dead wrong. A beckoning finger of cactus forever signaling “closer, closer,” but you can never get close enough, so you maintain a safe distance, measured subjectively, always in flux. Close is a matter of perspective, as is safe and so is honest. Just as a geometrically perfect ball of cactus looks as though it could be picked up and palmed, lobbed from hand to hand, spurred across the goal line, will truthfully pierce the flesh and never let go. Just as a towering Saguaro with one outstretched arm could wistfully wave in fond farewell, or tell you to fuck right off and never darken this land again with your naïve, destructive existence. You don’t have it all figured out, man, you don’t know shit.
The bed you woke up in; the car you drove to work in; the building in which you wasted half your waking life; the car you drove home in; the bed you fucked in; the bed you masturbated in; the bed you came in without any conscious intent at all; the bed you woke up in again; the car you drove to work in again; the building in which you wasted half your waking life again; the car you drove home in again; the leftovers you reheated and ate for dinner again; the life you have; the life you wish you had; the repetition; the repetition; the repetition; the faces; the places; the names; the ones you forget; the ones you wish you could forget; the ones you want desperately to remember but can’t place in the presence and pressure of their face; the people that move in and out and in and out again; all the big ideas; all the plans; all the intentions; the endless cycle; the repetition; the repetition; the repetition; the bed you woke up in again, goddammit, twisted in sheets cold with fear, soaked in nightmare; all the fucking dread that it will never end; all the fucking dread that it will end to soon.
Look around you, it doesn’t matter.