Nestled in the constructed landscape of the High Line, Argentine artist Gabriel Chaile’s colossal sculpture, (2023), embodies a nostalgic, transhistorical exploration of humanity’s place within and through nature.
Standing nearly 14 feet tall, Chaile’s adobe vase takes on the captivating form of a pre-Columbian vase and an anthropomorphic, flute-playing janiform bird. The biomorphic embossing and curvilinear sgraffito on the vessel’s neck imbues the artwork with a sense of playfulness and humor, putting a genuine smile on the face of the passersby who cannot resist stopping to take a quick picture. The metal appendage undulates down the “tail” of the vase as if someone had innocently doodled on top of a textbook illustration during an anthropology class. The dynamism and spontaneity of this bird-vessel iconography disrupt the otherwise self-monumentalizing tendencies of a work done at this scale. In fact, Chaile is keen on placing his works in dialogue with what he calls the “genealogy of form,” seeking to understand the wide range of influences and historical repetitions that gave birth to customary shapes—a quest for visual, communal, and anthropological explanations.
The organic tenor of El viento sopla donde quiere speaks to a desire to reintroduce nature to Manhattan, which also underlies the construction of the High Line itself. Previously used as an elevated railway, the High Line was left in disuse for decades in the second half of the last century; it was fortunately salvaged by the Friends of the High Line in an initiative to transform the “ugly eyesore” into a communal space that engages the New York City public. Its engineering challenges, however, were manifold: the soil that houses plant roots could only be measured in inches instead of feet. A carefully curated selection of plants, many foreign to New York, was introduced to the High Line ecosystem to ensure biodiversity. All three phases of construction cost an estimated sum of $187.3 million. Reflecting upon the history of the High Line, billboards and industrial railroads were replaced with a cybernetic oasis.
In Manhattan’s jungle of concrete, nature is meticulously engineered and monitored. What industry kills, nature heals. At a moment when global warming is slowly setting the world on fire, we ask ourselves: Can we really construct another artificial nature when the one we have now is forever lost? At what cost? The prospect of building another earth — sterile, advanced, and utopic — in the case of a climate apocalypse is likely fictitious. The melancholic feeling of loss and endearing affinity for nature stimulate a rethinking of what our ancestors used to have.
And this is where El viento sopla donde quiere comes to intervene.The title of this commission draws from John 3:8, in which the power of the Holy Spirit is compared to the wind — elusive and lifegiving: “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” The wind, a natural element shared by generations and generations, powerfully embodies lasting cultural memories. Just like how the breeze caresses every corner of the Calchaquí Valleys, this colossal vase, and its rusticity gracefully encounter the rain, wind, and sunshine in its exposed setting.
The emotive effects of Chaile’s sculpture can perhaps be explained by what he said in a 2022 interview with Télam Argentina regarding his participation in the 59th Venice Biennale, in which he refrained from associating his work with sustainability proper; instead, he expressed a profound sense of respect for the human-nature connection that is “beautiful and intense.” In other words, when engaged in a dialogue about nature, Chaile sees his work as not an index, a solution, or a resolution; rather, it constitutes an impetus for reconsideration and offers a moment of reflection. Now, outside the exhibition pavilion of the Venice Biennale, Chaile’s vessel comes to converse with the built landscape of the High Line and attract public visitors with not only its artistic part of speech but also its evocation of a longing deep at heart.
In a world slowly engulfed by concrete jungles, there is nostalgia. The naiveté of this colossal vase and its humorous anthropomorphism remind viewers of a time when one could look up to the sky and see the stars. Just like the High Line itself, Chaile’s sculpture is emblematic of attempts to artificially bring back nature — a sentimental memento of the boundless joy that nature used to offer. At this unique intersection, it stands as both a testament and an antidote to the crises of the Anthropocene.
About the writer: Xuezhu Jenny Wang is a multilingual translator, content creator, and researcher of postwar and contemporary visual culture. Her ongoing research projects on midcentury chair design focus on themes such as ergonomics, fatigue, and mechanization. Most recently, she contributed to an exhibition catalogue Cai Guo-Qiang: Ramble in the Cosmos — From Primeval Fireball Onward (2023) and an upcoming retrospective catalogue for Indian artist S. H. Raza, to be published by Aicon Gallery.
El viento sopla donde quiere is located on 24th Street and will remain on view until April 2024.