For 18 months, between 1978 and 1980, Lothar Baumgarten, then in his mid-30s, ventured into the remote upper Orinoco Delta region of Venezuela. There he lived with a community of indigenous Yanomami, who otherwise had scant contact with outsiders, opening himself to their way of life and animist worldview. With a culture dating back thousands of years, the Yanomami were already being threatened by amok gold miners, cattle ranchers, deforestation, pollution, disease and governmental (both Brazilian and Venezuelan) abuse. These days, they are thoroughly besieged, and in fact face extinction (many term it genocide).
Revisiting a formative experience, Baumgarten’s exhibition included his films and field recordings; an 8-hour, combinatory soundtrack coursing through the gallery; a textual wall installation that featured the indigenous names of South American rivers; and four handmade models of 15th-century Spanish ships on specially designed steel and wood pedestals suggestive of ocean waves. The show was a complex meditation on clashing belief systems, language and mapping, violence and history, presence and loss.
With matte black walls and subdued lighting, the gallery was somber and dim, but also a contemplative, even reverential space. Illuminated wooden models (constructed by expert Spanish craftsmen on a 1:20 scale) of the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria from Christopher Columbus’s first voyage looked both magisterial and ominous; advanced nautical technology made the “discovery” of America possible but brought devastation to countless people. On the walls were the phonetic names of rivers, in the spoken (and rapidly vanishing) languages of preliterate societies: Essequibo, Abaraima, Emecuni, Netuka, Toototobi and others. Rendered in different colors, and festooned here and there with feathers used for body decorations, the names were glowing and festive, but they felt transitory, as if inexorably disappearing into an inky void. Baumgarten’s rivers also functioned as the map or landscape of a conflicted history: both the lifeblood of ancient societies and the conduits for Spanish conquistadors and subsequent invaders.
Meanwhile, the soundtrack moved through the gallery like an aural wind. Composer and Spanish early music
conductor and performer Jordi Savall’s Isabel I: Reina de Castilla-Luces y Sombras en el tiempo de la premera gran Reina del Renacimiento 1451-1504, based on the life of Isabella I (Columbus’s patron), segued into the rhythmic surging of the Caribbean, ambient forest sounds and field recordings of Yanomami rituals. This taut, precisely calibrated yet marvelously expansive exhibition conflated Christian Europe and animist Amerindian societies, culture and nature.
Unedited excerpts from six films, projected onto the walls as if embedded in a landscape, have quite a history. While living with the Yanomami, Baumgarten made many sound recordings and shot nine hours of film, which he developed only years later. You see time-honored rituals, such as people building a Shapono (communal dwelling) in the forest, and a funeral with grief-stricken people consuming a deceased woman’s ashes. Preparations for an inter-community feast involve frightening displays of aggression and valor. You also see little, daily things: cavorting kids; a dog snoozing next to a smoldering canoe; a beatific scene of a man and a woman carrying fronds on their heads while wading up to their necks. No narrations or translations are provided. You are alone with the Yanomami, trying to make sense (oftentimes poorly) of their dwindling world. Baumgarten never appears, yet suffusing these films is an artist’s sensibility: intensely looking, noticing details, taking everything in. His attitude is inquiring, nonjudgmental and respectful. Though conceptually inclined, this was a richly sensory show, and imbued with blazing emotion.