The myth of South America as "paradise found" started with Columbus when he asserted in a letter to the Queen of Castilla that the entrance to terrestrial paradise was at the mouth of the Orinoco River. Columbus traveled with a copy of The Travels of Marco Polo. The Gulf of Paria resembled the description of a place in Asia the Venetian had taken for the Garden of Eden. The confirmation of a previous text appears to be substantial to this discovery, which makes the newly discovered thing not exactly new.
Pinelo's thesis was based on the re-articulation of several previous theories about the location of Eden. In 1629 Jacques de Auzoles' treatise Saincte Geographie located Eden at the center of South America. In Pinelo's version, Eden was not a rectangular garden, but a circular territory of 160 leagues (510 miles) in diameter, and the Paraná, the Amazonas, the Orinoco and the Magdalena where the four rivers of paradise. Pinelo's text reflected the intellectual transitions of the seventeenth century: it attempted to reconcile a theological account of creation, with a scientific view of nature derived from the newly developing discipline of Natural History.
When I decided to embark in the search of Pinelo's paradise I only had a copy of his book, a map of Eden drawn by Pedro Quiroz in 1617, and an airplane ticket. I was destined to reach into the very heart of South America and live to tell what I saw. Thus, my journey of discovery was bound to become the confirmation of a previous text, which was in itself the revision of a preceding one, and so on and so forth in a vast, never ending cacophony of echoes that went through Dante and Marco Polo all the way back to the Bereishit, the first book of the Torah.
Christopher Columbus's annotated copy of "The Travels of Marco Polo"
A new housing settlement close to the center of Itaúba featured a peculiar looking structure. Although more than one house, it only looked like half a house. The sharp incline of the roof gave the impression that the other half was missing. In the late afternoon sun, a parabolic satellite dish cast a shadow along the west wall, its silhouette inching the rough surface seemed the ghost of a gargantuan basketball. The occupants were probably young: a) two satellite antennas, b) clothes with stamped lettering hanging on a line, c) a chaotic scenario of neglected belongings. A bed of modernist design lay tilted, thrown over a pile of wood. A dotted silver tie twisted in the dirt like a crawling snake. Behind the house, not a private yard but bare land, left alone, a chair contemplated vast emptiness. Construction debris and the imprint of tractor tires marked the clumps of crumbling, recently turned red dirt. It was the virgin soil of the new continent, once again surrendering to the improvised will of newcomers.
Leaning on the ledge of the roof, there was a ladder of triangular design, the steps narrowing on the way up to vanish into the infinity of the sky. As I took the photograph, I noticed a distant plane coming into the frame in a perpendicular course of collision with the ascending ladder. I wondered why any moment would be more decisive than another when capturing a photographic image. After all, seizing chance in an unexpected intersection of distinct realms only reiterates the uncanny sense of surprise of news and art as novelty.
I decided to step back further into the terrain and get a frontal and more panoramic view of the back of the house as it fits into the surrounding landscape. I attempted a more neutral, if not objective, at least more formal depiction of the house. The lateral sunrays accentuated the details in the texture of the brick wall. I realized that this sun was not the sun, but that afternoon sun from the poetic prose of Juan Ramón Jiménez. A passage of his book "Platero y yo" (Platero and I) (Platero and I) portrays the afternoon sun projecting the silhouettes of plants onto a wall. Since I read it in fourth grade, that sun tinted the afternoons I spent in the patio of my house as a child. As the sun would set, those long shadows of the plants transformed into shapes that no longer resembled them. Crawling on the rugged wall of the patio they became characters in a crepuscular theater of silhouettes.
How could anybody ever know that by looking at these photographs? However convincing, the indexical nature of the photographic medium barely conceals the pitfalls of reducing the vast materiality of the world, and the elusiveness of time and life to a mere scaled down, flat, still resemblance. I wonder if it could ever exist a medium able to convey with any approximation the overwhelming specificity of sensorial perceptions, memories, and thoughts, which seamlessly converge into the mere act of being. How could all that complexity ever be recorded, organized, and represented?
Total memory of unambiguous exactitude may not only be a blessing. It may also be a curse. Borges' character "Funes the Memorious" portrays perhaps the only truly lucid man in history, a precursor of the superman, "an untamed and vernacular Zarathustra" from a provincial town of Uruguay.
He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book he had seen only once... He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day… In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it… He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform world that was instantaneously and almost intolerably exact… It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three-fifteen (seen from the front).*
The rudimentary inadequacy of language to name the complexity of the world as experienced in space and time finds no redemption in the way we choose to order visual knowledge. The most efficient tool for visually organizing the world is arguably the nineteenth-century artifact known as the archive. An anachronism derived from dictionary illustrations, the archive presumes the ability to convey a range of representations as signifiers of a reality outside of themselves that it not only names, but also manages to classify, order and transmit. The downside is that with potential enlightenment through detailed information comes the endorsement of a taste for the clinical as a literal signifier of "science" and "reason", as well as the pretense of authority founded on the rather prosaic notion of organizing typologies according to genus and species. A primitive tool for someone like Funes, the archive still remains the best civilization has to offer…
He determined to reduce all of his past experience to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would later define numerically. Two considerations dissuaded him: the thought that the task was interminable and the thought that it was useless. He knew that at the hour of his death he would scarcely have finished classifying even all the memories of his childhood… I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details…*
I have to concur with Borges, that such an approach to knowledge can only engender a monstrous institution, a motionless museum of Platonic archetypes: "I don't know if mortal eyes ever saw it (outside of oracular vision or nightmare), or if the remote Greek who devised it ever made its acquaintance…" I vividly envision the sterilized corridors, the polished vitrines, the chilling silence in which everything that ever was is preserved, made into a model replica, named, defined, measured, dead. That hermetic, airless museum of ashes and stillness may be the one invoked as a cognitive model by adventurous lunatics eager to disclose the dark side of the moon. Some believe I used to be one of them. They don't know that the very idea of plotting a total proliferation of the archive has always horrified me. Now, I only wonder if that rapturous revelation of the archive could eclipse the traumatic awareness that absolutely everything in the world is perishable, vanishing as we speak, soon to be lost.
The limits of what can (or should) be known are not easy to accept. The desire to see things portrayed in photographs proves a mere consolation for our failed attempts to control the world and our desire to avoid the intrinsic loss of time's passage. The contingencies and the arbitrariness of photographic evidence only confirm the fact that reality is beyond control, inherently unclassifiable.
Over the years I have developed a taste for randomness and absurdity, chaos and entropy, for that which can be known but not measured or priced, for images without form but with history and humor, precisely because they remind me of that.
*Jorge Luis Borges, Funes the Memorious (1942), translated by Anthony Kerrigan, Grove Press, 1962, 83-91.
Most interpretations on human evolution link humans to apes, not to tailed monkeys. The observation of spider monkeys in the Amazonian forest leads to speculation over the irrational fear of falling in humans. The author portraits the attraction of the forest as remembrance of a primeval pre-human Eden and considers the Homo Erectus (instead of the Homo Sapiens) the decisive step in human evolution. The fall of humankind started with the abandonment of the habitat (the loosing of the tail), and its now further indicated by the looming prospects of destruction of the forest.
Novo Mundo from Sergio Vega on Vimeo.
I came across a fence that acquired an emblematic significance in my memory. It was a perfectly designed and executed artifact: a brightly painted, welded iron fence with a gate attached to concrete pillars and short walls. The house that it was supposed to enclose, however, had not yet been built, nor was there any indication that it would be. The green artifact stood alone, devoid of function other than its presence: it could only be interpreted in aesthetic terms. Indeed this object epitomized how the mannerisms of modernism still inform the production of vernacular cultural formations. The decision making processes involved in the construction of this fence seem to reify the kind of aesthetic speculation that geometric artists of South America often employ in their art practice.
Although modern in its elements, the shapes resembled what I encountered on numerous occasions in the forest: the repetitive pattern of parallel lines along diagonal axes of palm branches that either reflect light or filter it, creating rhythmic and almost perfect geometric screens. Was this object explicitly designed as an ornamental recreation of palms?
Considering the role of art for the Caduveo tribe of Mato Grosso, Claude Lévi-Strauss states: "In the first place, facial paintings confer dignity on the individual; they ensure the transition from nature to culture… Next, since they vary in style and pattern according to caste, they express differences in status within a complex society. This means that they have a sociological function." (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, 1955) Could it be that vernacular ornaments in the façade of Brazilian houses too serve a double function? Representing an idealized version of nature while constructing an emblem of "the modern" as indicative of social status?
I will never know what went into the making of the enigmatic fence at address 1444. I do know that, so carefully executed, it appeared infinitely more relevant than the eventual house that it might one day guard.
Black and white image:
Caduveo Body Painting, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Brazil, 1935
It was a bright sunny day in Itaúba. A group of technicians and engineers who seemed bored beyond consolation were staying at my hotel. The purpose of their visit was to measure the water levels of the Teles Pires River, crucial data needed to build a hydroelectric plant. They were smoking cigarettes waiting for their rides in the parking area in front of the hotel. The teenage brothers I hired as guides arrived early and waited for me in the car. Luiz and Victor did not look at all like brothers, except for the fact that they were both equally shy. They were polite, had no interest in photography and listened to local country music that sounded all the same. They would not volunteer information unless expressly asked and even then their answers were vague. It was only once I loaded the equipment and got into the car that they told me we could not drive to the municipality of Cláudia as planned. As it turns out there were vague legal issues with the vehicle that made driving on federal highways risky. Driving on provincial roads was fine.
The sudden change of my plan to get to the deforestation site required a new strategy. While I tried to come up with an alternative, I asked them to drive around town to some of the areas I had not yet seen.
Near a new neighborhood of small houses built by the government, we found an old bulldozer that was being used to clear a junkyard. I was surprised that the old machine still worked. Luiz said it was one of the first to arrive in town and that it belonged to the logging company of family friends. The company had miraculously survived after all the big ones escaped, continuing operations under different names in the north. Luiz told me that I could meet this friend and that indeed he wanted to speak with me. As we drove through the center of town, Victor stopped the car and introduced me to the man in question. His name was Cicero and he invited us to sit on the porch of his colorful house. He had moved to Matto Grosso in the late seventies along with a massive wave of colonization from Paraná, his native state. At first he spent a few years looking for gold without success. Afterward, he acquired a permit and started his modest logging business. It was not about logging or deforestation that Cicero wanted to speak. In fact, he was planning a trip to Miami and wanted advice on places to visit and the prices of things. I understood keenly how the teenagers felt when bombarded with questions that landed entirely outside their range of interests.
Cicero's house was a scaled down version of the 50s middleclass American Chalet. American models of housing migrated to Brazil early in the century when John Ford started his rubber plantation in 1927. In an unusual display of protestant ethics unlike any other business conducted south of the equator, Ford constructed an American town designed entirely in the US, featuring a power plant, an infirmary, a hotel, a golf course, library, stores, restaurants and hundreds of clapboard houses with wicker patio furniture. Brazilians had collected rubber for decades, extracting it from existing trees in the forest. Ford's project failed drastically because the transplanted trees would not grow. Planted next to one another the trees were decimated by blight and insects. Years after, it was determined that to be healthy, rubber trees need to be surrounded by an ecosystem of native vegetation. Eventually the boom of rubber in Brazil perished when the British started exporting it from Asia at a cheaper price. Today, the trajectory of business in Amazonia goes from logging to agriculture and cattle. The results are degraded areas unable to sustain moisture or nutrients, acidic soil that catches fire during the dry season, eventually becoming a desert.
I told Cicero that I wanted to buy his house because it would make me feel the adventure of life was still happening, something I had not experienced since leaving Argentina in my early twenties. At age sixteen, I had a trio that played music by Jimi Hendrix. I never managed to play the American anthem the way he did in the epilogue to Woodstock, with debris from the concert spread far and wide. Sitting on this bright orange porch made me feel like I could give it another try. Cicero laughed at my proposal and said I could probably afford the house but would never endure living in Itaúba with "those ideas" of mine. I asked him if he would sell me his bulldozer so that I could bring it to America. He laughed out loud, not realizing this time that I was serious. I truly believe these machines should become relics, preserved next to military tanks, medieval armor, guns and bombs. We have the right to know what happens when our clumsy ideas are adopted in remote lands. It is our obligation to figure out what becomes of them.
Black and white images:
- Woodstock Festival Aftermath, New York, 1969 (top)
- Fordlandia, Brazil, 1927 (bottom)
I found myself stranded in a Dantesque Amazonian town named Cláudia. Colonized in 1978 on land belonging to the Kayabi tribe, Cláudia stands at the frontier of deforestation. Most people presume the town was named after the mistress of the colonizer because his wife had a different name. The day before, with teenage brothers from Itaúba, I had gone through back roads to the edge of this municipality and witnessed the most pathetic spectacle of destruction. I expected deforestation to be about cutting down trees; but it was more like the ripping and shredding of living tissue in epic proportion.
This is the territory where western civilization penetrates the Amazonian forest to make a quick profit. The inhabitants, mostly loggers, hold an idealized notion of themselves as pioneers. Their slippery eyes move with the nervous evasiveness of those forced to hide their crimes. The presence of a photographic camera irritates them in a visceral way.
Recently, a journalist revealed in the national press that twelve people had been kept in slavery at one of the largest ranches in Cláudia. The news brought the intervention of the Federal Government. I could not persuade a single taxi driver to take me to the area where the forest was being burned. They obviously feared retaliation from ranch owners.
On days like this, the forces of chance seem to pull resources from the imaginary to plot an arbitrary intervention on reality, reshuffling the order of things just to make them coincide around an idea. It was July 14th, the two hundred and twenty-first anniversary of the French Revolution. In this part of the world the dry season was making everything more crisp and volatile. The passing cars clouded the air with a fine red dust that ended up sticking onto everything. As I left the hotel with my intrusive camera hidden in a plastic bag, I thought the only thing worth photographing would be dust.
A few blocks away a very colorful house attracted my eye. I stopped to observe it in detail. In front of the façade there was a rundown telephone booth with the number fourteen (today's date I thought). The peculiar profile of the modernist object reminded me of Napoleon's head in a caricature that I had almost bought at a street stand bookseller across from Place Saint Michel, on the shores of the Seine, two years ago. I remember it was the cover of a revolutionary journal that featured pére Duchesne wearing his red cap of liberty, facing Napoleon's statue with a chisel. I never bought the print because it was a poor reproduction and I still hoped to encounter a better version of it. I probably saw the resemblance with the telephone booth because I was reading Baudelaire's essay Of the Essence of Laughter in which he talks about caricature and the role of the comic in the visual arts.
Behind the telephone cabin, there was a gorgeous bush full of red flowers. I decided to take a photograph and started the process of measuring the exposure and fitting the subject within the frame. I noticed how gracefully the address numbers of the house were spaced in a diagonal line matching the inclination of the roof when I was pierced by a revelation. The number was 1871, and the vertigo of the revolution came over me as I realized that the caricature of Napoleon and Duchesne could not be from the siege of the Bastille, it had to be from the Paris Commune of 1871. In high school, l had learned that those three months of the Commune changed the world, that the bloody week in which the Communards were massacred was among the most shameful instances of modern history. The army of the official government in Versailles used photographs to identify and execute the Communards. This was the first time that photographs were used by government officials as a tool to survey and incriminate members of the population.
I went back to the hotel in a rush, escaping a cloud of dust made by a passing truck, feeling dizzy, probably from dehydration.
The numbers on the façade of the house, like the caricature, were pointing to both the French Revolution on July 14 and the Paris Commune in 1871. On my return from Mato Grosso, I enlarged the image to inspect it in detail. As if I were an Assyrian priest of Nimrud and the photograph the liver of a sacrificial sheep, I searched for the answers magically encoded in the surface of the visual evidence. And lo and behold, I found, in the shadow of a cactus on the right side of the house, the perfect outline of a cartoon Mouse’s head, hovering over the yellow wall like an evil ghost. I had heard in the news that Paris Disney had become the most visited tourist site in Europe, surpassing both the Louvre and the Eiffel tower.
A photograph does not mean anything other than what is projected upon it, yet photographs also provide evidence that can incriminate people. It started in France in 1871 and today the habitants of Cláudia know it perfectly well. As if a bouquet of flowers, I will bring this photograph to Paris and place it at the Communard's Wall in the cemetery where the last defenders of the Commune were executed. I would like to believe that the hidden messages encoded in the image could reignite my lost belief in the indexical power of photography. The printed image would function as a fetish, to commemorate the revolutionary spirit of enlightenment while warning against the outrageous, ever-expanding evils of rampant and savage capitalism.
Twentieth century: feverish and problematic Junkshop
Those who don’t squeak get no grease,
Those who don't steal are fools... (Tango, Music and Lyrics by Enrique Santos Discépolo, Buenos Aires, 1934)
On the road to Chapada dos Guimarães I stumbled upon a place that has left me perplexed. Even the memory of it makes my head spin. From the outside I couldn't tell what it was. There were not solid walls; instead the building was enclosed by thin stripes of wood placed in a grid. It was obviously some kind of store or repair shop because it accepted credit cards. There was a large hand painted sign that hung upside down, but I could not decipher it.
I went inside and found the owner seating on a stool drinking mate cimarrón(1) . He did not stand up but asked me to seat next to him. He was a bearded, introspective man approaching his mid sixties. He introduced himself as André and showed me a book on nuclear reactors he had on a table. I noticed inserts and scribbling on the margins of the book. Scanning the surroundings I could identify many objects: pliers, supermarket cart, chemicals, brooms, car parts, bird cage, water bottles, magazines, bed frame, stacks of burlap bags, pipes, chickens, metal sink, windows, gates, dishes, clothes, toys, but what I could not decipher was under which criteria had all those things ended up in there. Dust accumulated over time had given a uniform reddish patina to all those diverse objects. I imagined André stranded inside the belly of the whale.
André asked me what I was looking for. I said I was just passing by and would like to photograph his place. He agreed and asked me if I wanted to play chess afterwards. I kindly declined and went to look around.
The first law of thermodynamics declares that the energy of the universe is constant; the second, that this energy tends towards isolation and disorder, though its total quantity does not decrease. This gradual disintegration of the forces that make up the universe is entropy. Once maximum entropy is reached, once different temperatures have been equalized, once any action of one body on another has been neutralized (or compensated for), the world will be a random assemblage of atoms(2).
An area of the store resembled Jean Tinguely's welding studio. If Tinguely's art satirized the mindless overproduction of material goods in industrial society, this junkshop went a step further to state the impossibility of a postindustrial redemption. All of those things held together were their own new reality, a collective conglomerate of matter entrenched in processes of decay, a geological transmutation that could not be reversed, much less reorganize.
I found a large, roofless building where pipes, water tanks and an abandoned car laid scattered amongst overgrown tropical vegetation. On the side of this building I saw what it seemed like the arsenal of Dada and Surrealism: an array of readymades arranged with striking poetic precision. As I prepared to photograph this exquisite assemblage a rooster came into the scene. I tried to chase the bird away but he would not leave. Instead, the rooster looked at me in the eye and walked inside the frame, posing for the camera. This chance encounter made me think the animal wanted to deliver a message, something I could not refuse.
As I photographed the rooster I entertained the notion that this physical realm epitomizes the collapse of our materialist system of values, the black hole of consumerism. The unintended aesthetics of these ruins is all we have left. This place had the physical pull of a vortex; a site where the spatial and geological coordinates of the planet had become disjointed, where time warps and other worlds break through the surface of reality, unleashing the symbolic power of otherness and of the unconscious.
André was playing chess by himself and told me that the rooster had been the champion in a big cockfight tournament. Someone gave it to him after it could not fight anymore. He had decided not to cook it because it would be too hard to chew. All the rooster does now is sing in the morning and spend the day wandering around, chasing after the hens.