Lothar Baumgarten (1987)

“Lothar Baumgarten,” Parachute, no. 49 (December 1987 – February 1988), pp. 30-31.

Lothar Baumgarten: El Dorado
Kunsthalle Bern
June 5 - August 2

Perhaps right off we should clarify the relation to the “other,” if that term is not already too generalized and dominant a theme (that is to say, too abstract), and even loudly pronounced in a concurrent exhibition at the Bern Kunstmuseum as Die Gleichzeitigkeit des Anderen, “The Presence of the Other.” But this relation is not obvious, not immediately there. An image, or a face, is not presented to view. Rather this relation is obscured in what we initially see: text. We have first to determine what “other” is really there in the Baumgarten exhibition. Conversely, we have to find where the work/exhibition situates us. Accomplishing both will bring the two into relation, self and other, thereby discovering where and in what are the points of contact.  Clarification, we will find, is also a contamination.

“El Dorado”—the poster has this title printed in yellow. Inside the Kunsthalle, the first gallery runs a ring of text in black and red around the room. One word is painted/printed in yellow, as punctuation but not a focal point in the room: “Aare,” the river that bisects Bern. The other names in red and black designate rivers of the region in Venezuela in which Baumgarten has lived and travelled extensively: the referent of every mention in this exhibition. They also place Bern, but in a relation we have to discover. This one reference “Aare,” out of place, puts us in our place in Bern, in Europe, in the Western world. It would be a mistake perhaps to presume that, written in yellow (gold), it suggests that “El Dorado” is here and now, a presence that we mistakenly place elsewhere and defer as the primitive or exotic, rather than recovering it, for ourselves, here.  (This “for us” is to be determined.) This first part of the exhibition rises above that shown on the floor below, but what is sublimated is material, not spiritual, and what comes to us yellow leaves a trace behind.  

We have, however, to deal with the traces left here in this exhibition space and thus classify the elements of the exhibition. There are three parts brought together under the exhibition title El Dorado: the upper floor of the Kunsthalle devoted to the designations of rivers; downstairs divided into two works, La Gran Sabana, 1985-86 and Rio Yurani, 1969-87. On every wall of the upper galleries text has been arranged in different configurations of words of different size; colour (black/red/blue/yellow); type (Roman or Italic); and disposition (printed normally or mirrored as if reflected in water). Each configuration of names is a combination of at least two of these classes and they range figurally from a simple formation to a “Mallarmean” spatiality.  La Gran Sabana comprises a number of black and white photographs of savanna, for the most part uninhabited landscape, which are spaced by bars of the distinctive pigment Baumgarten uses. Rio Yurnani is composed of an entanglement of electrical wires, branching into blue and yellow incandescent bulbs that lie on the floor, spread among the litter of a type of redwood on which are balanced shallow bowls filled with water and in which maps have been pencilled and pigment brushed.

The photographs occupy a space between the first and last partof the exhibition, between the names on the upper floor and the materials and maps of the lower. Are the photographs part of aprogression, a mediation of the two, or are all the elements separate? Text, photographs, and maps are all representations of a sort, transcriptions on a surface. The work transports back,  brings back, its elements in the form of photographs, the wood and pigment, the maps and names: it is a displacement that is a representation and naming. But this displacement is already a violence, a transcription into a phonetic alphabet and writing on the level of the text, into knowledge for exploitation in the maps. The photographs open on to something else. They might simply be records but they read more like representations of a picturesque or sublime sensibility.  They do not exactly survey as much as bring into view in their span from first to last certain elements, as in the photograph read first in relation to what precedes, the installation upstairs, and the photograph seen in relation to what succeeds, the adjacent installation Rio Yurani. This first photograph shows the only sign of inhabitation, an abandoned shelter; the last shows the brutal effects of a labour process, the techniques of searching for gold, in which the earth is washed with powerful hoses. (This is also the cropped image on the poster. This area of Venezuela is thought to be the site of the “original” El Dorado and is also the site of current exploitation.) These two photographs are spaced by a selection of photographs of a varied and beautiful uninhabited landscape. But at the same time these photographs in turn are spaced, marked by the pigment bars.  

The photographs could only silently voice something by which they are marked. The names and territories of the other aspects of the installations are neither evocations, commemorations, nor classifications: we miss the point if we linger there. The photographs instead are marked by what spaces them. And what these pigment bars “hide” so to speak is what actually marks(destroys) the landscape. In another version of La Gran Sabana (1978) shown at the Marian Goodman Gallery in 1985, photographs of the savanna were interrupted in the same manner by the names of the minerals being mined and the species thereby endangered. This work does not simply turn us on the axis of nature andculture or evoke the other through various means even though we do not come “face to face” in any image. It establishes the north in relation to the south but not in any dialogue. Baumgarten does not represent the Other. Nowhere are the imagesof this other, only the signs, names of an inhabitation that evoke another mapping, another value for the land, its forms, its flora and fauna. At times it is more the portrait of a landscape, which is something that Rio Yurani seems to try to evoke. What is represented, however, is another relation to this landscape which marks it while being absent from it—our use of it while we inhabit another place (the “Aare” of this exhibition). Our present consumption is the destruction of another place. The presence of materials hides the labour of another and the actual destruction of his or her locale and the symbolic dimensions of a way of life.    

By the various reversals of expectations in viewing this exhibition Baumgarten establishes our relation and our role. Hesituates us here, not there (in a fictitious relation to another), and he situates us in such a way that we can read the effects ofan actual relation that is hidden from us.  What comes to us yellow leaves a trace, and that trace is our contamination.