Magazine article Artforum International

Lothar Baumgarten: Whitney Museum of American Art

Magazine article Artforum International

Lothar Baumgarten: Whitney Museum of American Art

Article excerpt

"Ambivalent." The word flashes briefly on-screen toward the end of Lothar Baumgarten's 1973-77 film The Origin of the Night: Amazon Cosmos, a lush, ninety-eight-minute meditation on the rain forest inspired by a Tupi myth about the division of night and day. Although active since the early '70S, the German-born Baumgarten is best known in the United States for his 1993 Guggenheim exhibition in which a stately procession of names of indigenous North American peoples (Inuit, Iroquois, Huron, Crow ...) was printed directly on the inner curves of Frank Lloyd Wright's famous rotunda. As critic Craig Owens noted, a penchant for proper nouns forms a unifying thread in Baumgarten's materially disparate oeuvre, which encompasses installation, slide projection, photography, sculpture, and text. Indeed, The Origin of the Night opens with a sequence of fifty-two names of tropical animals and plants. But it's an adjective--"ambivalent"--that lies at the heart of Baumgarten's first and only cinematic venture.

Baumgarten spent 1978 to 1980 with the Yanomami, but The Origin of the Night was shot before he'd set foot in a rain forest. It stands, therefore, as a faux document of the Amazon--one that hinges on an act of intentional misnaming. As viewers learn from the legend that scrolls on screen in its final frame, the landscape Baumgarten has captured--complete with threatening thunderclouds, mosquito-filled waters, and dense vegetation--is no virgin territory at all but a tract of woodland near the Dusseldorf airport. It is also, quire clearly, a forest of symbols. Virtually every aspect of the work calls attention to its own status as representation: Images are obviously cropped or in extreme close-up; the sound track (droning insects and birdcalls, punctuated by the occasional tribal drum) is excessively amplified. …

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