Lothar Baumgarten (1944, Rheinsberg, Germany – 2018, Berlin, Germany) inherited his knowledge of ethnographic methods and aesthetics, as well as his interest in the European relationship to indigenous peoples and cultures, from his anthropologist father. Meanwhile, he shared an awareness of power structures and their connection to epistemological systems with some of the conceptual artists of his generation. The combination of these concerns and viewpoints allowed Baumgarten to take a step back and form an analytical perspective towards Eurocentric knowledge building. This, and his actual experience living with the Yanomami.
From his earliest works, Baumgarten was concerned with systems of information and the translation of ideas across cultures and time. The political implications of these processes were also central to his work and thinking. He continuously interrogated one of the most complex subjects in Western history: the exploitation of indigenous cultures, lands, and bodies. Baumgarten scrutinized scientific methodologies and collections, which he could only see as being part of the colonial violence perpetrated by “discoverers”, “conquerors”, and explorers. This is evident in works such as Unsettled Objects (1968-69), a projection of 81 slides taken at the Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford. The photos of museological vitrines containing ethnographic artifacts are overlaid with the artist’s own text, a list of adjectives such as displayed and imagined, celebrated and lost, collected and forgotten, valued and typified, polished and ignored.
In 1978 and 1979, Lothar Baumgarten lived with the Kashorawë and the Yapitawë-theri, two Yanomami villages, in the Venezuelan-Brazilian border region. During this period, the artist produced a series of films, photographs, and audio recordings documenting the environment and daily life he was experiencing. At the same time, he collected drawings in his sketchbooks, creating a graphic dialogue between the artist’s notes and those made by the Yanomami. These 18 months of coexistence in the Amazon changed both Baumgarten’s view of the world and his art practice.
Baumgarten's work Monument for the Native Societies of South America, originally presented at the Documenta in Kassel, in 1982, will also be shown at the 34th Bienal. The installation consists of a wall painting displaying the names of South American indigenous peoples – some alive, some extinguished; all endangered or already exterminated by colonial violence, European diseases, and the destruction of the forest caused by extractivist economy. The are painted on the concrete floor of the modernist pavilion implanted in Ibirapuera Park, a land that was once Tupi territory. In Tupi Guarani, ibirá means tree and the suffix puera designates something that belongs to the past. Ibirapuera can be translated as an old tree or as rotten wood, but it can also make us think about our modernist cities, and everything that our urban way of life has transformed into thingsfrom the past.
Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Greenberg’s Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).