Artistic concern over the natural environment is not particularly new. Since at least the Romantic era, artists have been investigating the cost of human intervention in the natural world. Thomas Cole’s 1836 painting “Desolation,” for instance, is as vivid a depiction of post-apocalyptic environmental degradation as any vision dreamt up by Ridley Scott. With this long history of environmentalism, artists today sometimes struggle to touch the public’s nerve, which has been numbed by two hundred years of prodding on the subject.
Minneapolis artist Christine Baeumler’s images in “Amazon Visions, Vanishing Acts,” a show currently running at Minneapolis’ Form + Content gallery, are at first glance just this sort of art. In the main part of this small downtown gallery, Baeumler presents six photographic prints on metal that depict a series animal species—black caimans, river otters, howler monkeys—whose Amazon Rainforest habitats are under siege by human encroachment. The images are from travels Baeumler made last summer to the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve (an expedition, led by biologist Richard Bodmer, that was written up in the July-August issue of Audubon). This five million acres of pristine Amazon rainforest in northeastern Peru was the focus of a search for “scientific clues that will help keep it pristine into the next century,” and Baeumler’s task was to observe and make an artistic record of this real-life environmental rescue mission.
Baeumler’s up-close images of the region’s fauna are made all the more touching by the knowledge that these beautiful creatures are in imminent danger of being wiped from the fragile Amazon Rainforest ecosystem. In keeping with this reality, Baeumler has worked into the images with dark ink and paint washes that mar and obscure the animals. As ruminations on species loss and man-made destruction, these works are elegiac. Still, Baeumler’s disappearing animal images are in line with what we already know, and have long been told, about environmental degradation. Because of this, it’s easy to feel helpless in response to them. If the show stopped there, and these six works were all that “Amazon Visions” presented to us, we would likely leave the gallery with just another modern frustration that we can’t do anything about. Fortunately, though, in the rear room of the gallery Baeumler has mounted one last work — a hauntingly beautiful video that is much more difficult to forget once we walk back out into the city air.
Titled “Amazon Twilight,” it is a simple six-minute film that was made by a camera mounted on Bodmer’s ship as it moves downriver. In the scene, the sun sets overhead, and a lightly clouded sky changes from yellow to orange and pink, then gray and purple, and finally to deep indigo as night falls. In the foreground of the film, softly churning water reflects a mesmerizing rainbow of color that follows in the boat’s wake. In the middle ground is the river’s shore, a tangle of darkening trees and flora.
The power of this video is in the slow lapse of time and the subtle effects that results as the day fades. That is, as we watch the light dimming over one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, we see a gradual loss of color — a symbol perhaps of the dark deeds that mankind has done in the region. The slow and ominous movement through time is not unlike traveling into Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or into the terrible “sublime” that most Romantic artists thought resided in the dark corners of the natural world. And yet, the power of Baeumler’s video comes when we realize that as the light over the river dies, softly and with natural inevitability, this is exactly when the river comes most deafeningly alive. Once the sky is dark, and we feel the tug of dread, the river actually becomes more wildly alive with the sounds of insects, birds, and other creatures. Fireflies begin to dance over the water’s surface, and distant flashes of lightning occasionally brighten the sky. Life, the video seems to suggest, will continue, will be beautiful — even as darkness falls.
In the end, the piece makes a memorable visual rumination on the nature of our existence and our relationship to the living world. It amounts to a subtle, and unique, plea for us to remain aware of the precious, and still vibrant, life that exists in places we often are unable to see.
Image by Christine Baeumler
Michael Fallon is a guest blogger for Utne.com. He is a writer and arts administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications.