Art and Architecture
Solange Fabião’s Amazônia (Projecting on Black)
By Bill Jeffries
The cawing of the birds echoes, but from where? Solange Fabião’s Amazônia (Projecting on Black) is a huge cinematic project consisting of fourteen sections that run almost ten hours in total length. The exhibition you see here is comprised of three of the fourteen sections that have been selected by Fabião. Fabião’s film breaks with the history of cinema, the entirety of which has been premised on projecting onto a white screen. The conventional wisdom that the white of the screen should be as white as possible – one buys special, expensive paint that will better reflect the image back to viewers – is overthrown here. Fabião’s film is projected onto black, very much as the earth, half of which is in darkness at any given time, receives the sun’s light thrown onto what would otherwise be a very dark ‘screen’. Her film also mirrors aspects of the history of minimalism in art.Read Full Text
By Bill Jeffries
The cawing of the birds echoes, but from where? Solange Fabião’s Amazônia (Projecting on Black) is a huge cinematic project consisting of fourteen sections that run almost ten hours in total length. The exhibition you see here is comprised of three of the fourteen sections that have been selected by Fabião. Fabião’s film breaks with the history of cinema, the entirety of which has been premised on projecting onto a white screen. The conventional wisdom that the white of the screen should be as white as possible – one buys special, expensive paint that will better reflect the image back to viewers – is overthrown here. Fabião’s film is projected onto black, very much as the earth, half of which is in darkness at any given time, receives the sun’s light thrown onto what would otherwise be a very dark ‘screen’. Her film also mirrors aspects of the history of minimalism in art. The Amazon itself may be ‘maximal’, but what she has done is record its life in as minimalist a way as is possible. In doing so she has forged a link between early minimalist projects, especially the black square of Malevich, that can now be reconsidered in relation to the rhythms of nature and how they might be represented in film. She has, regardless of one’s interpretation, filled the black square of Malevich with the life of the Amazon, gently pouring ‘content’ back into the early Russian attempt at bringing philosophical purity to the visual art of the early twentieth century. At the centre of this work, but off to one side when viewing it, is the question of why cinema, once out of its projector-lamp infancy, continued its exclusive use of the white screen.
In the history of cinema, Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo is probably the most famous Amazonian adventure. Even for those who have seen that film multiple times, however, the question remains, did we learn anything about the Amazon from it? The answer is not much; so little, in fact, that we can learn more about life in the Amazon basin from Herzog’s intriguing book about the making of the film. Solange Fabião has done something so very different from Herzog that it is amazing that the same river basin was the site of both projects. Herzog is famously maniacal, but I have to wonder
whether Amazônia is not as crazily ambitious and obsessive as any of Herzog’s cinematic (mis)adventures. Fabião has created a magical cinematic experience by letting the Amazon Basin speak for itself – her Amazônia (Projecting on Black) is the closest anyone can get to ‘being there’ and watching the rhythms of nature without making the trip. As she has captured it, Amazonian nature is both very slow and very fast. The sunset is almost instantaneous; rain showers pass through the scene as if in a hurry to get somewhere else. The sound of raindrops on tree leaves is percussive, yet soothing. But nothing much changes, the pace perhaps reflecting the Amazon’s gentle downward slope toward the sea.
The drama of the Amazon is left intact by Fabião in an age when so many artists pride themselves on their ‘interventions’, forgetting that intervening in the earth’s ecology is now an ethical dilemma. Fabião has granted the ecology of the Amazon the first and last word in what has to be the least interventional film ever made. What we see and hear in the film is extraordinary, but the fact that there is never a trace of humanity or the human ‘footprint’ in ten hours of cinema is an equally extraordinary achievement.
Fabião’s Amazônia is firmly in the world of art – no one outside of the art world would ever conceive of such a massive, yet understated project. It is a true documentary in the same way as Andy Warhol’s Empire – in both films the camera watches something, as if it was a witness. The history of real time documentary is rich, but less rich when it comes to filming nature unfolding in front of an unmoving camera. There are no documentary-style interviews, so the larger context for what you see in the films is provided by facts about the place you are seeing. There is no time-lapse, speeded-up nature. Fabião’s frame rate is nature’s frame rate. The facts about the Amazon River, in past decades committed to memory even in North American schools, are now not only forgotten, but also overshadowed by the ubiquitous presence of a certain retailer with the same name – which also renders the Web virtually useless for researching the river, as 99% of the ‘hits’ will be for the retailer. The forest you see in Solange Fabião’s film is the world’s largest source of fresh water; approximately a fifth of the fresh water returning to the sea flows from the Amazon. How much water? The quantity is a mind boggling 175,000 cubic meters per second. The rain showers that pass through Fabião’s films are beautiful, and not exactly rare: the average rainfall across the Amazon Basin is 230 cm a year, and the wettest areas receive an average of 600 cm a year. Compare that with Vancouver’s ‘rainforest’ average of about 70 cm a year. Size wise, the Amazon River is about as long as Canada is wide – 6500 km. The Amazon Basin’s 7,000,000 square km are comprised of about 5,000,000 square km of tropical rainforest and 2,000,000 of woodland. The Basin encompasses 40% of South America, and the mouth of the river is 320 km across.
Amazônia has a symphonic as well as a spiritual quality. In North America we are accustomed to the voices of the forest going silent once the animals realize humans are present. In Amazônia, the visual absence of humanity, although we know that there is a film crew there somewhere, is reinforced by the presence of animal sounds seeming to confirm that no humans are present. Yet, for all the noise, it seems quiet, and the quiet is, perhaps, less characteristic of the Amazon’s deeper social history: before Europeans arrived in 1542 it is estimated that ten million people lived in the basin, compared to 200,000 indigenous people today.
Fabião’s film raises questions that many people are thinking about, but that not enough people are willing to yield to. With earth’s human population about to reach seven billion, many people assume that disaster is looming simply because the population growth from one billion to seven has been accomplished by using energy reserves that had accumulated over hundreds of millions of years, reserves that will be gone within another hundred years. The resulting disaster will have been brought about on what is, for all we know, the best of all planets in the universe, and it will cause immeasurable pain and suffering. The question this raises for me is: Should all artists stop ‘expressing themselves’ and collectively make exclusively what SFU faculty member Denise Oleksijczuk once called ‘Ecological Art’. Vancouver’s reputation as a Green City may well have some merit, but no one, so far as I know, has tried to extend our greenness to a coordinated shift in exhibition programming in which ecology would be a city-wide cultural focus. There is always someone who, at their ecological and aesthetic peril, will say “it’s boring”. Maybe they’re right, maybe we do need more self-expression, but for me, I’d prefer to see more art like Solange Fabião’s, art that lets nature speak to us, the self-expression of the natural world being not only more interesting much of the time, but arguably much more important. Vancouver artists often cite Robert Smithson’s links to the city as a source of cultural pride, but Smithson’s ecological focus is not the major theme of the art in Vancouver – it should be and Fabião reminds us of one way to make the commitment to ecology while reconsidering the nature of cinema, both as a form and in its function. 
 I refer to Amazônia as a film; it is, to be precise, fourteen high definition videos. Amazônia was shot over several seasons, wet and dry, in 2006 and 2007. The completed work is dated 2008.
 The previous screening in the Pacific Northwest, also of these three sections, was at Western Bridge in Seattle in 2008, as part of exhibition Light Seeking Light. The artist’s ideal screening, which has yet to happen, would have all fourteen showing, but broken up in four adjoining galleries, so viewers could walk from one environment to another.
 Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless, the English title of the 2004 German book of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo diary.
 Her section tiles for the parts we are showing cover both the date and time of day 210607 sunrise, 220607 sunset, 250607 sunset: which is to say June 2007.
 Gentle is an understatement – 3200 km inland, at Iquitos, Peru, the Amazon is only 100 meters above sea level.
 I used the ‘Project Amazonas’ site as a source of Amazon information: http://www.projectamazonas.org/amazon-facts.
 These sections of Amazônia were shot near the Brazil side of the Rio Negro.
 Conceived with the working title Ecological Art, Lost Illusions: Recent Landscape Art, took place at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1991. Catalogue text by Denise Oleksijczuk, works by Rasheed Araeen, Eleanor Bond, Deborah Bright, Rodney Graham, Renée Green, Edgar Heap of Birds, John Miller, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun and Jeff Wall.
 The SFU Gallery showed Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers in the autumn of 2010; Jordan intervenes, but in the image plane, rather than in or with the earth. His book, Running the Numbers makes the case for raising ecological awareness better than any other art book.
 Exceptions include Evan Lee’s photo work Stain, much of Jeff Wall’s work from the 1980s and ‘90s, & Jerry Pethick’s Time Top sculpture, to cite three obvious examples.
 The entire question of the link between nature and art was perhaps best summed up by Rachel Carson when accepting the 1952 National Book Award for ‘The Sea Around Us’: “If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
 The Amazönia production team: Audio: Samir El-Shaer; Audio Assistant: Eduardo Rassi; Camera: Maguila; Camera Assistant: Marcio Silveira; Production: Andre Luis Carvalho; Post-Production: Daniel Hartnett