The Lost Nature

Gabriel Bogossian


Laura Huertas Millán, Journey to a Land Otherwise Known (2011). Courtesy of the artist and Videobrasil Historical Collection.

In 1956, the Cuban poet José Lezama Lima (1910–1976) published Pascal and Poetry, the first of two essays where the same fragment by Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) resonates as a statement on the illuminative role of poetry: “Once true nature is lost, anything can be nature”. Known for the use of imprecise quotes as a form of intertextual dialogue with other authors, the essay by Lezama Lima defines poetry as a way to overcome the Pascalian in-between (or, as he calls it, “entre-deux”) and to produce new synthesis, without fearing obscure or paradoxical formulations. In the face of subjects ignorant of their own origin and on the infinite surrounding them—and ignorant of their own nature, placed between the infinite and nothing—the poem would be capable of giving back, in the form of images, a second nature of sorts. Poetry, in this case, would be a way of restituting knowledge about the once lost human nature.

A few years later, in Poetic Self-portrait, Lezama Lima resumes Pascal’s fragment in order to affirm, as an answer to the French philosopher, “total arbitrariness of image” in the face of nature’s determinism. More mature, the poet postulates in this moment, “in the face of pessimism for the lost nature, the invincible happiness in humankind of the rebuilt image”. Since the “fearful Pascalian entre-deux can only be fulfilled with the Image”, images, as restitution, become pure presence—the matter of poem itself.

Lezama Lima explores ambiguity and obscurity in language (we could also say of subjects) as a way of organizing his poetic system, where the image functions as mediator between Poetry and History. He refers to literature, but the same poetic operation can also inform the medium of moving image; both work as mediations with the world, at the same time resulting in and stimulating imagination. Moving image can also be conceived as a restitution of sorts, capable of, by visuality, rescuing and revealing contents otherwise forgotten or deliberately erased.[1]

In the Latin American context, the idea of an audiovisual practice as an exercise of restitution through images finds an echo in the politicization that characterizes, more or less intensely, part of the region’s artistic production starting in the 1960’s. Video production, in particular, is a fertile field to the elaboration of this exercise. Since its origin, video has been used to capture a certain utopian perspective. Video was introduced in Latin America in the late 1970’s, when many of the region’s countries were under dictatorships. In its first years, video filled the ideal precariousness to its revolutionary ambitions—for those aiming to take regular broadcasting by storm or for those who wanted to create new and independent networks of production and circulation of works.
From these effervescent origins, the Videobrasil Festival was created in 1983 to serve as a showcase for the growing production of video in Brazil. The Festival first opened to video from the geopolitical South, and then to other media and formats, reaching its 21st edition in 2019 as a biennial of contemporary art. Conceived as an archive to preserve the video works that participated in the various editions of the festival, the Videobrasil Historical Collection nowadays includes over 1400 pieces—video works, performance records and documentation of debates and talks. With a significant fragment of Brazilian video history, the Collection is the biggest video collection with public access of Brazil.

The Lost Nature, a video program with works from the Videobrasil Historical Collection that I curated and presented during the Screen City Biennial 2019, Ecologies – lost, found and continued, brings together a selection of Latin-American video, a point of interest for the Videobrasil collection. With four video pieces, the selection is centered on contemporary production, with one work from the 1990’s: O Espírito da TV, by Vincent Carelli. Carelli, filmmaker and activist for indigenous rights, and the founder of Vídeo nas Aldeias, documents the first moments when the Waiãpi, a group from the middle of the Amazon, recognize their own reflection shown on a video screen.
Everything in the piece is paradigmatic: the Waiãpi were contacted in the beginning of the 1970’s, when the Brazilian government promoted an important expansion of the productive frontier into indigenous territories. As a consequence, first contact was made with indigenous peoples in different states of the country. In this period, it was common to hear descriptions of how indigenous confidence was shattered upon realizing that we, the others, were numerous. Carelli’s piece serves as a double restitution: the Waiãpi see not only themselves, but also the image of other indigenous peoples; the recognition of likeness—the identification of “indigeneity” as a shared quality—widens the limits of belonging and the sense of community.

Jugando (2015) by Andres Bedoya, is the piece that most closely relates to Pasolini’s restitutions in the selection. A fragment of a rural world in the process of disappearing, the video—composed by a sequence of photographs—shows a group of children playing with the head of a dead goat. Although somehow violent, the children’s gestures are not cruel; the images seem to come from another time, when proximity with death was a daily routine. The images depict a society in which close proximity to other living beings—animals and plants—gave a broader perspective, and brought life closer to the things that sustain it.

The use of image as restitution carries the perception of an absence and the desire for some kind of return. The relationship with the past is evident: it is the memory of the loss that orients the elaboration of an image in the present. However, the past comes refracted; memory is, after all, a construction, always reviewed under the circumstances of our current position. In the same way, the restitution operated by Ximena Garrido-Lecca’s Contornos (2014) and Laura Huertas Millán’s Journey to a Land Otherwise Known (2011) employs the evocation of a certain territory—the homeland—to highlight the connections between past and present.

In Garrido-Lecca’s case, the evocation belongs to the sphere of the individual experience. In voice-over, the narrator speaks about her hometown—a region historically known for its archeological richness, now being destroyed by the biggest mining operation in Peru. Despite the personal perspective that guides the work, the artistic operation condenses time, bringing together different periods of economic exploration. Image of the restitution produced in parallel with an ongoing loss, Contornos carries the constant tension of this double temporality.

In Laura Huertas Millan’s work, temporal layers mix in order to compose a single testimony, where distinct voices and epochs imbricate. The layers include fragments of texts by different explorers visiting South America during colonial times, and video shots from a tropical greenhouse of Lille, France.This assembly reinforces the expropriator character of the colonial company on the American continent. The two elements indicate an ambivalent relationship with birthplace, and the restituted image is marked by nostalgia and distance. With this theme, Millán reiterates a tradition of Latin American intellectuals and artists who have produced images of their home countries from overseas since the 19th century[2].

As the art field incorporates decolonial perspectives and reorganizes artistic narratives, it becomes more common to find aspects of our colonial history, and the contemporary manifestations of this shadowy heritage, as the subject of art works and initiatives within the art world. In some cases, poetic investigations are almost exclusively devoted to reflect about these characters, showing the persistence of this heritage and the need for restoration—even if it unfolds exclusively on a symbolic level. These works operate in front of a history marked by violent disputes over territory and the possession of land. Nowadays in Brazil, the present seems obscure. After the cultural boom during the first fifteen years of the 21st century, we saw a significant rise of indigenous and black voices in the moving image production in Brazil. This trend has diminished with economic restraints suffocating state-led funding initiatives, which historically were fundamental to the development of cinema and the arts, and to the flourishing of academic and institutional spaces of validation. If left between artistic and cinematographic markets, marginalized film creators will have to cater to the general public’s interest and background to have their works shown. We still are, as Bourdieu once said, “three or four symbolic wars behind”[3].

In consonance with the aforementioned poetic strategies—which characterize part of the contemporary production of the region interested in the political subject—architect and urbanist Paulo Tavares develops his practice as a way to produce noise around some standard representations. Like Vincent Carelli, Tavares’s work is in dialogue with the indigenous world. The images produced by Tavares are a kind of answer or reaction to the use of images as an instrument of domination and control. In different projects he has identified and analyzed key groups of historical images related to indigenous groups and their territories from photographs in magazines, old and new satellite images, and contemporary audiovisual documents, among others. The collection of images has also mobilized efficient strategies of circulation and has been useful in contexts of dispute, where Tavares has been pragmatic in building strategic partnerships with organizations and institutions from different fields.

Forest Law (2014), a collaboration with Swiss artist Ursula Biemann, retrospectively approaches the circumstances and the statements mobilized when the Amazon forest was considered a subject with rights for the first time in an Ecuadorian court case. The work resumes the moment, mapping the perspectives of those taken as the other, human or forest, in a system of law historically incapable of politically legitimate statements—and thus becoming permanent outlaws under post-colonial rule. In this sense, Forest Law brings about the pure lezamesque restitution: there, after all that was lost, the forest reemerges as a complex, renewed sign, capable of mobilizing a plethora of meanings, new and old, and pointing towards a new horizon of disputes.

In the present context, as the Brazilian government starts a new round of deforestation in the Amazon and the president repeatedly threatens the existence of indigenous territories, we experience the return of a concept born within the Brazilian military in the 19 century, which demands the occupation of the Amazon as a way to guarantee Brazil’s territorial domination. In this moment, the poetic/political restitution embraced by Tavares is obfuscated by the intense light of the forest on fire. It is important to dig deeper into the images of our past in order to create the conditions for legislation that will effectively protect our natural heritage.



[1] And, after all, in the digital world, both are in fact texts.

[2] Esteban Echeverría, a key figure of Argentinian romanticism, said that some of his novels were conceived in French. In the 20th century, the plumb years in Latin America produced a new generation of exiled, who characteristically created a new restorative image of their homeland. Caetano Veloso, in albums such as Caetano Veloso (1971) and Transa (1972), is a good example of this moment. 

[3] Pierre Bourdieu, Hans Haacke, Free Exchange, Polity Press, Cambridge (1995), p. 20.



GABRIEL BOGOSSIAN (b. 1983 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) is deputy curator of Associação Cultural Videobrasil since 2016 and independent editor and translator. Since 2015 he has researched the representation of indigenous peoples in Brazil, integrating the production of images of contemporary art, journalism, and social movements. Bogossian curated the exhibitions Nada levarei quando morrer, aqueles que me devem cobrarei no inferno (Galpão VB, São Paulo, 2017), O museu inexistente n.1 (Funarte, São Paulo, 2017), project developed with the artist Victor Leguy, Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright (Galpão VB, São Paulo, 2016), solo show by Akram Zaatari, Cruzeiro do Sul (Paço das Artes, São Paulo, 2015), and Transperformance 3: Corpo estranho (Oi Futuro, Rio de Janeiro, 2014), with Luisa Duarte. He contributes to Traço, Artelogie and BRAVO! magazines, and translated into Portuguese Americanism and Fordism, by Antonio Gramsci (Editora Hedra, 2008), and the novel Quiet Chaos, by Sandro Veronese (Editora Rocco, 2007), among others.