Lothar Baumgarten

Lothar Baumgarten’s recent installation/exhibition “El Dorado” evoked the fabled “gold country” of the “New World” where the conquistadors of the “Old World” hoped to discover an endless supply of treasure as a reward, so to speak, for all their troubles. The installation conjured up the misery-filled and ongoing history of the meeting of these two worlds, the brutal clash of their very different cultures and value systems that resulted in the infiltration and occupation of the “New” by the “Old World” and its subsequent transformation into a “third world” region. What has remained intact is the veil of naiveté covering this reality, the romantic yearning for the exotic innocence of the “New World,” the secret dream of El Dorado.

Baumgarten has approached this dream cautiously, without presenting it in an obviously or simplistically political mode. His position is less that of a seemingly incorruptible ethnologist than of an involved observer who is aware of his own foreignness and in this awareness attempts to assimilate the foreignness of the other. (Baumgarten in fact spent some time living in southeastern Venezuela among the Yanomami.) He does not work with analytic descriptions of difference but instead uses artistic, poetic formulations of what is foreign, emphasizing its otherness, presenting it as a reality that can be approached at many different levels and with the requisite distance.

Baumgarten does this by means of a highly cultivated graphic design, the primary elements of which are text and photography. In the five upper galleries of the Kunsthalle he composed frieze-like sets of the names of rivers that flow through the Guiana Highlands between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers—“El Dorado” country. Against the white ground of the wall were vertical and horizontal arrangements of these names in red, blue, yellow, and black. The clarity of the typeface transformed the mystery of the names into icons, logical images that in their very content—the names of the rivers—cast doubt on the inherent logic of our naming and occupying culture. Here, even the “Aare,” the name of the river that flows past the museum in Bern, took on new meaning, for Baumgarten had smuggled it into his South American panorama, thus removing it from the context of things taken for granted and into one where everything is questioned. In such a context, typography becomes the vehicle for the mystery of the name that turns into the euphony of the word, a bit of concrete poetry in which meaning and presentation are identical. The incantation of river-names crescendoed in the large, central gallery, forming a chance composition in which the color, sound-gestalt, and position of the words coalesced as a floating, moving configuration, like a shorthand notation for a familiar but essentially ungraspable terrain, the dream of a reality.

On the ground floor, the poetic stream of word-compositions came to a stop, but the theme continued in the documentary medium of photography: a rather ornamentally conceived frieze of photographs of La Gran Sabana (a heavily forested, mineral-rich region of southeastern Venezuela), interrupted by a reddish, earth-colored rectangle. The mystery of foreignness could not be penetrated even by the supposed realism of photography, which only heightened the poetic power of the preceding word-realities. In a separate room Baumgarten created a sculptural environment that took this poetry a step further and evoked a metaphorical landscape. Strewn over the floor were broken pieces of tropical wood, a mass of jumbled cables that sprouted into a cluster of blue and yellow light bulbs, and dinner plates decorated with sketches of an imaginary geography. This landscape was imbued with an atmosphere that seemed to echo with the names of the rivers.

Reviewed by Max Wechsler.

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.