Rosa Barba, Aggregate States of Matters, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 18 minutes.

Rosa Barba, Aggregate States of Matters, 2019, 35 mm, color, sound, 18 minutes.

Rosa Barba

Parra & Romero | Madrid

Tropical glaciers are rapidly receding, and nowhere are they thinning faster, relative to their size, than in the Andes, whose ice caps shrank by nearly a third between 2000 and 2016. Glaciers are vital resources for communities in these arid regions, and their accelerated retreat, caused by warming temperatures, threatens not only the livelihood of indigenous farmers but also the entire agricultural and hydroelectric sector from Chile to Bolivia. High-altitude lagoons risk overflow as glaciers melt, but flooding will be followed by drought in the coming years. Densely populated cities such as La Paz, Bolivia, and Santiago, Chile, face an imminent risk of water scarcity.

Aggregate States of Matters, 2019, the most recent 35-mm film by the Italo-German artist Rosa Barba, was shot in Peru, in close collaboration with members of the Quechua community, whose ambivalent attitude toward the melting ice becomes clear: It brings a short-term bonanza of plentiful water but also threatens social breakdown under the pressures of shifting demographics, resource depletion, and the extinction of native fish species. Transgenic soybeans have already replaced local crops that are reserved for export, while the gospel of individualism is preached by evangelical churches, whose rapid expansion is tearing asunder indigenous communities. Combined with interviews the artist conducted with climate experts and hydrologists, the Quechuan testimonials waft across the screen as text blocks, at times crowding out the image, at times acquiring a sculptural quality.

The artist also foregrounds a small ceremony related to the Quyllurit’i festival celebrated annually in the Peruvian highlands. The festival used to involve the cutting of large blocks of ice, thought to hold healing powers. Noticing the retreat of the glaciers, celebrants now no longer bring ice down to the valley. The vanishing glaciers could be construed as a metaphor for the ebbing of traditions, the death of elders, and the slow violence of watching a cohesive world gradually come undone. Though made from documentary elements, Aggregate States of Matters is not a documentary, but rather an inquiry into the problem of the representation of events, such as climate change, whose size and scale place them in the category of the sublime. Juxtaposing images of majestic ice-covered peaks with aerial footage of high-altitude lagoons or mountain ranges partially obscured by clouds, the film forces us to confront a paradox: Nature dwarfs humanity; how can humanity have so large an impact on the natural world? Is our political inability to tackle environmental collapse ultimately due to an aesthetic failing? When we look at climate change through the lens of the sublime, what is obscured?

Speaking about her work during the opening, the artist referenced Gertrude Stein’s comparison of the lines drawn by Cubists and the landscape as seen from above, and described the aerial perspective as a threshold between cinema, drawing, and 3D modeling. The sense of unbelonging is heightened by the unearthly soundtrack by the German musician Jan St. Werner, who worked with field recordings of the crackling ice heard every two to five minutes in Peru’s Pastoruri glacier and the thumping sounds of the pipage running to the lake below like a Land-art installation made of tubular forms.

To say that Barba is staying with the trouble is an understatement. In Aggregate States of Matters the tension between the unspoken grammar of the Anthropocene art film and a more radical deviation from familiar cultural scripts comes very much to the fore; the artist’s grainy 35-mm footage seems at once to mimic and to contest contemporary art’s tendency to romanticize rapidly disappearing landscapes, drone footage, and the overwhelming vastness of human activity. Eschewing the sublime rhetoric of astonishment, admiration, and awe and straying from the conventions of documentary might lead to a loss of conceptual coherence—when is a breakdown a somatic breakthrough?—but Aggregate States of Matters does not enter this global visual monologue to engage in conversation. Instead, by foregrounding the graininess produced by the photosensitive chemicals film is itself made of, the work makes palpable the fact that cinema can only confront climate change by acknowledging its own representational inadequacy.