Cecilia Vicuna: Brain Forest Quipu; Richard Mosse: Broken Specter review – the worn out world | Art and design
JTwo vast fabric drapes trail their hems along the floor at opposite ends of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Each is created from cascading lengths of flimsy cotton and gauze, unspun wool, knotted rope, tattered netting and linen – all white. Swaying lightly in the shifting air, they look like ghostly remnants of a once-grand culture.
That’s exactly what they are, in a sense: modern versions of the ancient quipu, an Andean method of recording everything from memories to messages to cosmological maps using structures of strands, knots and textiles. The Chilean artist, poet and activist Cecilia Vicuna (b. 1948) is best known for these quipu recreations. Usually they are smaller and worked in brilliant colors, but here she commemorates the violent destruction of entire territories belonging to indigenous peoples from Brazil to Colombia to Chile. The drapes rise to the full height of the room, 27 meters high, in all their spectral pallor.
At first, the associations are made with real materials. With old wedding dresses, veils and sails from ships, with fishing nets and trailing bandages, sheets and shrouds, sheets of gold – some of which sparkle – and the banners and flags of old armies. There is the humble allusion to the linen fluttering on a rope, but also to the tents and pavilions and the massive weavings carried out by entire communities.
But one of the drapes is looser and more easily penetrated, and once inside, looking up, there are the compelling accents of the rainforest, vast trees converging in dizzying vistas above among the daylight flakes. And everything hangs on something that looks like a spider’s web or a dream catcher. Around you the bands fall like trunks or vines, some of them wrapping around curious objects pulled from the Thames by local Latinas – mussel shells, bones, pottery shards washed by the rhythms of River.
Woven into it all is a sonic element of voices, birds, forest echoes, field recordings and musical compositions, encompassing sudden silences, led by Colombian composer Ricardo Gallo. These sounds seem to come from the heights. You can move around in it, as with the curtains, with an extraordinary feeling of intimacy which is a feat in such a large canyon as this one.
Vicuña placed documentary interviews with indigenous protesters on screens throughout the building. This is done discreetly. It feels one piece with the whole installation, which is highly political at its core and yet airy and delicate in its nuance. He humanizes the industrial height of the Turbine Hall and softens its atmosphere, a monumental work that is both soft and strong.
Almost inevitably, I heard a visitor dismiss it as a pile of old rags, but so it is in its elegiac subtlety: the worn-out world, the degraded culture, the tattered fabric of life. What could happen – has already happened – when the living green earth that sustains humanity is burned or killed and perishes into nothing but ghostly white memories.
Across the Thames, at 180 The Strand, the Irish conceptual photographer Richard Mosse went hard the other way in surprising color with the exact same subject. Mosse’s billboard-sized photographs – of refugee camps, African armies, border skirmishes – are rightly praised for their terrible and even terrifying beauty. Lately, he’s been spending time in the Amazon, sending drones over forests to record poisonings, illegal logging and fires.
The resulting aerial images are literally incredible: dense vegetation (or its aftermath) registering in brilliant pinks, blues and purples, turquoise rivers meandering through reds as rich as a New York autumn. England, close-ups of Venus flytraps glistening gold in the sun. The eye registers sensational glory – and cognitive dissonance. What you see is strange, impossible and yet metaphorically true.
Just as Mosse used military-grade thermographic cameras in war-torn Congo, he uses advanced satellite technology to record eco-crime in the Amazon Basin. So, for example, the more intense blues of a typical sawmill indicate fresh, illegally harvested wood that will be mixed with the faded blue of older wood for export.
And the beautiful purple island surrounded by rainbows of psychedelic pixie dust is a last patch of growing forest surrounded by the scorched dust of industrial deforestation where the Brazilian government has razed land to build hydroelectric power plants. Take a good look and you can actually make out charred, skeletal trees.
Mosse turns to black and white for his outstanding photographs of indigenous activists standing alone among once-beautiful glades, but also of impoverished miners illegally poisoning rivers with mercury to feed on a few handfuls of gold. He is still alive on both sides of human tragedy. And his enormous close-ups of a single leaf or a single insect evoke horror on a macro-micro scale.
The centerpiece of his latest project is Shattered Specter, an epic four-screen installation that almost defies comprehension with its devastating vision of ecological disaster. Fires rage in the forests, woods explode in horrific thunderclaps, fireballs rush through the clouds. Trucks try to make their way through the black smoke, flames and smoke are shown up close and high in the sky. The soundtrack, by Ben Frost, is so apocalyptic it could be the end of the world: a perfect match for the conflagration raging towards you. No disaster movie has ever been so real.
Mosse merges reportage and fine art photography for unique effect. You study his images as much for their knowledge as for their visual impact. And it’s no coincidence that 180 The Strand, which focuses on the convergence of art and technology, also features new cinematic installations by digital artists. all universal next to.
A dancer duets with a robot that mimics his movements while simultaneously transforming into other robots. Multi-colored, life-size creatures covered in glowing fibers twirl along a revolving catwalk. A vast creature, something like a yeti, strides into the future while transforming into balloons, clouds, and architectural structures before your enchanted eyes.
This ever-changing figure is reminiscent of Umberto Boccioni’s futuristic sculpture of a walking man, and everything here takes up art (or life) with such fascinating ingenuity that it feels like the dawn of a new kind of magic lantern. There’s even a screen where your own rapid arm movements can conjure a rainforest on screen: humanity’s disaster reversed by humanity, like a miraculous dream.
Star ratings (out of five)
Cecilia Vicuna: Brain Forest Quipu ★★★★
Richard Mosse: Shattered Specter ★★★★★
Universal All: Life Forms ★★★★★