On one of the hottest days in June, I walked across the city to Leeds Arts University. Inside Blenheim Walk Gallery, a single room housed We Live, Like Trees, Inside the Footsteps of Our Ancestors, a group exhibition navigating what it means to exist in and with our natural environments. Curated by Dr Mariana Cunha and Dr Marianna Tsionki, the installation borrows its title from the first lines of a poem by Vito Apüshana, ‘Kataa—Ououta (To Live—To Die)’:
Mioushii wayaa ma\’akaa saain wunuu, sulu\’upuna
Nouchikii na wapuulerua janakanat.
We live, like trees,
inside the footsteps of our ancestors.
Spanning sculpture, mixed-media and audio-video installation, the exhibition traverses colonial legacies and ecological research. It considers the value of nonhuman life and, like Apüshana’s poem, asks us to think more tenderly about our human-nature entanglements.
The exhibition opens with a research-based project by Marianne Hoffmeister Castro that critically examines animality. In ‘A Study of Beaverness or How (not) to be a World-Destroyer’ (2020), a pair of videos depict a hand, painted up to the knuckles in bright orange paint that emulates the iron-rich coating of a beaver’s teeth. On an eight-minute loop, fingers score against birch, drawing up layers of soft wood underneath. On the opposing screen, an arm reaches through a thickly furred cloth to pick up a large branch. The sound is hollow, a dry noise akin to scraping nails on plywood.
Castro’s work captures a mundane level of pain and destruction. In 1946, the North American beaver was introduced into Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, a land deemed empty and sterile, in order to re-establish commercial fur trading. Without predators, the species expanded and occupied most streams, resulting in mass flooding in dams and rivers. The Chilean and Argentinian governments consequently responded with a severe eradication plan that promoted hunting, beaver meat diets and the fur trade.
As if in reaction to this, Castro presents ‘The Book of Gnaws’ (2021), a 120-page pyrogravure book. Holes in the shape of bites are burnt into pages, overlaid on top of each other to create a tapestry of chomping and carving in a playful approximation of beaver-marking. The artist instils the animals with a critical agency, as viewers are invited to speculate on colonial legacy, cohabitation and how best to empathise with our semiaquatic neighbours.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, Renata Padovan explores the aftermath of intervention, focusing on the infrastructure projects imposed on the Amazon forest. In ‘Irreversible’ (2019), three voile fabrics hang from the ceiling. Photographs of spindly dead trees are printed onto the gauzy white textile, as Padovan draws attention to the actions of Brazil’s 1981 military dictatorship. The period saw the construction of the Balbina hydroelectric dam and created one of the biggest ecological disasters in the region, flooding 2,360 square kilometres of forest which then decomposed in the reservoir.
The construction of the dam on the Uatumã River is known in Brazil as a ‘pharaonic work’. As Philip M. Fearnside writes, ‘Like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, these massive public works demand the effort of an entire society to complete but bring virtually no economic returns’. Instead, they serve the short-term interests of construction contracts and commercial power transmission. In this case, the dam supplied electricity to Manus, a city that had grown so much that whilst the plant was under construction, other alternatives had to be sought mid-project. Padovan’s drapery captures this commodification, where the print progressively fades with each hanging cloth. She documents the legacy of destruction, highlighting the loss of habitats and vulnerable floodplains that still exist almost forty years later.
The fragmentary condition is further explored by Jeannette Muñoz in ‘Punchucaví’ (2014-ongoing), a video installation composed of 16mm images that move from scenes filled with plumes of smoke to quiet moments of local fishing activities. Puchuncaví, a town in the Valparaiso province in Chile, was once an Indigenous site, known for its advanced Inca road system. Today, it is host to copper refineries and steel power plants. As Ela Bittencourt notes, Muñoz shot her film partly in a Chilean spa town with natural baths, where nature has been so cruelly exploited that waters were contaminated, despite visitors still using them. The resulting camera work shakes, framing a world that has grown tired with the weight of itself, in a space where humans have ‘mixed our labour with the earth’, where it seems the point of return is no longer possible.
At the back of the gallery Maya Watanabe’s ‘Stasis’ (2018) is screened in a trapezoid den. I slink into the dark space, finding a circular cushion at the corner of the room. It stands a metre away from a projection that gives off the soft sound of dripping water. The video installation observes biostasis: the ability of an organism to tolerate environmental changes without having to adapt. In this case, Watanabe focuses on a crucian carp. A camera looms over a silvery body, honing in so close that its gills appear as mushroom caps or the clouded hood of a jellyfish. The film travels over the carp, moving to its stomach, its pink and spotted scales like a freckled wrist. The sound of melting ice increases in frequency, before zooming in on an eye and then pearling to white, revealing the ice chips that have induced the cryogenic preservation.
Watanabe filmed the work at De Waag’s 17th century anatomical theatre, a space dedicated to experiments and observation, made famous by Rembrandt’s 1632 painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’. The dynamics of the amphitheatre emerge in shooting this spectacle. I imagine the various faces that lean over behind the lens, like the leering heads of the baroque oil painting. A performance takes place, as the fish activates its regulating system in a state that hovers between life and death. Carps can survive temperatures of below zero degrees Celsius, stopping their bodily metabolic processes. Their cells’ energy decreases to the bare minimum to keep tissues alive. Like Castro, Watanabe suggests a connection between human and animal. Watanabe, however, uses the real organism rather than creating a representation. The ethics and the implication of this – the lab conditions needed to simulate such conditions – is undiscerned and perhaps a little questionable. The work looks to open the self to absence, framing what it means to endure in unendurable conditions.
We Live, Like Trees, Inside the Footsteps of Our Ancestors is a series of consequences and possibilities. I left the gallery feeling like an expansive net had enmeshed me, wet with condensation, bundling me up with fur, scales and the bark of great encroaching trees. Through video, audio and textile, these works blur the boundary between speculation and memory. There is a sense of something being preserved, erring toward an archival work that suspends linearity. Simultaneously, however, a viewer feels a sense of responsibility for the devastation at hand. As Raymond Williams writes, ‘We have to look at all our products and activities, good and bad, to see the relationships between them which are our own real relationships. If we alienate the living processes of which we are a part, we end, though unequally by alienating ourselves’.
We Live, Like Trees, Inside the Footsteps of Our Ancestors continues at Blenheim Walk Gallery, Leeds Arts University, until 22 July.
Sylvia Carpenter is a writer and poet based in York.
This review is supported by Leeds Arts University.