Begun while Baumgarten was a student at the Kunstakademie, Karlsruhe (1968) and continued during his later studies at the Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf (1969-71), I Prefer it There Better than in Westphalia, Eldorado (Candide, Voltaire) reflects processes of careful observation and analysis of nature which the artist learned from his anthropologist father. The work consists of a slowly changing sequence of 178 slides projected on to one wall of a darkened space in a cycle lasting nearly thirty-seven minutes. The slides are photographs taken in the swampy industrial wasteland on the banks of the Rhine between Düsseldorf and Cologne in Westphalia. Baumgarten photographed the area close up, focusing on incidental details of the forest, marshy vegetation, amphibious life and human rubbish. He created ephemeral, spontaneous sculptures in situ out of materials and objects he found there or had brought along, blurring the distinctions between manufactured or industrial detritus and the natural environment by painting a snake’s stripes on a length of old hose and stretching a green stocking over a reed blade. For another slide he made a small, perfect pyramid out of red pigment on the forest floor. Featuring brilliant, lush colour and close-cropping, the images are simultaneously evocative and mysterious. They are accompanied by a sound track consisting of such natural sounds as bird song, wind, plopping water and rustling leaves which Baumgarten recorded in the same area, amplifying and mixing the sound to transform it into the ambient music of an imagined exotic elsewhere, such as the Amazon rainforest evoked by the title. He used this aural and visual material again later in his film The Origin of the Night: Amazon Cosmos 1973-7 (Kramlich Collection, San Francisco).
For Baumgarten, the notion of a fantasised other world is related to the mythical El Dorado, the land of gold sought by generations of European adventurers. During his years at the Düsseldorf academy, Baumgarten read the reports by the Elizabethan explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618), who claimed to have found an El Dorado city, as well as the writings of many anthropologists and ethnographers. The work’s title refers to the words of Candide, the hero of the satire by Voltaire (1694-1778, Candide published 1759) who declared on arriving in El Dorado that he preferred to it Westphalia, contrasting an imaginary world of exotic freedom with the repressive regime of eighteenth century Prussia where Voltaire had lived for several years. Baumgarten’s use of Candide’s words draws a parallel between contemporary idealisations of the natural world and notions of an exotic ‘other’. The tension between artifice and reality in the images draws attention to the ways in which we make distinctions between nature and culture.
This slide installation precedes Baumgarten’s visits to the Amazonian jungle, where he lived for sustained periods between 1978 and 1983 and pre-empts many of the themes he subsequently explored, including the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the erasure of the area’s indigenous cultures by the European settlers. A sculptural installation, Terra Incognita 1969-84 (Tate T05821), refers to the Amazon basin and the relationship between nature and indigenous and European cultures there. A later work, El Dorado – Gran Sabana 1977-85 (Tate T05839), juxtaposes photographs of the rich landscape of the ‘Gran Sabana’ region, the site of the legendary El Dorado, which Baumgarten took in 1977 with the names of heavy metals and minerals mined in the area during the 1980s. The names of indigenous animals being exterminated by the mining process are linked with the metals and minerals. More recently Baumgarten has focused on the process of naming itself, contrasting the languages of indigenous Indians with those of European settlers, to make work about the erasure of one culture by another.
I Prefer it There Better than in Westphalia, Eldorado (Candide, Voltaire) was produced in an edition of five of which Tate’s copy is the third.
An Aside: Selected by Tacita Dean, exhibition catalogue, National Touring Exhibitions, Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre and Camden Arts Centre, London 2005, pp.6-11, reproduced pp.7-11 in colour
Lothar Baumgarten, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1993
Seeing Time: Selections from the Pamela and Richard Kramlich Collection of Media Art, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art 1999, pp.80-3, reproduced pp.49 and 81-3 in colour