Marjetica Potrč’s “Acre: Rural School”
A few months ago there was a photograph circulating on Facebook that made my stomach turn. Not knowing where to find it now, I simply (if wincingly) typed into Google the following: “photograph of Indian chief crying.” The image immediately appeared, conjured magically out of the internet ether. There he was, an older, bare-chested, dark-skinned man in chinos and a fluorescent-yellow, halo-like headdress, sitting in a chair, his head bowed into his hand, sobbing. Other men, sans ceremonial headdress, sit in chairs behind him, dismayed or stunned or blank. A man in a button-down shirt stands in front of the chief, either attempting to console or perhaps he’s the deliverer of the devastating news. Terribly, banally, the awkwardly worded caption below provided the entirely expected answer:
Chief Raoni cries when he learns that Brazilian president Dilma released the beginning of construction of the hydroelectric plant of Belo Monte, even after tens of thousands of letters and emails addressed to her and which were ignored as the more than 600,000 signatures. That is, the death sentence of the peoples of Great Bend of the Xingu River is enacted. Belo Monte will inundate at least 400,000 hectares of forest, an area bigger than the Panama Canal, thus expelling 40,000 indigenous and local populations and destroying habitat valuable for many species—all to produce electricity at a high social, economic and environmental cost, which could easily be generated with greater investments in energy efficiency.
I clicked on the next instance of the image in Google and beheld the following inevitable correction on a more respected left-wing website: according to Amazon Watch, the dam—which would be the third largest in the world, after China’s infamous Three Gorges and the Itaipu project on the Brazil-Paraguay border—is not why Chief Raoni was crying. He was crying because he had been reunited with a family member, a “common practice among the Kayapo.” Or as he put it himself (so the internet tells me): “I was not crying because of the government’s decision,” said Raoni. “I’m going to keep fighting. I am alive and strong, and as long as I’m alive I will continue to fight for my people!” Following this quote was more damning information about the dam, its September 2011 halting by a Brazilian judge because of fishery issues, and a short video entitled “A Message From Pandora.” It featured director James Cameron, yes, describing the hell the dam will unleash. “I had always wanted to go to the Amazon,” he begins against a black screen. “It’s the last great bastion of nature. It’s so—vast.” Cue footage of the forest cover and a melancholic rain.
This strange, fantastic, depressing, virtual loop I found myself in—beginning with the Facebook image of a native chief crying, its misleading caption, its savvy correction, and a video from the director of Avatar that unironically parallels the film’s fictive, alien planet with the Amazon that its visuals were inspired by—all came about because of an exhibition I recently saw at Nicolas Krupp in Basel. Entitled “Acre: Rural School,” the solo show of works by Slovenian artist and urban (and not-so urban) planner Marjetica Potrč, limning a sustainable indigenous community in the Brazilian Amazon, left me hot and cold at once—kind of like that image of Chief Raoni. Which is to say, my immediate sympathy for Potrč’s work and despair at the conditions that it was predicated on was mirrored by a sickly sense that my response was entirely banal, expected, sentimental, and pointless—like the thousands of Facebook users who clicked the “Like” button under the image of Chief Raoni crying to express their solidarity with him.
But back to Potrč’s show, which features at its center a case study of a petite schoolhouse-cum-community center built for the Brazilian state of Acre in Amazonia. Nearly touching Nicolas Krupp’s ceiling, the small building on stilts—made with local wood and brightly painted—features solar panels and a satellite dish whose cord I tripped over on my way into the gallery. It is solely accompanied by a series of brilliant watercolors lining one white wall. With Sister Corita–like exclamatory verve, and decorous and lyrical forms that conjure Matisse’s cut-out silhouettes, “The Rural Connection” (2012) elliptically details the research projects on sustainability that Potrč has made over the past decade in Caracas, Amazonia, Amsterdam, and Bordeaux. All of these projects might fall under the rubric of the question that Potrč posed in “New Territories in Acre and Why They Matter: Notes on Hope and the ‘Game’ of Coexistence,” an essay that first appeared in e-flux journal #0 in 2008. In it, Potrč asks pointedly, perhaps rhetorically: “The question is, just how far is it possible to ‘downscale’ the world community?”
A similar question and its attendant manifesto could be legibly gleaned in “The Rural Connection,” particularly in the black writing that loops across the ink-on-paper drawings. Against bright orange brushwork, Caracas, 2003 (2012) reads: “Two Cities—The Modern City and The Natural City, One Rich, The Other Poor—Are At War With Each Other. Urban Culture Vs. Rural Culture.” The City (2012), meanwhile, follows with: “In a Reversal of Fortune—Quite Suddenly—The Modern City Falls. The Citizens of the Growing, Natural City Stand Up and Say: Our Time Has Come! We Are Proud To Live in Village Communities, To Live in the Natural City. We Have Built This City. It Is Ours.” If the utopian ardor and sincerity of the works conjures 60s-era community broadsheets or works by poet-artist-activists like Kenneth Patchen, this feeling is balanced by the strange, dystopian dialectic that the drawings rest on: that of the rural community and the urban community being at war, and of the rural (realistically? unrealistically? who is to say) triumphing. Or as another work on paper exclaims, against garden green lineation: “We Who Invade the Modern City Bring the Seeds of Change—and Just In Time! Our Rural Culture Is a Tool for Changing the Culture of Living in the Modern City. We Create Hope. And the Hope Is Ours.”
To recast the indigenous, rural poor—likely the most disenfranchised population in a global economy of disenfranchised populations—as triumphant invaders and owners, so to speak, is patently strange. See the manifesto’s constant refrain “It Is Ours,” which has more than a bit of fatalistic fervor to it. Yet this odd utopian-cum-dystopian point of view can also be gleaned in Potrč’s past projects and statements. As she said in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist some years ago: “I didn’t like the idea of sitting in an architect’s office and drawing plans, poring over papers and thinking about the city as a body that you can control, save, operate, like surgeons do.” Despite the social justice issues at the heart of her artistic practice, Potrč’s idealism has distinct shades of darkness. She’s not interested in perfecting the city-body or saving the diseased one, but in individual initiatives that rest or are predicated on the very border of man-made disaster.
“I thought to propose flooding Königsberg. Then people could enjoy paddling the flooded streets, the way they do in Venice. After all, this is what cities will look like when we get accustomed to the high waters of global warming,” she said in Urban (2001), a decade ago. And: “[A]t every turn, I am reminded that extreme conditions give birth to significant inventions.” And this is where her weirdness as a social activist (and her success as an artist) completely kicks in. Her statement might have just as easily been said by the neoliberal technocrat or businessman plundering Africa, Asia, and the Amazon, excusing the devastation wrought for technological progress. Yet this dystopian weirdness also saves Potrč’s artwork from being merely documentation or the propagandist arm of urban-planning activism. What one is to make of her schoolhouse plucked from the Amazon and placed in a white cube in Basel is harder to say. It is a strange, opaque, and yet altogether familiar contemporary-art-world gesture. Yet the works on paper are even more oddly politically determined, and in this, Potrč’s show brings me back to other recent political works of art such as Yael Bartana’s “…and Europe will be stunned,” the brilliant exhibition of films on the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland in the last Venice Biennale, in which political realities and speculative fictions are so tightly interwoven as to create a remarkable frisson and unease in the spectator-citizen. Perhaps the darker global point of view—which, paradoxically, Potrč appears to hold brightly to—does go further, faster.
- 1Marjetica Potrč, Acre: Rural School, 2012. Building materials, energy and communication infrastructure. 355 cm x 500 cm x 500 cm. Photograph by Serge Hasenböhler. All images courtesy of Nicolas Krupp, Basel.
- 2Marjetica Potrč, Caracas, 2003, 2012. Ink on paper. 29.7 cm x 21 cm. From the series, "The Rural Connection," 2012.
- 3Marjetica Potrč, The new Citizenship, 2012. Ink on paper. 29.7 cm x 21 cm. From the series, "The Rural Connection," 2012.
- 4Marjetica Potrč, Acre: Rural School (detail), 2012. Building materials, energy and communication infrastructure. 355 cm x 500 cm x 500 cm. Photograph by Serge Hasenböhler.
- 5Marjetica Potrč, The City, 2012. Ink on paper. 29.7 cm x 21 cm. From the series, "The Rural Connection," 2012.
- 6Marjetica Potrč, Place Making, 2012. Ink on paper. 29.7 cm x 21 cm. From the series, "The Rural Connection," 2012.
- 7Marjetica Potrč, "The Rural Connection", 2012. Series of nine ink on paper works. Each work, 29.7 cm x 21 cm.
- 8Marjetica Potrč, Acre: Rural School, 2012. Building materials, energy and communication infrastructure. 355 cm x 500 cm x 500 cm.