N° 86 - Felicitas
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15 May - 26 June 2005
Interior of taxi. Daytime, sunny.
Monday morning. The sun is shining as always. The water of the bay gleams in the distance, as the taxi driver negotiates with extreme difficulty the steep and winding little streets of Santa Teresa. Copacabana, he says, in a half questioning tone, to the beach? ‘Posto quatro’, I confirm. From my little window I occasionally catch a glimpse of Christ the Redeemer, blessing the blue air above the city with his reassuring, inviting body language. Past Botafogo beach, the water dotted with hundreds of little sailing boats, through the tunnel, then a right turn into the Copacabana boulevard, past the meandering patterns of Burle Marx’s street mosaic. The intensity of the first-time experience mingles with the spontaneous pleasure of recognition - without ever having been here, you’ve been here many times before.
The mechanism known as ‘memory’ is composed of an intricate web of little cogs and wheels, and sometimes appears to operate quite randomly. Something as banal as tying your shoelaces may suddenly trigger a brief flashback from your childhood or a recurrent recollection of a traumatic event. At other times, remembering is an active, deliberate process: thinking back nostalgically to a happier, more carefree time, for instance, or recalling someone who played an important part in your life. The memory’s filing cabinet is a large and hybrid structure, biased by emotional responses and seemingly lacking order. Minuscule details take on enormous significance, and conversely, major lines dissolve into an impenetrable grey mist of disjunctive events shorn of visual or other associations.
The sharing, shaping, transformation and interrogation of memories underlie much of contemporary artistic production. After a period in which art shadowed contemporary reality as closely as possible, in which artists set out to appeal directly to their audience in the here and now and tried to forge a personal bond, there now seems to be a renewed interest in the past and in interpretations of memories from the past. Nostalgic and neo-Romantic tendencies in painting and sculpture, re-enactment, the almost fetishistic interest in Utopian Modernist aesthetics: the present age has many moments of simultaneity, moments at which past and present come together in a reflexive process of processing and transformation. Artists seem increasingly to entrench themselves in the artwork itself, and to make statements about now through what has already taken place.
Andrew asks me if I have ever eaten sea-urchin. I answer that I think so, but I’m not sure. He says he knows the best place in the whole of Rio to eat sea-urchin. We all decide to go there, since everyone suddenly feels like eating sea-urchin. When the taxi drops us off outside the restaurant, it turns out to be closed. Luckily, the best-but-one restaurant for sea-urchin in Rio is just round the corner. We are given a table by the window. I sit opposite Maya, who is irritated that the restaurant has a ‘no smoking’ rule. She lights up furtively even so, but is ejected by the waitress after a few puffs. Now she is standing alone on the terrace. Andrew is sitting next to me and there are sweat stains on the back of his jacket. We drink sake from little wooden bowls.
Pablo Pijnappel’s work revolves around memory, the short-lived projection of the past in the present. It does not initially seem to be about evoking universal feelings of nostalgia: his frame of reference is too personal, too specific, for that. His filmworks always focus on the history of a single person. In 1921-1977 1979-, Andrew Reid and Felicitas it is someone from his immediate surroundings, someone who played a key role in Pijnappel’s family history: his grandfather, his stepfather, and a family friend. Although diverse in their formal features, these three works are emphatically related, and can be regarded as a trilogy, lacking chronological order. The characters in Pijnappel’s work are without exception adventurers, individuals who have left the beaten path in search of their dreams. While this includes investigations of the artist’s own complex origins, the focus is largely on the stories of different generations of immigrants in exotic locations who are trying to take hold of their lives and to work out their identity. It is these stories that interest the artist - ultimately, Pijnappel’s filmworks are carefully elaborated stories as well as analyses of the conventions of cinematographic narrativity.
In Felicitas, Pijnappel traces the history of Felicitas Baer (1910-2003), the daughter of a wealthy German industrialist who was compelled to flee to Brazil with his family shortly after the First World War. Felicitas Baer rapidly developed into a free-thinking, emancipated woman with a special talent for dancing. She became a dancer, later leading her own dance company, until she survived a plane crash in the Amazon region and was taken in by a local Indian tribe. She then lived with them for seven years. After returning to Rio she published Danças do Brasil (1958), a cultural and anthropological inventory of Brazilian indigenous dance, for which she was feted at universities throughout Latin America. A few years later a leading Brazilian anthropologist dismissed her book as unscientific. Disillusioned, Baer decided to return to the hinterland, where she lived among different indigenous tribes for twenty-two years. She had a five-year relationship with one of the tribal chiefs, who presented her with a toucan when she decided to return to civilisation. When she returned to Rio, Baer became front-page news because of her relationship with the Indian chief. The woman with the long white hair, blue eyes and the toucan on her shoulder became a familiar sight in the streets of Copacabana and she developed a firm friendship with Pijnappel’s mother, Maya. Felicitas Baer died in 2003.
In Sylvia Kristel - Paris by Manon de Boer (2003), the actress from Emanuelle reminisces on the beginning of her acting career. With close-up images cut with location shots of the cities in which her story is set (Amsterdam, Paris, and Los Angeles), Kristel gives two accounts of the same period of her life, but the two versions do not entirely correspond. Details differ, passages from the first story are omitted from the second, and vice versa - the memories are largely the same, but small discrepancies have crept into the nuances, and hence also into the tone. The film constitutes a superb, effective illustration of the intangible way the memory works, and the problematic meaning of the concepts of ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ in biographical portraits and history. At the same time, De Boer - like Pijnappel - examines the relationship between images and the spoken word, and explores the way in which a lively visual narrative can be evoked by combining long, relatively static shots with narrative text.
Felicitas is composed of images, text and sound - the installation consists of a 16 mm film projection and four slide projections. Baer’s life is narrated in the slides, based on the memories of people from her immediate surroundings, who themselves grow into characters in a network of anecdotes and meetings in Copacabana. Against a background of still images derived from the personal records of those concerned, the subtitling constitutes the narrative backbone of the installation - it ‘tells’ the stories of the characters in Felicitas Baer’s surroundings. Images with text alternate with images without text, and text without images - or images as text. As in Chris Marker’s classic ciné-roman La Jetée (1962), the combination of still images and text produces a dynamic narrative development in the viewers’ imagination. Unlike Marker, Pijnappel bases his story on biographical fact, but Felicitas too is first and foremost a story, a construct, within which subjectivity plays a prominent role. Besides the subjectivity of the information underlying the script - interviews and witness statements - the artist emphatically creates a space for the viewer’s subjective experience, somewhere in the interpretive gap between word and image. The 16-mm colour film serves here to enclose the area within which this space is created: as in Sylvia Kristel - Paris this space consists exclusively of registering location shots (of diverse locations in Rio) that are of associative, contextual value in reconstructing the textual narrative. The diverse stories that are told in Felicitas encircle the protagonist’s identity, as it were, without becoming an authoritative, factual biography. If a photograph is a direct representation of reality, Felicitas is a collage, a network of interlocking stories, anecdotes and images that acquire significance in their mutual relations.
We are all standing waiting for the little lift in the lobby of the apartment complex in Copacabana where Maya lives with her mother. Andrew says he will wait downstairs, as we get into the lift. It is 1 a.m. and the doorman has already gone home. Upstairs in the apartment Pablo and his girlfriend start arguing: she has no interest at all in going to a striptease bar. Maya keeps insisting it’s something you can’t afford to miss; it goes with Rio, it’s part of local culture. Her words have little effect. So I decide to go downstairs by myself, partly because Andrew is still there, waiting for us. Outside we hail a taxi. I have just enough money left for the fare and two admission tickets. Andrew now assumes the role of guide. On the way he points out the street where he lives, in the apartment that Felicitas left to Maya after her death.
The meta-narratives in Pijnappel’s work deal with themes such as memory, identity and dislocation. The setting of Felicitas, Rio de Janeiro (and Copacabana in particular), acquires a strongly metaphorical quality in that light: the city is the archetypal meeting place for wandering souls, adventurers and outsiders, the proverbial final destination for people who decide to burn all their bridges and to go in search of the unknown. There is an ironic discrepancy between this ‘artificial’ image of Rio, as portrayed in books, on TV and in films, and the protagonist’s longing for an unmediated, ‘pure’ experience. Baer is the outsider, the impulsive, intuitive, passionate adventurer, who is constantly trying to achieve liberation from a reality that is imposed from above. In many respects, Felicitas is a quest for ‘real’ histories amid the artificial constructs of Debordian Spectacle. In all her activities the protagonist is seeking to intensify her sense of reality, to experience extreme subjectivity, purity and beauty. In adopting this approach Pijnappel becomes a raconteur of alternative stories - the stories that have fallen outside the larger picture.