On the night of the 3 March 2016 a group of hired assassins broke into the home of the environmental activist Berta Cáceres and killed her. Two years later a court in Honduras condemned seven people for her murder and verified the responsibility of DESA, an energy company building a hydroelectric dam in the land of the indigenous Lenca people which Cáceres was fighting against. Her house and the land on which the dam was being built are the point at which the advance of capitalism and indigenous resistance come into conflict. It is a contact zone between two opposing conceptions of the land, between two unequal forces and interests. In her practice, Gabriela Bettini analyses the historical origins of this clash and its consequences in Latin America and how it is narrated and affirmed through the visual culture and the imaginary it generates.
Contact Zone is a solo exhibition by Gabriela Bettini that strikes up a dialogue between works from her recent series, like: Primavera silenciosa (2018-2019), La memoria de los intentos (2017-2018) and Paisajes de excepción (2016). In them she continues her ongoing examination of the capitalist manipulation of nature and forms of resistance to the devastating consequences of this process in the Global South. This confrontation is played out in the contact zone, a term coined by Mary Louise Pratt in the field of literature to define the social spaces in which disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple each other, often in highly asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination, like those derived from colonialism. In these contact zones, the logics of representation, determined by the confluence of languages, are a key element in the encounter or, better said, the clash. In her recent projects Gabriela Bettini analyses how the gaze on the environment is constructed through a conceptual exercise that interlaces different ways of representing nature: colonial landscape, digital photography and botanical illustration.
Her works conflate all these visual languages in the single plane of painting. In doing so, this amalgamation of images intertwines meanings, histories and theoretical postulates in order to oppose or contrast ideas. As such, the contact is made as a discursive and aesthetic strategy.
Gabriela Bettini’s works turn the Tasman Projects space into a Contact Zone, a special exhibition space which asks us to ponder the limits of nature. The urban environment is invaded by representations of tropical nature, alien and as such monstrous, in which one can trace the true forms of terror lurking beneath its idealized representation.
There is a contact zone between scientific thinking and traditional knowledge. As the philosopher Vandana Shiva pointed out, the difference between these two forms is not so much a question of knowledge as of power. Taking this affirmation as her starting point and taking into consideration the tendency of dominant systems to liquidate any alternative, Shiva coined the concept of “monocultures of the mind” to name the dynamic by which science assigns itself as the only valid form of knowledge, expanding its area of influence until eventually eliminating the space of local knowledgeii. The series by Gabriela Bettini Primavera silenciosa (Silent Spring) illustrates this process by associating two types of images. On one hand, she appropriates some drawings by the naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), made during a trip to the present-day Republic of Suriname, then a Dutch colony, and published in 1705 with the title of Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium. Bettini borrows motifs and compositions from Merian’s plates in which she demonstrates the connection between the life cycles of different insects and plants, in order to translate them into paintings, resizing them through the forcefulness of the oil and the dimensions of the canvases. Shadows are cast over some of the figures to cover fragments of these new compositions. The veiled surfaces match the size of the canvases paired with each one of the works in the series, which reproduce photographs sourced from Internet of large extensions of monocultures.
These photos of monocultures and the shadows they cast over the representation of the biodiversity of Surinam are disquieting. An air of strangeness hangs over these works, and, inasmuch as that which is outside the norm, strangeness speaks to us of the monstrous. As the science philosopher Georges Canguilhem contends, the monster would then be merely what is other than the same, an order other than the most probable order. We must reserve the qualification ‘monster’ for organic beingsiii. The species with strange colours and forms in Primavera silenciosa might seem monstrous and Merian represented them from an optic of curiosity and fascination, motivations that Canguilhem links to the monstrous. But we should not forget terror, the feeling more usually associated with this attribute and which, in this context, we can associate with a characteristic that Canguilhem merely touches on without analysing it in any greater depth, namely, enormity. Lurking beneath the luxuriant leafy appearance is what is truly terrifying in these works, the oversized extension of monocultures. The growth of land set aside exclusively for one single crop in detriment to the original ecosystems poses a latent threat that keeps advancing, blocking out its biodiversity. Nonetheless, the resizing of the insects, amphibians and plants in the compositions turns them into a form of resistance. In this way, Bettini offers a way out of this conflict; she does not provoke a rupture, but rather points to a solution already broached three centuries ago and which responds to another gaze on nature. It is no accident that this project contains references to Vandana Shiva, Maria Sibylla Merian and Rachel Carson —the author of Silent Spring, the book published in 1962 on the negative effects of pesticides in the environment, from which the series takes its name. This combination in Primavera silenciosa signals different approaches identified and developed in ecofeminist activism since the seventies.
The dichotomy between the appearance and the meaning of images is a constant in the works included in Contact Zone. Taking a closer look, we arrive at a set of works grouped together under the title La memoria de los intentos (Memory of Attempts). For this series Gabriela Bettini takes the work of the Dutch painter Frans Post (1612-1680), often considered to be the first European artist-traveller who explored and recorded the landscapes of northern Brazil. On this occasion, however, the appropriation does not operate as citation, but as a starting point to call into question the role of landscape painting in the construction of the gaze on nature.
Leaving this issues to one side for the moment, we will concentrate now on the beauty of these images and the use that Bettini makes of this aesthetic quality. In La memoria de los intentos Bettini matches the horizon lines of baroque landscape paintings with images of settings from a different time and place. Over these idealized visions of nature, she superimposes contemporary views of land devastated by the exploitation of natural resources or places related with the feminicide of environmental activists executed in recent years. By contextualising the images, she produces a sensation of impact between the initial reading, limited to the external appearance and the feelings evoked by the art object, and the second reading, which brings to the surface the dramatic background, the meaning and references entailed in their specificity. This impact has its effect in the realm of representation. Here, the use of beauty and the consequences of its attractiveness plays a crucial role. Beauty is often associated with harmony and the transcendental, as an anthropocentric consideration and with a certain nostalgic air. The impact provoked by the association of images in Bettini’s work dismantles this historical construct. Instead of a nostalgic gaze on a pure past, here colonial landscape painting casts a shadow of the monster of capitalism by means of images of exploited places, from which a devastating system of unlimited growth is driven. Instead of taking pleasure in our human perception, these works displace our attention towards nature and ask us to examine other forms of relationship. The charming appearance of landscapes as a cultural product is thus resignified when we identify where they come from, when we understand that they are places of conflict.
To See Them Alive
The combinatory strategy undertaken by Bettini in her work is indebted to a process of experimentation exemplified in Paisajes de excepción (Landscapes of Exception), 2016. In this project the artist gave shape to a line of work and offers clues to the background to the investigation and the use she makes of images. Similarly to what happens in the offices of detectives, at least as shown in Hollywood movies, this work contains a display of photographic and painterly images on the walls of what is supposedly the artist’s studio. Taken together, the set of images is a cross-section of tropical nature. Camouflaged in it are bucolic photographs taken from the webpages of extractivist corporations as part of their greenwashing strategies, a standard practice at the moment which consists in presenting a corporation or activity as ecological and respectful with the environment when in fact it is anything but. Bettini appropriates these photographs and shows them alongside painted representations of other landscapes that depict the places in which the bodies of women activists assassinated for their defence of natural resources were found. By juxtaposing these two sources, she subverts the use of the images and outlines a new discourse. This dialogue generates a narrative form verging on non-fiction, that literary genre which came about within New Journalism in the 1960s which, in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, “involves the arrangement, manipulation and interpretation of actual events”iv.
Bettini provides the viewer with a context that runs through the painting and connects the various images that are depicted in it, affording a broad and critical vision of the ecofeminist issues the artist is concerned with. Bettini uses painterly and visual culture strategies to better investigate and denounce, in a way similar to how non-fiction works in new journalism. The writer Tom Wolfe defined it as a literary genre that borrows methods from the best fiction in order to put them to the service of telling true stories. The book that ushered in this new genre, half way between journalistic reporting and literary fiction, is In Cold Blood. Truman Capote’s book, whose opening chapter is called “The Last to See Them Alive”, tells the story of the murder of an American family from the mid-west and the ensuing investigation of the crime. Like this brand of New Journalism, Gabriela Bettini’s work addresses dramatic episodes. A layer of terribleness is concealed beneath the apparent beauty of her images. The landscapes she paints hide a painful truth related with annihilation. In this way Bettini proposes a game of hide-and-seek with various overlapping conceptions of the monstrous.
In the works on show in Contact Zone Gabriela Bettini settles scores with the history of painting and its relationship with colonial frameworks. The artist does so through painting itself, focusing particularly on the genre of landscape, whose origins can be traced to Europe and developments of religious painting and portraiture. The backgrounds against which scenes of saints were depicted or against which the faces of sitters for portraits were cut out gradually evolved and ended up as a genre in their own right. And the increasing importance of the background, until ultimately achieving independence, was also contingent on the birth of linear perspective in the fifteenth century and the hegemonic role it was to play in the following centuries. This new genre gained even greater importance in Flemish painting in which we can find a separate type of landscape which foregrounds man’s dominion over nature. This was surely owing to the engineering tradition in this region and the ongoing efforts to gain land from the sea, leading to a specific genre featuring abundant references to inhabited places and to structures built by man to better exploit the land, like bridges, canals and mills. Here, unlike what happens in other painting traditions, Nature seems to be contained and dominated. It is no accident that, as we mentioned earlier, the first painter to travel to America to portray its landscapes was the Dutch artist Frans Post who journeyed to Pernambuco to paint Holland’s colonial territories on the other side of the Atlantic. Gabriela Bettini focuses on the work of this artist because of its relationship with colonial expansion and exploitation, given that the painting made by Post is an exoticising painting, that created an imaginary linked to the exuberance and the potential for wealth in the ‘new’ continent. His views contain anecdotic references to this exploitation, through the inclusion, for instance, of slaves in some works, yet always idealized, peacefully at work or having fun in scenes that all seem to deny the real life conditions of forced labour. For Bettini, the work of this artist embodies the colonial and hegemonic gaze on nature and the endeavour to domesticate the territory through its representation. In this way, linear perspective, at the very basis of landscape painting and the work of Frans Post, was developed at the same time as the colonisation of America, and in the words of Hito Steyerl, “becomes a matrix for racial and religious propaganda, and related atrocities. This so-called scientific worldview helped set standards for marking people as other, thus legitimizing their conquest or the domination over them.”
In her works Gabriela Bettini superimposes images, views and scenes culled from different sources, which depict different places and at different times. As Hito Steyerl argued, at the current moment the stable and single point of view is being supplemented by multiple perspectives, overlapping windowsv. Bettini’s works attest to the transformation of spatial representation taking place at the present, as one can readily appreciate on the screens of the manifold electronic devices we use every day. Equally instrumental in the demise of the single vanishing point is the multiplication of aerial views enabled by human satellite capability, the mapping of practically every corner of the planet and the access to this information on a daily basis via Internet. Gabriela Bettini underscored this proliferation and use of landscape images for the first time in Paisajes de excepción. In Estudio, the central work in that early series, all the images are to be found on the same surface and dialogue with each other, and it is the story associated with each one that ends up bonding them together. In the smaller individual works, like Brasil and Honduras, one can see how the images are beginning to be overlayered, playing with the compositions of the landscape in order to create temporal hybrids. The works with a similar format featured in the series La memoria de los intentos follow in this same line until the main piece, a diptych called Pernambuco-Maranhão, in which each one of the images takes on an entity in its own right. Here they are also bound together, but in different dimensions, thus lending the composition a sculptural quality, like a three-dimensional version of the windows of a browser. In Primavera silenciosa, this formal experimentation leads to a system of associating images in which each part of this binomial is definitively separated and the superimposition becomes virtual. One part does not directly cover the other and there is no physical interaction. The figures culled from Maria Sibylla Merian’s plates—reproduced without their backdrop, with the Belgian linen canvas functioning like a Photoshop grid—are covered by sections of plain colours that call to mind other images, similarly to the way a photograph appears in Google’s image search. And so the images are no longer directly connected, rather the projection of one on another fuses them together on a single plane. In this development, Bettini undertakes a process of updating painting, calling its tradition into question and introducing contemporary forms of perception. At once, she is also setting out on a conceptual voyage, starting by denouncing, proposing conflict and uncovering the structures which are normally disguised under the idea of the Anthropocene — a concept coined to identify the geological era marked by human action on Earth. This concept has been widely criticised because of the way that it eludes responsibilities, replacing it with Capitalocenevi, another newly coined term. But Bettini does not elude them, rather she traces them in the field of the visual arts as an agent in the configuration of the imaginary. Following this reflection on the role of art and with the intention of recovering a non-patriarchal gaze, she has placed multispecies at the core of her most recent series, just as Donna Haraway did when she advocated the idea of the Chthulucene vii.
Accordingly, throughout its various phases Gabriela Bettini’s work has engaged with different contact zones. These are to be found on the boundary between the natural environment and human action, a place of confluence for issues related with monstrous otherness, the construction of the gaze on nature and the dynamics of representation through artistic experimentation, with the purpose of generating a non-fictional story that analyses the processes of colonial exploitation of America that began centuries ago and whose ramifications extend into the present. These contact zones do not propitiate a rose-coloured encounter, but a meeting charged with conflict and protest, in which the advance of capitalism is met with the resistance of nature.
Manuela Pedrón Nicolau y Jaime González Cela
By way of an epilogue, this exhibition includes a work from the series Recuerdos inventados (Invented Memories), 2003. In it, Gabriela Bettini recreates a photo album with members of her family who were forcibly disappeared in the late-seventies during the civil-military dictatorship in Argentina. The photographs in this album stage a number of impossible encounters. In Contact Zone the work Encuentro con mi abuelo operates like the hidden track on a record, situating Gabriela Bettini’s work and grounding it in a study of memory as a bridge between the past and the present. Recuerdos inventados also introduces another time, which points at a key period in the recent history of Latin America. The dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s laid the foundations of the economic system and the extractivist policies which have been inherited by today’s democracies, establishing a continuity with historical colonial exploitation. In this way, she draws a line that connects the murders instigated by the repressive state machinery with the death of activists, the destruction of ecosystems driven by economic interests and a desire to control land.
i Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Zone Contact” en Profession, Modern Language
ii Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the mind. Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology,
iii Georges Canguilhem, “Monstrosity and the Monstrous” in Knowledge of Life, Fordham
University Press, New York, 2008.
iv Ursula K. Le Guin, “Telling is Listening” in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the
Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination, Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2004.
v Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective” in e-flux journal
no. 24, April 2011.
vi T. J. Demos, Against the Anthropocene. Visual Culture and Environment Today,
SternbergPress, Berlin, 2017.
vii Donna Haraway, “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene” in e-flux journal
no. 75, September 2016.