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Into the mind of the shaman

An adventurous show transports visitors to the Amazon home of the Yanomami.

August 03, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Paris — The Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art can't be accused of being an ordinary place with a predictable program. Ensconced in a modern glass jewel box of a building on Raspail Boulevard, it's an institution where up-to-the-minute art can encompass everything from Matthew Barney's sculpture to robotic toys to Issey Miyake's knife-pleated dresses.

Even so, the current exhibition, "Yanomami: Spirit of the Forest," is quite a reach. The most complicated project undertaken by the foundation, the multimedia show transports visitors to the Brazilian Amazon, where -- against all odds -- the Yanomami Indians maintain their traditional lifestyle as hunters and gatherers whose visionary leaders invoke powerful spirits by inhaling yakoana, a hallucinogenic powder. The foundation's eclectic display of photography, video, film, painting, sculpture and acoustical installations by an international slate of artists presents sights and sounds of this ancient, primal culture.

Visitors get their first glimpse of it in a series of dramatic black-and-white portraits of the Yanomami by Claudia Andujar, a French-born photographer who has lived in Brazil since 1956. In an adjacent gallery, German artist Wolfgang Staehle's digital video of the village of Watoriki, shot over a 24-hour period, is projected as a three-screen, wraparound landscape. Nearby, a darkened room comes alive with sounds of the Amazonian jungle recorded by Stephen Vitiello, an American who lives in New York.

With birdcalls and insect choruses still in their heads, visitors wander off into Japanese designer Naoki Takizawa's corridor of colored light and forest-like imagery, projected on circular mirrors and reflected on surrounding spaces. Then comes French conceptual sculptor Vincent Beaurin's environment of glittery, yellow and black objects, meant to represent animal ancestor spirits and crystallize Yanomami cosmology.

But even in this highly imaginative terrain, the next gallery takes most people by surprise. Here they bump into an enchanted forest of giant eyeballs by New York artist Tony Oursler. The eyes are so big -- each is a resin sphere about 6 feet in diameter -- and they are placed so close together that visitors must wend their way through them and consider one at a time. That means gazing into a video projection of an enormous blinking eye, overlaid with dreamlike footage of tropical verdure or drawings of animals.

Part travelogue, part social history, the show, which runs through Oct. 12, is mostly a mind-bending journey to the shamanistic culture of Indians who live in the forest that stretches across northern Brazil and southern Venezuela. In Brazil, the Yanomami population of about 12,500 constitutes the country's largest indigenous community to have preserved its traditions.

But not without a struggle. The Yanomami had almost no contact with outsiders until the 20th century, but then missionaries, gold prospectors and road builders arrived, bringing contagious diseases and wreaking havoc on the environment. In 1992, an international campaign to save the Yanomami persuaded the Brazilian government to set aside 37,000 square miles of forest as a private reserve.

Some of the works on display, produced before the exhibition was conceived, deal with this history and provide a backdrop for newer artworks. In "The House and the Forest," a two-hour documentary film made in 1994 by German artist Volkmar Ziegler, Yanomami men construct a communal dwelling and lament the effects of outside encroachment. "River-Crossing, Kashorawetheri," a suite of 15 black-and-white photographs shot in 1978 by Lothar Baumgarten, also of Germany, follows a group of Yanomami on an arduous journey through a forest and across a waterway.

But most of the pieces were commissioned last year by the foundation as part of a collaborative experiment.

"This isn't an exhibition about the Yanomami. It's an exhibition with the Yanomami," says foundation director Herve Chandes, who organized the show with French anthropologist Bruce Albert. The goal was not to do an ethnographic show, to romanticize the Yanomami or to portray them as exotic "others," Chandes says. Instead, the artists were asked to explore connections between their creative processes and those of Yanomami shamans.

In addition to sponsoring the exhibition and publishing the catalog, the foundation is financing a project that will produce a comprehensive map of the Yanomami territory. Made with satellite technology, the map is expected to expand Yanomami knowledge of their land and help them make better use of it.


The show began several years ago, when Chandes came across two of Andujar's portraits in a Belgian magazine. "I found them absolutely fantastic," he says. Determined to present an exhibition of her work, he contacted Andujar through Albert, who has worked with the Yanomami since 1975 and has a long-standing relationship with the people of Watoriki.

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