Alfonso de Bioys-Cartan’s most recent installation, ¡KILL MENDOZA!, situated on the top floor of MALBA, Buenos Aires’ Museum of Latin American Art, is anomalous even for Bioys-Cartan himself. An Argentine by birth, Bioys-Cartan often produces large-scale installation works, most commonly in the form of indoor permaculture farms, which one could only describe as the farms of the future: his peculiar innovations include strange, self-replenishing soils fished from the top layers of the Amazon, robotic clipper ants preparing them for cultivation utilising soil nutrients to produce electrical charge, nutrients sourced and subsequently distilled from the cold waters of the Humboldt current shooting up the coast of Chile.
¡KILL MENDOZA! is anomalous because here Bioys-Cartan has removed the real, very concrete structures of fields and furrows and replaced all organic matter – which has hitherto, frankly, obsessed him ad nauseam – with the moving image. Or rather, three moving images projected onto three walls of a relatively small room.
This is curious: not only does each projected image seem to be a film in its own right – The Antarctic Convergence, When the Desert Swallowed Us Whole and Death Mountain – but each film was released previously, if only for a few days, at various small art-house cinemas scattered around the Americas, from Calgary to Calafate, in the year leading up to ¡KILL MENDOZA!’s opening. Moreover, three different directors were credited with the films, none of whom are Bioys-Cartan. Perhaps this is irrelevant. Perhaps not. What is relevant and also unlikely is that, before making my way to the top floor of MALBA for this very installation, I had already seen all three of these highly obscure movies.
A maximum of ten people are admitted at a time. We are ushered in through a thick velvet curtain, which is then drawn behind us. The faint whir of projectors can be heard. The credit sequences of all three movies begin.
I. THE ANTARCTIC CONVERGENCE
As the light begins to flicker, faintly, on the first wall, what looks like an ancient map of an island region slowly comes into focus, then, superimposed on it, a mountain landscape, a peak, another map, all now fading in and out of one another. The title sequence occurs concurrently with a montage of dark-skinned, smallish men engaged in the minutiae of fishing practices while similar maps are either subtly superimposed on the characters’ faces or actually wrapped around the actors’ heads. As we become privy to their fishing techniques, we are also presented with visions of blueprints, their villages embedded in larger maps, and it becomes apparent that their islands are situated in the Pacific. As the action settles, fishing done, families fed, all now laying down their heads to rest, we fade to an image of the region as a whole, and slowly at first, but gaining momentum rapidly, the Pacific Ocean begins to rise. By morning, their islands are not merely flooded but below sea level.
At the same time, images of Antarctica begin to filter onto the screen, ice and snow-caps melting alike, water levels rising to create islands where previously there was only land. As the Pacific Islands are disappearing, Antarctic Islands are forming and at one point, which we shall soon see is critical to Bioys-Cartan’s narrative, the maps of both regions actually coincide, the geography of these Pacific Islands is precisely the same as that of our newly forming Antarctic archipelago.
At this point, there is a transference suggested, almost instantaneous, in which the fishermen and their families are translocated to the Antarctic Peninsula, so as to not wake up with lungs softened by water, dead and floating, but to a new day, in which their land is strikingly different from the one in which they rested their heads, and yet suggestive of ineluctable verisimilitudes, a palimpsest, a subconscious knowledge of the imprecise moment at which this new, foreign, dangerous place was where they were previously, home.
In an interspersion of title cards and images, Bioys-Cartan informs us that we are in the not-so-distant future or possibly the very present, the past of which diverges slightly from our own, a time in which sea levels have obscured and then subsumed Tuvalu, Wayaguyi and various other Pacific Islands while melting polar caps have created others in the Antarctic, with global temperatures rising unfathomably. And the Islanders have necessarily been relocated to islands that bear striking similarities to their previous homes, in terms of the lay of the land, soil, arability and abundance of marine life. A world in which Pacific Islanders inhabit the melting, no longer impenetrable and unforgiving, Antarctic Peninsula.
This film, in essence, is about beginning again, new life and the eternal problems of readjustment. It focuses on three families from different islands, on changes they need to make and on their relationships, shifts between their various tribes in this New World. We learn a great deal about their transforming fishing practices, and there is a supreme focus on, if not fetishisation of, their hands and withered, cold faces. The new landscape starts visibly affecting their education systems; the fact that two communities that previously only met on water are now meeting on foreign land has ramifications on the confluence of their languages and customs. Powerful tribesmen find their societal commands waning due to factors out of their control. The terrain is foreign, and in summer they cannot sleep because here the sun does not set.
The lands are still melting. As frosts thaw and glacial structures slip irretrievably into the water, certain informations are revealed, knowledges released: ancient constructions of varying forms, brickwork, animal remains, frozen for who knows how long – new myths develop rapidly in these cultures to account for these occurrences and are swiftly subsumed, enveloped into pre-existing belief systems. But then something occurs that simply cannot coexist with any previous belief.
A mammoth female form is revealed as another glacier slips, breaks and slides down under, not mammoth in size, although Bioys-Cartan’s brilliant command of camera suggests this – she is quite regular in size for these people – but purely and simply immense: as she is revealed, she rises slowly out of the glacier and lands softly on the ground. People around her and within a radius of what seems to be kilometres are weeping, laughing uncontrollably, throwing up, seizure and revelation on the ground, and as she settles their fits subside. They flock to her, hundreds of translocated Islanders converging, congregating around her, waiting, alert. She doesn’t move.
II. WHEN THE DESERT SWALLOWED US WHOLE
We appear to be in the Sonora Desert, our protagonists a group of dishevelled, hungry and wasting-away Mexicans attempting a border crossing, continually making their way through the same terrain. In fact, it looks as though each scene is shot in the same location.
The action is primarily threefold. There are scenes: (1) of them discussing their plight, expounding arguments, philosophical and otherwise, as to the necessity of their illegal acts, moral ramifications, political overtones and projecting what one would assume is their collective desired future, a life North of the Border; (2) of their crossing the inhospitable, harsh terrain during the long, searing days and the sicknesses, physical and otherwise, hallucinatory or not, that result; and (3) of their nights, in which they huddle, shivering, attempting to realise some semblance of sleep, while the desert produces creatures that are both vague and inconsistent and yet which, were I forced to describe them, would seem to be best related using ridiculous terms such as sand-monsters and were-pumas.
Occasionally, our heroes wake up to find that one of their number has been torn to shreds right in the midst of them, sometimes devoured from the inside out and/or dead from shock. They also begin to fall during the day. They are moving as quickly as they can. Their conversations continue and a strange phenomenon becomes apparent, albeit subtly at first: instead of discussing wistfully the prospects and promises of their collective bright future in the United States, they are actually describing life across the border as if it were a thing of the past, already lost, lingering just behind them.
At one point, it is suggested that they are already completely naturalised Mexican-Americans, or, even more absurdly, North Americans made up to look as they do, in either case citizens of the United States, and are engaging in Extreme Tourism, on a guided tour that takes the shape of an illegal border crossing. Whether this is just for kicks or to develop a sincere, strange form of empathy for their brothers South of the Border is unclear, but as soon as this idea appears, it is just as quickly dismissed.
Multiple alternative hypotheses are presented and, against all odds, it seems as though the following is what is actually occurring: our pilgrims, in the desert, have encountered what one can only refer to as an elastic time-band, in which they are propelled back and forth between two points, neither of which is particularly well-defined. When they begin to move back in time, what was their future in the US becomes their past. In this loop, they are slowly degrading and dying. There is no respite, and the sand-monsters are able to appear now in their true form, as severe, unyielding aspects and agents of Time herself – time-monsters, for lack of a better term. In the end, via a strained detective narrative, the travellers discover these facts and there is a feeling that as soon as all of this is unravelled they might have a chance of escaping the Time-Desert. There is a storm, the first rains we have seen. Out of the ground, she rises, Time herself, fully formed by sand now turning to flesh. She stands there. Our heroes tremble and weep as she smiles. She doesn’t move.
III. DEATH MOUNTAIN
Set in an open-cut mine in Montana, this seems to be a story not of exploitation of the land but of communion with it. The main player is a white miner, nameless. We shall call him X for ease of reference. X works at least 16 hours a day and sleeps the rest in the mine. Long sequences show the miners working, and intricate details of both mechanics and machinery are explored simultaneously. We see X’s body degrade, malnutrition setting in slowly. He begins to have visions.
Out of the darkness all this way under the surface of the Earth, mineral beings appear, seeping out of the damp walls, ceilings and floors, with brains of ore and hearts of stone. They violate him. He weeps and smiles. He tries to tell his friends, his colleagues, whoever these people are he works with. Nobody believes him. They are not privy to these mineral trysts. We initially see them only from X’s point of view. As the narrative unfolds, however, we begin to see these ore-creatures standing next to him, holding him, then we see them when X has his eyes closed, then creeping up on him from behind, then forming from wall-matter when X is not to be seen at all. It seems as though, in our minds at least, they are beginning to exist independently of him.
In a stunningly beautiful, emotive and entirely pornographic scene between X and a variety of these mineral beings, they merge into what looks like a strengthened pool of liquid mercury, which forces its way into his mouth and then bursts out of his stomach, somehow leaving him intact, in the form of a striking American Indian woman who claims to be his Earth Bride. Under cloak of night, she helps him work the land. His productivity soars, as does his income, and his health returns. They make love amidst the earth. Once again, she initially exists solely for him – X is the only one who can see her, the only one whom she can touch – but then along creeps the distinct impression that her existence is independent of his. It is at this point that she begins to kill.
It is more complex than this. For a start, there are simultaneous conflicting scenes: we see X and his colleague, Y, alone together, and X stabs Y to death after a heated, riveting argument concerning the ethics of mining; occasionally alternating with this and sometimes superimposed on it is a scene in which X’s Earth Bride makes love to Y and then proceeds to devour him alive, screeching, ‘You are my Death Mountain.’ There is a constant shift between: (1) X killing his colleagues, (2) X’s Earth Bride killing the selfsame colleagues and (3) X and his Earth Bride committing these horribly violent acts together.
In the end, there is nobody left to kill. She turns to him. He shivers and falls to the ground. She smiles a smile that says, ‘Your time hasn’t come yet’. She raises her arms slowly, palms facing up, and with this movement all those they have killed together rise from the ground, not just covered in earth but actually made from it. They follow her outside, shielding themselves from the torturous sunlight. We see them all in the open cut of the mine, trembling and crying. A close-up of X’s Earth Bride’s face. She doesn’t move. And then she does.
Let me remind you that I have seen these movies before individually. And the above descriptions not merely synopsise them relatively accurately but also end at the respective end-points of each movie’s trajectory. In this installation, ¡KILL MENDOZA!, they continue, and what happens next is singular. Recall the following:
Camera 1 (C1) is showing a close-up of the Antarctic Islanders’ fossilised and skeletal Saviour.
Camera 2 (C2) demonstrates the profile of the Woman personifying Time, the Chaser, the Temptress, that which is both abstractly and very concretely picking off our desert Time-Travellers.
Through the lens of Camera 3 (C3), we see a close-up of X’s Earth Bride’s face – her features occupy the entire frame.
This, then, is what follows: C1, C2 and C3 all retreat slowly from their respective subjects. Then they begin to appear in each other’s fields of vision. One of the three defining examples is: as C3 slowly zooms out from X’s Bride’s earthy features, on the left of the frame C2 appears, and in the top right way up back, C1. All three are now focused on the object which by now we realise is concurrently the Saviour, the Woman of Time, and the Earth Bride.
The landscapes shimmer and disappear, fading to black, white and black respectively. She remains, constant, in her varying aspects. The contexts return – we are now in Montana, the Sonora Desert and on the Antarctic Peninsula simultaneously. The three cameras roam over the single landscape, desert, lush green mountains and fields of snow, we move through geysers, collectives of volcanic ash and lava coagulated into unidentifiable shapes, flying over flamingo lakes and a crusted lake of salt as white as snow.
It becomes clear that we are actually in Bolivia on the Altiplano, the only place I know of in the world boasting lush green fields and mountains, snowy peaks resembling those of the Antarctic, and desert expanses. Not merely this, the Creature, the Woman, tells us precisely where we are: en route from the Uyuni salt flats to the town bearing the same name. As she begins her monologue, for a brief instant
flashes across all three screens along with the fourth wall. She is speaking to the translocated Pacific Islanders, the Mexican Time-Travellers and the resurrected Miners from an elevated plateau. She is also directing certain phrases and glances towards us. There seems to be a thin mist surrounding her, perhaps seeping out from under her skin, which slowly permeates the crowds and then seeps through the walls to enter the room of the installation. These wisps engulf us all slowly as she delivers her words softly, measured, they are distended and we can still see, albeit more vaguely, the walls: the first three have images of their protagonists staring, listening attentively to her Sermon; the fourth wall has an image of us doing the same in this very room. The mist is apparent everywhere and smells faintly of earth. Her voice is soft:
My name is Tiempea. I was born in 1557 in Potosi, Peru, not far from where we are now. My family was very poor, the city at this point becoming very rich. Soon, it would become the richest city of the New World, of all the Americas, the streets were to be paved with silver soon enough. Of course they never found El Dorado. How could they when it was called Potosi all along, in the midst of which Cerro Rico, the Mountain that Eats People, filled with silver and ready to take eight million lives?
I am not lying to you and I will not. In the following two centuries, eight million were to die extracting silver from this deathscape, including myself. My father was a miner, as was my husband, and they both died in equally horrifying fashions. To support my family, I entered the mine in the guise of a man and worked for years to come. I did anything and everything, from operating machinery to treading down silver mixed with mercury with my bare feet. This killed me slowly, as did the vapours when the mercury was driven off.
When I finally died, I experienced the sensation of watching myself perish from above. Instead of fleeing to the next world, I was stuck in a peculiar type of limbo. For years, I wandered the Altiplano and the Andes. Sometimes, though rarely, I made it to the coast. I have watched the land and the people slaughtered for centuries in the name of things that don’t make sense. My homeland, Peru, this part of my homeland they now call Bolivia, no matter . . .
Slowly, I began to realise my calling, why I had not been able to leave this world after dying.
As the mists dissipate, streaking the surfaces of the room slowly, I look around and there are between 50 and 100 people in the room: the original ten spectators, along with a variety of the Pacific Islanders, Mexicans and Miners. The walls shudder violently, warping, expanding, contracting, some of us throwing up, others crying and laughing simultaneously, others still, patient, attentive. Parts of the floor rise, tilting, the room reconfiguring itself.
It may be a highly complex series of projections which are disorienting me and making me feel that this is really happening and yet as the surfaces distend, change shape, seats rise up and out of the floor, windows appear on the walls, out of which one can only catch glimpses of darkness. When finally an aspect of stillness arrives, we are clearly situated in a bus, seated, while she, Tiempea, sits brazen at the head of our night-ship, continuing her tale.
She tells us that she remained on Earth as what we would call a ghost in order to one day return to a time before she was born and kill a man, the man responsible for her death, for the death of her brother, for that of her father and for those of at least eight million others, the man responsible for the mine at Cerro Rico, the catalyst for so many of the atrocities that have occurred in South America since, in what is now nearly half a millennium.
I start to throw up. I can’t quite grasp all of her words and yet I receive the distinct impression that the presence of these four varying groups of people on this bus, hurtling across the Altiplano in the gravest midnight darkness, the Islanders, the Mexicans, the Miners and us, the viewers, the fact that we are here with her now, is the precise situation she has been waiting for, has waited centuries to orchestrate and she has finally found us all, the translocated, the desert homeless, those sacrificed by themselves and others to the Earth, the Artists, the Thinkers, the Watchers, the Revellers, the Dancers, and here we are, on a long, slender bus, travelling through space and back through time, to a moment when we can all take revenge, initially hers but clearly now a result of a vengeance we all share, to kill a man now responsible not for anything in particular, but responsible in the abstract: to kill Mendoza.
Day is breaking. Tiempea descends from the bus. We all shuffle out after her in single file. When it is my turn to alight, I look up ahead of me and see only her and none of those who have preceded. She offers me her hand and I take it. As I descend, there is no longer any ground, any soil or hardened tar for my foot to settle on, in fact, there is no more foot as my hand melds into hers and my body seems to dissolve – not dissolve, reconfigure, yes, reconfigure and enter hers or, more precisely, become hers – and I am looking out her eyes and offering my hand, her hand to the next person descending to join us and in this body, our body, I know that everyone else has settled, everyone who has preceded me. And now we are all here, we have all moved from the bus, which is now a wagon, to Tiempea, inside her ancient frame. The serenity of this moment, nearly a hundred people at peace together in one woman’s body circa 1545 having travelled nearly half a millennium back in time, is all there is; there is no sense of strangeness or surprise.
This serenity seems to then coexist with the varying amounts of rage and hostility that necessarily come into play due to the nature of the task at hand. In the back of the wagon, we uncover a mass of dynamite and a variety of small explosives from the future. We make many trips to Cerro Rico, strategically placing the explosives on the surface and deep in the centre. We work together intuitively and peacefully. The detonator is in our right hand as we wander the streets of Potosi, bawling, remembering our collective childhood, searching these vivid streets for Mendoza’s villa.
We know when we have arrived and we open the door with a key that we retrieve from our pocket. Our body shudders and pulses, covered in sheets of electricity, contracting, expanding, the net effect of which is an absolute shrinking, the precise sensation of bodily organs rejuvenating, smoothing of skin. Our clothes are first loose-fitting and then large. A man stands before us.
Is that you, Señor Mendoza?
I am Señor Mendoza, yes.
. . .
What can I do for you, young lady?
It’s more what I can do for myself that I’m interested in.
I’m not sure I understand . . .
Now, if you were the guard who enters during the ensuing struggle, you would see a small girl atop your employer, straddling him, stabbing him in the face and chest dozens of times with the strength of what would seem to be a hundred people, a girl covered in the fabric of a fully-grown woman’s dress, and if you were that guard, you might approach her to drag her off Mendoza, although by this point it wouldn’t mean a god damn thing because you would already be jobless and she, the girl, would be pressing a button on a small metal box and you would hear a crashing and a roaring and your hands would go to your ears although you’re already deaf and running to the window to see the mountain exploding and crumbling down, the earth shaking, and when you turn around to kill the little girl for what she’s done, you see her getting smaller and younger and then the next second even smaller and you rub your eyes and she’s curling up and you blink and she’s nearly a foetus and she’s blue and she’s covered in blood and she’s still shrinking and then she’s so small you can’t even see her and then she’s so small she’s not even there. You might sprint over to Mendoza’s body to check for vital signs, finding none. You might search the room and then the house and then the town for the crazy little bitch responsible for this and find nothing, not a trace. Perhaps, with a story like this, you yourself will be held responsible for this inhuman slaughter of one of the most important men in modern-day Peru.
And yet all of this is mere speculation. What I know is the following: I come to. We all come to, all ten of us, on the floor of the room containing Bioys-Cartan’s installation on the top floor of MALBA. The velvet curtain has been drawn and we exit, eyes downcast, leaving the tears and the vomit, the scratches on the walls, for others to clean up. Later, I discover that the installation has been quickly shut down due to technical difficulties, and for various reasons I am not able to ascertain the nature of others’ experiences in that room. Nor am I able to decipher for myself the intention of the Artist.