Lothar Baumgarten (b. 1944)
The Origin of the Night (Amazon Cosmos) (1973-77)
ART REVIEW; If the Actual Amazon Is Far Away, Invent One Nearby
Published: September 5, 2003
New York Times

You probably won't need 98 minutes to get the point of ''The Origin of the Night: Amazon Cosmos,'' a film by the German Conceptualist Lothar Baumgarten. A beautiful, elegiac but largely unsuspenseful meditation on the Brazilian rain forest and the creation stories of the Tupi Indians, this rarely seen movie was made between 1973 and 1977. It is being shown in New York for the first time, in continuous screenings at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The film is an evocative and affecting work, even if you're not familiar with its arcane narrative about an ancestral fall from grace that cast the world, until then sunny around the clock, into darkness for half of each day. (Mr. Baumgarten took the story from Claude Lévi-Strauss's book ''From Honey to Ashes.'')

Centering exclusively on a damp swamp setting, the film intimates a geographical location with an opening massing of the names of Amazon Indian tribes and indigenous plants and animals. It proceeds to examine the terrain, mostly at close range, as time cycles from darkness to light and back to darkness -- coming noisily to life and then closing down for the night.

But long before the end of ''The Origin of the Night,'' you'll probably figure out that it was shot not in the Amazon at all, but somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. At that point you will either walk out or await official confirmation in the closing credits: these specify the Rhein-Wälder, forests along the Rhine near the artist's home in Düsseldorf, Germany. (He also has a home in New York.)

This film offers an important piece of the expanding puzzle of 70's art, but it also tries your patience. After all, it harks back to a time when artists were looking at the natural world with a new directness and taking their time about it. Testing your patience was part of it; the only good time was real time, or something close.

Mr. Baumgarten, who is nearly 60, is a former student of Joseph Beuys and represented Germany at the 1984 Venice Biennale. He has been known since the late 1970's for scattering the names of vanished or vanishing North and South American Indian tribes across the walls, and occasionally the floors, of museums and galleries.

His primary subject is the passage of time and the changes it brings: in nature, human knowledge, economics and power. The most basic form of power is the power to name, to separate out and identify parts of the world; or, in the case of colonialism, to claim them by renaming. Thus Mr. Baumgarten selects words that evoke the peoples, places and cultures that have been adversely affected by Western civilization and the march of what is sometimes called progress. His intent is simultaneously to raise social and political consciousness and expand our sense of the world's richness through a spatial and visual experience of language.

This experience is often moving as well as elegant, even dazzling. It was especially prominent in what is possibly his largest, most widely reproduced work, ''America: Invention,'' created in 1993 for the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Covering the museum's entire interior with large letters spelling out tribal names and turning its spiral rotunda into a dynamic vortex of language, this installation was part memorial, part anthropological index, part advertising and part art.

There is a selfless, saintly aspect to much of Mr. Baumgarten's work that makes you long for an outburst of ego and temperament. But his generation was in many ways more transfixed by reality and sheer information than by art.

This film reminds us that Mr. Baumgarten is a kindred spirit to a group of artists who, basically, took the painting out of landscape painting, transferring its grandeur to various combinations of language, film, sculpture, photography and the great outdoors itself. The generation included Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, who combined words and photographs, as Mr. Baumgarten also has upon occasion, and Robert Smithson, who was mesmerized by entropy. It also included Nancy Graves, whose lifesize sculptures of camels might almost -- but not quite -- fit into a natural history museum diorama and whose films of flocks of birds sweeping back and forth against the sky have an accumulating power and monotony that relates to Mr. Baumgarten's film.

In ''The Origin of the Night,'' the camera flits deftly among images of dense undergrowth, tree trunks and leafy tops. Sometimes you sense a structuralist impulse to constantly reiterate the film's surface with close-ups of natural ones. The camera also zooms in on frogs' eyes and a turtle's shell and skin almost to the point of abstractness. The clouds range from pink to stormy and at one point deliver a violent thunderstorm.

No humans are visible, although occasionally you see the tip or side of the artist's red-and-blue inflated canoe; he's a solitary explorer in the wilderness. Mainly there is water, sometimes black and brackish, sometimes sparkling, whether with the light of the moon, the pinkness of dawn or the golden glow of sunset. The water can be dotted with powwowing frogs or squadrons of water spiders and is rife with fish, fallen trees, vines and floating leaves. Some of the most beautiful images silhouette birds on bare branches against the late afternoon sky.

The film's rhythmic scannings are accompanied by the clamor of jungle life -- unseen monkeys, parrots, growling beasts, woodpeckers. But as time passes, you begin to notice the absence of genuinely tropical trees and undergrowth; the drab coloration of the few visible birds and reptiles; the bits of trash underfoot; and the frequency of low-flying jumbo jets overhead.

Some of the words that periodically appear on the screen -- mimicry, imitation -- may start to raise your suspicions about the assumptions encouraged by those clusters of names that appeared at the film's beginning. As the the fictive power of the camera becomes increasingly evident, we also experience firsthand the primacy of language, one of Mr. Baumgarten's central themes, and its ability to trick the eye. The distance between the ''civilized'' and ''natural'' collapses; notions of the exotic and of otherness emerge as necessary fantasies of the mind, especially the Western mind. You may even begin to admire the artist's cleverness and wonder at your own gullibility.

In the end, it is Mr. Baumgarten's fiction and sense of abstract beauty, not his grasp of reality or his reverence for the Tupi, that is most interesting in ''The Origin of the Night.'' And, thankfully, the hint of postmodern irony erodes the prevailing piety of his work. He is a precursor of the set-up photography that emerged in New York in the early 1980's, especially as developed by artists like James Casebere and James Welling. Another good reason for the Whitney to be showing this film.

Lothar Baumgarten's ''Origin of the Night: Amazon Cosmos'' is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street, (212) 570-3600, through Nov. 30.

Photos: Two images from Lothar Baumgarten's film ''The Origin of the Night: Amazon Cosmos'' (1973-78), at the Whitney Museum of American Art through November. Shooting near his home in Germany, the artist evoked the Amazon rain forest. (Photographs from the Marian Goodman Gallery)