Hannes Böck’s exhibition Las Encantadas is the result of an attempt to make a film of Herman Melville’s collection of stories about the Galapagos Islands, The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles. It is the eighth sketch in the collection, the story of the Peruvian woman Hunilla, who has been stranded on one of the islands for years, whose fate Melville describes with both respect and empathy. Hunilla, who is rescued by a ship that has anchored to hunt turtles, refuses to divulge any information about her suffering by tersely saying, ‘Señor, ask me not’. She appears like an allegorical subjectivisation of the subaltern, who was both at the mercy of the archipelago, and had become part of it.
The plan to translate Melville’s story into images is a reaction to an encounter with the text: Melville describes the islands as a bleak and barren primordial landscape, exploited by pirates, wale hunters, and turtle hunters. His short ‘sketches’ are correspondingly inaccessible, not clearly oriented either towards plot nor description. Their narrative taciturnity goes hand in hand with a tendency towards pictoriality, forced changes of perspective, and fictitious framings, which create analogies to painting and photography. The description of the archipelago, which is as impressive as it is off-putting, begins with the description of ‘five and twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot […] looking much as the world at large might, after a penal conflagration.’
Hannes Böck’s filmic search for sites that might illustrate Hunilla’s story resulted in a 16-mm film with twelve roughly one-minute shots that work like screen tests of the landscape. The black cliffs of the jagged volcanic rock are sometimes almost indistinguishable from the seascape surrounding it. The landscape reveals itself in quite different and ambiguous forms: a damp fog obscures the view of a dense forest, sandy areas, beaches, lava fields, trees and shrubs. The static shots are deserted, but this is not a reference to the legendary inhospitableness of the archipelago, and also not to its characterization as an limitless ‘smooth space’ (Deleuze). Rather, the unmoving shots foreground the perception of the landscape and the mechanisms of its display. Once, we get to see a small but abandoned path into the thicket, a trace of the current touristic use of the islands, and also a reference to the absent protagonist, because the actress who might play the part of Hunilla is nowhere to be seen.
In addition to the film, the exhibition also includes a photo series from the set of the Mexican telenovela Soy Tu Fan, which, as is expected from this genre, offer the promise of a look behind the scenes. One of the recurrent faces in these photographs is that of the actress Edwarda Gurrola, who does not just play a part in the telenovela, but who might also be the invisible protagonist of Las Encantadas. The collection of black-and-white photographs, so rich in contrast, display, just like the sets, actors, and crew members, a certain mise en scène: they quote the genre of reportage, one of the numerous aesthetic variants of the penetrative, inquiring, and defining gaze.
The film Las Encantadas refers to a certain artistic format, that of the landscape. The shots here are not intendet to evoke an atmosphere or mood, rather, they evoke the cartographic gaze of early photography. The shots are reminiscent of Timothy O’Sullivan’s photographic surveys of the unknown North-American West, which were carried out in the nineteenth century as part of geological expeditions. In spite of the possibilities of the medium, they produce neither overviews no detailed shots, neither appropriation nor intimacy. Hannes Böck’s film, too, consists of surprisingly unspectacular long shots that seem to get snagged in the landscape rather than frame it. Las Encantadas thus becomes an examination of the recording and interpretation of nature, of those image constructions where cultural assignations are organised. Because in the classical understanding, landscapes evoke atmospheres and undertake ideological identifications, they characterise places as Arcadian or heroic, pastoral or picturesque, exotic or familiar. They are the paradigmatic instrument of colonial and creative expansion, where purpose-oriented rational interests intersect.
The colonising gaze that accompanies the pictorial landscape is the rule when it comes to ethnographic as well as aesthetic approaches to the alien. But it is hard to nail down in certain orders, it rather reveals itself in completely different configurations of the visual field. With Las Encantadas, Hannes Böck positions himself in a line with those configurations, but in so doing he reveals the construction of the landscape as an aesthetic object. Because with the application of historic picture formats, their use for certain notions of nature and landscape are displayed. That this happens by means of the Galapagos Islands is due to their dense discourse history: from centuries of colonial piracy and Darwin’s one-month research stay in 1835, which gave the impetus for the theory of evolution, to the artistic reshaping of the landscape in Melville’s story or its spectacular treatment as a post-apocalyptic paradise in Antonin Artaud’s imaginary travelogue Galapagos, Les îles du bout du monde, published in 1931, all the way to the sublimation of the landscape in the ecological romanticization and the tourist fantasies of untouched origins of today.
Hannes Böck’s exhibition is informed by a distanced, analytical treatment of this landscape and its images. The film shots lack any development, and just like their invisible protagonist, they seem to want to elude any inquiring interpretation or symbolic attribution. They owe their opacity to the disclosure of the historic formats of surveying and observing, as well as to the willingness to watch the protagonist of his own film at work in her actual bread-and-butter job, thus leaving the landscape on display without its inhabitant. This goes hand in hand with eschewing the production of a human relation to found nature, which is traditionally the actual task of the landscape picture. Las Encatadas is simultaneously a filmic land seizure and a formal experiment examining various image conventions of artistic and colonial expansion.
Translation: Wilhelm v. Werthern, www.zweisprachkunst.de