Traveling on the Rio Negro

A delicate 16mm film, conserved at the Domus Archives, documents the August 1978 expedition undertaken by Pierre Restany and two artist friends, who traveled up the Rio Negro from the depths of the Brazilian Amazon to the border with Venezuela and Colombia.

In the summer of 1978, Pierre Restany and fellow traveller artists Sepp Baendereck and Frans Krajcberg sailed up the Rio Negro and some of its affluents up to the border between the Brazilian Amazon, Venezuela and Colombia. This bold undertaking was recorded in a 16mm film, which since then has been conserved in the Domus Archives. Domus has recently restored and updated the film to a digital format. Below, a few images of the expedition, accompanied by the words of Alessandra Paulitti.
Rio Negro
Top and above: “Cronaca di un viaggio al Naturalismo Integrale”, 1978, 16mm video still. Courtesy of the Domus Archives
The immense expanse of the Rio Negro, the incredible variety of the Amazon vegetation and the simplicity of the Indios ’ song are the three key ingredients in a film made by Restany in Brazil in the late 1970s.

In July 1978, the Domus art critic and artists Sepp Baendereck and Frans Krajcberg came up with an ambitious project to go upstream and discover unexplored zones of the Amazon Forest, making contact with the Indios culture.

A precious 16 mm film conserved in the Domus archives records that incredible adventure, which resulted in the Manifesto of the Rio Negro .
Rio Negro
“Cronaca di un viaggio al Naturalismo Integrale”, 1978, 16mm video still. Courtesy of the Domus Archives
Filmed over 40 days, the images resemble a nature documentary and are interspersed with scenes of the three friends’ numerous conversations.

The fascinating river currents, intense close-ups of the Indios and a minute description of vegetable species provide the backdrop to the trio’s profound philosophical discussions in a perfect mix of art and nature.
Rio Negro
“Cronaca di un viaggio al Naturalismo Integrale”, 1978, 16mm video still. Courtesy of the Domus Archives
Although the three set off with no specific or set ideas on what their experience would involve, they explain that total naturalism became a spontaneous consequence of the time spent there. Restany had long been interested in the relationship between art and nature. He later summed up his impressions on the trip as the “Amazon Shock” — a brutal confrontation provoked by isolation from the Western civilisation that enabled him to reflect on his condition as a man and his relationship with nature.
Rio Negro
“Cronaca di un viaggio al Naturalismo Integrale”, 1978, 16mm video still. Courtesy of the Domus Archives
The problems raised are in line with those of the environmentalist conscience that stepped into international political spheres in the early 1970s with the founding of the first parties inspired by principles of sustainability and environmental protection.

In contact with the Indios , Restany, Baendereck and Krajcberg saw how these peoples tend, under the pressure of civilisation, to lose the values on which their culture is founded and also that the products of progress are becoming necessary to their sustenance.

Restany was overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and wondered what role art might play in contemporary society, in what forms and with what principles it could provide a key to a present that embodies its problems and critical aspects.
Rio Negro
“Cronaca di un viaggio al Naturalismo Integrale”, 1978, 16mm video still. Courtesy of the Domus Archives
The realist tradition must be supplanted by total naturalism, i.e. a vision of reality based on the sensitivity of individuals who oppose the crucial pace dictated and imposed by Western society and that looms menacingly over true human nature.

At the end of the trip, Restany participated in a cycle of international talks analysing the various permutations of the relationship between nature and culture, with a view to gaining a focus on the relationships between two seemingly far apart but inevitably linked disciplines.
Rio Negro
“Cronaca di un viaggio al Naturalismo Integrale”, 1978, 16mm video still. Courtesy of the Domus Archives
It would be interesting to retrace the same route followed by the three protagonists of the film and witness the changes to the places and human settlements more than 30 years later. It is highly likely that the problems underpinning the manifesto would all appear even more pressing and the scenes filmed might, as well as historical and artistic value, acquire that of a record of the ongoing and perhaps avoidable destruction of these places.

Many contemporary artists are focusing on sustainability and the denunciation of indiscriminate consumerism. Exhibitions on these subjects have multiplied in recent years. Perhaps, as Restany hoped, art really can help if not resolve these problems maybe communicate more effectively the urgency of resolving them and encouraging a sense of awareness. Alessandra Paulitti

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