Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu; Richard Mosse: Broken Spectre review – the world worn down | Art and design
Two vast fabric hangings trail their hems along the floor at opposite ends of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Each is created from cascading lengths of fragile cotton and gauze, unspun wool, knotted rope, tattered net and linen – all of it white. Swaying slightly in the shifting air, they look like the ghostly remnants of some once-great culture.
Which is exactly what they are, in a sense: modern versions of ancient quipu, an Andean method of recording everything from memories to messages to cosmological charts using structures of strands, knots and textiles. The Chilean artist, poet and activist Cecilia Vicuña (b.1948) is best known for these recreations of quipu. Usually they are smaller and brilliant worked in colours, but here she is commemorating the violent destruction of whole territories belonging to Indigenous people from Brazil to Colombia to Chile. The hangings rise to the full height of the hall, a towering 27 metres, in all their spectral pallor.
At first the associations are with actual materials. With old wedding dresses, veils and ships’ sails, with fishing nets and trailing bandages, winding sheets and shrouds, cloth of gold – some of it twinkles – and the banners and flags of old armies. There is the humble allusion to washing fluttering on a line, but also to tents and pavilions and massive weavings made by entire communities.
But one of the hangings is looser and more easily entered, and once you’re inside, looking up, there are the irresistible overtones of the rainforest, of vast trees converging in dizzying perspectives high above among flakes of daylight. And everything is suspended from something resembling a spider’s web, or a dream-catcher. Around you the strips drop downwards like trunks or vines, some of them coiled around curious items mudlarked from the Thames by local Latina – mussel shells, bones, shards of pottery washed smooth by the rhythms of the river.
Woven into all this is a sonic element of voices, birds, forest echoes, field recordings and musical compositions, encompassing sudden silences, directed by the Colombian composer Ricardo Gallo. These sounds seem to be emitted from the heights. You can move around within them , as with the hangings, with an extraordinary sense of intimacy that constitutes a feat in such a grand canyon as this.
Vicuña has positioned documentary interviews with Indigenous protesters on screens in the building. This is discreetly done. It feels of a piece with the whole installation, which is highly political at its core and yet airy and delicate in its nuance. It humanises the industrial height of the Turbine Hall and it softens the atmosphere, a monumental work that is both gentle and strong.
Almost inevitably, I overheard one visitor dismiss it as a load of old rags, but so it is in its elegiac subtlety: the world worn down, culture degraded, life’s fabric hanging in shreds. What might happen – has already happened – when the living green land that sustains humanity is burned or killed and perishes into nothing but ghostly white memories.
Across the Thames, at 180 The Strand, the Irish conceptual photographer Richard Mosse has gone hard the other way into startling colour with exactly the same subject. Mosse’s billboard-sized photographs – of refugee camps, African armies, border skirmishes – are rightly praised for their terrible and even terrifying beauty. Lately he has spent time in the Amazon , sending drones out over the forests to record the poisoning, illegal felling and torching.
The resulting aerial images are literally incredible: dense vegetation (or its aftermath) registering in brilliant pinks, blues and purples, turquoise rivers snaking through russets as rich as a New England autumn, closeups of Venus flytraps that glisten gold in the sun. The eye registers the sensational glory – and the cognitive dissonance. What you see is outlandish, impossible and yet metaphorically true.
Just as Mosse used military-grade thermographic cameras in the war-scarred Congo, so he uses advanced satellite technology to record ecological crime in the Amazon basin. So, for instance, the most intense blues of a typical sawmill indicate the fresh and illegally harvested wood that will be shuffled among the faded blue of the older timber for export.
And the stunning crimson isle ringed by psychedelic fairy-dust rainbows is a last patch of growing forest surrounded by the scorched dust of industrial deforestation where the Brazilian government has razed the land to build hydropower plants. Look hard and you can actually make out charred and skeletal trees.
Mosse moves into black and white for his exceptional photographs of Indigenous campaigners standing alone among once-beautiful glades, but equally for poverty-stricken miners illegally poisoning the rivers with mercury to get a subsistence from bare handfuls of gold. He is always alive to both sides of the human tragedy. And his enormous closeups of a single leaf or insect evoke the horror on a macro-micro scale.
The centrepiece of his latest project is Broken Spectrean epic four-screen installation that almost beggars belief with its devastating vision of ecological catastrophe. Fires rage through forests, timbers explode in horrific thunderclaps, fireballs hurtle into the clouds. Trucks try to pick their way through black fumes, flames and smoke are shown from close up and high above in the skies. The soundtrack, by Ben Frost, is so apocalyptic it might be the end of the world: a perfect match for the conflagration raging towards you. No disaster movie has ever been so real.
Mosse fuses reportage and art photography to unique effect. You study his images for their knowledge as much as their visual impact. And it is no coincidence that 180 The Strand, with its emphasis on the convergence of art and technology, is also showing new film installations by the digital artists Universal Everything alongside.
A dancer duets with a robot that imitates his movements while simultaneously morphing into other robots. Multicoloured creatures, lifesize and covered in glowing fibres, flit along a revolving catwalk. A vast creature, something like a yeti, strides forwards into the future while transforming into balloons, clouds and architectural structures before your enchanted eyes.
This ever-changing figure harks back to Umberto Boccioni’s futurist sculpture of a walking man, and everything here reprises art (or life) with such mesmerising ingenuity that it’s like being in at the dawn of a new kind of magic lantern. There is even one screen where your own sweeping arm movements can call up a rainforest right there on screen: humanity’s disaster reversed by humanity, like some miraculous dream.
Star ratings (out of five)
Cecilia Vicuña: Brain Forest Quipu ★★★★
Richard Mosse: Broken Spectre ★★★★★
Universal Everything: Life Forms ★★★★★