Thursday, November 01, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Exilic Art Between the Selva and the Plant

A problem one finds traveling is that the first and sometimes only people one meets in a new city are those who prey on tourists, the disoriented and lonely and sometimes enthusiastic wannabes who have no one they know and can trust for information about just about everything a local takes for granted. Thus, one finds many people either using Lonely Planet Guides to anywhere, or one finds the more affluent relying on tour guides booked through reputable travel agencies. The so-called independent traveler, men such as me, go with native cunning, as a rule, having been around much and long, instinct honed by years of dealing with the local lowlifes who hustle the bewildered out of change and gifts. The more or less affluent backpacking tourist often meets and is instantly befriended by a person back home the traveler would avoid at all costs; but being on the road and alone, being indoctrinated into thinking all things foreign are all things superior to all things back home, and that even the slightest hint of dislike of locals is racism par excellence, one finds some travelers putting up with the most egregious near-criminal bullshit imaginable, and finds the basically angry tourist smiling and wondering what went wrong, why the lovable natives aren't adding up to the stories one hears tell about back in Anthropology 101. Welcome to the world. Often it sucketh. Sometimes it's even fatal. I live because I know who to avoid, and I live because if I can't avoid trouble I know how to deal with it. I run away, I think. Whatever, I survive. But sometimes I find myself too suspicious of lowlifes, and I miss out on people whose bullshit is sometimes not so bad once I get to know them.

There's a crowd at the Plaza de Armas in Iquitos I generally avoid, though I come into contact with them often enough because I live in a hostel where others are befriended by this group, and the group members show up at my residence as guests of my fellows. That's how I met the very pretty but otherwise revolting Caroline, tattoo pimp and general lowlife scum bitch I wrote about earlier and in a fit of good taste withdrew so far from publication. The street hustler crowd are almost harmless when one compares them to genuine and serious bad people, such as the psychopathic school teachers who became the leadership of the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path terrorists who murdered their way across Peru for 20 years as political killers before giving that up to turn to trafficking in drugs now. I'm more likely to meet those psychos than I am to meet street level criminals. And because I am fearless about barging into offices and demanding interviews with "important" people, I am also likely to meet other psychopaths like the corrupt politician who actually works the system successfully and makes himself loved by the very folks he screws, sometimes to death. No names. I intend to survive a lot longer yet. Street hustlers, I avoid them. Except when one of them turns into my buddy's boyfriend and I can't.

Lambda, which the educated among us know as Λ or λ (Λάμβδα) is one of those who has much ability as an artist, a natural, one who gets it and does it well. He uses cans of spray paint and paper and a lighter and scraps of cardboard to make scenes that make me cringe, high-school science fiction graphics of swirling stars and double moons above a desolate planet with stones that look like skulls, and so on. But, if one doesn't look closely, it is beautiful in a cheap kind of way. It's literally lifeless and cliched and boring and embarrassing, but it works at its own level very well because the artist is highly talented. He is also a clever salesman, auctioning off a piece by (and this is too clever to ignore,) passing out for two soles [about a dollar,] ten tickets to each buyer till he's made 20 soles for whatever painting he has on offer if he hasn't interested anyone during the course of his performance as creator. And he is a performer. That, more than the painting, is what he sells. That, more than the paintings, is what pisses me off about what he sells. I hate the hustle. I hate the cheap manipulation of the gullible. I would avoid this guy at all times were it not that he's my buddy's boyfriend now.

Λ hustles tourists by doing portraits on the sidewalk.
Getting one picture taken is nothing much interesting now, though when my great grandparents posed for the rare shots I have of them it was a moment, and a long one of stand still or else, importance for eternity, a portrait of the living that would never be again, a miracle of technology and a gift from Modernity to the poor who had at last a chance to attain to the glories of the rich: portraits of themselves as portraits done of kings and the haut bourgeois. I could weep for joy when I hold the tin plate pictures of my great grandparents standing rigid and dignified for that once in a lifetime pose in front of a camera that would capture their images forever, giving them something like eternity on earth that previously was unattainable to such poor as they. Now any idiot can post his image on the Internet and look as good as Brad Pitt-- or even me in an ugly hat. So, vanity being what it is, a photo has now lost its value, and a portrait done by a human hand, a man who actually has to look at one to see the real person to render a good likeness, good or not, is an occasion of wonder, and worth paying for. To make ones portrait, Λ puts on his glasses and looks deeply at the person sitting in front of him. It makes the sitter feel like a king, a crowd gathered to watch in wonder as the portrait develops by the hand of the artist, the crowd in awe, the sitter exalted.

I wouldn't want such a picture of myself, frankly, but for many it is as great an occasion as was standing for a photo over 100 years ago for my great grandparents. Λ has more talent than many artists I know and have known over the years, and those are many; but he's not someone I would want to do my face forever. Yes, I'm a snob, but I've earned that over decades of careful study. It's not the medium and it's not the class, it's the end product. Spray painters of this sort do shit work, even though it's light years ahead of most art school MFAs. It's a step up from tattoos, which says little. It's somewhat better than cartoons, though often not better or as good as comic book art. It's mindless, soulless, and cheap in all senses.

I was walking down the street a while back with a fellow, and he wanted to turn the corner. I said, "No, let's follow this lady for a while." He said "She's not worth looking at; she's not pretty." I said, "I don't care. She's attractive." Somehow that had never occurred to the guy. Never mind that I struck out with the lady. She was attractive, and I tried to meet her up, as it were. Attractive.

Λ is not someone I find an attractive person, he being a lowlife street hustler who cons people out of money by trickery and manipulation, though of a cheap but sort of honest way. He draws, he paints, he fakes his art. I'm sure that prisons in America are filled with men with as much or more talent than he has. But Λ isn't in prison and isn't likely to go. He's just a lowlife hustler. I'm a snob. We don't have much in common.

Well, we have in common my buddy Paula. And we have in common our friend Yvonne. So, we have a lot in common; and in common we have some important common concerns. Specifically, I find Yvonne very attractive, and I can hardly keep my hands off her when I see her. This is a problem because Yvonne lives in the jungle by herself, a Prussian girl who brings Bismarck to the wilds of the Amazon and tames it. What does she need me for? Nothing, as it turns out. Λ is as close to this girl as I am. We are both as close as the other guy who hung out with her when they and Paula spent a week at Yvonne's house in the jungle. Yvonne doesn't need anyone. But we have her aloofness that passes for friendship in common, Λ and I.  They three stayed with her for a week in the jungle while I stayed in town and sulked. Yvonne is a girl I find highly attractive. Seems that, in his own way, Λ found something about Yvonne attractive, too, and it makes me rethink my feelings toward him.

Λ is a man barely out of the jungle, a man living on the margins of Modernity in a jungle city that caters to tourists. He's figured it out in a cunning kind of way, and he uses his talent to survive at a marginal level in what most would consider genuine poverty. He does better than most people just out of the wilds and now bewildered by the new life they find they don't get and are lonely within, alienated, as lost as the tourist backpacker kids longing for friendship and the authenticity of the primitive that they are promised in Sociology classes. There is a tentative meeting of aliens here, and one must admire the attempt to like each other, even if some on both sides are scum, the disgusting hustler Caroline not coming close to the creepy child molester who flits around the park hustling little girls with promises of ice cream cones and ribbons and bows. Λ's meeting in the jungle with the Prussian loner Yvonne is some kind of turning point for him, if not for her. I think it's Yvonne, rather than the selva of his youth and heritage, that makes this journey so... something... for Λ and me. We are now closer by far, and it is the melding of the Modern with Λ's abilities to grasp at least some of both, whether it develops or not into anything greater.

Λ returned to the city from Yvonne's house in the jungle with a new vision of art for the masses on the sidewalk. There is the same cartoonish and teenage machismo of earlier work, but this time the theme is of the selva, the gratuitous anaconda thrown in to hook the unwary with excess for the money. What catches my eye is the detail in the middle ground tree trunks. There is a concern there for attraction at the expense of prettiness. Λ could have, and in most cases does, added more snakes. In this instance he opted for something like feeling, capturing Yvonne's jungle landscape with a feeling all of his own.

Λ studies the selva under the influence of the Prussian loner Yvonne.
Λ is an alien in this city as much as I. I have been on the road many decades now, but I too am from a forested wilderness still, and I am in many ways as attached to my past as Λ is to his wild-land past.

On a bridge between Modernity and home long lost.

It is natural that an expat Pied Noir would find solace of a sort in the Peruvian jungle with an expat. American and a solitary Prussian and a city dwelling Amazonian street painter. It's not so natural to see the Amazonian turning to European still life paintings from the 17th century to find solace in the strange land of his birth. Here we see what the ideologically indoctrinated idiots of Modernity would dismiss as cultural imperialism in art, a derivative piece by an
Amazonian they would prefer to have making pictographs on rocks in the jungle, no doubt. But Lambda gets it. He sees the unity of colour and creation in the mind and hand of the individual as he reifies the order of synthesis of our exilic time together. I come to like him. We meet half way; and in time we might become friends, he growing into his own expression of the land we left, our rugged homes, our poverty and ignorance of the world outside, of our loss.

The melding of Modern industrial capitalism, the selva, and the classical expression of man-made beauty as earth is turned to world by exile from all. 
That damned candle ruins this otherwise beautiful attempt, in my humble but educated opinion. The medium argues against quality. The whole effort is probably a grotesque failure in terms of lasting art for the ages.

But now I know a man who is not the man who used to be the lowlife street hustler he was a few months ago, though the change is slow and maybe will never be full enough to satisfy me. An exile among exiles has come to know something important about others and the world. It's tentative, and it might not last long. Maybe, though, if we come to know each other better and our world, we will come to know our own lives better and deeper to the point we can see clearly who we are aside from our assumptions of what we think others want us to be. Maybe we can someday be the exiles we are and we can be true exiles together.

To update a bit, I hear that Lambda had a fall from a second story and landed on his head, being in a coma for 15 days and then was pronounced dead. The doctor refused to sign off on that, even though the heart monitor was flat-lining, because Lambda's body was still 98.6 degrees. Now, the story goes, Lambda is blind in one eye and colour blind in the other, creating pictures by intuitive mathematical calculation.  I've read some books by Oliver Sachs, so I don't discount even the most outrageous bullshit about people anymore. Who knows what people can do. They often surprise me, sometimes frighten me. Mostly I'm simply amazed.

Because people are so strange and unpredictable, in spite of leftard determinist pseudo-thought, I got a copy of Lambda's Still Life with Candle to present to the German girl I like. I told her I would bring her flowers and chocolate, and she didn't barf, so I thought about what kind of flowers one gives a woman who lives alone in the Amazon jungle. I think a painting of flowers will do as well as anything that would wilt to death long before I got through with the four hour bus ride and hour long walk to her house to present them to her. If we were in a city and I were meeting her at a restaurant, then cut flowers it would be. For now, it's a painting. If I strike out here I'm blaming Lambda for being a hack, and I'll take consolation by eating the chocolate I intend to give her otherwise.

If I survive the anacondas and don't eat the chocolate, I'll be sure to let the world know.
A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

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