Pink Dolphins Bear Witness to the Amazon’s Destruction

In a curatorial coincidence, three current exhibitions across lower Manhattan are addressing the ecological devastation of the Amazon, raising awareness of historic and present-day extractive practices, as well as their dire consequences. Richard Mosse: Broken Spectre at Jack Shainman Gallery, Emilija Škarnulytė: Æqualia, and Adrián Balseca: Routing Rubber, the latter two at Canal Projects, all feature video installations with footage of the Amazon and shed light on different aspects of its destruction. 

At Canal Projects, visitors first encounter a new presentation from Lithuanian filmmaker Emilija Škarnulytė. Æqualia (2023) captures the artist’s journey swimming through the Encontro das Águas in Manaus, Brazil, wearing a prosthetic mermaid tail. An ecologically remarkable location, the area marks the confluence of the milky-white Rio Solimões and dark waters of the Rio Negro. With different temperatures and chemical compositions, the two do not combine for several miles, creating visually distinct bodies of water. 

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The video begins with a bird’s-eye view of the artist donning a fishtail and swimming in the black Rio Negro, lined with lush green trees. The camera zooms closer as one side of the water changes color to milky white, marking the convergence of the rivers. The mermaid swims along the border between the two, and eventually, pink dolphins emerge. Known locally as botos, the Amazon River dolphins are able to swim through both bodies of water due to their expert echolocation abilities. The artist swims among them with a camera attached to her body, offering close shots of the dolphins as they navigate the rivers with beauty and ease. Accompanying exhibition text notes that just a year after completing the film, droughts led to mass deaths for the species, a sobering reminder of the repercussions of deforestation and climate change. A reflective sheet on the floor in front of the film adds an immersive element to the installation, on top of which the artist has added small glass sculptures intended to represent mermaid tears, though the inclusion of the latter wasn’t particularly impactful.

Installation view of glass sculptures in front of Emilija Škarnulytė: Æqualia (2023), single-channel video installation, duration: 9 minutes, at Canal Projects (photo by Izzy Leung, courtesy Canal Projects)

Downstairs, Adrián Balseca’s complementary exhibition Routing Rubber encompasses black-and-white film and archival ephemera to provide historical context for the legacy of extraction that threatens Amazonian ecosystems like that of the botos. Focusing on the rubber industry that boomed in the Amazon between 1879 and 1912, Balseca illuminates the historical rhetoric that fostered ecological destruction. Archival advertisements from companies including Goodyear and the Dunlop Company Limited tell a narrative of rubber as a key resource across industries, suggesting that the material ushered in aspects of modernity, with one BFGoodrich ad from 1965 illustrating a tire next to an astronaut. Gloves hang along the wall of the gallery, another innovation made possible with rubber.

Balseca pairs these archival materials with his own film to present a sanitized representation of the dire, violent realities resulting from extractive industry. Accompanying these is “The Skin of Labour” (2016), a 16mm film that recalls early missionary and World War II documentaries and features footage of translucent white sap dripping from tapped trees in South America. People are noticeably absent from the film, despite evidence of their labor. In erasing their presence, Balseca hones in on the latex itself and ignores the violence required for extraction. An advertisement from the Dunlop Company Limited offers a similar message with the text “this is where rubber begins” above a row of neatly groomed trees, each tapped and releasing a flow of sap that spills into full buckets, alluding to its abundance.

At Jack Shainman Gallery, Richard Mosse’s video installation, Broken Spectre, unites themes of environmental exploitation raised by Balseca and Škarnulytė. Filmed between 2018 and 2022 across the Amazon Basin region, the immersive video showcases shocking footage of systematic deforestation that has decimated the environment over the last 50 years. In prolonged clips of cattle being herded and slaughtered, their sinewy bodies are violently dissected by men wearing minimal protection as blood and guts splatter near their eyes and mouths. Mosse also highlights the dangerous deforestation process required for the meat and mining industries, with equally ill-equipped men cutting down and burning monumental trees.

Spread across a 60-foot-wide screen, the footage cuts between vantage points taken with ultraviolet microscopy, 35mm black-and-white infrared film, and multispectral aerial video techniques to focus on the non-human, human, and environmental biodiversity, respectively. The imagery switches between the techniques and at times shows multiple simultaneously, forcing the viewer to focus on each part and the entire screen at an overwhelming scale that, for me, yielded a visceral response. The haunting visual experience was at once cinematic, photojournalistic, and anthropological. 

Installation view of Richard Mosse: Broken Spectre (2024) at Jack Shainman Gallery (© Richard Mosse; photo by Dan Bradica, courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York) Dan Bradica Studio

The most harrowing clips present Indigenous people speaking directly to the camera. In one scene, a Yanomami woman named Adneia addresses the viewer, decrying the spread of disease and the devastation of her community’s homes due to extractive practices. Naming former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro specifically, she demands action to clean their tainted resources and provide financial support. “If you’re just here filming us for nothing, then that’s bad,” she says. “You white people, see our reality … don’t film me for nothing.” Adneia’s direct address of the camera is noteworthy. Neither the film nor the exhibition text provides background on Mosse’s interactions and relationships with the Indigenous communities, or whether they have experienced this kind of filming without a positive outcome in the past.

While offering three distinct approaches, together the exhibitions form a profound and provocative overview of ecological precarity in the Amazon. Each show also includes an element of activism through engagement with the issues raised and the communities directly impacted. Canal Projects is organizing programs with Indigenous peoples from the Amazon in partnership with the More Than Human Rights Project at New York University. For its part, Jack Shainman Gallery prominently displays a QR code for visitors to donate to the Hutukara Yanomami Association to benefit the Yanomami community, a necessary response to Adneia’s call to action. Indeed, after sitting through 74 minutes of Mosse’s transfixing and gut-wrenching film, it would feel wrong to leave without doing more.

Richard Mosse: Broken Spectre continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (46 Lafayette Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) in New York through March 16. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Emilija Škarnulytė: Æqualia and Adrián Balseca: Routing Rubber continue at Canal Projects (351 Canal Street, Soho, Manhattan) through March 30.


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