O peixe (The fish)
Dear Reader, I am currently in Auckland, NZ. Far away from the hyper-activity of São Paulo and its 32nd biennial. In the spirit of "Thanks"-giving (just around the corner) I’ve written a long overdue response to a film I saw at the biennial. I think about it often. So, I hope my description of Brazilian multi-disciplinary artist Jonathas de Andrade’s film, O peixe (2016), encourages you to pause and reflect on intention, the origins of our sustenance, and human-animal and human-human empathy.
The sound of water catches my attention. I’m in the grandiose Ciccillo Matarazzo Pavilion, headquarters of the Bienal de São Paulo Foundation. On the first floor, I’m surrounded by plant and earth installations, metal wagon sculptures, noise, and people. The whole setting feels like a science fair. I feel guilty for acknowledging that I prefer the more haughty but quiet air of the usual contemporary art event than what seems like a day-care setting. A number of elementary school field trips are taking place, boys and girls decked out in matching highlighter green or pink t-shirts. I’m drawn to the sound of the water again, I distinguish it from the sound of people everywhere. It’s a clean sound, of water gently plopping. I make my way to a screening room where just one couple is seated on a viewing bench inside. On a large screen a film of a tan muscular man fishing is on view. The scene is calm, just him, on the edge of his small boat, throwing his net into the water and drawing it back in after a few moments. The action is repetitive but calming. Slow and peaceful.
I take a seat and continue watching, forgetting the chaos outside the room. The film has no extra music or sound effects, just the pure and natural ambient noise of a river flowing, trees swaying, and mosquitoes whining. The scene of the man fishing is so beautifully slow and picturesque that my mind starts doing its own thing (you know, like when you’re reading, but really just grazing across the words and your mind wanders into different thoughts). I expect the fish, thrown onto the floor of the boat, to flip about, it’s gills flayed open, as if reaching for air with an invisible hand of agony. I expect the film to follow the fisherman home. I expect him to gut and cook the fish and eat with his family or take it to a farmer’s market. I’ve seen these type of films before, I tell myself. I am filled with expectation of how the next scenes will unfold, I’m already seeing them in my mind. As a lifelong vegetarian, my expectations come with physical reactions. I don’t like seeing animals (or people) dying so I’m on edge, ready to close my eyes, I do not want to see the caught fish in pain. The man pulls up a his caught large fish out of the water. I can see his gills opening wide. Knowing the fish is going to die suffocating out of water, I reason that fishermen see death everyday, that their work is to kill. I do this as I peek through squinted eyes, open barely enough to see the fisherman wrap his hands around the single fish and do the unexpected.
He begins to cradle the fish and draws it closer to his face. As he does this, the sound of the moving river continues, trees sway in the back of the scene and the shot slowly zooms closer into the focal point of the fisherman with the fish cradled gently in tanned arms. I’m calm again. The shot is long, maybe 30 seconds or more. His strong, masculine hands gently caress the breathing fish. He looks like a mother holding her newborn child for the first time, the fish’s face close to his collarbone. He chin tucked upon the fish’s head. The metallic slick skin of the fish looks similar to the sweaty glistening skin of the fisherman. Although in complete contrast of life form, the man and fish are one in space. I’m compelled. It is an entirely unexpected soft, unhurried, deliberate moment.
But then I am reminded, once again, that the fish is dying. I’m enraptured by the visual moment of tender love and care, it’s as if the fisherman is making the fish’s death less painful - calming its nerves, relaxing its spirit or fight. My mind questions the illusion of tranquility in front of me. The scene cuts to the next one, of another fisherman, in a different setting, this time the fisherman is older and uses a harpoon.
The same pattern occurs with individual men, each in a non-identical water setting, and sometimes with different traditional fishing methods.
The fish is caught, the man holds the fish in his own gentle (or not so gentle) manner, the camera zooms into the the two beings, and then quickly, the scene switches to the next fisherman fishing.
While on this journey, the element of “ritual” has been a recurrent theme in works I have seen and valued. Often the word ritual evokes images of religion but to me “ritual” means something more open-ended - a repetition of an action done with specific intention - religious, sacred, spiritual or not. How we define intention is individual and beyond me. I think this is why I like it so much. Intention, like preferences or passions, is internal and ours alone. Art allows us to consider why we do the things we do. As autonomous individuals, we develop habits through our lifetime but a series of actions done in the same way, in the same situation, greatly differs when those actions are also done with the same specific intention.
In O peixe, I see many rituals overlapping like circles of different sizes. 1) The ritual of fishing during the day (waking up, taking the boat out, fishing, coming home) 2) the ritual of fishing (casting the net, drawing it back in) & 3) De Andrade’s inserted element of ritual (the caressing of the fish). The intention of the first two rituals of fishing have an obvious intention- to catch the fish for food or money. But the last, De Andrade’s inserted ritual, has an ambiguous intention. Do the fishermen feel sorry for the fish? Do they acknowledge the fish’s life, its death, its struggle? Does the acknowledgement matter?
In an interview, with Artnet News, De Andrade explains that the ritual he inserts is fictional but that the fishermen are real. At the end of the day, fishing is the fishermen's livelihood and means for survival. The dramatic visual of these men soothing fish is mind-boggling and magnetic because it allows one to consider the internal source of our actions within the greater context of human life and animal death.
By its very definition, routine precludes the consideration of who, what, where, when, and why we are doing an action. We eat food without reflecting on the growth of the seed, the nutrients of the soil, the vitamins in the seed provided by the Sun. Why do we like the taste of the food? Why do I like the taste of the food? What appears in De Andrade’s film, is mindfulness. His simple insertion of a ritual, the closer, slowed, contact between fish and human, makes us perceive an intimacy, real or imagined, between the two. De Andrade’s use of ritual presents to us an acknowledgement of intention by which he evokes an emotional response.