TRISTES TROPIQUES

A PORTFOLIO

 

Christopher van Ginhoven Rey

 

 

 

These monotypes form part of a project that takes as its point of departure a selection of gay pornographic films by Kristen Bjorn: Carnival in Rio, Island Fever, Manhattan Latin, Caribbean Beat, Jungle Heat, Paradise Plantation, Mystery Men, The Caracas Adventure, A World of Men, and The Anchor Hotel. Shot between 1989 and 1996, these films are all set, entirely or in part, in the tropics.

 

I titled the project Tristes Tropiques after the book by Claude Lévi-Strauss. I read Tristes Tropiques many years ago, and when I first saw Bjorn’s work and learned about his travels I was immediately reminded of the French anthropologist.

 

Tristes Tropiques reads, in many ways, like an elegy. What Lévi-Strauss discovers, in the course of his various journeys through the Brazilian jungle, is a world that is disintegrating and that will soon be lost—this explains the book’s melancholy mood, perfectly condensed in its title. Lévi-Strauss leaves no doubt that this disintegration is the result of a process whose roots were in the West’s colonial project, a process that in 1955, the year in which the book was published, was beginning to morph into what is now called “globalization.” One of the first books to theorize this concept, Tristes Tropiques also inquires into the extent to which the anthropologist himself can be an agent of this process.

 

Titling a set of prints based on Bjorn’s films Tristes Tropiques is my way of suggesting that pornography can be a kind of anthropology—in fact, it would not be hard to imagine a set of pornographic films bearing the titles of Levi-Strauss’ books: The Raw and the Cooked, From Honey to Ashes, The Naked Man, The Savage Mind, and Tristes Tropiques itself. It is, however, also a way of bringing into focus the close association between the tropics and the concept of entropy—anticipating Robert Smithson, Lévi-Strauss, who had a peculiar fondness for puns, declares at one point that all “anthropology” is necessarily an “entropology,” a form of inquiry concerned primarily with “the highest manifestations of processes of disintegration.”

 

Bjorn’s films, too, capture a process of disintegration. What you see disintegrating in them, however, are not the natural and cultural realities that populate the tropical locations in which they are set, but a certain species of the gay pornographic imagination, the kind they themselves epitomize. Shot around the time of the emergence of the internet—the next iteration of the forces of globalization denounced by Lévi-Strauss—Bjorn’s films are fine examples of a kind of pornography that no longer seems possible. Watching them one is bound to feel nostalgic for a time when there were still “exotic” places and peoples and when the appetite for “high definition” had not done away with film’s capacity to create a specific “atmosphere.”

 

For me, then, the films themselves constitute an entropic system, one that is characterized by a particular kind of image. It is difficult—if not impossible—to describe this image satisfactorily. Instead, and for the purposes of this project, I decided to try to isolate examples of it. Looking at these examples now, it seems clear to me that what characterizes this image is the fact that it is saturated with longing. It is an image in which desire reaches a mystical intensity.

 

I think of each of these monotypes as a record of the imminent evanescence of a world. In that sense they, too, might be seen to form a kind of elegy.

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