Monstrous Abandoned Places: Irina Botea’s Search for The Picturesque

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Picturesque from Irina Botea on Vimeo.


“This is what happened at 3400 feet — we had reached a stand of red wood trees in an area that had never been cut and my ears popped.” — Lyn Hejinian, My Life, Green Integer, 2002.

Notions of what is and what is not picturesque dominate cultures around the world. They attach themselves to nationalistic agendas — a pre-existing geology is used to signify current political systems, further branding national identity. Nevertheless, the geology will ultimately outlast those human systems. In Irina Botea’s 2013 film, The Picturesque, she travels to a collection of remote, abandoned villages in Apuseni, Romania. As she puts it, “These villages were absolutely voided. It was not about interacting with the people, but the void they left behind.” Old residents’ homes and whatever personal affects were left behind have been subsequently overgrown and repossessed by foliage. The film follows a tour guide familiar with the area:

“We interacted with a 75 year-old man, a tourist writer, who was our guide for the week. He writes for a tourist magazine called Picturesque Romania. And he has an interesting discourse from the 80s that proposes certain views on what is beautiful in the country. And this idea of the picturesque came to the forefront — what does it actually mean picturesque? And how does it connect with patriotism? And what does it actually mean for us to go into the country to look at the landscape or to look at old deserted houses and to think, ‘Oh, this is so beautiful; this is picturesque.’ The word means that something is so beautiful it needs to be painted; we need to encompass it — to possess it in a specific way.”  — Irina Botea, Reenacting a Many Possible Past, Art21, January 2011.

The Picturesque, captures Mr. Nelu’s Quixotic search for the pastoral in the mountains of Transylvania. The camera casually attempts to unpack Nelu’s criteria, as tourists might, following his descriptive gaze around the landscape. Occasionally the camera zooms in on something he overlooks — for instance the way a set of abandoned tools have been swallowed by growing vines near a spider’s web full of flies. Nelu leads the viewer through the old, abandoned homes of mine workers and fruit pickers, reflecting on the beauty of a past that no longer exists, a past contingent on a once-working industrial mine, who’s jobs gave people cause to inhabit the region. Leaning against an abandoned and overgrown church, he cries out “Repent! Repent,” decrying the unabashed plant growth that’s sprung up and overwhelmed everything around them, as though some human cause inspired god to cast its people out. The paintings on the church walls are wasted out in the wilderness, he says, while the camera passes over a fluid and languorous beauty of the hillside in summertime. Godless, that verdant and perhaps accidental beauty thrives with potent abundance.

“At first blush, plant subjectivity is still more hidden than that of animals and humans… So exacerbated, the enigma of subjectivity flips into its opposites: a thoroughgoing objectification of plants, their obviousness and inconspicuousness, not to mention their subsequent unbridled instrumentalization.” — “Of Plants and Other Secrets” Michael Marder, Societies, 2012.

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