Lothar Baumgarten's "Carbon" works on the memory in subtle and surprising ways. The installation, composed chiefly of bars of color and typographically crisp words affixed to the walls, is immensely sophisticated. That such spare means could be so quietly moving is an indication of the artist's considerable achievement.
"Carbon," which is installed in two adjacent rooms of the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a work of cultural anthropology given powerful visual form. In 1976 and 1989, the West German artist spent several months traveling the United States by rail and residing on several Indian reservations. Around the gallery walls Baumgarten has mapped two overlapping histories: The network of railroads integral to the settling of the American West and the homes of the indigenous tribes who were displaced, imprisoned or eradicated in the face of what was claimed, with God-and-country fervor, to be Manifest Destiny.
Names of 66 Indian tribes are inscribed on the walls, their placement geographically keyed to the East/West axis of the two galleries--Oneida, Seneca, Mohawk, etc., are in the "East"; Teton, Apache, Cheyenne, etc., occupy the "West." Relative scale of the print varies from name to name, a visual device that clearly seems meant to indicate the relative sizes of the tribes. Baumgarten chose Monotype Grotesk as the typographical style for the printed names. The word, Monotype, suggests the collapsing of distinctly different groups into a single species ("the" Indians), while Grotesk describes a traditional kind of art in which the forms of persons are radically distorted. For the subject, this pointedly chosen style is more than apt.
The tribal names have been printed upside down, an effective yet devastatingly simple means for making your eye momentarily stumble over their reading. Prevented from sliding easily through a litany of familiar names--Iroquois, Iowa, Osage--the mind haltingly reconstructs the displaced groups of letters into sounds, then syllables, and finally coherent words. As it rolls around your tongue taking expressive form, each name a sharp and distinctive entity, the abstraction of language becomes oddly tangible and concrete.
Baumgarten's process of mapping names is unobtrusive and subversive. In an effort to mark cultural diversity, English, the unifying language of North American conquest, is subtly undone. The repressed fact that virtually no part of the world can claim as many distinctly different native languages as the Western Hemisphere is made startlingly perceptible.
The second principal language Baumgarten employs for "Carbon" is an abstract system of bars, curves and crosses, which are cut from colored paper and pasted to the walls. Reminiscent of nothing so much as the abstract paintings of Kasimir Malevich and Russian suprematism in the '10s and '20s--an art long claimed as the first truly modern language of industrial culture--these material forms are arrayed to shape a physical, environmental map of American railroads in relation to the displaced names of Indian tribes.
(At the door to the larger gallery is a revealing chart of railroad companies the artist logged during his travels: the Marinette Tomahawk & Western, the Nezperce, the Monongahela and many more.) The shapes rhythmically traverse the rooms, converging, dispersing, paralleling, intersecting, connecting. Unlike the words, these tracking shapes have no right side up; therefore, they cannot be displaced.
Baumgarten's deft ability to stir up dense, sedimentary layers of thought is typified by the installation's title. "Carbon" poetically evokes organic substance created over centuries by geological pressure, while also suggesting the harnessing of industrial power, as manifest specifically by the locomotive. It even puts you in mind of carbon-14 dating, the high-tech method for tracking obscured points in human history and prehistoric time. As each layer ricochets off the others, the museum's galleries become resonant echo chambers in which the present resounds off the past.
In this way, the native cultures of North America--typically trivialized, deformed, forgotten, eradicated, obscured--regain complex power as peoples viscerally remembered. Baumgarten italicizes the museum as mausoleum, a socially consecrated place in which the lost bodies of our ancestors profoundly speak.
Baumgarten's work, being shown in Los Angeles for the first time, is informed by the legacy of conceptual art of the last 20 years. His most apparent debt, as with so many German artists of his generation, is to the trenchant work of the late Joseph Beuys, with whom he studied in Dusseldorf from 1968 to 1971. And once again the specific confluence of language and mapping in his work suggests the important precedent of Jasper Johns to European conceptual art, a precedent very apparent last year at MOCA in the retrospective of Belgium's Marcel Broodthaers.
Still, Baumgarten's birth in Germany in 1944 seems an equally important bit of data. For the particular elements deployed in "Carbon" cannot help but recall the three genocidal holocausts of the modern era--one in Hitler's Germany, one in Stalin's Russia, one in 19th-Century America. That the first two are the subject of varying degrees of public scrutiny while the third remains almost completely repressed only serves to make this exceptional installation all the more momentous.
Through June 17 at the Museum of Contemporary art, 250 S. Grand Ave. (213) 621-2766.