Paradise on Fire, 2007

Sergio Vega
Paradise on Fire, 2007
Installation view


Paradise in the New World

Once I found a mouldy old book abandoned on the lower shelves of a political science library. It was an edition printed in the 1940s of a manuscript from 1650 and published by the Peruvian government in celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the Amazon River. The title was Paradise in the New World. Apologetic Commentary, Natural and Peregrine History of the Western Indies, Islands of Firm Ground of the Oceanic Sea by the Licentiate Don Antonio de León Pinelo of the Council of His Majesty and the Contracting House of Indies who resides in the City of Seville.

The myth of South America as a “paradise found” started with Columbus when he asserted in a letter to the Queen that the entrance to terrestrial paradise was at the mouth of the Orinoco River. Columbus travelled with a copy of Marco Polo’s Voyages. The Gulf of Paria resembled the description Marco Polo made of a place in Asia he had taken for the Garden of Eden. The confirmation of a previous text is a substantial part of discovery, which makes the newly discovered thing not exactly new.

In Pinelo’s version, Eden was a circular territory of 160 leagues (510 miles) in diameter, and the Paraná, the Amazon, the Orinoco and the Magdalena were the four rivers of paradise. Pinelo’s text reflected the intellectual transitions of the 17th century: it attempted to reconcile a theological account of creation with a scientific view of nature derived from the newly developing discipline of Natural History.

Eden turned out to be in Brazil. The area of paradise covers a section of the state of Mato Grosso with rainforests, rivers, swamps, mountains, archaeological sites, indigenous reservations, rural towns, shanty-towns, and cities. These various sites, along with their histories and tales, supplied the source materials for this project.

At the Sharjah Biennial 8 I am presenting a video entitled Paradise on Fire. This project addresses the controversy regarding the Chiquitano forest, one of the most endangered eco-regions on the planet. Last year Enron/Shell finished a gas pipeline that links the source in Bolivia with the city of Cuiabá in Mato Grosso (the centre of Pinelo’s Paradise). The companies agreed with local and international environmental agencies to make reparations for the potential damage to the ecosystem as result of the construction of the pipeline. Instead, they finished the project and left.

Paradise on Fire examines contradicting views and expectations about paradise: pristine nature left alone versus modern artificial lifestyle. From this perspective, Arabia’s investment in creating an artificial paradise from the profits of oil exploitation becomes a paradox. In the case of the Chiquitano forest, reliance on oil energy results in the opposite: the destruction of an existing paradise.

This project was part of Sharjah Biennial 8.