Still from Nature, 2020. © Artavazd Pelechian. Courtesy of Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, Paris.
(Cartier Foundation and ZKM, 2020)
Artavazd Pelechian’s Nature is not about the end of the world. You could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, given that the Armenian master’s first film in twenty-seven years is primarily composed of found footage of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and torrential floodwaters pulping infrastructure and spinning boats onto highways. My first reaction to Nature, no doubt influenced by the steady feed of outlandishly bad news in 2020, was a sorrowful but resigned sense that an oracle had broken his silence to tell humankind that the end was near, and that we had only ourselves to blame. And what an oracle: while generally known only to the most fanatical members of the filmgoing public, Pelechian is without a doubt one of the most influential film artists of the last half century. Jean-Luc Godard’s experiments with found footage and the deconstruction of movement are unimaginable without the example of Pelechian, whose entire body of documentary essay films was no longer than a single Hollywood apocalypse spectacle until Nature clocked in at an unprecedented sixty-two minutes. But minutes are a fluid quantity in Pelechian’s films: through his logic-defying approach to editing, which he refers to as “distance montage,” Pelechian collapses time and expands meaning, recounting the entire history of the October Revolution in the ten minutes of archival footage that make up Beginning (1967) and linking the finitude of a human heartbeat to the hum of the eternal cosmos in Our Century (1983).
Any viewer who does not deny climate change will certainly see human responsibility implied in the crumbling ice shelves that initiate Nature’s visual litany of disaster. But to interpret Nature as a short-term doomsday prophecy is to lose sight of the bigger issues at play in Pelechian’s work. Bigger than doomsday? In thinking more carefully about Nature, I was reminded of a phrase French critic Serge Daney used to describe Pelechian’s work in the 1983 Libération article with which he introduced him to the West: “disoriented human bodies, caught in the turbulence of matter.” While it is eerie to acknowledge how well these words fit Nature, a film Daney did not live to see, recalling them here serves primarily to recognize that Pelechian’s work is about currents greater than human life. However short, his wordless films are conceived on the scale of history, geology, planets, and elemental forces and cycles. Perhaps more clearly than Pelechian’s previous films, Nature presents a point of view outside the human framework. A persistent leitmotif here is a drifting shot of mountain peaks seen from above the clouds. The point of view is Olympian, but the forces here are natural, rather than godly.
It would be a mistake to say that a Pelechian film is about something ending: his aim is to reveal deeper continuities by combining images that don’t seem to belong together, like when the curl of a crashing wave in Nature perfectly resolves into the collapse of a multistory building. I even hesitate to say the film is about disaster. Nature’s black-and-white images and stately pace, its alternation between Beethoven or Shostakovich and the garbled sound of human voices amid breaking structures suggest that, like beauty, disaster lies in the eye of the beholder. Pelechian’s film shows us that nature is irrepressible and at least as beautiful as it is disastrous. Most importantly, its movement abides. In Nature’s serene final moments, the sun hovers above restless waves, either rising or setting—it doesn’t matter which because the one will eventually follow the other. The world will continue to exist. Whether we’ll be here to enjoy it is not Pelechian’s problem.