Otto Placht

Painter of the Jungle

My Story

My life story is less an adventure novel than a montage – disconnected stills which show a path rather than a story. I have often made decisions of far-reaching consequence under the influence of spontaneous creativity, not careful consideration. Trying to sum up what I have lived through so far is a difficult task for me; what others might be tempted to see as another chapter in a book I simply take as another image in a series. It does not make much sense to search for the motivation for the actions in my past. They were often fueled by grand artistic aspirations, by some energy strong enough to filter my impressions, enabling me to see things that never existed and experience things that never happened. Much of what I went through happened only in the layers of paint on a canvas. Much of what I saw was meant only for my inner sight. Much of what I came to know has become only a dusty record filed in my memory.

I started transforming reality internally so that it would match my imagination. Armed only with basic knowledge of anatomy and what I understood of the Chaos Theory, I went through piles of refuse at the National Technical Museum in Prague and reconstructed the Golem from remnants of laboratory equipment. We carved bas-reliefs into the floor of the Roxy cabaret, eagerly trying to suppress our artistic ego. We modeled traditional Nativity scenes in clay on the edge of a surface mine in Most. It was dark, cold and raining. I was imagining how we might build a monastery in the bottomless pit that remains once the coal had been mined away. The New Year was approaching, and with it my decision to leave for the rainforests of the New World, for the mysterious wilderness of Peruvian Amazonia. Engulfed by these images, I set out for a journey like a pilgrim in the Land of Dreams. Awakening was to come soon.

The Threshold of Home

I have become a painter. It is hard to say if it was a conscious decision or mere happenstance; either way, I had already made up my mind early on in my childhood. Art is a vocation. I inherited my disposition for such firm decisions from our family constellation. My mother sacrificed her life to medicine. Nevertheless, she was always supportive, even as I went my own way. I left our home, which she had built with the strength of her spirit, and tried hard to hold to the values she instilled. I have not always been the son worthy of her heritage. My mother’s struggle is over now. In the end, her death was merciful. I want to think positively: a circle has closed. My mother was the foundation of my story (as it is with all living beings), and if I am to go on, I have to carry the light which was the essence of her being. I just don’t know yet how to replace her loss. It seems to me that I was building a gravestone for her out of the faces of people whose lives she had saved.

I remember an early dream of mine. I am entering a narrow corridor, perhaps in the Old Town in Prague, passing through a familiar door. I am walking on the ceramic tile floor with art nouveau floral motifs to the staircase. I am opening an old squeaky cast-iron grid door, and there, on the floor of the lift, lies a huge snake. I am chopping it up in small pieces, maybe using a machete, and from every little cavern of its body tiny human figures jump out, skeletons, the way children draw them. They are chasing me to the door of our apartment, which is suddenly not here. Everything feels completely alien. I am running in vain through the floors of the house, searching for our home. I wake up in my mother’s bed, and from the stucco decorations above the windows of the house on the other side of the street, demons and fairies are laughing at me.

“Embryos of thoughts were trembling in fear. Don’t make them live, don’t make them leave the bottle.” That was the time I was born into, and the time when I travelled through imaginary worlds. I lived in a present built by the past, but I imagined the future. The presence of totalitarian Czechoslovakia was unbearable at the time.

In the past twenty-five years, I have been on the road between continents. I have built, inhabited, left and disassembled many new houses and homes. None of these were very permanent, just as life in a tropical jungle is anything but permanent. In Amazonia, it is enough to put up stakes in the mud, cover them with a roof made of palm trees, smooth out the mud floor, put up your hammock and start dreaming. If you can get along with your neighbors, you can live like this forever. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Genesis

At the beginning I was flying over the Andes, the earth under me was dark and barren. There was a storm in the west, lightning was thrashing the waves of the Pacific Ocean. In the east over the waters of Amazonia, in the shadow of the mountains, the Spirit of the Jungle was floating. So be it. I wanted to shed some light on reality. To think about Man, about the Golem, about reaching the ideas in my mind, castrated by the concepts and confines of western art. Breathless, I sought words to describe the first moments that changed my life. Reality in a vision, visions in a reality.

Lima – Peru, 1993

We are descending through covers of gray clouds to the shore where landfills outline the shape of the haunted city. Infierno. The city, just like Peru itself, is just awakening from the nightmare of terrorism. The main thing is not to stay too long, to return back above the clouds and fly on to the belly-button of the whole world, Cuzco. The golden sun of the Incas melts the strictness and order of the ancient civilization in the stones that are put together with superhuman precision, as if to worship Mother Earth. Tourists worn out by modern civilization embrace local walls and are trying to feed on the spirit of Pachamama, hoping to take away a small bit of the power that once helped to build this city. But these are just ruins around them, a mere past, a museum of what remained after La Conquista. These crumbling monuments of bygone days are only painful reminders of the present.

I keep looking for the path to the country with no past, no history, no time; the way to the Amazonian rainforest. Pongo de Maynique – white rapids and lower jungle. Stand and wait, pilgrim, for holy are the places you tread. I want to be the first person whose shoes step in the mud of the virgin jungle. The energy of life has so many manifestations here, and only one death. The cycle is so fast that it makes rebirth impossible; there is no time to search for the substantial, to give up life in favor of asceticism, to overcome urges and passions or, maybe, stand still in the whirlpool of illusions. Wilderness.

The First Night in the Jungle

At night, drunken guides are listening to a dying radio. As its batteries wear down, it makes an awful noise. But in  this one moment, the ancient past and present merge, joined without the intervening of thousands of years of human civilization. This feeling will return to me in years to come. This is the very opposite of the existential helplessness of man in the void of the universe. There is no parallel to being here. I am hit by the Truth, by the unembellished laws of nature. People here are accustomed to defending themselves with fire and machete. But I am searching for those who seek not to subdue but to discover of the treasures the jungle hides. Those who have been able to face the laws of nature through their transcendence.

I open my sketchbooks. New ideas and experiences emerge on their empty, clean pages. I feel no prejudice here; I want to break free from the weight of the past. Prague – the Mother of Cities – is just a mere cloud disappearing behind the horizon. Madre Selva is opening her arms.

Liana of the Soul over the Path of the Heart

Civilization ends here. I came to the end of the path. A dusty road surrenders to mud at the shore of the Yarinacocha Lake. On the other side of the lake neither innovations such as roads nor artifices such as straight lines exist. The jungle leads to a path of the heart that might, by detour, lead to the treasures of the spirit. Ayahuasca.

From now on I don’t have to tame my imagination. The limits of my inner world match the borders of this Amazonian universe. Embryos of thoughts develop in this present energy and mature into actions, into something unique, universal, a cosmic vision. There is no other reality other than many realities contained in primordial emptiness, where everything is a result of free decision. Through our actions we are filling this emptiness with content, with material created from light and with life impregnated with purpose. Here people are transformed. Singing shamans animate demons, call for the souls of plants, wake up Carahuas (snakes with ears and antennae) and other helpful spirits – mothers from the dead sea, on which they travel to the underwater worlds. This is how they heal the crazy ones, the disabled, those who suffer from unhappy love. From now on, nothing will happen by chance, everything makes sense. I feel like I am in a doctor’s office, only there is no operating room, no tools of modern medicine. Here they use controlled currents of energy of unknown frequencies and lengths, whose purpose is to heal and protect the patient. Each meeting on the mud floor of the shaman’s house, each event, and every body movement is the result of some higher reality that one can perceive in this psychotropic state of mind.

I can hear the sounds of the workshop where the Creator forges the world. It is easy to get lost here but the gate has been opened.

Among the Shipibo People

I am hiding from people and from myself in the Universo Shipibo, both in the silence of the mosquito net and in my inner visions. I see fractals and strange attractors. Colorful patterns blend in Indian ornaments as an artistic shortcut of the lively and chaotic geometry of the jungle. I want to stop my mind, to become invisible (also because I have been hearing rumors about the armed men passing through the village at night). During the day I swim in the lake and when I am far enough from the shore, I feel I am part of the omnipresent sky. I pay no attention to the Indians who are shouting at me that the Devil of the lake has awoken. Swimming back to the shore, I only see dolphins disturbing the surface.

The shift in perspective shows me the long-hidden qualities of the environment in which I choose to live. The locals are still children. They are creative, and for them being and dreaming is the same. They love everything shiny and glittering but not because they lack taste but because they take the reality of this world as a reflection of the spiritual world. They constantly live in wishful thoughts which they consider reality.  They often laugh and when they see me deep in thought, they are afraid that I might be getting sick. I still don’t understand their language but I am hypnotized by its sound. I am merging with this culture which is so outwardly poor yet so rich inside.

I build a house in a small village, it has a beautiful name, San Francisco. Maybe I should call it a hut made of the wood that I had carried from the faraway places of the rainforest. I draw lines with paint made of tree bark, that – through ayahuasca – have become engraved in my mind like cuts in a rubber tree. I boil pucuti and huito, I maintain the living mud for cloth dying – tocuyo. Before the house is finished, the first visitors arrive. Usually they come from back home, and for different reasons. I am becoming a ferryman between two worlds, and through that I enter into the life stories and visions of many people from my homeland. As a result I create images reflecting the experiences of other people. They remind me of the world outside the jungle, with all its bad habits and transgressions. I keep living in some state of inner exile, in a split state. I don’t want to go back to my old lifestyle. Still, I can feel that my conviction has been shattered and is becoming unsustainable.

Then my children are born. The crying of newborn Clara mixes with the sounds of village life. The Shipibo stroke her little head and bring her newborn puppies so that she will not cry so hard. I mechanically run to the well for clean water: I am a bit in a trance, like all first-time fathers. I stop my nocturnal rituals of ayahuasca, so that I can be more present in the daily rituals of the family circle.

My peace is disturbed by the endless questions and repetitive discussion of visitors. It is the same all the time. What is ayahuasca? What is the proper diet? How does it heal? Why am I not a shaman? What did people see in their visions? It is interesting to see how human characteristics and cultural background influence the range of possible reactions. These range from absolute condemnation of the purga as a poison that causes pathological and devilishly infantile artificial hallucinations to a gate, an opening of human consciousness to the state of permanent ecstasy,  which might only cause problems upon returning to an average life in a common human society. We discuss the change of philosophical insights caused by the fast flight through the tunnel of vision. We carry on self-centered analysis about the health effects of this traditional medicine of Amazonian tribes, merged with oriental-like thoughts on collective subconsciousness. We ponder free will within the frame of psycho-magic manipulation. We ponder white, black and red magic; degrees of apprenticeship; plants like agents from different worlds; UFOs present in parallel universes; eternal love present in each material particle; and also money, money that changes the original habits of local people – those for whom, ironically, ayahuasca is heritage. We ponder the human ego that sees itself after death as non-existing, or only living on in the minds and memories of its descendants.

My table is covered with books in foreign languages on spiritual teachings  from various periods and directions. There are open backpacks with western magazines that seem to represent the only link for travelers to their stability back home. There is not enough light for reading in the evenings here, and surrounded by mosquitoes, one is not in the proper mood for it anyway. We had an idea to build a raft and call it Amazeon – a hotel, a theater, a library –  in the middle of the lake, so far out that mosquitoes could not get there. The fact that such accumulation of paper and wood becomes home to termites and mold, or that Indian shamans, for whom the jungle itself is the best library, find the content of all such texts suspicious, or even scary, keeps me from accomplishing this idea. The project just remains a mere reference point for my need to find some rational borders in this wildly pulsing environment, to get away for a moment from the unfocused nature of time and space.

At night one can see the image of the city of Pucallpa mirrored in the clouds of dust. Human life loses its magic for me there. Without the bond with the Great Spirit of the Forest one becomes a mere empty vessel, although people try to make up for the emptiness with the churches, the brothels and the noise of ever-present motorcars. Schools are only prisons and markets hawk a weird collection of things stolen from the jungle, things to be crassly bought and sold. But that is only the first, superficial impression. On some level, the jungle makes its way even through the streets of the city and helps strange forms of faith and syncretism to emerge. Members of some strange chiliastic church carry the sign of a fiery cross on their T-shirts, or fiery swords in place of the letter I in the name Christo. Here, in the place where you can hear giant saws cutting huge trees into planks and you can smell them being burnt, this is almost a prophecy. The famous Amazonian painter Pablo Amaringo says that he can hear the trees cry. Don Laurencio has his rituals just around the corner. There is a bakery in his house during the day and a strange hospital at night. In the meantime, the fishermen are drinking away the remnants of their brains in local shore pubs. An old man drags the remains of an alligator to sell, so that he can join the party.

Conclusion

“It keeps pouring out of you; stop it! That you could step outside yourself and move on!” But how can one stop the spirit in its eternal creative activity? Anytime I touch the canvas, it starts happening again. It is a story narrated in the language of images. Engulfed by colors and the rhythm of events, I open a rift in time and space. The same story in a new form, richer by what I have just lived through, poorer by what I chose to forget.

At the moment of insight more and more variations appear, and maybe these teach me what is still a true reflection of my inner self, and what is only self-deception. What is real and what already lies behind the realm of perception. What can be painted, what can be narrated, and what should be kept silent.

I sweep the floor in the morning. During the night, filth multiplies here, filth created by remnants of insects caught in cobwebs, guano and rat hair. Everybody fights for mere survival. Making it. As a human I am winning, but I am losing my dreams and idealism. One cannot live without money, even here. Maybe it is even more difficult here. Following my dreams, I meet some individuals in the deep forest who are tired of life in this wild environment and are trying to find a new life in the places that I had left in disgust. First, I would listen to their tales of magic. I am charmed by mysterious mythology. Fairytale-like legends of the Ucayali River. . .

Once, an Italian monk by the name of Alonso came here from India, trying to find Paradise. He called the river “Satan’s river,” Pucallpa “hell” and the Shipibo people “devils”  – but one grows tired of these stories. Tales of mythical monsters will sooner or later bore even the the most simpleminded. Nevertheless, the energy and atmosphere remain and will continue igniting sparks of inspiration.

A story emerged from the darkness of the night, on the periphery of human civilization. As it ever shall be, the power of love, the urge to create and the will to survive are its building blocks. I keep entering the same river, only the current in the sands of the Amazonian jungle keeps changing its riverbed.

Otto Placht (The last day of summer, 2013)