Daniel Joseph Martinez’s billboard couches the artist’s characteristically defiant and anti-authoritarian attitude in wistful, poetic verse. Its text reads: “The disappointment of a fanatical searcher of the truth, who saw through trickery of an authoritarian world filled with illusions.” While the image of the vertically flipped ship (upon close inspection seen to be a military aircraft carrier) apparently contains several coded political references to a history of environmentalist activism (explained in the curators’ text), it combines with the text to conjure the romance and melancholy of a weary seafaring explorer—or, for me, the insatiable mania of Fitzcarraldo.
Werner Herzog’s “Conquest of the Useless” collects the director’s amazing diaries from the making of Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo wants to bring grand opera to the Amazonian jungle and must haul a ship over a mountain in order to realize this dream. He fanatically wants to bring order to the violent chaos of nature. He seeks an uphill struggle—there is truth in that. Fitzcarraldo is basically a proxy for Herzog, or Herzog became a kind of Fitzcarraldo in the protracted and exhausting process of making his film. The hallucinatory project he sets for himself is sysiphusian, impossible. Fitzcarraldo/Herzog is the figure of the ‘fanatical searcher of truth’, the artist battling a world of obstacles and navigating his way through setbacks and disappointment to realize his insane obsession. Herzog’s fixation began with an impossible vision:
“A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong.”