Utopia, rubber and dreams of madness, Fordlândia 9 by JM Ramirez-Suassi, reviewed by Robin Titchener

Fordlândia – The Place

In the 1920’s American industrialist Henry Ford embarked on an audacious, almost incredulous plan. In order to secure a guaranteed supply of much needed rubber for use in the production of his cars – and to avoid being held to ransom by the relatively few custodians of the precious commodity – Ford procured an area of land (roughly 14,000 square kilometres) in Brazil, for the purpose of growing his own rubber trees. He then set about recreating a modern American town in the heart of the rainforest in which to house his new workforce. No expense was spared and the area boasted amongst other amenities, housing for 10,000 workers, workshops, a library, hospital, swimming pool and even a golf course. A monumental, Utopian dream for sure, however, perhaps not unsurprisingly, the project was beset with problems from the very beginning.

Unfortunately many of Ford’s rather puritanical rules soon began to cause unrest. No drinking or gambling was allowed, and the presence of woman, strictly forbidden – the town even had a specially employed team patrolling the imported street lit sidewalks to ensure that no rules were being flouted. Ford also attempted to enforce a strict diet, but the combination of such delights as oatmeal, brown rice and tinned peaches proved less than popular with the indigenous workforce. To the extent that on one documented occasion the prescribed diet proved so unpopular that a riot broke out, and required a military intervention to quell the uprising.

Ultimately, due to a combination of a poor choice of location (ironically the area was not conducive to the propagation of rubber plants), competition from Asian rubber producers and also, some years later, the invention of the synthetic version of the substance, the venture failed. The end results being that the Americans vacated, and Fordlândia was sold back to Brazil for a fraction of what it cost. And there it remains to this day, a memorial to the broken dreams of its creator.

Which perhaps is why it fell under the scrutiny of JM Ramirez-Suassi.

Fordlândia – The Book

The creator of 2018’s One Eyed Ulysses has returned with a delight. A title, a concept and a book that for some, may have hinted at a new conformity. Perhaps a linear narrative and a collection of images that my inform and satisfy those with a more “pedestrian“ taste. In fact it delivers an enigmatic dance which proves itself to be as worthy, satisfying and maybe even as perplexing as its predecessor.

Therefore, anybody picking up a copy of Fordlândia and expecting an artful architectural dissection of Ford’s vision maybe somewhat disappointed. It is in here glimpsed in whispered layers, taking its place with the travellers and inhabitants that comprise the cast for this surreal melange. The binding also may present itself with old world style. Quarter bound with capped corners and the title boldly embossed into the boards. In fact it is entirely possible that you could be holding an album, atlas or vintage journal. However, once inside any concept of conformity and establishment are banished. Just as C.S Lewis passed his young cast through the wardrobe, the mundane gives way to a dreamlike state in which the fantastic becomes normal, whilst normality begins to unravel as surely as a pulled thread on a cherished garment

So it is quite likely that if you approach the book with an open mind, you are likely to be warmed and immersed in a world that will sit on the edge of familiarity without ever embracing it. One that will suggest but never explain. A parade of dreamers, down and outs and restless souls. Of ramshackle fences, abandoned buildings and heaven’s echoes of Hughes slapping Ford on the back. And so Ramirez-Suassi once again positions our feet on the first step of an odyssey, and disappears leaving us to our own cartography.

The opening image, an arrival. In One Eyed Ulysess a huge sky with birds in flight. In Fordlândia the sky once more, but this time embracing the silhouette of a tree lined horizon. Framed and diffused by the opaque window of an unspecified mode of transport. There is a duality to the image, by turns dark and foreboding, romantic and alluring. The first steps to Ford’s folly are taken, and Ramiresz-Suassi’s carnival of bruised landscapes and fractured souls is revealed.

A broken footbridge perched on a crest of rocks, extending out over a rocky ditch, seemingly collapsed in both directions. Going nowhere, serving no purpose, but still beckoning, daring. An Elvis impersonator – seventies Elvis of course. A God past his prime, fulfilling his destiny, crooning to the absent devoted. Sequins, sunglasses and perspiration. Tough gig. A makeshift cart, handlebars and a wheel attached to two planks of wood, sitting dissected – stranded – in the middle of a dirt road that may once have lead somewhere, but now just a journey for the sake of walking. An official, smartly dressed in a black suit gagged by tape baring the initials STF – The Supreme Federal Court of Brazil – whilst a reporter insistently extends a microphone. Two versions of the image presented in both colour and black and white, but with one variation. In the colour version the subject’s right hand is outstretched animated, full of purpose. In the other his hands are by his sides, submissive, beaten. A silent interview to be broadcast to deaf ears. As it transpires one of a number of people denied the privilege of speech. A Book held aloft, obscuring the mouth of it’s owner. A handwritten sheet of paper held up, worn as a mask.

And then to Fordlândia itself. A twisted broken body of a place all but forgotten but still reaching out, pleading for attention like a hand thrashing in quicksand. Amongst the portraits – travellers, tourists, inhabitants (although we are never told who is what) – the occasional glimmer of actual habitation. A television sits atop a stand bearing family photos. Signs of life. Behind it, pictures, souvenirs. A calendar, mounted on the wall of a derelict remnant of doomed small town America transplanted. The town’s iconic water tower glimpsed though the stained and broken windows of one of Fordlândia’s disused workshops. A room full of taxidermy frozen in a macabre march towards an open door and freedom beyond. The wall of a factory building bearing a painting of a rubber tree. Trees and vegetation visible through an adjacent glassless window. A cruel reminder of a folly upon a folly. And lest we forget who is in control. Those already familiar motifs are also present. Wrecked cars, broken chairs, outstretched hands. Our Geppetto never far away.

It is true to say that Fordlândia as a location is not dead. Many buildings still remain, although some barely. Indeed it’s population if anything is growing once more. However it would also be fair to say that Ford’s infrastructure now sits in the shadow of a shadow of its former self. But then I believe the physical structure of Fordlandia was never JM Ramirez-Suassi’s inspiration. The frailty of human nature, the study of blind ego marching forward into the abyss against all advice. The have-nots, carrying nothing more than suitcases full of optimism, and bags of blind faith. The haves armed with arrogance and the belief that money and power are enough to tame nature itself. Canute with a platinum card.

This is the talent of the artist. With One Eyed Ulysses he left us in the desert of our own imagination, and crushed the compass. In Fordlandia we are at least delivered to a destination, only for him burn the guide book before our very eyes. He is to photography what Beckett was to the written word. He sits and weaves whilst the world spins around him. I have conversed with JM on many occasions about many things. For example, I was curious to know what purpose “9” played in the project. After all It sits prominently pressed into the front board, and shares centre stage on the title page. In both instances seemingly playing as an abstract graphic counterpoint to the title itself. However, it has become very apparent that with regard to Ramirez-Suassi, nothing is random or without purpose. The Devil after all is in the detail. He was kind enough to offer this:

“It is a nod to literature, in literature the 9 is important. There are 9 sections with 9 photographs each. And 9 black and white photographs. Most of the photographs of F9 are limited to a specific geographical context, but my intention is that they generate a discourse that helps us to weigh all the territories we step on with our feet. In F9 we do not find any symbolic image that summarizes the book, in this sense it is an open book. There are endless paths in the book in the middle of the jungle and also images that suggest being taken in populous cities. I think that the human being needs these two spaces, because he is both a citizen and a pilgrim.”

As to the work itself, the images. Those are off limits. There seems to be an unspoken mutual agreement. I don’t ask, because he wouldn’t tell me anyway. My interpretation of his work is mine, you will derive your own, and without doubt he would welcome and applaud every one. In a recent exchange he told me “I simply observe through a small rectangle. That is my world”

Long may his world spin.

Fordlândia 9 by JM Ramirez-Suassi can be purchased here.

Robin Titchener is a photobook collector of some thirty years. He is a regular contributor to both Photobookstore Magazine and The Od Review, as well as running his own review blog.