Before coming here, we’d for weeks pored lovingly over the region of Binəqədi on Google Maps (street view is not available in Azerbaijan), identifying what we were sure was some kind of mystical triangulation of place – an asphalt lake, neighboured a few hundred metres to the west by a mud volcano, and directly in between these two, about a kilometre south, a bathhouse, Xan Hamam. I dreamt of shooting a scene where we submerged and then extracted my local friend Butuney from the asphalt with a forklift truck before driving him, hanging in a harness from the forks, dripping black oil, down the road to the bathhouse and plunging him in one of its steamy pools, to be scrubbed down by an army of men with enormous bellies.
It feels as if a huge ecological catastrophe has occurred. But actually it’s totally natural. Or at least corresponds to images of the natural I carry around with me. This asphalt lake was connected to a larger water-based lake, and it sent, in mysteriously rhythmic pulsations, psychedelic plumages of colour out into this water. The sameness is spreading: the precise geographical origin of nowhere. Frogs hung around the lake at the base of the reeds in crowds. Fertile. The man who’d driven us here, bored by our rooting around in the mud, went off to buy some sausages. When he got back, we lit a fire, cooked the sausages, and had a picnic on the banks leading down from the world to its apocalypse.
Baku Panoramic View. Nəriman Nərimanov Prospekti looked like a little brook from here. It was off-season, so we were the only people there. At this point we had been looking for the Natural History Museum for about three hours. As we stood there an English mother and son who I had sat next to on the plane from London appeared out of nowhere. The Flame Towers towered behind us, reflecting and melting into the sky as the four of us looked out on the rooftops of Baku, all twisting and unfolding, the Caspian Sea in front of us, finally fully observable, its insides bursting with caviar. On the coast below us to our right was the plinth that once held the largest and tallest flag and flagpole in the world. But it had been removed before our arrival. Now there is just the plinth in front of which we would later take a selfie together. Looking out over all this, we all wondered silently what we were doing here. Or maybe they, the English mother and her son, had planned to come to this exact place in advance. They recommended lunch on the top floor of the Hilton Hotel for its similarly breathtaking view. Freddie seemed reserved and unwilling to talk to our new friends. Or maybe he was just determined to find the museum. I would have liked to talk more to them but the fruitless search and the many stairs had left me exhausted and lacking in conversation. An old-lady street sweeper suddenly appeared, bent double. She smiled to us as she came closer. Freddie ran his outstretched hand along the horizon and said proudly, çok güzel!, which means “very beautiful” in Turkish. She understood, laughed and repeated the phrase, çok güzel.
I had told Freddie I didn’t want to film anything. He pointed out the absurdity of carrying around a camera all day and not filming anything. It was a good point. Days later, when we had finally managed to locate the elusive Natural History Museum Named After Hasan bey Zardabi, I really wanted to film something for the first time. The museum was closed for renovation so we were lucky to be allowed in. There were bones of different sizes everywhere on the floor – some arranged to line up with other bones in partial reconstruction of an unknown animal, others grouped in relation to size. Boxes of bones with tags, illegible to us. So many bones, each one delicately extracted from the asphalt lake in Binəqədi, not pulled out of gloopy tar as one might imagine, but rather scraped free of the hardened bitumen. Still, the bones are black at first. They are not just dirty, they are black. Some are shiny black. The black bones are then carefully cleaned so that they regain their soft calcareous colour. This refinement, this cleaning and returning to their original state, is how we know that they are findings that belong to the natural world. White negatives. The metal wire, the paraloid adhesive, the jesmonite resin, the plastazote foam, all signs that they are natural bones, not artifacts. The once-horizontal layed-down raw bone out of sight is developed, edited, montaged onto plinths into erect constellations. We have to make it clear that we have mastered the bones.
At the tip of the Absheron Peninsula, where Baku is situated, sits the small island of Pirallahi, heavily populated with SOCAR oil pumps. It was once a Soviet prison camp for German soldiers after the war, some of whom decided to stay after being set free. They built their houses out of wood. Zoroastrians had their fire temples on the island and it is believed to be the first place oil was pumped from ground. To the west of the island, a vast mud desert, a landscape that is hard to love, at points blistering up into volcanoes. And to its east, the Caspian Sea, which is, like the Dead Sea, the Aral Sea, Lake Balkhash, a large landlocked salt lake, an endorheic basin: flow turned within. The body of the Caspian Sea is dependent upon the flow of the Volga and Ural that empty into it. When a drought hit western Russia in 2009 there were fears that its level might drop so much that there would be an algae bloom, turning its whole body into slime. The sturgeon would then all die, the source of the caviar, causing the immensely valuable industry to collapse. Oil and caviar are the main resources here, the former slowly poisoning the latter. Later I visited Gözəl Naftalan Health Spa, in the middle of Azerbaijan, west of Baku, where for around a century people have bathed in a particular kind of oil for health reasons. An oil that can, they claim, only be extracted from the surrounding region and cure you of many bodily ailments. All number of treatments are available: bathing, slathering on the back, massaging, even injecting into the prostate. The health benefits were discovered, one doctor informed me, gesturing into the desert from the terrace where we were sitting, hundreds of years ago by a dying pregnant camel abandoned by its caravan in the desert. When the caravan returned to the same spot a year later, the camel had given birth and was in perfect health. It had discovered the lake of Naftalan oil. Life-sized, plastic, now immortal camels are dotted around the complex to commemorate this lucky animal.
On returning to my own piece of outlying land on the outskirts of London, Tottenham, I discovered I lived near a zombie river, a comrade of the pool in Binəqədi. The River Lea that rises somewhere near Luton flows southeast through Bishop’s Stortford, entering east London under the North Circular and joins the Thames at Bow Creek, south of Hackney Wick. Most of the river, however, has been canalised, dug out to form the Lea River Navigation, alongside which the original River Lea now resides as a series of stagnant pools and murky channels; it swamps its way along below the embankment of its (relatively) new navigable partner like a diseased twin, sneezing out huge plumages of Himalayan Balsam and other unknown foliage at every quagmire. It’s my zombie river – one that lives on, persists, beyond the cancellation of its rivery-ness by the fashioning of a deep and useful doppelgänger. It just about flows, but doesn’t really, lingering in the condition of the sort of. Although the original course, it is now literally superfluous, being the overflow channel during times of heavy rainfall from the Lea Navigation. It is originary yet surplus. This zombie river can be accessed by little apertures in the hedges, burrowed by deviants that run along the towpath, down the bank to the little sunken swamp, full of algae, mattresses and rubbish. Contrary to a widely held belief, it is not possible to walk along the River Lea, not this bit anyhow, nor is it possible to orbit the little swamps as if they were prospective ponds. No ways exist for either of these modes of engagement. You are channelled down, instead, to these little viewing platforms, made by thousands of consecutive feet, nestled in the growths, and you stand there, watching the spectacle of flowlessness go on.