Monday, April 27, 2009

After Nature

I was interested in After Nature's use of literary influences, both in the presentation on the website and at the exhibit at the New Museum. The most prominent text on the website comes from excerpts of sermons by Reverend Howard Finster, a man whose frenetic handwritten aphorisms and observations provide a running commentary for the online images. Several words or phrases from each sermon excerpt appear as hyperlinks that connect the viewer to another word/image pairing. The found material doesn't have any obvious correlation to the images upon which they are superimposed. In addition, the hyperlinks do not provide any deliberate or linear correspondence between images. The juxtapositions seem both random and consistently ominous.

These juxtapositions may feel random, but they are deliberate moves inspired in part by the work of W.G. Sebald, the author whose prose poem After Nature provides the title for this exhibition. The influence of literary texts pervades this exhibition. In their audio commentaries, artists refer to apocalyptic lines from Shakespeare's Henry V, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, August Strindberg's Inferno, Lovecraft's The Beast and the Cave, and even The Unabomber Manifesto (not literature, exactly, but certainly a dystopic text that has inspired some of the art objects in this exhibit).

Several of the works in this exhibition reveal a fascination with decapitation, engorgement, and the abjection of the human body. This focus on the decapitated head has biblical resonances, too. Consider the detail from Thomas Schütte's The Magnificent Seven:

At first, the disembodied head looks like a kind of death mask, but the blood-red color of the ceramic, and the severe crack along the front of the face suggest a violent death. The bubbled material on the side of the bloodied head is presented as an earthlike material that is in the process of decomposition. There's something forensic to me about this head, but something organic, too—the idea that Adam was made of the earth.
Huma Bhabha's legs, and arms, and heads is another disembodied sculpture available for online viewing:

The title for Bhabha's piece comes from a particularly post-apocalytpic excerpt from Shakespeare's Henry V, in which a soldier in the king's army speculates on what will happen when the amputated limbs of mutilated soldiers join forces in the afterlife and demand a reckoning. Bhabha's head, which is made of both synthetic and natural materials. Like the memento mori of earlier centuries, this disembodied, decomposing head points more to what's missing than to what's there.

This pointing to what's absent recurs in Dana Schutz's Man Eating His Chest:

When I showed this image to my wife, she observed that the painting's bleak but bold color palette, process of self-engorgement, abject horror of the painting echoed the posture of some of William Blake's visions in The Book of Urizen (1794):

Like many of the artists in this exhibit, Blake was a reclusive visionary interested in creating his own systems of signification. Chaos and disorder are also depicted in Atomic Age, the painting by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, another artist who, according to the curator, "developed personal cosmologies" in order to create his art:

With what appears to be snakes coming from an atomic cloud, Von Bruenchenhein's image is paired with the words "///THE earth will pass away with a great noise and there will be no place for it" on the site. The painting is disturbing enough, even without the doomsday prophesizing words laid on top of it. It seems like the destruction of an atomic bomb would beget even more destruction, in the form of snakes.

Snakes, too, have a prominent place in William Christenberry's audio commentary about the kudzu of the South, and how the fear of being tangled up in hoopsnakes informs his vision of overgrowth and superabundance of nature.

Perhaps, then, I'm most interested in how these apocalyptic visions speak back to one another and use familiar, recognizable tropes from apocalyptic traditions across time periods, even as they create innovative art objects. But I'm not sure if After Nature represents "new ecological systems struggl[ing] to find a precarious balance" that the introductory text on the website refers to. Rather I see an exhibit that's clearly depicting hell on earth and there's nothing very precarious about it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Place: The Final Frontier

William Fox's essay The Eye & The Mirror about visual perception and Antarctica pulls together science, art, and geography into a very interesting article. It seems that locations such as Antarctica and other vast empty desert landscapes (I had never considered Antarctica as a desert until this article) are completely discombobulating no matter where you are located in the landscape. Reading about the Fata Morgana mirage phenomena and skiing with your eyes closed to avoid vertigo was incredibly interesting and I can understand that happening if you are surrounded by barren land 360 degrees. However, I think it's also interesting to think about Terry Evan's Greenland work where, even from the air, it's hard to perceive scale because there's barely any reference point that humans can relate to – from the air or ground.

Terry Evans, Ice fjord leading to Jakobshavn Glacier2

So it makes sense to me that Fox talks about the use of cartography in order to interpret the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. I enjoy looking at maps, atlases, and globes, old and new, and know that boundaries between nation-states are a culturally constructed phenomena. However, I never considered maps as a way "overcome our neurobiological limitations in new and extreme spaces" or as "the springboard" for 16th and 17th century landscape art (p. 24). I often thought of maps as a way to guide what was already encountered, not as a way to think about what will be encountered. I think that it makes logical, mathematical, practical, and political sense to have the impulse to grid the globe. It is all encompassing, and latitudes and longitudinal coordinates make sense with the Cartesian plane we're familiar with. But I also think about how Buckminster Fuller's crazy Dymaxion Map, the "flat map of the entire surface of the Earth which reveals [the] planet as one island in one ocean, without any visually obvious distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the land areas, and without splitting any continent." (from the By visualizing the world with greater relative accuracy it would help us better understand relationships of continents to one another in regards to population, migration, food sources, etc. I'm not sure if I would use the Dymaxion Map as a way to get from point A to point B, but it certainly interprets unfamiliar terms, such as Antarctica being split into a long strip along the bottom of a Mercator map, into an understandable term, one land mass that is depicted with size accuracy in relation to other land masses.

animation of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion map by Chris Wyalt

Can Antarctica be experienced a "place" if you always end up disoriented? Or will it always be relegated to simply "space," a point on a grid (albeit a weird wedge shaped grid that messes up your compass)? Fox's discussion of what people want in landscape art is an interesting point of discussion as it relates to the Antarctic landscape. It seems like biophilia may be a factor as far as how people relate to the world and what they want an "ideal" landscape to be -- "a deep ancestral home" (p. 26). He states a disclaimer that eventually people prefer to leave their comfort zones to experience and experiment with the unfamiliar, but the challenge remains as far as how to interpret and how to relate to an unfamiliar landscape if it is perceived to be as a "vast nothingness" like the companies that wanted to drill in the ANWR landscape. Perhaps that is the charge of artists such as Subhankar Banerjee who appeal to our biophilia. By populating his landscape photos with nature such as caribou herds, he not only provides a sense of scale, but also a sense of a relatable natural practice such as migration across a landscape which transforms a "space" into a "place."

I assume that the pairing of Alan Singer's article with Fox's article on Antarctica was because of Werner Herzog's film Encounters at the End of the World. Unfortunately I live under a rock and have only seen Grizzly Man, but can tell from just a few YouTube clips and Singer's incredibly verbose article that Herzog is one nutty dude who's interested in the boundaries between humans and nature. This nuttiness may stem from the fact that he made his first phone call when he was 17. Despite the subtle differences between Kantian and Burkean definitions of sublime, I think I'll paraphrase Alan Singer: "I'm in such awe of reparticularizing and overparticularizing Nature that I s**t myself." But in the Kantian sublime, "the sublime is the mind's limit." Does "imaging its own failure" mean that our mind makes things up because we can't handle it? I'm wondering if this relates to the Fata Morgana phenomena/mirage alluded by Fox, as well as Herzog's film by the same name. It seems like Singer argues that even though Herzog appears to be a cool, detached observer, his documentaries are "a conspicuous labor of cultural production rather than an escapist illusion." I'm not sure why Singer posits that the films are an 'escapist illusion' but it feels like the "ironic sublime" is a criticism leveled at Herzog, when Singer says "my point is tht however exotic the look of the films, they always return us to the knowledge that such other-worldly exoticism is no less a product of culture than the cultural norms it belies" (p. 197). While Herzog is saying, "Look at how crazy and beautiful this natural world is and how insignificant we are in comparison," Singer is saying, "Look at how Herzog has made this natural scene crazy and beautiful through the use of mise en scene, his dramatic camera shots, and operatic music."

Monday, April 13, 2009

New Topographics

It was interesting to read these New Topographics articles not only in the context of this Human/Nature class, but also in light of the theme of this year's SPE conference, Sprawl. I had only been familiar with Frank Gohlke's Mt. St. Helen's photographs, but only viewed it from a technical/printing perspective. However, in the context of the New Topographics and his tornado Aftermath series, I have a much different appreciation for Gohlke's engagement with landscape photography. Ben Lifson's essay explains that Gohlke's work is a "critique of landscape art, its visual rhetoric and its historical and ethical content." I'm not sure if I see the critique that Lifson refers to, but I think that Gohlke firmly fits into the New Topographics label that he supposedly resists. Of course no one likes to be pigeon-holed, but much of Gohlke's work is certainly under the umbrella of a 'man-altered landscape' -- from the Mt. St. Helen's series to the tornado Aftermath series and even the grain elevators. The grain elevators is, in my opinion, not his most compelling work, but I do see how it fits into how the overarching theme of a human presence in a vast landscape. Lifson states that Gohlke's Witchita ruins are a critique of the art of ruins, but I'm not sure if I find support to this argument in the essay. I view these photos, as well as the Mt. St. Helen's photos as being about how nature (I'm considering humans as part of nature) regenerate after a disaster.

Aftermath: The Witchita Falls, Texas, Tornado No. 11A and 11B, 4503 McNeil, looking north, 1979/1980

I thought Robert Adams's essay was much more enjoyable as I found his 'three verities' of 'geography, autobiography, and metaphor' very useful in thinking about how I should think about landscape photography. This sums up very succinctly what often eludes me in my photographs as far as "going beyond description" goes. I know that his reflection is supposed to be about landscapes, but I think it can apply to what I would want in every one of my photos, no matter what the subject. I suppose if it was a portrait, then I'd replace 'geography' with 'person', but the 'autobiography' part feels like it refers to 'point of view' that is often brought up in critiques.

Greg's application of Systems Theory to New Topographics was compelling in light of the 'everything is connected' theme that we repeatedly return to in this class. I had little knowledge of Systems Theory and the fact that the essay weaves together Minimalism, Modernism, and the New Topographics, it's an interesting intersection of art history. While I was somewhat aware that Robert Adams was invested in societal change because of his clear cut photos, I enjoyed learning of the "holistic" vision that New Topographics artists had in regards to their belief that their art could function as a stand in for a lived experience (p. 15). Adams' New West photos are certainly a critique of development encroaching upon nature and it's easy to see and depict the nature/culture boundary there. However, it is interesting to read about the conceptual anti-Ansel Adams boundaries that New Topographics pushed, especially during the time of the 1970's environmental movements. One would think that there would be more Eliot Porter nature photography to comment on what's happening in the natural world. But rather it feels like the New Topographics actually is closely related to the Land Art of the 1970's -- both work with the tenet that humans shape the land. Instead of Smithson shaping the beautiful Spiral Jetty, we have cookie cutter developments being carved into the desert.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Subhankar Banerjee

The treatment of Subhanker Banerjee's photographs seems to be an object lesson on the complicated relationship between art and advocacy. I admire his tenacity to challenge the drilling proponents' view of the Arctic landscape as being a barren wasteland, as I have analogous concerns about how developers view public housing. Both are places ripe with resources for financial gain, and both have existing ecosystems and communities that will be destabilized if commercial interests are fully realized.

Finis Dunaway's article "Reframing the Last Frontier" was not only an interesting recap of the ANWR/Smithsonian controversy, but also a thoughtful review of Banerjee's work. The article reminds me of all the things that consciousness raising documentary photography attempts to do, but often has to rely on heavy text. The pictures might be beautiful objects, but is it accomplishing what I want to do? Has the best thing that happened to Banerjee (and ANWR) the fact that the Smithsonian tried to censor his captions? Had Barbara Boxer not held up his photo in front of Congress to make a case, one might wonder if the Smithsonian would have been as alarmed. In any case, it's important to me that people took the pictures and words seriously. So seriously that it needed to be swept under the rug. I think all the heat that the Smithsonian caught is well deserved, and it has reminded me that the institutions are, for better or for worse, just as political as the artwork that hangs in them. I'm sure whoever instructed the Smithsonian to move Banerjee's photos didn't calculate the controversy that arose into the equation. It's troublesome how easy it is to recontextualize someone's work. Beauty (and resources) are in the eye of the beholder.

Also, I appreciate Banerjee's artistic strategies, as far as, like Terry Evans, using aerial photography to depict the scale of an ecosystem. While close-ups of animals do make them nice and cute, it is a convention that we know and that's how we learn what animals look like. To have the aerial view of an entire herd of migrating caribou seems like an attempt to understand the interdependence of animals and land. However, the god's eye could have the potential to abstract the image into large fields of color and make someone feel disconnected from the actual nature being depicted. One could look at it like a map, and ready to carve up the land like the Western powers did to the Middle East after World War I.

Subhankar Banerjee, Caribou Migration II, 2002

I am familiar with the anxiety the Banerjee felt when he recalled in Finis Dunaway's article polar bears being surrounded by people with cameras (p.3). When I've gone camping in national parks my objective is to appreciate nature – alone. But so is everyone else's. Often a community of mutual appreciation is formed with people acknowledging each other's presence on hiking trails, but unfortunately in the cases of super popular parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone, I can't tell the difference between the crowds of Times Square and the line to see Old Faithful. However, Banerjee's desire to live with polar bears seems a bit fantastical to me, and I'm glad that he did not indulge in this desire, lest he end up as a bear's lunch, a la Timothy Treadwell, the bear enthusiast documented in Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man.

If Banerjee's objective is to document the wilderness for preservation, he risks the possibility of making his photographs "too" beautiful, and an unintended consequence of protecting ANWR from drilling would be to increase tourism of the Alaskan wilderness. In my opinion, this is surely the better of two evils, though one that must be carefully regulated.