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."

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