Monday, May 4, 2009

Human, Nature, Image. The order of words for the title of this course are arranged in a hierarchy. It seems like a simple sequence but if I have learned anything from this class, it is that these words, and their relationships to one another, are anything but simple.

We started the semester with a reading from Gary Snyder's book The Practice of the Wild. The chapter we read traversed many ways of defining wilderness and how different conceptions of this word construct different human identities. Though I did take issue with some of Snyder's romantic notions about 'native' cultures, I think this reading was an earlier indicator of just how specific I need to be when talking about things like nature, wilderness, the wild, culture, humanity, ect. It remains one of the highlights from the class for me.

I was also surprised by the idea of gene/culture co-evolution. I firmly believe that biological evolution is the root of many of our desires, beliefs and behaviors but this concept allowed me to let a little bit of culture into my gene-centric view of human behavior.

The chapter on biophilia was also good. I liked to read about the diverse ways we are emotionally inclined to react to other life forms.

Rebecca Solnit's chapter on Elliot Porter and environmentalism will be one that I will probably return to many times. Nature as it is defined by Porters pictures is so fascinating to me because it has romance and this idea of the pristine that has been examined over and over throughout art history and is still being examined today even while our impact on nature is shifting dramatically. One could argue that today there is no part of nature that remains unaffected by human impact and yet we still use imagery to imagine our ancestral home as intact and unblemished. (nod to William Fox)

After Nature or Post Nature is an idea I wish I understood better. I was frustrated by this section because I had wanted to be able to link a very current conception of nature, that is not yet fully accepted by the masses, with imagery about that concept. I think that the New Museum's exhibition was about narrative and imagined realities. While that is a useful tool for understanding the current mood of environmentalism, I wish there was more concrete theory or fact behind the section as a whole.

This is how I felt about most of the exhibitions that we looked at. They were fine to think about but I was hoping to more strongly connect them to theory. Even so, the class has had a tremendous impact on my ability to articulate my ideas about humans, nature and imagery. I came into the class wondering if the readings would break new ground for me or seem familiar and repetitive. I definately feel that I have come to many new conclusions about human's interconnection with nature and I have a reading list about a mile long that I can use to continue to use to refine my ideas after I graduate.

Now when I encounter works of art like this one (which is super cool), I will have a deep understanding of the types of thought and history the work might be rooted in.

Roxy Paine's Maelstrom - a new sculpture that is on view on the roof of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sunday, April 26, 2009

After Nature? I don't know about that.

When the New Museum's exhibition After Nature came out last summer, the title made me an instant skeptic. I imaged a cryptic exhibition filled with exaggerated and only vaguely ominous works that aimed to define a trend within art that represented what we were all trying to prevent by using cloth bags at the grocery store.

As I thought about it more, After Nature seemed like a title that was taking a stab at creating a new term to define our culture's shifting conceptions of nature. The only problem is that it was so close to being called post-nature that I began to imagine a debate around environmental issues that was what post-black is to race studies. What I mean is that they may as well have called it post-nature and I can't wait until we are post-putting post in front of everything. I also mean that the idea that there is an after nature is an extremely paradoxical and contentious idea. Would this "after nature" mean that nature had somehow become socially and politically irrelevant? Perhaps the works in the show were about a technological future where humans were no longer biological or had found a way to free themselves from relying on the resources of the natural world. Whatever. It sounded like bad sci-fi.

At the time, I remember going to the "view the online exhibition" tab on the New Museum's website. This exhibition (if you can call it that) is a completely esoteric example of the anti-layout aesthetic that is very trendy but works in very few cases. I didn't even know what I was looking at and I am still confused about the way the text relates to the images it sits on top of and the images it links to. So far, After Nature seems like the nonsense I thought it would be.

When I finally read the exhibition text, looked at installation shots of the works of art and listened to the online audio commentary, the ideas behind the show started to make more sense to me. From the New Museum website:
"After Nature" surveys a landscape of wilderness and ruins, darkened by uncertain catastrophe. It is a story of abandonment, regression, and rapture—an epic of humanity and nature coming apart under the pressure of obscure forces and not-so-distant environmental disasters...folding fact into fiction, the exhibition brings together artworks that can be interpreted as relics, idols, and documents. Temporally detached from any point of orientation, the exhibition emerges as a study of the present from a place in the future.

Though I am not sure how the exhibition would seem in person since I never went to it, the works that curator Massimiliano Gioni choose to include do seem like artifacts that create a narrative of our time from a future perspective. I am particularly drawn to this piece by Paweł Althamer.

Paweł Althamer - Self-portrait, 1993.

This is a life sized sculpture of the artist made from grass, hemp fiber, animal intestine, wax, and hair. First of all, it seems like a conservator's nightmare which is awesome. It is vulnerable and uses archaic materials and techniques of binding to hold it together. This makes the piece seem like a relic of the past the predates modern materials and technology. The piece reminds me of a Greek or Roman statue. But from the neck up, Althamer is a modern man, perhaps even an academic. He wears smart and sleek spectacles - half nerd and half sculpted Greek god.

Why would an artist make such a piece. He could have just cast his entire body and made a more realistic self-portrait. In the narrative of the exhibition, Althamer's representation of himself is perhaps an artifact representing a civilization that arose after an environmental crisis and had to reform its identity and society from the basic materials of the earth that compose this sculpture. Maybe the glasses are an artifact that predates this crisis. In any case, there are layers of past, present and possibly disastrous (and fictive) future that are a recurring theme throughout the exhibition.

I think that the exhibition as a whole is a bit fragmented. Sometimes you feel like you are looking at an artifact, sometimes a document and sometimes a sci-fi movie. This is intentional because, according to Gioni, the exhibition was inspired by Herzog's unique ability to combine document, fiction and narrative. I just don't think that the exhibition is able to juggle these three somewhat contradictory ideas nearly as well as Herzog does in his films.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Visualizing Space

It was quite interesting to read about Werner Herzog's films the week after our section on truth in photography because I have always been struck by the triangulation of documentary, narrative and emotion that Herzog uses. The clip below, from the film Lessons In Darkness, demonstrates what I am talking about.

What is interesting to me about this particular clip is that it uses narrative to write a metaphor of broader perspective on top of documentary footage. The workers are referred to as "figures," casting them as orchestrators of a cultural and possibly archetypal narrative. When Herzog says "Has life without fire become unbearable for them?" he does not speak only of the men igniting the oil geyser, but of a madness within humanity that craves the spectacular chaos that is unfolding in front of the camera. As the men watch the fire, they smoke cigarettes, pointing to the power, control and fearlessness that humanity has been able to manifest over a potentially deadly natural phenomena. The smoke from the fires is black, thick and destructive, like a cigarette is to the body, implying an impending demise. There is a sense of truth and also of fiction that ebbs and flows throughout Herzong's work.

The spectacle of metaphysical arrest that this scene instills in me seems to correspond with the concept of the sublime. In his essay Comprehending Appearances: Werner Herzog's Ironic Sublime, Alan Singer argues that to read Herzog's work as sublime is an oversimplification of his formal process. Singer unravels (in extremely tangled language) the production of a second-order reality in Herzog's films through his use of time, narration, apparatus (the camera) and style. These formal devices create cultural meaning and a point of view that ultimately result in a critical perspective of human temporality rather than a spiritual or subjective expression of sublimity. In other words, the films produce within a viewer a self-conscious awareness of history, irony and narration that give a sense of perspective and consequence that the would be denied if the film simply took the sublime as its motivation.

The scene below is also from Lessons In Darkness.

The aerial movement and disorienting smoke are what Singer refers to as the touchstones of Herzogs work: images that must be seen though detours of perception. As William L. Fox states in his book Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent "sight is our only long distance sensing mechanism, and in a space of such vastness (speaking of the Antarctic) we rely primarily on it for orientation and a sense of self relationship to what is around us." The cinematic effects in the above clip do give the film a sense of disorientation but the arid, smoke filled desserts of Kuwait must have a similar disorientation even before Herzog filters them though his lens. The charred and burning land that is the setting of Lessons In Darkness is then already biologically disorienting and perhaps our perception of this place is actually organized as much as it is disoriented though the act of filming.

A study by the artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, and cited in Fox's book, surveyed people around the globe and found that, of all the styles and subjects of painting, we most prefer traditional landscapes of wooded areas with visible water. He presumes that this cross cultural desire indicates a biological longing for a deep ancestral home where our evolution occurred. In the antarctic, Fox speaks of disorientation and a collapse of visual perception that is the result of our eyes inability to respond to a lack of contrast, color and scale because we developed in more lush environments that have these characteristics. This same collapse of perception must exist on the ground for the men in Lessons In Darkness and is, I believe, palpable when viewing the film. This is the tension within the film; a feeling of disorientation, of what Corrigan calls the departicularization or reparticularization of the sublime, and a progressive narrative that is woven into history and documentary.

These articles reminded me of some of the issues in An-My Le and Richard Mizarch's work.

An-My Le - Night Operations #7, 2003-04

An-My Le - Mechanized Assault, 2003-04

When creating the series 29 Palms, An-My Le documented a military training camp in California's Mojave Desert that was used as a preparation site for soldiers before they were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Using formal process and narrative in a way similar to Herzog, her images depict a real event but comment on broader cultural concerns. I am immediately compelled to compare Le's images to the photo journalistic representations of war that I have seen in the newspaper. This is in part because she uses a chalky black and white pallet that abstracts the locations in her photographs from a specific place to a general description of war landscape. The pallet also refers to the texture and contrast typically seen in newsprint media. Unlike newspaper photographers who often follow Robert Capa's age old advice "If your pictures aren't good enough, you weren't close enough," An-My Le's photographs are distanced and removed. This vantage point reminds me that my ideas about war are not from a first hand encounter but are instead distanced and mediated and that a sequence of events about the way war ought to play out is also mediated for soldiers through preconceptions and training long before they are lay foot in a war territory.

Particularly in the Night Operations image I posted, I get a sense of the sublime as it relates to what we often call shock and awe. Awe, or the feeling of the sublime is tempered by the knowledge that destruction and death are being caused by this event.

Richard Misrach - Swimmers, Pyramid Lake Indiana Reservation, Nevada, 1987-93

Richard Misrach - Desert Fire, #135, 1984-1993

The significance of social documentary in Richard Misrach's Desert Cantos photographs as well as the formal beauty and often fiery pallet remind me of Herzog and Lessons In Darkness.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Is it possible for art to be more than lies?

The title for this post, taken from the chapter Truth and Landscape in Robert Adams' book Beauty and Photography, seems like the single most important question asked by the New Topographics photographers. Working in contrast with the grand and romantic old topographic views of photographers like Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins, New Topographics photographers used the frame of their cameras to emphasize rather than exclude the widespread invasion of human structures and consumer culture over the American landscape. The stripped down greyness of the photographs was meant to emphasize their "straightforward" and "truthful" aspects, implying that the images were not cropped or lit in a way that gave a false "pictorialized" impression of an America filled with unspoiled nature. But is one Adams any more truthful than the other? If Ansel was cropping out the roads and power lines might Robert have also cropped out the sublime view behind him? Is it somehow more truthful to wait for a grey day than it is for a sunset?

Robert Adams - East from Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado, 1975

As I was reading I kept moving from R. Adams questioning of art's ability to not lie to a question of my own: "What kind of truth can a photograph offer?" R. Adams claims that the power of the Weston photograph below is its truth - the truth of a form that has survived beyond this bird’s death.

Edward Weston - Tide Pool, 1945

But the photograph is not merely about a body without life, it has an implied narrative that extends before the shutter was snapped and after as well. The fragments of logging suggest the cause of the bird's death and also suggest that not just one but many interconnected species of plants and animals have fallen from the practice of logging. Is this the true cause of the bird’s death? Are there really other effected animals? Did Weston simply stumble upon this bird while walking by as the camera angle suggests or was it moved or placed to make a better composition? There is a certain negotiation between truth and fiction and between evidence and narrative that we must navigate.

Here is a two-sided map of this negotiation:


To communicate the objective truthfulness of their photographs, the New Topographics photographers used so many layers of structured formalism that it is amazing to me that anyone ever saw these photographs as absent of style. One method that I haven't given much thought to in the past is the serial approach to making work that was discussed in "Systems Everywhere: New Topographics and Art of the 1970s" by Greg Foster-Rice. This is not to say that I haven't considered the work as a series. New Topographics photographers worked to keep their photographs even, flat and similar so that no hierarchy of composition or imagery would emerge. This is interesting because when I think of Robert Adams there is one photograph that immediately comes to mind. Its the one in the text books.

Robert Adams - Colorado Springs, Colorado 1968

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Photography, Text and the work of Subhankar Banerjee

Subhankar Banerjee's photographic project Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land grows out of a long tradition in documentary photography where by a photographer travels to a place or community to bear witness to the particular characteristics of its existence and returns with images that aim to allow an audience to similarly bear witness. As we have discussed previously in this class, working with the concept of nature in this way can be problematic because in many instances, photographs come to define nature as a place apart from humanity that is meant to be contemplated and appreciated for its beauty rather than a concept that is interconnected with the needs and desires of humans. Banerjee's work is particularly interesting because it relies so heavily on text to prevent it from slipping into the realm of abstraction or contemplation. When the text that accompanies the images was censored during an exhibition at the Smithsonian for political reasons, the meaning of the images also changed significantly.

Subhankar Banerjee, Caribou Tracks On Tundra, 2006
*This image is only a visual reference. Please visit the website of Subhankar Banerjee for a more detailed look at his project and the text that accompanies his imagery. I do not wish to reduce the project on this blog in the same way that the Smithsonian did but the space constraints of a blog will not allow me to publish the entire exhibition. (obviously)

Here are some questions I have for Banerjee when he comes to visit our class:

1. Why do you think the debates held on the senate floor about ANWR centered so heavily on the aesthetic value of the region? What role did the beauty in your images play in shifting the minds of senators who overturned the proposed drilling in the region? In other words, do you think senators responded more positively to the beauty and aesthetic value of the region that is highlighted in your photographs or the text which illustrates ways the ecology of this region is connected to a broader global ecology that impacts all of humanity?

2. Do you believe that photography can allow a viewer to bear witness to the ecological or spiritual value of a place without text? Do you find it problematic that a large part of the meaning of your photographs was so easily ripped away when the Smithsonian scrapped the text?

3. Though I haven't seen the exhibition of this work, on your website some images have accompanying text and other do not? Why have you made this choice? Do you think some images more clearly convey your ideas without text while other require explanation?

4. Do you think you will ever make a body of work about the land that does not use text? Are there photographers working now or in the past that you feel have been able to create a compelling argument for the ecological as well as aesthetic and spiritual preservation of a particular place without text?

5. Can you talk more about the history of imaging the land and the ways your work has descended from this tradition? Beauty, color and composition are clearly strategies for picture making that you have adopted from past photographers. Why is it important to use these ways of working when making pictures but break them when using text?

6. How do you feel about the fact that the act of creating your photographs actually contributes to the consumption of resources that have made ANWR such a contested region? As a participant in modern society, do you feel at all conflicted about the ways your personal consumption reflects a reliance on oil, natural gas, food and transportation systems that contribute to the destruction of animal and human communities in places like ANWR?

Stephanie Lempert, Flushing Meadows Corona Park from the GeoBiographies series, 2008

Today I was catching up on my NYT reading and I came across a review of an exhibition that Banerjee is currently in called “And for All This, Nature Is Never Spent,” at the Pelham Art Center. Interestingly, there is another artist named Stephanie Lempert who is working with text and landscape in the show. Her images look like nostalgic and pristine nature photography but they are actually photos of city parks that are built on top of reclaimed landfills. On top of the images, Lempert has put text transcribed from interviews she conducted with people who helped to lay the plans for the site's conversion. Though I find that the text distracting because it becomes a barrier that prevents me from entering the space, Lempert's technique is an interesting way to force a text to be integrated into the meaning of a work of art.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lost Geodesic Dome

One of my favorite things about the television show Lost is that the entire plot is based on a fictive parallel universe that has descended from the remains of a failed 1970s scientific research collective. How cool is that? As I watched this week's episode, I was especially aware of the ways the show represents the Dharma Initiative as an collapsed and outdated Utopian experiment because I had just read "The Comprehensivist: Buckminster Fuller and Contemporary Artists" by Elizabeth A.T. Smith.

Still image from the television series Lost - Jack inside "The Sawn," an abandoned research facility

Maybe you don't watch the show (I certainly can't catch you up on this blog) but looking at the still above, you can get a sense of what Buckminster Fuller's once visionary geodesic dome has come to symbolize today. It is a failed experiment; a once gleaming but now clouded and deteriorating vision of the future.

If we are to consider Fuller's legacy through its material rather than conceptual remnants, the portrayal of the geodesic dome on Lost is an apt metaphor. Fuller's designs for housing and transportation have never been adopted on a wide scale and the geodesic dome along with most of his designs now seem like a relic of the past rather than a vision for the future. There are artists and scholars however, who are revisiting the spirit of Fuller's ingenuity and approach to design and adopting new ways of representing or implementing parts of his visionary concepts. In her essay, Smith looks at several contemporary artists who use conceptual, cross-disciplinary and highly experimental approaches that descend from Fuller.

In the map below, I have charted out some ways that the artists in Smith's article draw from Fuller's ideas. I have chosen to model my chart after the circulatory system because in our bodies arteries and veins work in concert to keep the "spaceship human" functioning. Fuller is, of course, the heart. Red arteries lead to ideas common among the artists and Fuller. Blue veins flow either circularly back to the heart - indicating that the work of art is in conceptual harmony with Fuller's systemic world view - or away from the heart - indicating that the work draws on an idea similar to Fuller's but does not fully embrace it. I left out Irit Batsry's work because I can't quite understand its form or content from the reading or my research so it is difficult for me to categorize.

(click to enlarge)

What is striking to me is that of all the artists, Pedro Reyes' Velotaxi is the only work that has been engineered for practical use. In the video below, Fuller discusses his motivations to engineer practical objects that improve humans ability to survive on our planet. His example is building a bridge across a canyon that can connect people with resources on the other side. This emphasis on pragmatic and optimistic design that could be adopted by the masses is not present in any of the works Smith discusses. Even Reyes' bike taxis are redesigned from existing technology that is already in use (haven't we all seen bike taxis downtown?) making him less a futurist and more a reformer.

I am not trying to place a higher value judgement on practical art objects but it is interesting to me that most works of contemporary art remain contemplative and cynical so that they reflect the sentiments of post-modernity but do not offer the utopian hopefulness that Fuller embraced. A resurgence of hope for the future and an embrace of progressive change came along with our most recent presidential campaign but it seems to have quickly fizzled out. I wonder if we will ever have the same hopeful sentiments for the future that Buckminster Fuller had. When I listen to him speak in the video above there is a sense of romanticism when he talks about a nature that provides sustenance for humans in the same way she (insert feminist rant here) provides for the hummingbird. Will this romantic and determined optimism ever return to art? If not, how might we become practical without being romantic or cynical?

Monday, March 16, 2009

What's in a destiny?

Manifest Destiny was our nation's first great marketing campaign. In order to secure territory and resources in the name of our country and our ideals, our ancestors wrote a sense of entitlement and an ethic of ownership into the "American" identity that justified westward expansion as a predestined trajectory rather than an act of decision and will . Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape is an exhibition and accompanying catalog that looks at landscape paintings throughout American history to reveal the ways an environmental ethic arose alongside Manifest Destiny and was envisioned through art. The exhibition was on view at the Loyola University Museum of Art from May 17 - August 10, 2008.

Of the exhibition, John Peter Brownlee states, "In tracing [a] stylistic evolution from the eighteenth to twentieth century, the exhibition charts the dawning of an environmental awareness, a gradual though still incomplete shift from an anthropocentric view of the earth to a biocentric one that recognizes all organisms, including humans, as parts of a single natural system or community." Brownlee’s idealistic, American-centric notion that environmental awareness dawned with the birth of our country and that people have since been progressively moving towards a biocentric rather than an anthropocentric view of the natural world seems mislead to me. The Native Americans that we pushed from this land understood that life is interconnected and must be respected with an awareness that few Americans have today. Though all of the authors do not treat environmentalism as a concept of the enlightened class, there is a sense of romantic progression throughout this catalog that made me apprehensive as I read it.

Even so, I enjoyed considering the ways American’s have formed their identity by looking at landscape imagery. In the catalog’s preface Elizabeth Glassman wrote, ‘As early as the mid-nineteenth century, American culture manifested tension between differing attitudes toward the natural world, between the drive to conquer the continent and lament for deforested lands.’ This statement holds true today as we long for the wild lands that form a part of our identity and heritage but drive economic progress by over consuming resources that destroy the places of nature that we long for.

We look at representations of nature to form many parts of our identity as Americans and as humans. We see our heritage in images of wilderness. The human race has grown out of the wild and become civilized so images of nature serve as benchmarks to distinguish our intelligence and accomplishments that separate us from nature. This also holds true when we look at our country’s heritage. We have conquered and civilized what was once wild and we image and preserve portions of nature as national treasures to remind us of what our continent once was. These preserves are the remains of the raw resources that our country was built on and they establish a dynamic of power that shapes our identity over nature. We are primarily cultivators and controllers of nature, not interconnected community members.

W. J. T. Mitchell asserts in the introduction to his book Landscape and Power that landscape “does not merely signify or symbolize power relations, it is an instrument of cultural power, perhaps even an agent of power.” Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape does not only trace the development of American’s environmental identity, it also has a subtext of domination and ecological imperialism that affirms the human and particularly American power to harness and control nature.

The end of this decade seems like a particularly important time to examine the origins of Manifest Destiny because the American cultural identity that was established by our ancestors' expansion and manipulation of this continent has been reinterpreted to forcefully extend US agendas globally. This decade is one plagued with interventionist nation-building and growing signs of ecological devastation brought on by human enterprise. These are the very same issues that arose in the early years of our nation on a continental scale.

Peter Granser - Man with a Flag, 2006

This photograph by Peter Granser is from his body of work titled Signs. Signs is a look at conservative American values through photographs that were made in small towns in Texas during the 2008 election campaign. This image speaks to many of the ways Americans identify with nature. Two guys stand at the foot of a mountain in a location that is presumably accessible by car. One waves an American flag, symbolically saluting the land of his heritage from a distance while affirming America as its territorial owner. His shirt echoes the flag, his pants the pallet of the mountain he is looking at. The boy’s attire reflects a tension in the American view of nature. We are sort of like nature from the waste down, but we aren’t nature. We view mountains from afar and solute their beauty but we value comfort and disconnection. It is as if there is a line that these two guys cannot cross. They are keeping their feet firmly planted on the civilization side of the photograph.

It is important to note that Granser is German. To me, this photographs and the entire Signs body of work feels like an outsider's perspective. The way Granser half mocks the sentiments of his subjects seems cynical and detached from the American identity it is criticizing.

I have been thinking about ways my work relates to this reading and in lieu of a map I created a photograph as my visual response this week. I happen to have a poster of Granser’s photograph in my apartment and I made the photograph below using part of that poster as the background.

my visual response (made with a point and shoot digital camera because the negs aren't back in time)

In my photograph, I used an artificial material (from a torn up sheet of cushy stuff that you put in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet) to cover up one of the guys in Granser's picture and I cropped out the other guy. By removing the figures in the photograph, I shift Granser's critique from a cynical and detached look at the distant and absurd sense of self identity of two iconic Americans' to a questioning of the untouched and pristine nature that I have come to understand through imagery and have adopted as a part of my personal identity.