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.