Monday, April 27, 2009

////Putting slashes where they don't belong is annoying and overly hip///////

I'm pretty thoroughly confused about what the New Museum's 2008 exhibition After Nature was about, or was meant to be about. Without having seen it in person, I'll have to hold off on complete condemnation, but, based on what the website's "online exhibition" offered, all I can say is that I'm baffled - utterly baffled.

Here are some things that I'm baffled about:

1. The title of the exhibition. Is it after nature, as in nature has ended or been destroyed and this is the result of no more nature? Or is it after nature, as in made in the likeness of nature?

The curatorial statement suggests the former, saying, "
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." But I just can't imagine that anyone would spend the time I'm sure it took to put the show together without thinking of the double meaning of the title. So I'm going to assume that it is meant in both ways, which is an enticing idea.

Reading the title as meaning "in nature's likeness," we might expect work that deals with representations of nature. August Strindberg's
Celestograph seems to do this. According to the audio recording of curator, Massimiliano Gioni, speaking about the piece, Strindberg, believed that he had developed a way to photographically record the cosmos, when, in fact, the patterns on his paper were simply caused by debris and humidity. Thinking of this work in the "in nature's likeness" sort of way, we see a irony and fallacy in the hubris of believing that we can understand or record our universe.
August Strindberg, Celestograph, 1894

2. What in the world does the curator mean by the word "nature"? All I can postulate is that Gioni means it in the broadest possible way. Based on the tremendously varied work in the exhibition, it almost seems as if the show is a violent reaction against any attempt to define nature. Ranging from William Christenberry's fairly straightforward kudzu pictures, which deal easily with the conflict between humans and our destructive but beautiful natural environment, to Tino Seghal's irritatingly obscure performance piece, which I suppose is meant to address expectations of what art is and how humans should behave, the show seems entirely incoherent. I just can't imagine why these two artists would ever be in a thematic show together.
William Christenberry, Kudzu with Storm Cloud, near Akron, Alabama, 1981

Tino Seghal at the New Museum in 2008

Are all of these artists talking about nature? Is this just post-apocalyptic stuff? Is this about the breakdown of the natural order? Maybe that's how these artists are connected. If I think about the ideas of breakdown and chaos, I start to understand how some of this might fit together. I love Roger Ballen's work, which was included in the exhibition and relates to the idea of breakdown.

Roger Ballen, Children on bed, 1996

In the audio available on the website, Gioni says the show is about an "image of nature as if it was crumbling and dying and all the energy had been sucked away." This statement makes me think more of apocalyptic environmental catastrophe than of the idea of breakdown as I described above. Perhaps his language is why I'm having such a hard time understanding this show.

Is this a show about nature? I'm not really sure. Gioni apparently grew great inspiration from Werner Herzog, and I think I can see that influence. Herzog seems to understand the world as chaotic and mysterious, and that seems to define this show.

///p.s. The title of the post refers to the stupid tech-aesthetic slashes all over the online exhibition.////

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Harmony of Overwhelming and Collective Murder

I think about Werner Herzog a lot.  Seriously.  I've been thinking recently about the way nature looks through his eyes (or lens).  In his chapter "Comprehending appearances: Werner Herzog's ironic sublime," from The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History, Alan Singer makes note of the visual distortions that Herzog makes use of in several films: the heat waves that blur a figure and the collapsing of space created by a long lens.  Herzog lets the camera linger and spin nauseatingly around violent rivers, wind-torn trees, billowing eddies of oily smoke and flame, and grey clouded Andean mountains.  Watch this clip of Herzog discussing the Amazonian jungle during the filming of Fitzcarraldo (a film largely about hauling a ship through the jungle, in which the crew actually hauled a ship through the jungle).  Really, watch the whole thing, it's great.

It's worth noting that he made these statements during some incredibly difficult filmmaking, and it's understandable that he speaks of the jungle with such a snarl.  During the making of Fitzcarraldo, several members of the cast and crew were seriously injured, and Klaus Kinski, with whom the director had a tumultuous relationship (they threatened to kill each other at various points), starred.  Despite Herzog's apparently foul mood, I think he believes deeply in many of the things that he says here, because they show up repeatedly in his films.  His view that nature is wild, opportunistic, amoral, and ultimately unexplainable resonate throughout his oeuvre, and when he says, "But I love it.  I love it against my better judgement," he means that.  Herzog is always trying to come to terms with these contradictions: that he both loves and reviles nature, that humans both conquer nature and are conquered by it.  

Richard Misrach, from the series Hawaii, 1978

In this early Misrach, somewhat uncharacteristic of his work, I get a similar feeling about nature.  This tropical scene, which should seem like paradise based on our expectations of Hawaii, instead is terrifying, like Lost meets Blair Witch.  We get a sense of the violence of the flora, both in its immediacy in front of the lens and in the wild, leggy roots and vines.  I like this picture so much that I appropriated it for the banner at the top of this blog (the colors are inverted).  For me, this image illustrates Herzog's idea of "the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder" quite nicely, the leaves turning into daggers and the vines into snakes.  

Here's a picture that I made a few months ago.  It's currently untitled, but I call it Spidertree in my notes.  I'm very interested in the apparently uncontrolled and uncontrollable forms that nature takes, and my thoughts about this have definitely been influenced by Herzog and Misrach's Hawaii series.  Though in many of his films Herzog pits man against nature, he always understands humans as a part of nature and looks to plants, animals, rivers and rocks as a way to gain insight into what kind of universe we live in and what kind of beings we are - or rather what the nature of being is.  

Monday, April 13, 2009

Old Topographics

While reading this week's selection of articles about and written by the New Topographers, I was particularly struck by how deeply they questioned the practice of image-making and the production of meaning. 

Ben Lifson, in, what I assume to be an introduction to one of Frank Gohlke's monographs (but can't be certain because the reading was unlabeled), writes "he [Gohlke] tries to rid himself of position and to become, in relation to the land, an accumulation of receptivities. "  This is a pretty interesting statement, and is worth dissecting.  The thought of ridding oneself of position suggests striving to make an unbiased picture, which had, I think, a much different meaning in the 1970s than it does now.  Anyone who has been in grad school at Columbia knows that not having a position isn't looked upon too kindly around here.  All of us are asked at one point or another (or in every crit) what our point of view is, what position do we take.  In 1970 though, ridding oneself of position meant not making an Ansel Adams picture.  It meant leaving in the power lines and the trash and the trailer parks.  It meant not cropping out the tourists and their cars.  It meant photographing things as they were.  To become "an accumulation of receptivities" implies that Gohlke's role is to listen to, absorb, and translate the world around him, rather than imposing meaning.  

Lifson ponders on the construction of meaning in landscape photography, saying "Do these pictures originate in nature?  Or are they the invention of a collaboration between the eye and art, and imposed by perception upon nature, which in itself has neither pictorial order nor pictorial style?"  Do Gohlke's pictures, in which he strives to eliminate his own position, rely on the subject of the image for meaning, or it the content formed through the photographer's interpretation of what it there?  

There is something slightly contradictory in all of this.  Social concerns were a primary motivation for Gohlke and his fellow New Topographers.  Lifson goes so far as to call Gohlke's work "didactic" (although he doesn't mean this as a criticism), but also stresses that he tries to rid himself of position.  Lifson suggests that the meaning of the work depends on collaboration between what's there and what the photographer makes of it.  Clearly the photographer always make choices in what to photograph, and Gohlke's picture series are often so tightly focused that we can be certain that those choices are meaningful in themselves.  So there is some tension between telling and showing - does Gohlke create the meaning, or is it already there to be had? 

Frank Gohlke, Aerial view: downed forest near Elk Rock.  Approximately ten 
miles northwest of Mount St. Helens, Washington, 1981

Frank Gohlke, Aerial view: clear-cuts and logging roads.  Vicinity of 
Mount St. Helens, Washington (outside impact area), 1982

The above images are part of Gohlke's series on Mount St. Helens after it blew up.  He was particularly interested in the visual connection between the forests downed by the volcano and those downed by clear cut logging.  This particular pair of images, which sit adjacent to each other in a slideshow on his website, reveal a complicated method of the production of meaning.  Without his captions, we probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a forest downed by a volcano (and then harvested), and a forest downed by loggers.  When we realize that human activity has caused a level of destruction resembling that caused by a volcano, the visual similarity becomes enormously disturbing.  Here Gohlke both tells us and shows us what the place means.  The content is carried by both what is there and what we learn from its presentation.  

The contemporary photographer Justin James Reed works in the tradition of the New Topographers.  His work raises the question of whether the style of the New Topographers is suited to current issues or whether it requires modification.  His subject matter, power lines, communication towers, freshly built subdivisions, McMansions, and blank industrial park facades, is highly reminiscent of this forebears' work.  Oftentimes, his style is as well, embracing flat light and neutral compositions. 
Justin James Reed, Southampton, New Jersy, from the series Paradise, 2007

Other times, though, his work becomes much more subjective, clearly asserting the photographer's position regarding the subject matter.

Justin James Reed, Thornbury, Pennsylvania, from the series Paradise, 2007

Justin James Reed, Monroe, New Jersey, from the series New Cities, 2006

Robert Adams, Untitled, Denver, 1970-1974

Compare Reed's photographs of suburban development to this image by Robert Adams, made more than 30 years prior.  In allowing the unnaturally rolling lawnscape and the freshly excavated red clay dominate his pictures, Reed places far more emphasis on the his own position.  While Adams' perspective is certainly intentional, revealing the large scale and uniformity of the development, we are much less aware of this image as a photograph than we are in Reed's.  Reed is less reliant on the subject matter to carry the meaning and takes a more active role.  He is less a facilitator and translator than he is a writer.  

It seems as if Reed's approach is common amongst contemporary landscape photographers.  The New Topographers' attempt to rid their work of position isn't so useful in this world.  Now, it seems, making one's position clear, or at least differentiating it from an unmediated experience of the world, is more important.  

Monday, April 6, 2009

Subhankar Banerjee's Propaganda

Subhankar Banerjee's photographs of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge make for moderately effective propaganda.  Put into use as propaganda, first by democratic Senator Barbara Boxer in her opposition to drilling in ANWR, they follow the rules that govern propagandistic imagery to a T.  

1. They have a relatively simple message that most anyone can understand.  Though not explicitly stated, the basic message is "don't drill in ANWR".  The images and the text that accompanies them give several reasons for this: 
a) It is beautiful.   
b) The native people of this area depend on the natural resources there to survive.
c) Many species of animals use it as an important stop on long, sometimes intercontinental migration routes.
d) Exploitation of this area's reserves of coal and oil would mean large scale disruption of one of the few areas in the US that has gone largely undisrupted by human presence.

2. Almost all of the images are aesthetically pleasing.  Some are romantically beautiful, some rely on abstraction and formal balance, and some use traditional compositional tropes.  The images are not at all far removed from those you see in nature magazines, in calendars, and in nature documentaries and television programs.  They are not surprising, visually challenging, or difficult to look at.

3. The imagery itself does not do a whole lot (this is why it is only moderately effective).  Much of the content of the work is contained in the very long captions.  The images get your attention, and if you stick around and feel like doing a little work, the captions do the heavy lifting.  This is a problem - I'm sure many viewers of this work don't read the very long captions.  More on this later.

Let's look at one of his pictures as an example.  This is a screen shot from his website (which can be seen here); click on the image to enlarge it so that the text is readable.  

Ok, so this picture, Snow Geese I, is pretty typical for Banerjee.  It is quite nice to look at - the golden yellow and the deep blue are a complementary and traditional color pairing, we see lovely curving abstract shapes punctuated by countless points of while, it depicts an unpeopled landscape (which we like), and the landscape pictured is vast (we also like that).  The text tells us that we are looking at migrating snow geese in ANWR, that they are one of ninety bird species to spend part of the year there, and that the US government wants to drill for oil there.  The text carries the content.  It tells us what we are looking at, how we are supposed to feel about it, and why it is important.  The image tells us that the place is beautiful and big and has animals that move through it.  

This is basically the format of a National Geographic image (though oftentimes NG pictures do much more).  As someone who has always been in a household with an NG subscription (including now - you can get a year for only 12 dollars!), I'm pretty familiar with how those pictures function.  It seems that the main difference is that Banerjee's pictures are usually presented on the wall in a museum or gallery, that they are much much bigger, and that, perhaps, they are formally stronger, with more careful and controlled compositions. 

Here is a National Geographic example from their website (see the image in context here): 

Not a whole lot of difference.  Aesthetically pleasing image, caption that warns of the destruction of the landscape.  The caption is shorter, but this image is part of a long article about drilling for oil in Canada.  Of course, I chose an image and topic that would easily compare, but it is not at all out of character for NG.  

More of Banerjee's work:

Our readings this week rave about Banerjee.  Kelley Wilder, in Resource Wars (available here), says, "These are thoughtful and intelligent pictures, made to please the senses in an almost tactile way.  But their raison d’être, their main purpose, is to compose a powerful argument and to feed the intellect."  Wilder argues that his photos depict a "subtle ecology" and counter ideas about wilderness popularized by typical nature photography.  In Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (available here) Finis Dunaway argues, "...Banerjee's exhibit and catalog offer a different way to see the Arctic, a perspective that challenges not only the worldview of conservative politicians but also the prevailing wilderness motifs deployed for a long time by mainstream environmental groups."  

While Banerjee's photos are far more nuanced than the "white nothingness" that proponents of drilling described ANWR as, I completely fail to see how these images challenge traditional wilderness motifs.  Both writers argue that, by presenting a lovely picture accompanied by text that describes the location's ecological importance or the doom that might ensue if Republicans have their way, Banerjee is doing something unexpected.  He's not.  These images are expected and unsurprising.

I'm glad these pictures exist.  If they can help protect habitat or change one person's mind about whether or not we should drill in ANWR, they have served their purpose.  During the Bush years and the "Drill Baby Drill" of the 2008 election, this type of imagery should have been plastered on billboard and buses, published in every newspaper, and shown in every museum.  In a world where anyone is uninformed enough to actually think that ANWR is a white nothingness, the environmental movement needs all the propaganda it can get.

The story of the controversy over the Smithsonian's censorship of the captions is a testament to how dangerous the political climate is for the environment.  But it also indicates how little power the images have on their own.  Perhaps it is really the text we should spend the most time talking about.  

In the long run, these pictures don't do anything different.  Tossed around on the internet, they will become unattached to their captions.  Visitors to exhibitions will neglect to read the text, or will forget it as soon as they leave.  Some certainly will be profoundly affected by it, and they will write their senators and protest and pursue careers as ecologists.  But in the end, these images contribute to the myth of the vast wilderness, valuable for its beauty and for the animals it harbors.  They contribute to the notion that humanity and nature are separate things (except for the primitive natives).  They don't ask us to deeply reconsider how we visualize nature.