Sunday, April 26, 2009


This semester we've been examining the meaning of nature and the way artists have envisioned it through visual art, writing and film. It's fitting that nearing the end of semester we look at post-nature and what that might mean. There's something ominous about the concept of post-nature, to me it refers to two ideas: either a dystopian model of the world or a Post-Apocalyptic model. Ever since reading Brave New World in jr. high I've been fascinated with dystopias. Unlike other well-known dystopian novels like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World takes place in a world that I would describe as post-nature; human civilization has overtaken nature (in the form of our own biology) by replacing our normal form of reproduction by 'growing' children in hatcheries. While written in the early 1930s, Brave New World tackles the idea of a future society that has conquered conventional nature through the use of science and technology. In a similar vein, the 2005 "The Island" describes a seemingly utopian society in the mid 21st century where inhabitants are waiting to win the lottery so they can go to the last unspoiled place on Earth. Two of these inhabitants, however, Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta,come to the realization that they are actually clones and a product of a company that sells harvested human organs to those living outside of their facility.

Both Brave New World and The Island tackle the issues of our civilization's increasing dependence on technology and questions how the consequences of our tampering with nature. This is one form of post-nature, our control/power over our environment. The other post nature scenario stems from a post-Apocalyptic standpoint: civilization and Earth as we currently know it is dramatically altered due to a 'natural' phenomenon like a disease epidemic or disaster like a meteorite/giant tsunami/volcano/swamp monsters or a 'manmade' disaster like global warming, famine from overpopulation or nuclear war. Dozens of novels and movies have been based on this model of post nature, sometimes Earth is depicted as being harsh and inhospitable, with any surviving humans having to live underground or in highly controlled conditions while in other cases nature has overtaken manmade structures, thus returning the environment to a more pre-historic state.

William Christenberry, Kudzu with Storm Cloud, near Akron, Alabama, 1981.

The show at the New Museum titled "After Nature" grounds itself somewhere between the dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic models of post-nature. After reading through the curatorial description and viewing the pieces on the online exhibition works, the 3 works that most closely visualized how I imagine post-nature are the following: William Christenberry's photograph of kudzu (a type of parasitic plant prevalent in the Southern U.S.), a still from Walter Herzog's film "Lessons of Darkness" and the collaborative piece (?) by Allora and Calzadilla, Growth (Survival), 2006. Grafted tropical plants and Jenny Holzer’s Blue Wall Tilt, 2004. Christenberry's photograph, while taken in 1981, points to how quickly nature could overtake manmade structures. I have to admit to not seeing Herzog's film but the ominous billowing clouds of smoke reference science and industry and a future that could not be too far off-- a landscape that has become too polluted to inhabit. The piece Growth (Survival) combines a natural element and technology but falls into the Brave New World model as the plant has been grafted, so there has been human intervention in the growing and production of nature.

Allora and Calzadilla, Growth (Survival), 2006. Grafted tropical plants and Jenny Holzer’s Blue Wall Tilt, 2004

It could just be the edit chosen for the Web site, but the pieces shown don't necessarily reflect the curatorial description of the show. While I find the theme of the show provocative, the statement frequently lapses into hyperbole and is grandiose in its vision. One such example, the following is taken from the statement that describes the show as "A requiem for a vanishing planet, "After Nature" is a feverish examination of an extinct world that strangely resembles our own." It also states that the show is an examination of "wilderness and ruins" and is a story of "a story of abandonment, regression, and rapture." What most of the images available on the Web site lacked is tension and the struggle between what can be considered manmade and what can be considered natural (ignoring the fact that we are a part of nature). Is "After Nature" meant to be a warning? It's described as the "landscape of the future" by the curator, implying that there is still some sort of landscape in the future.

After looking at the images in the show I came to the conclusion that after nature/post-nature doesn't refer to a future devoid of nature but instead is a vision of an Earth that has been significantly altered by either the aftereffects of humans or has been dramatically changed through our direct alteration of nature.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Seeing & Vision: Antartica

Before reading William L. Fox's article "Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent" the only image I had of our southernmost continent is the above image of penguins set in a landscape of snow and glaciers. Up until this point I also thought the Arctic and Antarctic were virtually the same-- the only difference being that polar bears lived in the North (and Santa!) and penguins were in the south. Beyond this distinction I had never really examined these two geographical areas in a scientific or artistic way.

[Satellite Image of Antarctica]

While reading through Fox’s article, what came up right away was the difference between the Arctic and Subhankar Banerjee's depiction of it and Fox's description of the Antarctic. Banerjee's goal was to depict the ANWR in a way that shows how it is tied to the rest of the world; he did this by including evidence of global warming and also by exploring the communities that are native to the area. There are no indigenous populations in Antarctica, however, and Fox depicts the region as barren, harsh and disorienting. He describes the conditions of the continent to be so foreign that we as humans don’t have the biological facilities to fully understand the landscape.

[Photos by photographer Anthony Powell who currently lives and works in Antarctica]

Fox argues that since our species evolved in relation to a savanna-which contains both grasslands and trees—we are used to comprehending landscape in terms of placemarkers in the environment (like trees) and judge distance by the way particulate matter in the air scatters light (features in the distance become mistier and take on a blueish hue ie atmospheric perspective in painting). In Antarctica there are no trees and the atmosphere does not scatter light in the same way so there are no visual cues in which to aid those exploring this harsh terrain. During the most extreme weather conditions, in what’s known as a whiteout or Ganzfield, there occurs a visual field without contours; a human reaction to this phenomena is the loss of balance and coordination which can progress into a complete (though temporary) loss of vision.

Continuing the discussion about space and place from last week, Fox applies the same principles to the region: “A severe challenge in the Antarctic is trying to develop a sense of place where our ability to sense the space itself is so compromised.” In the Antarctic humans cannot rely on their vision alone as the conditions do not mesh with what has been genetically and culturally conditioned into us. It is in this space that we can explore the role that biology plays in art, in particular how it shapes our perceptions and artistic vision. Fox describes this translation as such: “human cognitive process that first turns land into landscape, then landscape into art.” (xv) It is this failure of our biology that has also led us to mapmaking, “cartography was the cultural means we deployed to overcome our neurobiological limitations in new and extreme spaces” (24). Through a map we can chart distances in a way that seems more objective and can be measured scientifically—but what are the implications of charting the Earth’s surface into grids? Fox seems mapmaking being related to power, “when we grid a landscape…we end up making the assumption that we rule over the land.” Through maps we create borders and superimpose boundaries rather arbitrarily, it relates more to a sociopolitical context rather than a relationship to the actual terrain.

[1934 map of Antarctica--click for a larger view]

One of the most intriguing points that Fox bring up in the article is how our tradition of landscape art can be considered a mapmaking activity. I had never before connected these two genres before but when looking at older, more detailed maps I can begin to understand the relationship between these two forms of depicting the land. Fox describes landscape art as “a way of getting us from the familiar ‘here’ to the unfamiliar ‘there’.” This is particularly true in photography, the images of various natural and cultural landscapes allow us to access what may otherwise be unfamiliar to us (in terms of both visuals and experience).

While a lot of the imagery I found of Antarctica were in the vein of National Geographic, I did find the below project done by American artist Jan Estep. Estep works in several media, including textiles in the form of installation. Below is my favorite piece, it's titled "TopoAntarctica" and is made from polar fleece and ripstop nylon.

[Above an installation view and two details below]

Another piece she created is titled "Language Snow Crystals" that are drawings of snowflakes made up of lettering. Estep says of the piece: "Language Snow Crystals present an image of a snowflake built up by language, the loops and line of the hand-written words approximating the lace-like structure of actual snow crystals. The text comes from two sources, Ernest Shackleton’s diary South and various medical manuals about hypothermia, what happens to the body physically as it slowly freezes and ways to protect the body from severe cold."

I leave you with a time lapse video done by Anthony Powell during his stays in Antarctica.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Place & Landscape

It seems to be rare to find essays written by photographers about both their work and the genre that they are working in-- this week we read Frank Gohlke's "Photography and Place" and Robert Adams' "Truth in Landscape" from the book Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. Surprisingly, Gohlke focuses on the writings of Thoreau and the photography of Herbert Gleason in his essay, citing them both as artistic figures that approached the question of what is "place" and what it means to us.

In his essay Gohlke investigates the origins of our idea of place and links it to memory: "The evidence of the actions of human beings in a specific locale constitutes a physical version of memory." He points out that we are the only species that create places and that they "don't occur naturally; they are artifacts." The use of the word artifacts infers history and an ascribed meaning and importance given to a particular object-- in this case the object being a space. Gohlke sees place as being both something physical and tangible (ie a natural element like a mountain) and mental (the significance we place on the mountain) and describes it as "a unique and significant intersection in space of human history and natural history." Thus we can think of place as claiming a part of the natural landscape as our own due to a role it plays in our culture and history.

Gohlke turns to the literature of Thoreau and the photography of Gleason as examples of his discourse on place. He sees Thoreau as being grounded in a particular area--Concord-- and praises his knowledge of place through lived experience.

Gleason seems to have slipped through the cracks of photo history, as I had never heard of him before this essay. I did a little research and found that in the early 1900s his landscape photos appeared in the Sierra Club Bulletin, mainly serving as illustrations to text written by nature advocates like John Muir. Below are a few examples allow with the original text.

"It is the counterpart of the Yosemite Fall, but has a much greater volume of water, is about 1,700 feet in height, and appears to be nearly vertical though considerably inclined, and is dashed into huge outbounding bosses of foam on the projecting knobs of its jagged gorge." - John Muir

Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. VII. No. 4, June, 1910. Plate LXXXVIII.

"Hetch-Hetchy Valley is a grand landscape garden, one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain mansions. As in Yosemite, the sublime rocks of its walls glow with life, whether leaning back in respose or standing erect in thoughtful attitudes giving welcome to storms and calms alike." - John Muir

Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. VII. No. 4, June, 1910. Plate LXXXV.

Without the text, Gleason's photographs appear to be rather innocuous images of pristine landscapes. Muir's text adds a context, provides facts about the area that lend the photographs a sense of 'truth' and also ups the aesthetic value of the photograph by using words like "sublime" and "precious" to describe the landscape. Of course Muir's agenda was to promote the beauty of these places and he saw the photographs as another way of convincing the public to invest in the conservation of places like Yosemite.

Gleason also produced a set of photographs to accompany Thoreau's writings; they were taken in Concord of the woods and other natural settings that inspired works like Walden.

Double Row of Arbor Vitae Near Battleground.

After looking at Gleason's images, I at first found it curious that Gohlke would reference his work as they seem to be the anti-thesis to his photographs and way of seeing the world. I've always understood the New Topographics movement as a reaction to the more pictorialist and idealized images of photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston; as they included elements of the 'manmade' like fences and housing developments and utilize a flat light that creates a bleaker view of the landscape rather than a dramatic, lush image that celebrates a timeless, untouched wilderness. Gleason's work seem more similar to Ansel Adams than Gohlke's; it seems, however, that Gohlke is drawn to Gleason's photographs of nature because of their relationship to place and how the Walden images survey one geographically confined locale.

Cows, Plainfield, Massachusetts- from 42.30 North: A Line on the Land, 2002.

Slate Quarry, under Pin Hill Road, Harvard, Massachusetts,- from 42.30 North: A Line on the Land, 2002.

The two photographs above, from a recent project of Gohlke's, both reference historical landscape traditions. The "Cows" photograph at first appears pastoral and is similar to 18th and 19th century paintings done of rural England. What disrupts this scene, however, is the sliver of paved road on the right side that places the photograph in a particular time period and doesn't allow the landscape to be separate from our everyday experience. Without its title, "Slate Quarry" would appear to be an image of untouched nature in the vein of Eliot Porter. Once we realize the context it allows for another understanding of the image that explores one of our relationships to the land; in this case our disruption of nature.

What is Gohlke's relationship to the other New Topographer photographers, especially Robert Adams? Before reading Adams' essay I was never fully aware of his ideas on place. I only thought of his work in a very limited way, mainly seeing his photographs as a critique of the sprawl of Denver and the relationship people had with nature in the 1960s and '70s in America. The following passage was particularly enlightening:

"...geography by itself is difficult to value accurately--what we hope for from the artist is help in discovering the significance of place." He goes on to say "We rely, I think, on landscape photograph to make intelligible to us what we already know."

Adams also described what he saw as the three elements that should make up every good landscape photograph: geography, autobiography and metaphor. I took this to mean that the photograph should be descriptive in some way, be subjective/reflect the artist's point of view, and also point outside itself to a historical reference or draw upon our memory.

Burning Oil Sludge North of Denver, Colorado

The above photograph is one of the first I'd seen of Adams and it has stuck with me since. To me it's powerful because the form of the cloud becomes formally beautiful, which competes with our knowledge of its toxity and the fact that it's a product of our exploitation of the land. The scale of the oil well and the tree is also the same, which runs counter to what we would expect--it goes against the idea of the grandness of nature.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Subhankar Banerjee & The Artic National Wildlife Refuge

Known and Unknown Tracks, Oil and the Geese, 2006

For over a hundred years, socially minded photographers have been grappling with how their images can make a difference; by raising public awareness of situation to actually enacting change through legislative measures. Lewis Hine's photographs helped to reform child labor practices at the beginning of the 20th century and Nick Ut's image of a girl after a Napalm attack in Vietnam contributed to the anti-war sentiment of the 1960s. Could these images, however, have had such an impact without a specific context? Hine's work was presented with lengthy blocks of text describing the conditions of the factory and were distributed via journals. Ut's image circulated through the popular media and was also framed through the use of text. For photographs to truly have an impact, to spur change, they need to presented in a particular context in a receptive social climate.

INUPIAT CEMETERY | Inupiat and The Whales| 2001

Photographer and scientist Subhankar Banerjee's images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are so powerful because of their titles, accompanying text and the locations in which they are presented. As author Finis Dunaway points out twice in her article, "Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge," on their own, Banerjee's photographs could be mistaken for images of "pure nature" that would slot into a kitsch aesthetic of calendars and greeting cards. While Banerjee draws upon a visual aesthetic influenced by painters like Bierstadt and nature photographers like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, he eschewed a romantic, golden light in favor of a flat light more reminiscent of Robert Adams. He also takes a more ecological standpoint, rather than presenting an untouched nature, Banerjee presents birds and animals in the landscape, as well as the native people who live in this area.

CARIBOU NEAR KOKOLIK RIVER | Coal and The Caribou | 2006 |

Banerjee's scientific background influences his photographic work-- he seems to systematically approach his subject and the resulting images serve as evidence of a particular phenomena (like global warming) or documentation of a natural cycle (migratory patterns of birds and animals). The accompanying blocks of text, which provides information on geographic location, information about a particular bird/animal species and the human impact (in terms of drilling, land use, etc) furthers this evidence quality of the images.


Dunaway begins her article with a scenario that took place in the Senate in 2003-- when Senator Barbara Boxer held up one of Banerjee's images as "visual evidence" of why drilling should not occur in ANWR. Banerjee's images played an important role in this context, because Republicans had previously downplayed the ecological richness of the ANWR, portraying it as a vast, frozen land that had no distinctive qualities to the landscape. One senator went so far as saying that the ANWR was as empty as a blank, white piece of posterboard and thus had no aesthetic value. Banerjee's photographs demonstrate that the ANWR is not a "flat, white nothingness" and that it remains a vibrant place throughout the year.

When the Smithsonian censored the first show of Banerjee's images after the Senate debate, it had the opposite effect of what they intended-- while the photo show may have been regulated to the basement, stripped of their context due to the exclusion of the accompanying text; the censorship and consequently Banerjee's images received national attention when the major media outlets and government officials like Senator Dick Durbin publicly decried Banerjee's treatment by the museum.

NIKOLAI SHALUGIN | Yukaghir and The Climate | 2007

Banerjee has been savvy in the way that he displays his work; his photographs have almost exclusively been presented in natural history museums (like the Field Museum here in chicago) versus fine art museums and galleries. He also enrolled an extensive list of influential environmentalists, scientists and art historians to write essays for the exhibition catalogue. These texts, along with the text accompanying the photos, allowed for a richer understanding of the project.

What becomes problematic is the tension between Banerjee's intentions and the cultural myth that surrounds the ANWR-- it is often described in terms as "wilderness," "the last frontier" and as a "place frozen in time, a blank space that provides the setting for imperial nostalgia" (Dunaway, 11). These sentiments actually come up in some of the essays published in the exhibition catalogue and is also reflected in many environmental groups' vision of the ANWR as a pure, untouched nature separate from the modern world. Dunaway sees Banerjee being able to overcome this in his the way he documented the migration patterns of birds (emphasizing how they connect the ANWR to other parts of the world) as well as his inclusion of human communities in his images, which undermines the ideal of a pure wilderness.

SNOW GEESE II | Oil and The Caribou | 2002

I look forward to hearing Banerjee describe his own work and what caused the shift in the way he viewed the ANWR, from initially searching it out as the last untouched region of America to now seeing it in a way that connects it to our everyday lives.