Saturday, February 9, 2019

The Land That Time Forgot


Between March 2018 and December 31, 2018 I was the artist in residence at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, an important site dedicated to the study of ecology, located in central Minnesota at the intersection of North America's three major biomes -prairie, eastern deciduous and northern boreal forests.

Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve Google Maps Big Bio Satellite View
Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve's Big Bio experiment as seen on Google Maps.
I found Cedar Creek while "flying over" Minnesota using Google Maps' satellite view. The peculiar vegetative patterns initially piqued my interest, and the more I looked into it, the more curious I became about the site. In September of 2017, I contacted Caitlin Barale Potter, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Cedar Creek, to begin a discussion about making artwork on site. Right away I could sense Caitlin's enthusiasm for Cedar Creek. Through her, I came to understand the significance of the research, the site, and its history. The idea was intriguing, and with a leap of faith in the value of art, she developed a program to accommodate artists in residence.

In February of 2018 I was selected as one of two artists in residence for the coming year. I set simple parameters for my project: Digital micro 4/3 camera, sharp lens using only 50, 60, or 70mm field of view, maximum depth of field, and incorporate  research elements into landscape images. Not interested in special conditions or the right light, my goal was to envision landscape free of the limiting conventions of the "photographic moment." The images were to avoid simple illustration or flattery and be consistent in creating a sense of place.

Constraints are only valuable in as much as they help an artist find their way to something more. What that more is can otherwise be described as content, meaning, or its cultural relevance. Like scientists, artists have a base of knowledge specific to their interests. We bounce ideas off of a history of art, contemporary art, and our unique understanding of the cultural moment -ideas our audiences do not always have access to. To build a bridge to my work, it can be helpful to first provide context: some art history, alternative and contrasting artistic viewpoints, and current attitudes about nature and our relationship with it. Below is the first in a series of three posts that aim to frame the conversation about my work at Cedar Creek.


Panel of Hell, The Garden of Earthly Delights, (detail), Hieronymus Bosch, c. 1480-1505
In 1988 Bill Mckibben published his book The End of Nature. In his prescient, but gloomy outlook, the author insists that we have moved beyond the idea of nature, that nature no longer operates completely independent of human actions, but is a world infected, if you will, by the product and waste of humanity. Within this scenario one can see no way out -the damage has already been done, and cannot be undone. Mckibben makes clear toward the end of his book that it has been, and will continue to be, difficult for an ideology of nature to take root. We are accustomed to, and have systemically integrated, the conveniences of our time and we are hard pressed to deny these to the rest of the world.

 Expulsion from Paradise, Thomas Cole, 1828
Has nature truly ended? Or has climate change revealed to us that our conception of nature as independent of humanity, self-correcting, too massive to spoil and too close to the deity's firmament to defile so thoroughly, has ended? It is still taboo to take responsibility for the world we've inhabited, there are still too many cynical or sentimental appeals to paradise, and a deepening sense of loss that parodies the mythical expulsion from the garden.

Time Landscape, Alan Sonfist, 1965-1978-Present (Photo: Allison Meier)
This profound loss has found contemporary expression in images of nature prior to humanity, colonialism, or the industrial revolution. Artist Alan Sonfist's "Time Landscape," 1965-1978, in New York City, is a melancholy evocation of what can no longer be. Fully revisited in a 2016 gallery exhibit, Time Landscape is a lamentation, caged as it is by iron fencing and concrete, surrounded by a bustling humanity, occupying the semantic space of the zoo; a melancholic specimen forever incomplete.

Copyright Welikia Project
Another current expression is the Welikia Project (formerly Manhatta Project), a virtual recreation of Manhattan circa 1609. Not a random date, its creators declare it a "pivotal point in the island’s history" as Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor. Does the time traveler occupy this date because it places Europeans on the scene, ready to retake ownership with so much hindsight? Can we begin again, this time staying true to the American promise of Eden? What of the Lenape civilization? As William Cronon reminds us in his book, Changes in the Land, North American peoples had been altering the land for generations.

Despite Welikia's stated goals of fostering a more "livable" urban center, the digital recreation of a lost natural world doesn't do much to alter Manhattan's current livability. Under the heading 'Why Go Back?' the creators confuse common urban planning ideas with motive to virtually return to the year 1609:

"For instance, maintaining natural waterways like streams and incorporating more open space and tree plantings into city planning would increase a city’s aesthetic value, water quality, and air quality for city folk. Making cities more pleasant and rich places for people to live will increase city folks’ standard of living, attracting more people to cities and minimizing sprawl development between cities where the ecological gems, the “Mannahattas” of today, currently reside."

If only conceived as an exercise, its core power lies in the imagery contrasting dense urbanity and unpopulated forest. By invoking the American narrative binary of virginal or despoiled, Welikia is simultaneously a wistful and self-loathing conception rooted in a sophisticated, urbane point of view. 

Thomas Cole Hudson River School Painting Mountain House
A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning, Thomas Cole, 1844
Does solastalgia explain 19th century attitudes as New York's Hudson Valley hillsides were deforested? Perhaps the landscape painters of the Hudson River School shared this experience as they looked away from growing industrialization to focus instead on wilderness. The 19th century experience of these works has little to do with how they function today. Lacking context and widely misunderstood, Hudson River School paintings are often interpreted quite literally. To view these 19th century works as factual and, in light of such visual facts, pursue policy is absurd. Art is not comprised of facts, art is indirect, realism is not reality, we can not fully know what the artist has intended, and art's meaning is always in flux. That Hudson Valley School landscapes are, now, a wellspring of dreams of a continent lost, reveals how easily landscape can be conscripted to bear what burdens us.

Cave Art Prehistoric Art Chevaux Cave Art Drawings
Copy of Horse Panel, Chauvet Cave, France
A cartoon I saw recently in The New Yorker shows a group of cave people looking up at animal drawings on a cave wall, illuminated by firelight. In front of the group, a standing cave dweller says, "Let's look at projected earnings for the next quarter." The cartoon insinuates that humans have not changed much over thousands of years. It also underscores how little we can know about these early drawings. If I imagine that these cave visitors, some 30,000 years ago, were not all that different from us, today, perhaps I can open my mind to their drawings being akin to those 19th century American landscape paintings.

fayum portrait funerary art
Fayum portraits are paintings on wood attached to Egyptian mummies during the Imperial Roman Era
Prehistoric drawings are so often described as spiritual or ceremonial, yet I wonder if it is possible that the Chauvet drawings were a coping mechanism, a way to deal with the deep sense of loss of something profoundly meaningful. Like funerary art, the Fayum Portraits, or other visual manifestation of mourning and loss, do these cave drawings conjure a visage of the lost?

Cueva de las Manos, Cave of Hands, Santa Cruz province, Argentina, possibly 9000 years before present.
In the simplest way these hand stencils powerfully summon people who joyously, possibly desperately, reach out into the future. Lost to time, yet so present, these hands carry an ecstatic experience of humanity over thousands of years.

Et in Arcadia ego, Nicolas Poussin, 1638. Tracing one's shadow, even in paradise -death.
In Federico García Lorca's lecture “Theory and Play of the Duende,”  he says of the making of art: "With idea, sound, gesture, the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit...and the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s [art] work. [italics mine]" What wound, never healed, lay at the heart of artists of Lascaux, Chauvet, or the Cueva de las Manos? What wound could make us do the same?

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