Idaho Arts Quarterly » Central Idaho

"Whose Nature? What's Nature?"

Focusing on the effects of human control

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This month's rehang at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts gallery in Ketchum is part of a multi-disciplinary project that poses two questions well-suited for a team of philosophers. Continuing a theme of ecological worry begun with its spring show, "Biodiversity," in which a host of painters, photographers and a scientist addressed the impending threat of species extinction, SVC has now taken a step back to explore a visual epistemology of what this big thing called "nature" really is, and to whom it might belong. This exhibition of unpeopled photographs and a digital/sculpture installation by six very different artists focuses on the effects of human control of nature; provoking us to consider whether a duality between the two even exists. The result is a somewhat bleak, but compelling survey of how humanity and nature continue to penetrate one another during the age of melting ice caps and vanishing species, but without all the alarmist documentary. Instead of riding the popular bandwagon of panic over environmental devastation, the new SVC show may give pause to all us Chicken Littles clamoring and finger-pointing from the windows of our SUVs.

Upon who or what might the sky be falling in the first place? Are we corrupt from the get-go like Adam and Eve, tossed like broken toys from the Garden of Eden? Or have we been part and parcel of nature all along, acting like voyeurs in our own bedrooms? If, as Tom Wolfe once said, "Art is the religion of the educated classes," this show falls short of redemption, but does resonate with moments of spiritual insight, requiring of us that most un-American of virtues: patience. Thankfully, the interior landscape of human nature is as much a subject of this show as the dwindling natural environments we inhabit.

Kim Abelas sculpture and video installation "Sweet Dreams" takes us back to the gauzy days of toddlerhood when everything was safe, clean and ... apparently yellow. Her wallpaper is made of hundreds of oblong portals containing small photographs of the Idaho landscape, several of which are mysteriously filled with moving images. On a nearby shelf lies a small box containing a berm of miniature trees separated from a skyline of distant peaks by a necklace of trophy homes. Compartmentalization is the message here, as Abelas provides a keyhole perspective on how children might begin to imagine the world around them. Her shaky, handle-bar view of a local bicycle tour is as claustrophobic as her tiny sculptures, one of which deconstructs the proverbial practice of counting sheep by insomniac children: a yellow pillow filled with literal video images of an actual, dusty flock of grazing sheep.

Abelas describes the pillow as "a contradiction which implies our tourist status within the natural world." Clever though her work can be, most kids around here are well aware of the difference between the magic and drama of the real world, and a mere representation of it. Tourism comes much later, if at all. Of course, Abelas and other artists in this show must be forgiven their urban roots, where nature is something to be re-discovered, or worse merely symbolic. Spend enough time on the ranch and you may be eager for idealizations if they make for a good night's sleep. Who will be next? Jack and the Beanstalk?

Nature seems to carry a mythological significance for Los Angeles photographer Anthony Hernandez as he finds visual metaphors while exploring the metropolis. A baby doll floats like a fallen angel on industrial ooze, only inches from a more promising primordial bloom of green algae. A placid crow lies frozen in its death scream on a slick of oil. For the urban artist, "nature" cannot depend on pristine landscapes or idealized ecologies. It is found in symbolic fragments, if at all, reflecting persistent narrative patterns in the human psyche. Hernandez's "Everything" series includes a black stream flowing into the murky infinity of a grafitti-tagged concrete spillway. Would it matter fundamentally if Hernandez's stream was instead flowing into a jungle canopy? Probably not. On a certain level, rivers are rivers wherever you find them.

What might Hernandez choose to train his camera on in our neck of the woods? Perhaps he would get as dizzy in the River of No Return Wilderness as some of us do during a midnight traffic jam on an L.A. freeway. The stillness and serenity of his work must be good medicine for Los Angelenos, as welcome as noise reduction headphones on a city sidewalk. Here, they carry portent of the apocalypse.

Photographer Edward Burtynsky surveys man-altered landscapes with the effect of challenging whatever duality we might hold between nature and humanity. His "Rock of Ages" series captures deep-walled pits and aqua-colored pools left by generations of stone cutters in country quarries. Not unlike the columnar jointing around certain basalt formations out West, these monumental chasms are crude approximations of natural processes. They are embarrassingly beautiful. His work has been called "industrial sublime." It is also industrial espionage. His camera also captures hills and canyons made of thousands of spent automobile tires, stacked like a parody of organic formations along actual hillsides.

In the show's most emblematic photograph, Burtynsky has found an undulating flow of computer circuit boards awaiting recycling in a ditch. So numerous as to be mistaken for a pile of leaves, this mass of obsolete microcircuitry beneath a bamboo thicket somewhere in China requires a leap of faith to comprehend. What seemed like intricate marvels of extraordinary technological complexity only last week are now bulldozed into a ditch for smelting. The first information age has already come and gone, while a billion people still live without safe water to drink. The deep green bamboo thicket which forms the upper half of this image seems to suggest that nature, the inestimable formalist, does in fact bat last. Despite the tendency of mankind to swing for the fence, he only finds different levels of scale within nature.

Photographers Noriko Furunishi and Kim Keever create their own landscapes in very different ways, side-stepping some of the contingencies at the heart of this exhibition. Furunishi is the consummate digital darkroom artist, taking apart actual western desert landscapes and reassembling them in confounding montages, teasing our need to make sense of such panoramic views. Hill, horizon, scrub and sky are cut and pasted with contradicting depths of field, yet somehow flow together like abstract textures. Our eyes know this place as more than the sum of its parts and struggle, unsuccessfully, to reclaim it. Perhaps, as Furunishi suggests, we have taken the landscape for granted long enough. Like a good cubist, she depicts the essence of an object, rather than its immediate visual appearance.

Kim Keever's photographs work to integrate the interior, human landscape and weather of our emotions into our expectations of the environment. Taken through the scratched and foggy glass of 100-gallon water tanks filled with miniature hand-made landscapes, these miniature maelstroms, shot against the natural light of evening skies, have great luminosity and emotion despite their obvious artificiality. Hers is a primordial world caught in the turmoil of creation, or perhaps on the verge of being swept away entirely. Lest you think these ambiguous projections upon her work are insignificant, consider the different ways human beings approach a genuine landscape: planting trees in anticipation of stability and growth, or laying out a strip mine or shopping mall.

What turns an aerial survey into a piece of artwork? Timing? Intention? David Maisel's garishly colored chromogenic prints of poisoned lakes near Salt Lake City set in unsettling compositions make his point well enough: ecocide can be strikingly pretty. Yet the small and masterful black and white aerial photographs of his mentor at Princeton University, Emmet Gowen, hanging on the adjacent wall capture the larger, metaphorical possibilities of shooting from above. They also catch the larger, though unspoken, possibilities of the SVC show in general. Gowen's discrete images push this show forward, from a somewhat rueful response to its own big questions, toward more exciting ontological possibilities. In his pictures, we find a presence beyond the foibles of man, a little voice which says "Don't just do something ... sit there." Unintended formal abstractions caught from the sky in the form of irrigation circles, drainage canals and golf courses appear like hieroglyphs representing the toils of humanity within much larger and unseen forces.

Gowen's photos suggest that even our most practical, and presumably artless endeavors, are conducted in the presence of something, or someone beyond our ken. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his photograph of troop emplacement ditches near the Nevada nuclear test site. You have to really hunt for them at first--little trenches where GI's once waited for the atomic flash, the once-potent symbol of Armageddon. The mushroom cloud, in all its horrible beauty, is only implied by the minute intervals of symmetry dug between ridgelines in the vast Nevada desert. We wait also, but are we alone? "Whose Nature?" becomes Who's Nature. And the "who" is us.

All the information in the world, Google Earth included, won't succeed in helping us to realize a consciousness that's inseparable from the world we inhabit. This is why artists like Gowen matter. If the situation of planet earth is as dire as the evening news suggests, we may need this grand perspective more than ever. This realization may help us to repair our relationship with the planet Earth more than the never-ending haggle over energy policy, religion and politics. "We need action," insisted the politician in the movie Mindwalk. "Perspective," answered the poet. "Perspective."

The activism inferred by much of the work in this show implies a need for restraint. But where to begin? How is art going to succeed where every credible scientist in the land has failed? And how can we reproach the villain of rampant consumerism in Sun Valley, of all places, where extravagant excess has become the norm?

There are, of course, many examples out there of humanity and nature playing well together with pleasing aesthetic results, examples which we are more eager than ever to attend after leaving the SVC show: English gardens, Asian rice paddies and sailboats to name a only a few. This show may help us to go there in a spirit of mutually beneficial collaboration, rather than as mere tourists.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 5. Sun Valley Center, 191 5th St. E., Ketchum, 208-726-9491, www.sunvalleycenter.org, Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Mon.-Fri.