Life and its natural flow

Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado (Brazilian, b. 1944)

Zo’e Group, State of Para, Brazil [Zo’e Women], 2009

The gallery below is chosen after this photograph of the Zoe women in the Brazilian Amazon taken by Sebastião Salgado on his Genesis exhibition at ICP. The photo shows a group of women touching and painting themselves in a very natural way. They are wearing white flowers head ornaments and are all either sitting on the floor or in the hammocks. All of them are very comfortable with the place and presence of one another. Every figure seems to play an important role not only for the composition of the photograph, but among their social group.

Torii Kiyomitsu

Sento bathing scene. Japanese woman bathing in a wooden tub (woodcut by Torii Kiyomitsu, late 18th century)

This image shows the moments of the day that we spend doing something without realizing the action itself, it just flows naturally. We inherit cultural behaviors that come from ancestors and relatives and they just become part of us. The act of cleaning ourselves is one of those things.

Frances Benjamin

Modern Dance Group of Young Women Performing Outdoors, 1900,

Frances Benjamin

As seen in the Salgado’s photograph, these women are doing something as a group without any commitment to it. They just seem to be distracting themselves, dancing bare feet in the woods with no expectation or anxiety of being judged. Both Frances Benjamin and Sebastião Salgado leave us with an image in which the photographer seems invisible by its subject – what makes the image stronger. The spontaneity of doing something just for the sake of entertainment and no expectation for outcomes is beautifully translated in this photo.

Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix

Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix

The Women of Algiers (study). 1832, 10×13cm, Louvre

These two women sitting on the floor in a very intimate relation to the space and the object in the center of the photograph relates directly to the Salgado’s photograph when talking about belonging to the space/ setting. The relationship between subject and its surrounding is portrayed in a very homogenous way as if the girls are blending to the background and floor.

Philip Baldaeus

“Einwohner in Ceylon (People of Ceylon)” by Philip Baldaeus, from ‘Nauwkeurige beschrijving Malabar en Choromandel, derz. aangrenzend rijken, en het machtige eiland Ceylon’, Amsterdam, 1672

19.5 x 29.5 cm

This photograph makes me think of work versus survival. Are these women working because they enjoy working or is it a matter of surviving the rules of colonizers? Also, because countries like Ceylon were colonized and black people were forced to work then I think of them as individuals who did not even have the choice of decision making about where, how and what to do within a group. The level of acceptance is pretty much denied and not questioned among them, but the idea of survival.

Jose Medeiros

Ritual de iniciação das filhas-de-santo. Bahia, Brazil, 1951.

Photo: José Medeiros/Acervo IMS.

This photograph is the opposite from what I have chosen so far. José Medeiros composed this image of a girl looking very much to her inside with a posed action rather than experience the spontaneity of movements and feelings from the other photos. I think she is very much aware of where she is and what she is doing. I like to call this a more “controlled” situation in comparison to the others. Looking at this image among the others raises the question of the difference between the staged and spontaneous moment of photography.

Claudine Doury

Claudine Doury – photo: Sasha 2005

I really enjoy this photo of these two teenagers covered in mud walking in the woods.They do not seem to care about the photographer and are just playing around as they do daily. That is what girls do – they have fun with foolish things. Claudine Doury has photographed her daughter Sasha in her teenager years in familiar places, but even being so intimate to her subject matter this is one of the few photographs that I find the spontaneity of the moment more powerful.

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse

music 1910

260 x 389 cm

And as seen on the Salgado’s photograph, the subject is shown throughout the entire image frame, which creates a need to move our eyes around the image looking for the connections between the elements, instead of having just one main “object”. It is a group of people and each one seems very comfortable with their own roles among themselves. Some men play the music while the other just enjoy it, regardless of who does what they are just there enjoying it.

Tacita Dean

Tacita dean

Urdolmen II, 2009

Like the women in the Salgado’s photo, these rocks are just sitting there not fighting against the other. They are doing what they are supposed to do within this specific space. They touch each other in a pleasant way. They all have different bodies sizes, characteristics and still work perfectly together. As if one need the other for the whole group to work and flow.

Hector Carybe

Hector Caribé

Mulheres, 1992 – silk screen printing

50 x 70cm

This image is about these women and how they play around with themselves. They are standing or sitting down in this beach and interacting with one another. They are all naked and the body movements look so spontaneous that the naked body does not become an issue of interpretation. They could be dressed up and the image will have the same effect. The group interaction becomes the powerful structure on the scene and how comfortable they look with the presence of the others.

paraty

Bia Monteiro

Paraty – 2014

This is a photograph I took of a group of people in a little bar in the country side of Rio de Janeiro. The encounter of different people in a common space is a nice experience of seeing, feeling and respecting one another. To see how people behave and occupy a space in relation to the space itself and with others is something that interests me a lot. I look at it  as a microcosmo of our planet.

Unframed

Sebastiao Salgado (Brazil, 1944). At times, only the tails of the southern right whales (Eubalena Australis) are visible. Valdés Peninsula. Argentina, 2004.  Photograph, Black and white print

Sebastiao Salgado (Brazil, 1944). At times, only the tails of the southern right whales (Eubalena Australis) are visible. Valdés Peninsula. Argentina, 2004. Photograph, Black and white print.

This art exhibition is composed of 12 works. It begins with the photograph of Sebastiao Salgado, ‘At times, only the tails of the southern whales are visible’ (Valdés Peninsula, 2014), and considers the dialogue between what is seen and what is not.

Francis Blake (United States, 1850-1913). Pigeons on flight, 1889. Plate negative 6x8”. Credit Line: Current Owner: Massachusetts Historical Society. Object number: #57.1424-1437#6.3.401S-406S.

Francis Blake (United States, 1850-1913). Pigeons on flight, 1889. Plate negative 6×8”.
Credit Line: Current Owner: Massachusetts Historical Society.

The stillness that surrounds the whale, represents the desire of stop motion that is so clearly depicted at Francis Bacon’s ‘Pigeons of flight’ (1889-1890). The fluttering of the birds wings is revealed by the mingling of their feathers. The whiteness of the leader pigeon is beautifully broken by the dark spots on the other pigeons’ bodies. They are flying freely and being very aware of their position in the group; they are drawing a ‘V’ shape in the air, just as the whale does. The way that the two of them look at/interact with the photographer humanizes them; and their shape leads me to think about a group of native Americans donning almost ceremonial headdresses in the city, enjoying the afternoon as the sidewalk is for them.

Herbert List (Germany, 1903-1975). Rescue the flag. Rome, 1961. Gelatin silver print Courtesy of Magnum Photos: www.magnumphotos.com

Herbert List (Germany, 1903-1975). Rescue the flag. Rome, 1961. Gelatin silver print
Courtesy of Magnum Photos

There is a moment of freedom created by the movement of our gaze following the little boy in ’Rescue the flag’ (1961) by Herbert List. Fast and light as if nobody could catch him, his left foot suspended in the air… His other foot is nowhere to be seen and we get the impression that he is flying. This desire for freedom is also provocatively framed by a the anxious feeling created by the two wheels and the strength of the lines created by the stones on the pavement. I can’t see what’s going on behind him, so a number of scenarios run through my imagination and I feel his body trembling with excitement.

Ben Berlow. Untitled, 2013. Casein, gesso on paper. 33 x 25 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Rawson Projects, New York

Ben Berlow. Untitled, 2013. Casein, gesso on paper. 33 x 25 1/4 inches. Courtesy the artist and Rawson Projects, New York

In ‘Untitled’ (2013), Ben Berlow combines the lines and curves of distinct blue and pink paper to create separated and contained fields. There is an exquisite curve on the brown craft paper which references something imagined. It becomes a riddle, and it is up to us to figure it out.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (Spain, 1746 – 1828). ‘Perro semihundido’ (Half-submerged Dog). 1819-1923. Oil mural plaster transferred to canvas. 131.5 cm × 79.3 cm (51 3⁄4 in × 31 1⁄4 in) Credit Line: Current Owner: @Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The gaze of Goya’s ‘Dog’ (1819-23), looking candidly out of the frame, conveys defenselessness and mystery. The total absence of context in this scenario without perspective, creates an enigmatic atmosphere. An aged background of intense gold appears to be a sand storm, as if a giant monster were hidden behind the sand and the dog expected him to approach. Maybe ready for death, maybe ready to follow the monster, the master…

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (México, 1902-2002). La Hija de los danzantes (The daughter of the dancers), 1933. Gelatin silver print,  9-5/16 x 6-1/2 in. (23.7 x 16.5 cm) Courtesy Asociación Manuel Alvarez Bravo, A.C. www.manuelalvarezbravo.org

Manuel Álvarez Bravo (México, 1902-2002). La Hija de los danzantes (The daughter of the dancers), 1933. Gelatin silver print, 9-5/16 x 6-1/2 in. (23.7 x 16.5 cm)
Courtesy Asociación Manuel Alvarez Bravo, A.C.

The paint scratches on the walls of ‘La Hija de los danzantes’ (The Daughter of the Dancers) (1933) by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, draws tears in this intriguing scene starred by the languor of this young girl. Her white dress as a symbol of purity, her naked feet, and the subtle position of her tiptoes, adds more intensity and mystery to the enigma of what is happening on the other side of the window. I wonder why she is relaxed and unaware. Surrounded by the labyrinthian lines and shapes of the wall, her hat and arm makes me think of a Mexican version of Alice in Wonderland and she is about to fall down the rabbit’s hole.

John G. Bullock (United States, 1854-1939). Study of a Birch Tree, 1895 -1900. Platinum print. 7 7/8 x 5 7/8” Credit Line: Current Owner: College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters (UM-Dearborn) Object number: ARTH 368

John G. Bullock (United States, 1854-1939). Study of a Birch Tree, 1895 -1900. Platinum print. 7 7/8 x 5 7/8”.Credit Line: Current Owner: College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters (UM-Dearborn)

You also sense fragility about to break at ‘Study of Birch Tree’ (1895) of John Bullock. The stripes of the trunk bend down in the opposite direction that the wind is blows the ferns, and creates a suspense intensified by the darkness on the ground. There is contradiction in the strength of the ‘birch tree’ that looks vulnerable, and the flimsy ferns that look powerful, acting as a shield to protect it. The forested background envelops the entire moment and evokes a dreamy and mysterious scene.

Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany 1968). chaos cup, 1997. Courtesy of the artist

Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany 1968). chaos cup, 1997. Courtesy of the artist

IIn ‘chaos cup’ (1997) by Wolfgang Tillmans, at first glance the reflection of this big tree without leaves has crystallized on the surface of the tea. The liquid becomes part of the reflection and vice versa. The materiality becomes melted, like Dali watches. The handle of the cup becomes the tree trunk, the smallest is the biggest and the strongest the weakest. The darkness on the trunk mixes with a mysterious shadow around the tree empty branches. This tonal game follows a line out of the cup where is a tea bag, a little element able to create this dense and intense atmosphere.

This is an underlying theme in most of the pieces we have been looking at. This unpredictable and quiet suspenseful world takes me back to Salgado’s whale. It belongs to this unknown world that remains unexplained. The elements in the composition and the gestures of nature that surround, it makes us understand a moment that is happening far away but feels so close.

Juan Manuel Castro Prieto (Spain, 1959). Equilibrio Inestable (Unstable Equilibrium serie). Tarragona, 2010. Large Format photograph.

Juan Manuel Castro Prieto (Spain, 1958). Equilibrio Inestable (Unstable Equilibrium serie). Tarragona, 2010. 8×10″ Large Format photography. Courtesy of artist

This is a feeling I had when I first saw the photograph of ‘Equilibrio Inestable’ (Unstable Equilibrium) (Tarragona, 2010), by Juan Manuel Castro Prieto. It was around Christmas, time, and my Dad was at the end of a long illness. Castro Prieto sent me this photograph by email as a Christmas card. It came as a relief to be immersed in this tiny and content Victorian universe, so far away from mine. The weirdness of the naked doll with white socks and painted black shoes and the light around her, draw me close to this special being that brought me a sliver of light as an omen. One week later my Dad passed away in such a peaceful way. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I had ever had. Keeping this photograph in my cell phone is like having my dad’s guardian angel always with me.

Amy Friend (Canada). Are We Stardust, 2014. Photograph.  Courtesy of artist.

Amy Friend (Canada). Are We Stardust, 2014. Photography.
Courtesy of artist

We encounter the same play with light in ‘Are We Stardust’ (2014) created by Amy Friend. It works by narrowing the distance between the fragile quality of the vintage photograph itself and the fragility of our lives. The pose and the relaxed open arms of the little girl sitting on the bench, her hands suspended tenderly over her lap, the bench in darkness, create this wide, empty, and suggestive space. It starts an imaginary long wave in the air that is filled up with the light from the stardust as the group of fireflies that surrounds her take us to a fairy tale state of mind.

Henry Fitz Jr., (United States, 1801 – 1863). Self-Portrait, 1839. Daguerreotype Credit Line: Current Owner: National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution (NMAH) www.si.edu Object number: 109990/4114A

Henry Fitz Jr., (United States, 1801 – 1863). Self-Portrait, 1839. Daguerreotype
Credit Line: Current Owner: National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution (NMAH). Object number: 109990/4114A

The most beautiful part of the daguerreotype that Henry Fitz made in 1839 is the corrosion. It is probably one of the first portraits with eyes closed because of the need for longer exposure time. But is in those beautiful signs of time on the image that I find enchantment, Henry seems to close his eyes in order to be sprayed by light and time in an antique barbershop.

Ivana Larrosa (Spain, 1975), Hair 1992 (2014). Scan 7×5″

I am going to end this exploration with my piece “Hair 1992″ (2014). I have kept my braid since I chopped off my locks at 16 years old; it looks like the whale in Salgado’s photograph. This walk along time has brought me to live intensely with her (my inanimate braid). I have photographed her at the studio, I have drawn her, I have played with it …until  I realized that I had to reconnected with what it was that I was letting go of back then. The freeing ritualistic enactment of cutting my hair and shaving my head was something liberating when I was 16 years old. And re connecting with that symbolic ritual while scanning the hair of that old braid now in New York has made that happened again, sparks included.

The experience of these images allowed me to discover a world of guessing beyond what the eyes can see. A world that reveals itself between two winks of an eye or perhaps deep inside a braid.

ICP-MFA Online Curated Show Matthew Cohen

-1-2Sebastian Salgado, Himba Group

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Guernico, Elijah fed by Ravens, 1620

Guernico’s work was the first logical jump my mind made from Salgado’s image of a drought stricken area because the tablet in the far right of the image shows Kings 1, a passage about God warning of a drought. However, both of these depictions of drought created a feeling of the lack of water in another surprising way. An empty well at the bottom of Salgado’s piece is mirrored by an empty cup at the bottom of Guernico’s. This led me to think. How do we show lack? How do we depict that which we do not have? Guernico chose an empty object meant for holding. I sought more examples of this and other portrayals of this question.

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El Greco, Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, 1600

With the empty bowl in mind I was struck by how I overlooked the blank sheet of paper in this image. Why was that piece of paper there and why was it blank? Suddenly I wondered if this image takes on the same meaning we feel in the Guernico piece, yet without the direct depiction necessary. I my interest was renewed after dismissing this image as another technically amazing commissioned piece to perhaps a great statement about the artists perception of the individual.

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Steiglitz, Black Forest Girl 1894

How far can we take this physical representation of the nonphysical? Steiglitz takes us to another empty feeling with yet another object meant for holding. How much do we learn about the photograph, the photographer, the subject, the time and the place based on what isn’t in this bucket? Without the bucket the viewer is significantly less informed about what the image tries to tell us about its subject.


Honoré_Daumier,_The_Third-Class_Carriage_-_The_Metropolitan_Museum_of_Art

Daumier, Third Class Carriage, 1864

Similarly, how does Daumier make us as viewers see this basket in the in The Third Class Carriage? He shows us people from all time periods of their life but our eye is drawn to a basket in the center of the frame. Here the object meant for holding things is informed by the characters within the image and the image title to make one think the basket might be empty.

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Graciela Iturbide, Desierto de Sonora, 1979

I was first drawn to this image for the gasoline jug but felt it revealed a further connection to Salgado’s piece in that the empty holding object informs the entire world view of the subjects within the image. In Salgado’s image, the emptiness of the well only highlights the overall framing of drought and desperation the people within the image feel. Iturbide frames the life of the girls in the image and pinpoints the viewers feelings using the empty gasoline jug.

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Elliot Erwin, USA. NYC. 1950.

The empty coffee cup in this image depicts another form of absence along with empty cup idea. It tells a story about its characters. Along with the year of creation, 1950, the coffee cup informs us of a businessman with no care for a spilled coffee or wasted dollar fifty. His stride past the fallen and spilled cup tells a story of a man who does not consider absence of goods.

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Goya, The Dog, 1819

In Goya’s “The Dog” the eye is directed very similarly to the well and bowl, but our nothing is now a something, the subject is a dog. However, it accomplishes discussing absence in it’s own unique way. If you own a dog or lived with a dog you know they do not just look at nothing. They respond and react to things. As I began to write this sentence my dog sent a quick inquisitive look at me as my keyboard started to make noise. The dog in The Dog is looking at something, but what? Goya’s dog addresses emptiness by having the real subject be both unknown and out of frame.

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Picasso, Still life of a Bottle of Rum, 1911

What else could be explored by physically representing less? My mind jumps to Cubism and the lack of complete viewing and understanding. How does this lack inform our understanding of the image as compared to a more physical absence? It pushes the viewer to think about the realness of the object even more than depicting it as it could be seen by anybody.

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Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1963

Pushing the depiction of absence further still, what if nothing is actually ‘depicted’ in the image? Ad Reinhardt poses a way of forcing the viewer to consider almost nothing in an image. Soon I realized I was not looking at a depiction of emptiness but emptiness itself. Reinhardt’s abstractions are the emptiness we see in the bowl and the well without the surrounding context. Abstract Painting could very well be the piece of blank paper in the floor of El Greco’s piece.

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Nasa, 2012

How is lack and drought shown right now? How do we show it empirically? Sometimes we need to see the change of things over time. NASA shows change to the Brazilian rivers as a before and after gif, forcing the viewer to witness the drastic physical changes in the landscape and color and consider its consequences.

A Delicate Balance

Yali Man, Sebastião Salgado 2010

Yali Man, West Papua, Indonesia, Sebastião Salgado
2010

Salgado’s photograph of a Yali man integrates the figure so seamlessly into the foliage that it takes a second to notice him. The majority of the frame is filled with the lush leaves of a fern-like plant or bush. There is a pleasing randomness to the pattern they create and the full tonal range is used to the utmost to exploit this variety. The figure is nude with the exception of shoes or sandals. He is oddly placed in the composition; his head is centered at the very top of the frame as if he is about to float away. Drawn out of the disarray of the leaves, the figure holds your eye. The integration of the man and the tree points to the possibility of man’s symbiotic relationship with nature, but we also see that it is a delicate balance. I have selected images for this exhibit that speak to our relationship with the world and nature, and capture the majesty and wonder that is embodied in the image above.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with Virtues, Netherlandish tapestry, early 1600s

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with Virtues, Netherlandish tapestry, early 1600s

My first image is a tapestry from the early 17th century that depicts depicts Adam and Eve in a bountiful Eden before the Fall. When I came across this image, I saw strong parallels with the Salgado image. The rhythmic patterning echoes the leaves surrounding the Yali man and I kept discovering more layers within the frame. Although there are three different types of trees represented, I didn’t notice this immediately. It was only after more patient looking that I noticed one had berries, another pod-like blossoms with seeds on the verge of dropping. Similarly, a wide range of animals are represented throughout, but their homogenous toning camouflages the diversity. Adam is reclining to the left and vines curlycue around his ample frame. A single grape leaf covers his genitals. Eve is standing to the right. A different plant, also vine-like obscures the lower part of her body. There is a delight I feel as my eye scans around discovering all the details; it is a similar delight to my experience of Salgado’s image.

Manjuvajra Mandala 1400s

Manjuvajra Mandala
1400s

While researching non-Western representations for this project, I thought about buddhism and its ideas about integration and the need to respect life in all its forms. This led me to this painting of a mandala from the 1400s. I was immediately drawn in by the repetition and symmetry. A series of squares radiates out from a central figure that has multiple hands like the goddess Shiva. As I move out from the center, I notice that the entire image is made up of these repeated figures; they occupy the corners of every level, as well as the openings that take you outward to the next levels. A mandala is more a representation of the universe than nature per se, but I can’t help feel the overlap. Nature, world, universe all speak to an integrated and interdependent system. When I look at this mandala, I get lost in a similar way to how I get lost in Salgado’s photograph. Here the repeating vine-like and scrolling patterns remind me of the veiny fern leaves. They are part of the structure that supports this constellation of figures, and together they create a seamless whole.

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645 Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651)

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645
Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651)

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645 Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651) (DETAIL)

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645
Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651) (DETAIL)

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645 Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651) (DETAIL)

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645
Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651) (DETAIL)

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645 Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651) (DETAIL)

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645
Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651) (DETAIL)

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645 Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651) (DETAIL)

The Old Plum, Edo period (1615–1868), ca. 1645
Attributed to Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, ca. 1589–1651) (DETAIL)

Japan’s native belief system, Shinto, places much importance on seasonal change and the fleeting nature of life that it implies. We see this reflected in Japanese art which is inextricably linked to nature and the cycles of the earth. In this four panel screen, we see the hulking trunk of an old plum tree jutting out from the far right panel. It’s jagged and twisty form traverses left. It is barren but shows the budding of flowers; an indication of spring and its renewal. The little berries that dot its branches remind me of the Yali man harvesting from the tree in the Salgado image. Here as in there, the cycle of life is revealed in poetic dimension.

Swimming Hole, Thomas Eakins, 1883

Swimming Hole, Thomas Eakins, 1883

I was drawn to Eakins photographs because they portray a more intimate relationship with nature than some of his contemporaries. The landscapes of Carleton Watkins & Timothy H. O’Sullivan depicted majestic nature but they were devoid of human presence. This was a time of rapid industrialization when man was trampling nature in the name of progress. I see Eakins photographs pointing to something different and they show an entirely different experience of nature. It is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. In this way, they show the potential for what can be lost. When I imagine him dragging his giant view camera and daring to choreograph these figures frolicking by the water’s edge, I feel the same sense of amazement that I do for the Yali man balancing so perfectly in Salgado’s frame. It seems like an impossible proposition.

Undergrowth with Two Figures, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

Undergrowth with Two Figures, Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

This painting by Van Gogh represents the sous bois genre from the late 19th century. Rather than painting landscapes from afar like traditional painters, rural painters climbed or walked into forested areas for a more intimate view. This piece depicts two lovers strolling through a forest, but Van Gogh has handled his subject in such a way that they don’t seem like part of the landscape. As I investigate how he has formed them, I realize they are sturdy and upright like the stands of trees. He’s used the same green from the forest in the clothing of the man and the woman. But then I notice the pattern of the trees is linear as though man has intervened here. I don’t know if this is deliberate but it implies a human role that is more active.

7,000 Oaks, Joseph Beuys, 1982

7,000 Oaks, Joseph Beuys, 1982

For his project 7,000 Oaks, Joseph Beuys planted 7,000 oak trees in Kassell, Germany with the help of volunteers. It was a response to the rampant urbanization that minimized nature’s presence in modern cities around the globe. The scope of the project is huge and I was struck by how it shifts our understanding of our relationship with nature to one that is more active. In this act of putting trees back where they were removed, our role as stewards is highlighted. Also, I was interested in how it reframes what it means to make art. Typically I think of artists as makers of things, but Beuys art is in the action. This makes me wonder about Salgado’s enterprise and whether making pictures is really the most effective way to make change. Beuys radical thinking exposes me to a different type of discovery that points more towards action and experience.

Silueta Series, Ana Mendieta, 1978

Silueta Series, Ana Mendieta, 1978

This image from Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Series feels strikingly resonant with the Salgado image. Born in Cuba, Mendieta was sent by her parents to the United States during Operation Peter Pan and was raised in foster homes in Iowa. Primarily performance-based, her work was autobiographical and dealt with physical and spiritual displacement, among other things. In this series which she began in the 1970s, she left traces of her body in hundreds of locations around the world including this one shown here. The parched earth fills the frame and gives an eery quality to this barren landscape. The figure is recognizable but It isn’t immediately apparent how this trace was left behind. What does it mean to leave a trace of oneself that will disappear? Does this ephemeral act speak more pointedly about our place in nature and the world?

Touch, Janine Antoni, 2002

Touch, Janine Antoni, 2002

In her video performance piece, Touch, Janine Antoni walks a tightrope that sits just above the horizon. At the point that her weight comes down on the rope, it just touches the horizon. I was initially drawn to this piece because of what it says about balance. In the Art21 segment about her, she talked about learning to tightrope and said “I started to notice that it wasn’t that I was getting more balanced but that I was getting more comfortable with being out of balance”. Nature is the epitome of balance within imbalance and it is something we can learn from.

Neukom Vivarium, Mark Dion, 2006

Neukom Vivarium, Mark Dion, 2006

Neukom Vivarium, Mark Dion, 2006

Neukom Vivarium, Mark Dion, 2006

Neukom Vivarium, Mark Dion, 2006

Neukom Vivarium, Mark Dion, 2006

Mark Dion’s mixed media piece, Neukom Vivarium, takes a fallen hemlock tree and uses it to help us understand what’s at risk when we take the complexity of nature for granted. The 60 foot tree is housed in an 80 foot greenhouse in Seattle’s Olympic Park with an elaborate technological system that approximates nature’s processes. The installation brings visitors in touch with this false system while at the same time offering an up-close view, via magnifying glasses, of the many life forms thriving in the system. My sense of wonder is tempered by fear; this wonderfully lush installation is not meant to be a positive, back-to-nature experience. Rather it is instead a warning of what stands to be lost. Despite all of our technological abilities, reproducing what nature does so effortlessly is enormously costly and impractical.

Justine Kurland, Waterfall, Mama Babies, 2006

Justine Kurland, Waterfall, Mama Babies, 2006

As a counterpoint to Dion’s piece, I returned to the photographic and selected an image from Justine Kurland. I don’t recall when I first saw the photographs from her series depicting nude mothers and their children in magnificent landscapes, but I remember being completely captivated. I also remember struggling to understand how they were made. They looked so completely natural but the elaborateness meant they had to be staged. The image I’ve selected here depicts five mothers enmeshed with their children in a primordial landscape. To the left, three mother/child pairs lead my eye toward the waterfall. At right, a mother with an older child walks across rocks at the water’s edge. There is a swirl that leads my eye through the waterfall and the figures. The landscape is imposing and powerful, but the juxtaposition of these gentle, mothering figures enveloped within it tempers its strength. I’m drawn to this utopian vision that feels modern and anti-modern at the same time. This contradiction appeals to me and I think in order to get back in balance with nature, we have to allow ourselves to dream.

Out my window, Matthew Papa, 2014

Out my window, Matthew Papa, 2014

I was sent into a tailspin when I thought about making a response piece to Salgado and this exhibit. I’ve become a complete city dweller after living in New York for more than twenty years so it provoked me to question my own relationship to nature. I thought I would be a complete imposter making an image that implied a crunchy reality I don’t inhabit. Honestly, I spend so much time in man-made environments I started to think that maybe I don’t have a relationship to nature. But once I got past thinking about using my houseplants as subjects, I realized I was complicating things for myself and overlooking a unique experience I have in the city. I live in the upper reaches of Manhattan and outside my window is the Hudson River. Everyday I am reminded of the glories of nature and it gives me great peace. I’m certain of the interdependence of humans and the natural world; I guess I’m just more comfortable witnessing it out a window.

Michael Brown March, NYC

If anyone missed some of the marches taking place in NYC last night, here’s a short video I shot showing what it was like from my perspective.  The group left Union Square before a scheduled 7pm march, and headed uptown, where they confronted police and traffic at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel.  After sitting for nearly 30 minutes and numerous threats of arrest, the group made its way to Times Square, where the protest stayed for approximately an hour.  A human chain was formed, and some arrests were made.  The group was cordoned off so that traffic could resume, and eventually the group turned back downtown.

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Alumna in the Arctic

I have the opportunity to spend three weeks in Svalbard, Norway for an artistic residency on board a barkentine sailboat as a resident in the Arctic Circle Residency. My work explores the spirit of human exploration and the history of Arctic expeditions.You can imagine how being immersed in that same extreme environment will impact the work that I create, expanding upon and evolving my thesis work into something richer, informed by personal experience. Svalbard was a point of embarkation for many arctic expeditions and is steeped with that history; visiting the archipelago that launched so many of these historical explorations is an immense opportunity for my work.

If you appreciate art, travel, Scandinavia, and budding artists – or if you still believe in the intrepid human spirit, consider supporting this project. You can learn more about my plans for the residency at Hatchfund, or check out my blog, Svalbard By Sea, where you can follow my preparations, my experience on the residency, and the work I make when I return.