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.

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