"Landscape is not the ideologically neutral subject many imagine it to be. Rather, it is an historical artifact that can be viewed as a record of the material facts of our social reality and what we have chosen to make of them."
-Deborah Bright, "Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men An Inquiry Into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography," 1985
Sunshine and swimming pools are common visual ideals associated with the Southern California regional identity; a landscape depicted in photographs, postcards, and tourism campaigns where the watery theater for sub-culture rituals and background mirage of Hollywood dreams fuel the expectations of laid-back cultural atmosphere within an ecological paradise of Eden. Seen through a lens, place can be represented and misrepresented through the mechanical eye; a city's structures and streets -- and how they're depicted -- can create boundaries and implied identities about the spaces that may never find critical discourse like that of Thom Anderson's epic filmic tome "Los Angeles Plays Itself."
In the arid landscape of the Los Angeles County high desert, the Antelope Valley suburban sprawl and its exurban L.A. commuters replicate the So Cal lifestyle with even sunnier skies and individual artificial backyard pools, in spite of the drought conditions and stringent water restrictions that Reyner Banham reflects in "Desert Cantos," where "it is the desert that is truly ours, for we have made it so and must live with the consequences."1 While the representational destiny manifested in our visionary golden American West may be an idealistic paradise, "Being Here and There," a photographic landscape exhibition curated by artist Sant Khalsa at the city of Lancaster's Museum of Art and History (MOAH), features works by twenty-six artists whose imagery derives from their individual and contemplative experience of place -- specifically Southern California -- and depicts the landscape as riddled with contradictions and complexities.
As a medium, photography has continually evolved, weathering its own debate and dialogue about the purpose and place of depiction and reproduction. From the printing press to television, to video and computer technology, photography continues to challenge our ideas on the nature of our perceived realities having redefined the terms and conditions, relationships and transformations of other art forms while deconstructing established art values through photography's reproductive output and perceived scientific objectivity. In Deborah Bright's 1992 essay, "The Machine in The Garden Revisited American Environmentalism and Photographic Aesthetics" which addresses the dialogue of landscape photography "from the age of Manifest Destiny to the age of global warming," she suggests that we consider the socio-political, environmental, psychological, historical, economic and other kinds of questions we should ask of nature photographs including: "What images of nature are most potent for public consumption at a given historical moment and what ideologies underwrite them? Which publics are being addressed and why? Do cultural elites, including artists and curators, reinforce dominant myths about the relations between 'the human' and 'the natural,' or work against them?"2 In our desire to depict and capture time and space, how does photography implicate our need to memorialize or historically represent? Tom Turner's "The Color of Memory: Santa Monica Color Experiment," explores a single hour of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California questioning the process and behavior of memory mixing the Red, Green and Blue Color Channels from three different images to create an entirely new/false image where the real becomes the un-real -- or vice versa depending on our interpretation.
"Being Here and There" curator Sant Khalsa, born Sheila Roth, is an artist/educator/activist and practitioner of yoga and meditation whose life philosophy is a hybrid of many Eastern beliefs such as Buddhism, Sikhism, and Sufism. An artist represented by the Kopeikin Gallery and educator at California State University, San Bernardino who has curated intermittenly since 1982, Khalsa describes curating "Being Here and There" in relationship to her own work as an artist which comes from her singular perspective where "ideas develop from personal experience of place, photographing, and living life with a focus on being present in the moment and finding meaning in the gift of 'being here'." Expanding on her subjective perspective as an artist, the museum exhibition format provided Khalsa an opportunity to articulate the individual and unique views of the So Cal landscape from twenty-six other perspectives chosen from her artist networks including friends, associates, and several emerging artists in order to share a multiplicity of ideas and visions while discussing photography as a medium at this present moment with the variations of analog and digital technology occuring in that dialogue.
The city of Lancaster's MOAH was founded as the Lancaster Museum/Art Gallery in 1986 during an economic and cultural boom, and was recently relocated to a repurposed bank site in the again revitalized downtown boulevard in 2012. After the head curatorial position was vacated the previous year, the city contracted with Andi Campognone to bring her Pomona based AC Project artists, exhibitions, and books and films to the municipal museum and its Antelope Valley audience. Khalsa's "Being Here and There" is based on a previous exhibition in 2013 titled "Being Here" that Khalsa curated around the landscape of the Inland Empire for Campognone's AC Project gallery in Pomona. Khalsa and Campognone reprised the concept for MOAH, building on Khalsa's ideas from the previous show to focus more on the entire Southern California region including MOAH's Mojave desert landscape in the Antelope Valley. Thinking about the landscape photographer as "an explorer who is sensitive to their experience, skilled in recording their observations, and developing new ways to visually map the human of experience of being present in this place and time," Khalsa describes the artists in "Being Here and There" as "surveyors" a term that contests the mapping of territory, where "the geometric basis of surveying and cartography was simply not present before [Cartesian mathematics]. It is the understanding of political space that is fundamental, and the idea of boundaries a secondary aspect, dependent on the first."3 A sentiment that compounds John Brinckerhoff Jackson's thoughts in "Discovering the Vernacular Landscape" from 1984, "I suspect no landscape, vernacular or otherwise, can be comprehended unless we perceive it as an organization of space; unless we ask ourselves who owns or uses the spaces, how they were created and how they change."
"Being Here and There" is highly influenced by the discourse of the New Topographics, an influential exhibition about new landscape photography which featured unromanticized views of stark industrial landscapes, suburban sprawl, and everyday scenes that began at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York in 1975. The photographic discourse continued in its restaging as the "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" exhibition, a collaboration between the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona which exhibited at LACMA in 2009, and San Francisco MOMA in 2010. This edition of "New Topographics" reassembled photographs by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr. from the 1975 exhibition, along with a new guard of photographers who had been converging to generate New Topographics photography which explored "a growing awareness of the exploitation of the American landscape, the rise of the environmental movement, the emergence of cultural landscape studies as an academic discipline, new appreciation of the commercial vernacular, epitomized by the 1972 publication of 'Learning From Las Vegas' by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown."4 Khalsa describes "Being Here and There" as the next wave of the discussion, where there are a variety of techniques and perspectives from the "New Topographics" which bridge the pristinely beautiful landscapes of Walker Evans and Ansel Adams with the wider contemporary art scene and its ironic postmodern banality of the present land and urban planning issues.
The perceived dichotomy between banality and the romantic becomes subjected to personal taste as Khalsa writes, "the ideas of 'New Topographics' are present in the show but there is also work that is highly subjective and passionate, socio-political, environmental, psychological, imaginative, historical, etc. The ideas present in 'New Topographics' have collided with contemporary and conceptual ideas and new and changing technology." Expanding on the ideology of the questions surrounding the political, and the romantic interaction of humankind and the environment, several of the artists included in the "Being Here and There" exhibition also narrated their ideas on the discussion as part of the "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" at LACMA including Catherine Opie, Mark Ruwedel, Kim Stringfellow, and Amir Zaki. Khalsa approaches the idea that "each artist's work in the exhibition is distinct in its concept, content, and approach, providing us with an opportunity to view and gain understanding of the significance of the everyday -- that which is extraordinary within one's experience as well as the ordinary and often overlooked." A concept apparent by way of the Los Angeles outskirts and desert regions that subculture writer Dick Hebdige explores, as "more from less than zero."5 In depicting place through through the medium of photography, the artists in "Being Here and There" create conceptual and mechanical systems of their relation to the environment, its divides, and its territorial boundaries.
Naida Osline's digital compilation, "Sacred Datura," connects the plant Datura Stramonium L. to its shamanistic ideas and historically ceremonial and sacramental use that is documented throughout the world, stating her interest "in how these plants may serve as teachers and intimate companions who are part of our deepest thoughts that potentially connect us to a higher state of consciousness." Datura Stramonium L. was named by Carl Linnaeus in "Species Plantarum" originally published in 1753, it was the first botanical work to classify and consistently apply the binomial nomenclature system that lists every species of plant known at the time. The genus was derived from the ancient Hindu word for plant, dhatura, and the species name is from New Latin, stramonium, originally from Greek, strychnos (nightshade) and manikos (mad).6 Also known as Jimsonweed, devil's trumpet, witches weed, moonflower and other ominous titles that reveal the mind altering intoxicant effects described as a delirium, the plant grows wild in warm and moderate regions, where it is often found along roadsides. The plant often contains high enough levels of toxicity to kill both animals and humans, and was used ceremonially by indigenous tribes.
Osline's datura pays homage "to important psychoactive plants that have contributed to global economies, challenged beliefs, caused violence, fueled addiction, promoted spirituality, raised consciousness, inspired art and generated legislation" which incidentally relates to the recent sale of Georgia O'Keeffe's "Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1" which more than doubled the previous record for a female artist at auction at Sotheby's American Art sale in November 2014.
Raised in Palmdale, California, Nicolas Shake returns to MOAH with a locally based desert photograph that expands his interest in the identity and experience of objects as previously displayed in the museum's 2009 exhibition, "4<40: Four Antelope Valley Artists under Forty." The experience of growing up wandering in a spacious desert backyard offered the empathetic discovery of the overlooked significance of desert existence giving Shake an appreciation for transforming objects with seemingly no intrinsic value or implied power into a shared human experience where the periphery and its perceived insignificance holds, as he explains, "the ability to be reassigned a new aesthetic value." In "Being Here and There," Shake states that, "exploring the outskirts of Los Angeles County, the Antelope Valley to be more specific, where suburban sprawl ends meeting parcels of desert, information is perceptually and tangibly acquired," which guided his art practice as an, "investigation of the politics of periphery, the aesthetics of the desert, and the trajectory of those objects that we once relished and have become remnants of late capitalism" including and implicating not only the objects depicted, but the hierarchy of the chosen art form itself, where his object subjects often move through painting, photography, or sculpture without boundaries.
Perhaps a more fitting title for Douglas McCulloh's, "Google Image Search: 'Antelope Valley' -- Any Size, No Filter," 2014 would be "Greetings from the Antelope Valley!" a collage of clichés rendered archetypes that this writer has yet been able to duplicate via the provided Google image search instructions. The work proliferates with the digital identity from the all-knowing Google, which presumably finds the Antelope Valley to be an amalgamation of meth addicts, nude fashion shoots, Zappa and Beefheart, off-roading, a conspicuous amount of depictions of the museum, and of course the economic drivers of the aerospace industry and tourist claim to fame the dwindling poppy fields which now compete for space with more economically invested solar fields. McCulloh's Google surveillance reflects artist Sol LeWitt's statement, "the idea is a machine that makes the art," where conceptual art occurs prior to the art object and the planning decisions are made beforehand intending to dematerialize the social and aesthetic aspects of the objects production. This underlying Google Cloud territory of new spatial and temporal models of politics and publics reveals the subtle surveillance now belonging to the internet State -- where reality and media only exist in the algorithm and programming of digitized information. Who or what controls the Stack is a database of networked structures that relies on hits or "likes" to propel information and disinformation rendered from anonymous Users to the top while the subversive non-curatorial decisions of the artist and his implicated User database are made visual. The artwork's photographic representation of the Antelope Valley may or may not have any historical basis or factual research involved in the representation such as the included image of Llano del Rio's not "Alice Constance Austin" from blog site Pasadena Adjacent, which depicts the historical figure as a contemporary parody of Baldessari-like absence. The question remains, will the audience User fill in the absences by participating through independent queries of their own?
In Vertov's "Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov," he describes the "camera as a kino-eye; more perfect than the human eye, for the exploration of the chaos of visual phenomena that fills space. The kino-eye lives and moves in time and space; it gathers and records impressions in a manner wholly different from that of the human eye. The position of our bodies while observing or our perception of a certain number of features of a visual phenomenon in a given instant are by no means obligatory limitations for the camera which, since it is perfected, perceives more and better."7 Similarly in "Being Here and There" the photographic intention is to remind us of the actions of our past histories and question the scars left on the land, where Khalsa positions the audience to view "people represented by their evidence rather then their physical bodies. It is a way of understanding how we construct place, community, and our own destiny. It is a way for the viewers to place themselves in the work, alone and contemplate their experience," a place where time and space coalesce and deconstruct the banal to the poetic and back again depending on the viewers own political position or understanding of social history wherever the map begins and ends. If topography, the territory, and the intersection of nature and the built environment is characterized by "populated urban clusters and suburban sprawl, congested freeways, crowded workplaces, malls, and amusement parks in contrast to the seemingly infinite ocean, towering mountains, expansive deserts, immense blue skies, and quiet solitude" then Khalsa's idea that landscape photography "capture the experience of 'being' present in this place we call home," elucidates the ambiguous dialogue around the historical boundaries and disputed terrains of our experiences of being here and there in our contemporary present by way of our contested pasts.
1 Banham, Reyner, & Misrach, Richard (1987). Desert Cantos, University of New Mexico Press, New Mexico.
2 Bright, Deborah. (1992). The Machine in The Garden Revisited American Environmentalism and Photographic Aesthetics. Retrieved from http://www.deborahbright.net/
3 Elden, Stuart. (2011). Territory without Borders. Retrieved from http://hir.harvard.edu/archives/2843
4 Ollman, Leah. (2009). LACMA traces photography's New Topographics movement. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-ca-photos15-2009nov15-story.html#page=1
5 Hebdige, Dick. (2012). The Desert Studies Project: More from Less than Zero. Retrieved from http://aridjournal.com/desert-studies-hebdige/
6 Cornell University, Datura spp.(Jimsonweed, Downy Thornapple, Devil's Trumpet, and Angel's Trumpet) Retrieved from http://www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/jimsonweed/jimsonweed.html
7 Vertov, Dziga. (1984). Articles, Addresses. In Michelson, Annette, Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (pg 15). Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.