Crouched in the broken shadow with the sun at his back and holding the trap at eyelevel against the morning sky he looked to be truing some older, some subtler instrument. Astrolabe or sextant. Like a man bent at fixing himself someway in the world. Bent on trying by arc or chord the space between his being and the world that was. If there be such space. If it be knowable.
—Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
There are few exchanges more thrilling than conversation with someone who knows how to read a particular landscape. If you hang around the West long enough, you run into these people — geologists, botanists, firefighters, river guides — and by long enough I mean ten or twenty minutes. No sooner have you arrived in a new town than you’ve met an alfalfa farmer who can identify tractors by the sound of their engines, or a desert ecologist who names forb species and military aircraft with equal skill. (Nevada will do that to a person.) Before lunch, you’ve met our most common variety of expert, the real estate developer, whose unique genius is to read the conditions of a site and imagine its material transformation, figuring out where the rocks will be dynamited and the water feature installed, an ability which never fails to impress, even as it sometimes appalls.
By sundown in this Western town, you’ve met an artist, likely an environmental artist, a role synonymous these days with a kind of citizen interpreter of landscape. This is a golden age for geography in art, and its artifacts range from embarrassing to inspired. We embroider birds on pillows and use historical maps for découpage; we also write gorgeous poems whose lines re-enact processes of geological transformation, engineer mobile apps that enable hikers to identify the Latin names of plants, and exhibit photographs of altered landscapes that challenge old notions about the dichotomy of built and natural environment. The artist invites the audience to participate in an active reading and interpretation of landscape. We all want to read the world these days, or, more often, have the world read to us.
These exchanges are thrilling, yes, but also dazzling — as in, they can make you go blind. An afternoon hike with a naturalist friend can feel like immersion in a hypertextual, augmented reality, where the names of wildflowers hang, shimmering, in the desert air. It’s exhausting. I have often longed for the mute world I knew as a child: where a rock was a rock and a tree was a tree, and none of it spoke to me, except through direct perception and experience. Nature offers this still, if we are willing to accept it: the blank, unreadable, unbeautiful, apolitical moment. There have been times, when I found myself staring at exposed rock on the side of a hill, that I have known something about its formation; and times when I was accompanied by a scientist or artist who was obliged to translate. But there have been many more unreadable moments, when I could comprehend nothing in that open face of the world but its presence, when I had only the desire to climb the wall or poke at it with a sharp stick.
Maybe that’s why my living room feels agreeably unsettled this month, with photographs by Michael Lundgren and Aaron Rothman tacked to the wall where a map of the West used to be. These artists don’t seem to want to read the world to me. They want to open a space where I can read the world within myself. If there be such space. If it be knowable.
How it can be opened is the primary concern. The physical world abounds with methods for opening space. Holes can be dug or blasted, surfaces lifted or peeled. Fences can be cut, locks pried, corks pulled. Wood rots and water erodes. Artists have less precise tools for opening a space adjacent to the world, and many seem to have abandoned the effort. They assume such space is open already — that viewers encounter their work, unmediated, from the other side of the valley. Or they close whatever space begins to crack, drawing a direct line from the idea to its representation, pulling the line taut, as if suturing a wound.
So when Aaron Rothman forces me to confront an exposed rock wall, my first response is to read the landscape in the photograph as I have heard others read to me. I investigate horizontal and vertical lines that tell stories about flood, erosion, landflow. I study a tree root emerging from the hillside and grasses that seem to hang from the lower rock. And when that reading fails, I retreat to my childhood posture, the explorer facing the mute world. But Rothman doesn’t let me rest so easily. A thin blur moves across the bottom of the picture, or rises from the ground, or advances toward me from the hill. It could be fog or smoke, or darkroom artifact, or digital manipulation. The thin blurred line heightens the unreality of the image and opens a space between the landscape and its representation, or between the representation and my perception. I stand facing my living room wall, focusing my eyes on the plane of the photographic print, then on the plane of the image, and then on the plane of the space between the image and myself. With some practice, I can hold that focus even as I turn away from the wall. If there be such space.
This focus breaks as soon as I look at one of Michael Lundgren’s photographs, a flowering shrub encountered at night. Some other space has opened here — not between me and the image, but within the image, as if it exists on two planes, such space between the flash of the camera and the photographed object. I rack my brain for the name of this biological organism — chuparosa? — but can’t get through to knowledge of the plant itself, where it grows or how it smells or what it feels like to the touch. What fills the field of view is not the shrub itself, nor a representation of the shrub, but rather an electrically charged expression of the shrub, a plant abstracted into flares of bright green and red and synapses of sharp white.
There is a constructive tension in the work of these two photographers: Lundgren’s visceral transformation of totemic objects — bone and hide and branch — that arrest the viewer’s attention; Rothman’s unreliable landscapes that lack any focal point where the eye might naturally rest. Resolving that tension means accepting a certain responsibility, a willingness to be transformed by the experience of viewing a photographic exhibition. Each artist, in his own way, fixes the viewer in a moment of perception, in an act of misreading the world — which, of course, all readings are.
Such space, once opened, requires our full attention and consciousness, because this is a mode of approaching landscape that we haven’t rehearsed. It’s easy to summon large feeling when we’ve arrived at a waterfall or canyon rim, when we’ve climbed a high pass to look out on a majestic valley transformed by industrial use, or when we’ve seen these landscapes rendered earnestly in a work of art. But the world requires us to read more carefully. More hiking trails should end in a bright flash of scrub brush or an unfathomable rock wall. If it be knowable. The next time we go walking, reader, I’ll be thinking about that.