Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Museum of Dying Giants

The Museum of Dying Giants.  Fake fur, pine trees and needles, wooden frame, oil painting, fiberglass sculpture.  108 x 120 x 144.”  2009.

The Tent

The tent is an icon of our idealized relationship with nature, of the contact zone between the human and natural world. 

Generally, we set up a tent on the woods.  But here, the woods are inside the tent.  Nature- which in truth is often raw and deadly- has been comfortably contained inside a man-made structure, and there reduced to a magical, escapist construction of nature.  This element of fantasy is enhanced by the luxury and purity of the white, fake fur, and by the anthropomorphic wolverine inside the tent.  The fur- meant to evoke the fur of polar bears and of other arctic wildlife- could also be the fur of unicorns and other mythical creatures.  Thus, the white fur tent suggests the fantasy of the elegant and comfortable containment and management of nature.  The fur tent also suggests that somewhere, some animal is missing its hide.  So there is a suggestion of violence in the containment.

The tent reminds me of the tents of my own childhood (my father is an outdoorsy type, and so we went camping now and again). Additionally, the shape of the tent is as minimal- and so as iconic- as possible.  It looks much like the tents used by the arctic explorers in the early part of the twentieth century- Scott, Peary, Cook and Admunsen- in their bids for polar conquest.  In these explorers’ attempts to reach the North and South Poles, we see another example of the romantic construction of the contact zone between man and nature; these men were universally lauded as heroes in the Jules Verne style, and seen as noble leaders exemplifying the strength and perseverance of their respective nations, in the face of harsh conditions.  The fantasy certainly gave way to reality for these men during the course of their expeditions, and terrible hardships are described in their travel logs; Scott’s party froze to death, after reaching the South Pole only to discover that Admunsun had gotten there first.

And so the tent also represents a fantasy of protection, of coziness and safety against the harshness of nature.  It is the emblem of shelter that allows us to romanticize nature at a close distance; without it, we are actually in nature, unprotected, which is usually most unpleasant.


Photos from airplanes.  The bottom one is taken over Salt Lake City.  There is something about peering through the little bubble of airplane window that is always magical- I love it when, somehow, beads of condensation make it into the space between the two sheets of plastic.  Sometimes the outer window has a tiny pinprick hole drilled in the plastic too- perhaps to release pressure?- These signs of the tenuous nature of flight, the rinky-dinkyness of airplane construction and thrill of the thin, crappy plastic barrier between myself and thousands of feet of free fall into the landscape- well, they still serve as a dollop of compensation.  Compensation for the fact that the seats are hideously uncomfortable and that the person next to me has a violent cold, or, once, a colostomy bag.

Admiral Peary- great charlatan that he probably was- perched at the North Pole in 1909.  Maybe.  
Or maybe not.

Jo Peary, the Admiral's wife, who occasionally accompanied him on portions of his expeditions.  She was likely unaware of the children that Peary fathered with a fourteen year old Inuit girl.  Nice fur suit though.

The above photos are all taken from the Peary family photo album, available at the National Archives in Washington DC.

Dioramas from the Natural History Museum in New York.  I think.

The tent also makes me think of Narnia… to step through a portal and escape into a magical world of uncanny creatures and magical winters seems to be a very old idea…  The interesting thing about C.S. Lewis’s tale is that it really is a fable of escapism (his religious parables aside).  The four Pevensies are part of the great fleet of children who were sent away from London during the Blitz, and by stepping into a wardrobe, they escape the wartime world entirely.  Such fantasy containments also make me think of dioramas- of nature made as real as possible, and frozen behind glass, enchanting and disorienting, and a total fake.  Dioramas and taxidermy have a visceral reality beyond nature photos and video because they are three dimensional, and because you could conceivably touch real fur and real claws. 

Illustration from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, by Pauline Baynes.  This image found on the blog "Ex Libris : Brian Sibley; volumes taken at idle moments from my bookshelves".  I haven't had time to read this site in depth, but at first glance it looks intriguing. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dr. Zhivago

Stills from the 1965 movie Dr. Zhivago, based on the novel by Russian Boris Pasternak.  The novel charts one man's experiences during the end of the era of the Tzars, and the inception of the new Soviet ideology.  In these scenes, Yuri- a doctor and tortured poet- hides out from the Soviet security police with his beloved Lara (Julie Christie, whose blonde coif remains astonishingly well-manicured even during forced marches through Siberian wastelands).  Here, the couple are staying in an abandoned country estate, which has been left open the elements.  Everything, inside and out, is coated with ice, a winter wedding cake of a set that must have been terrific fun to shoot in.  Perhaps one of the most romantic depictions of winter in modern cinema.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Below: drawings on Duralar, done while in Newfoundland or immediately thereafter. The drawing of the wolves has a painted inset, depicting the government resettlement of Newfoundlanders living in villages with “No Great Future.” These homesteads were too far-flung to receive municipal services, and so the houses were uprooted and either floated along the coast or dragged along the ice to more accessible locations. The photographs above are from the virtual exhibit “No Great Future” Government Sponsored Resettlement in Newfoundland and Labrador since Confederation, from the Maritime History Archive of the Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's.



Several years ago, I spent the summer in Newfoundland, Canada, at the Pouch Cove Artists’ Residency on the Atlantic coast. Our studios were situated in a defunct schoolhouse, unencumbered by electricity but boasting massive windows that filled the space with clear, North Atlantic light until quite late in the evening. The basement of the schoolbuilding was filled with thousands of old books- the Residency’s director had been a book dealer in a previous life- and now, rummaging about in the must with a flashlight, the artists could find everything from 1980’s diet books to hundred year old ship’s logs, written in thin script by sailors trolling the Grand Banks for cod.
I spent my days hiking restlessly along boggy trails through a pea-soup fog, bundled in multiple layers of wool. The waves of the Atlantic boomed distantly; some weeks later the fog thinned and cleared with the advance of summer, and I discovered that I had been tramping right at the edge of shockingly steep cliffs, falling hundreds of feet to the churning water. The odd, slightly lucent patches in the opaque fog revealed themselves to be icebergs, the size of city blocks, white and searing blue against the dark Atlantic. These cruised slowly south along the coastline, pulled by the current from the ice sheets of Greenland, and diminishing visibly as they passed. Occasionally enough of a berg would melt that the thing would be forced to rotate, flipping with a sudden watery roar as its center of gravity shifted. This was ice melting to sea- ice that had been frozen for perhaps thousands of years, those same exact molecules in stasis for millennia, hoarding microscopic information about the composition of ancient water and atmospheres. They made me think of the books in the schoolhouse basement, archives crumbling and melting and largely ignored. They also made me think of forgotten and irrelevant mythologies- Nordic giants, immortals that fade and die with modernity. These forgotten folklores, allegories for our relationship with a once too-forceful and capricious natural world, are revived now in contemporary art and design, in the endless stream of deer antlers, nature photographs, and images of wood grain gracing contemporary galleries. These images are emasculated by nostalgia, irony, and a modern life buffered by comforts and technologies. My own disclaimer; I love this stuff. I love images of pine trees, and wildlife, and stark romantic landscapes. These images of nature become more poignant and seductive with every degree of displacement into contemporary life- and I believe that nostalgia for the natural world serves some purpose for our modern digitized psyches. To discover that purpose is, I suppose, one of the objectives of this blog.