“Landscapes and Communities Defined
By Their Mutual Relationships”
A review of
Art, Land, Space.
By Kelly Baum.
Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.
Nobody’s Property: Art, Land, Space.
Paperback: Yale UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Kelly Baum begins the new book Nobody’s Property: Art, Land, Space, 2000 – 2010, which includes essays and art from a current exhibition, with a quote, which is where I’d like to begin as well: “I am my relation to you.” Thus Baum introduces the notion of the commons as an underwriting theme in these gathered art practices. Baum continues, “to invoke the commons… is to immediately raise the issue of human relations and their attendant social, political, economic, and spatial peculiarities. Generally speaking, the commons refers to places that prioritize accessibility and intersubjective exchange, as well as materials that belong to everyone and thus to no one in particular.”
The commons – and its wealth – is a beautiful model in our fragmented age, as any readers of Scott Russell Sanders or Wendell Berry is surely familiar. Of course, with the commons also comes its tragedy – an all to familiar reminder that in global capitalism, any land or even space has taken on commodity status.
But back to that opening quote, which implies an even more radical understanding of human identity: that I only exist in relationship. This is exactly the sort of thing I like: post-structuralist feminist theory sounding a lot like the cost of discipleship (“Deny yourself…”). Poet Ernesto Cardenal turned me on to something like this with quantum theory: “All in all / and the interrelation of all with all according to Chardin / is increasingly greater. / Increasingly inadequate to think as individuals.” Both of these quotes are moves to locate human identity foremost within communities – the human community, but also the “larger circle of all creatures,” to borrow Berry’s language.
We all know, though, that we have isolated ourselves from one another, and from our places, and located ourselves in narratives of individualism or consumerism, both of which fragment relationships with people and land, and frustrate the practices of the commons, and community. This latter point is not lost on Baum or any of the artists represented in Nobody’s Property.
In addition to the commons, then, Baum describes three more focal points for this work: land (material reality), space (social space, ‘coexistent’ with its subjects), and territory. An additional essay by Yates McKee further insists that “the production and perception of landscape is bound up with historically specific forms of political control, technological deployment, and ideological overdetermination.” Which is to say, again, just as we don’t exist as isolated individuals, neither does the land[scape]; rather, it is part of a complex web of relationships – biological certainly, but also political, aesthetic, and economies of capital.
Turning to the art represented, then, nine projects treat the land as the site of cultural, political, economic, and environmental dynamics, and distill these complexities through a variety of practices, often involving photographs and videos as documentation, but also involving performance, interviews and conversations, or other collaborations in the process. I’d like to address this work bearing in mind the ramifications of “I am my relation to you.” I think this could serve a dual purpose; first, it will clarify the relationships evidenced within the work itself. But secondly, I’d briefly like to sketch what significance this statement could have when applied to the place art occupies; that is, to what extent do these art practices (and others) exist in relation to, and what does that mean for us, looking at the work?
Land Mark (Foot Prints) is an evocative series of digital C-prints by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla which may illustrate the complexity of issues raised by Nobody’s Property. At first glance, these are shoeprints in the sand, usually left by multiple people, as the quantity indicates; but soon, images and text are discernable, left by the patterns on the soles of the shoes. These are revealed and obscured by the density of footprints, and the quality of the sand, but some images do emerge – people in small boats, a tent, missiles or airplanes, human figures – as well as bits of text, in English and Spanish – “we proclaim our inalienable right to build a future of peace and well-being,” “MARINA OUT OF VIEQUES.” And so the pieces come together; this is the island of Vieques, near Puerto Rico where the United States Navy has stored and tested weapons since WWII. A few curatorial notes let us know that the artists have been part of local activist groups on the island, and as part of one protest, they equipped the group with these custom-designed shoe soles, referencing the history of the Navy’s occupation on the island. The action that made these prints (foot prints, and then c-prints) was first of all a social action, centered around an occupied territory, with political and environmental implications. The marks were created with the physical impression on the sand, like a printmaking technique, but using land-as-material. Furthermore, the particular site at which this was staged was an active bombing range for the Navy, temporarily transforming the agency of the location from a space for bombs to a space for people.
Yael Bartana’s video Kings of the Hill records a swarm of trucks and jeeps scaling steep seaside dunes, conquerors of the terrain. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s photographs Wonder Beirut (History of a Pyromaniac Photographer) appropriate saturated postcards from Beirut’s tourist history before Lebanon’s civil war, now with constellations of burns throughout them. Matthew Day Jackson’s burnt wood and lead sculptures approximate aerial views of cities, scorched black; the titles are the same – August 6th, 1945, the day Hiroshima was bombed – but the cities represented include Dresden and Washington, D.C., suggesting complicity in violence. The film stills of Lucy Raven’s China Town and Emre Hüner’s Juggernaut both look wonderfully suggestive, China Town tracing copper out of the mine in Nevada to processing in China, and Juggernaut appropriating a whole host of futuristic views from the past; I only wish there was a better way to translate film and video into print.
Andrea Geyer’s black and white photographs and text Spiral Lands/Chapter 1 record stories, histories, and places primarily related to the Navajo nation, as told to Geyer and from extensive research, as noted by the abundance of footnotes in her text. Her photographs are presented in diptychs and triptychs, which at first resemble the stereoscopic prints of many 19th century photographs of the American West. But Geyer’s approach is significantly different, noticeably eschewing the representation of people, and also shifting the perspective from one image to the next. Whereas stereoscopes viewed today without the viewers appear to present two images, it is in fact, just one image; Geyer presents multiple – if sometimes subtle – variations on any given view, opening up the possibilities for a diversity of perspectives and representations of any given place. In addition, the text is framed alongside the images, linking words and pictures, and the words are pulled from a plethora of sources, contemporary oral histories alongside ongoing legal cases alongside colonial journals. One of these texts in particular stresses the need for a “truth and reconciliation commission” which might “enable the telling of a new national creation-story.” Geyer’s use of image and text expands the possibilities for conversation, clarification, and reconciliation.
I have tried to demonstrate some of the potentialities opened up by these art practices that are relational in their very creation. But what of my second question, as to how these art objects – the photographs, videos, and sculptures that are left – might exist themselves in relation, especially as disseminated in a book or a gallery. It seems as if part of the usefulness (for lack of better language) of art might be in its capacity for relationality, inviting whole groups of people into dialogue with itself; this is predicated to some degree on the artist, who works within a context and must share the work, but also on the part of a viewing audience to receive and be in relation with. The act of viewing may just implicate participation. Or (as was brought up in a roundtable conversation recorded within Nobody’s Property) like the Situationists who “didn’t think of viewers as viewers at all, but rather as potential collaborators,” we might re-imagine the participation of the audience as actually fulfilling the role of the artist by being in relation with the art.
Nobody’s Property certainly steers us in the direction to look beyond ourselves and towards landscapes and communities defined by their mutual relationships. The artists and work represented therein treat the land as a material and physical reality, but also a site connected to a network of human meaning, use, and discourse. We see that any landscape, as with any person, is composed of a complexity of defining relationships, and it is “increasingly inadequate to think as individuals.”
— ——- Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself.
Brent Aldrich is Art Editor of the ERB and adjunct professor at Herron School of Art in his native Indianapolis.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com