Into the Sunset

smudge is about to head west for a month of research travels--to archives, CLUI sites in Wendover, UT and Los Angeles, the LAND/ART events in New Mexico, nuclear landscapes across the Southwest, and generally to search for direct experiences of geologic time.

A couple weeks back, we blogged about going to see MOMA's "Into the Sunset" exhibition. We found that it created an inspiring mindset for anticipating our travels West.

The exhibition's photographs span the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries and feature work of seventy photographers, including Robert Adams, John Baldessari, Dorothea Lange, Timothy O'Sullivan, Cindy Sherman, Joel Sternfeld, Edward Weston, Richard Misrach and Carleton E. Watkins.

MOMA describes the exhibition as "incorporating a range of artistic strategies, motifs, and concerns." But we were struck by what seemed to remain constant across nearly all of the sites, moments, events, and styles. Namely, monumental, unchanging land forms across which unfold all manner of human acts of "passing through."

As pictured in this exhibition, the idea of the America West takes form in direct relation to movement. The vernacular of the Hollywood western expresses that idea: "I'm just passing through, mame." "They went thataway." "Which way to ...?" "Where was he headed?" "It's time I moved on." And apparently, the idea of the American West as a site of passing through remains contemporary: "The federal Office of Navajo-Hopi Indian Relocation is winding down what has become one of the largest relocation efforts in U.S. history (2008)."

In image after image, decade after decade, the backgrounds of the exhibition's photographs are composed of vast expanses of seemingly unchanging scapes, those of the mountain, desert, urban plain, highway, and trail. While in the foregrounds, each landscape witnesses its own unique moment of traversal by humans, via horses, trains, cars, military vehicles, earth movers, portable dwellings of 19th century Native Americans, expanding suburban tracts, mattresses on floors, Hollywood sets.

Passing through seems to reach its limit at the edge of the continent. Yet even there, the urban, suburban, and exurban landscapes of California continue to appear in these photographs as places of "moving through." Either literally--as when tectonic plates and mudslides tear driveways away from garages, or metaphorically--as when those who "dwell" here appear to be coiled and about to spring.

Ken Johnson, in a review of the exhibition for the New York Times, calls it a "bleak view of America’s realization of its Manifest Destiny." He wonders out loud why the exhibition projects such a dim vision of both "pathetic" people and commercial and environmental degradation of the land. He wonders out loud:
  • "Is it impossible for serious contemporary photography to see something better?
  • Is failure and disappointment the real, unavoidable story?
  • Or is it another myth, a paradoxically reassuring narrative to which many high-minded people now unthinkingly accede?
  • If so, what would be the alternative? That could be an unknown worth exploring."
As we're about to head into the sunset ourselves, we suspect that an "unknown" alternative--one worth exploring--is indeed being generated. A number of people are right now responding creatively to the "American West" through a variety of land art works, acts of land use interpretation, and collaborations with scientists. Their projects involve photography as well a variety of other media and actions--including contemporary subjects and modes of response not depicted in the MoMA exhibition.

Aspects of the American West not visualized in the exhibition include the nuclear west, waste (landfill, nuclear and otherwise), mines and quarries (as altered landscapes), industrial infrastructure, dams--all subjects handled by many artists working in response to the American West today. Not handled, however, with senses of "failure" or "disappointment." Instead of further idealizing or further de-mythologizing the West, as those included in the exhibition often do (did), a number of artists traversing the American West today turn a deadpan gaze toward the material realities and physical experiences they encounter. While the resulting works often present the West as monumental and mesmerizing, they are grounded in realities that are far from mythical--realities that each of us could set out for, into the sunset, and find for ourselves.

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