curated by Kate Menconeri
January 29 – March 27, 2005
When I consider … the small space I occupy, which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? – Pascal, Pensées, 68
What motivates us to leave home is as diverse as what we encounter along the journey but dreams of far away lands can often begin with a photograph. The relationship between photography and travel goes as far back as their inceptions. Expeditions to visually record the far corners of the earth were planned as soon as the development of photography was announced. Photographers such as Francis Frith, William Henry Jackson, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan (who had a darkroom on a boat) showed us the earliest ‘real’ images of the then unseen and undiscovered wonders of the world. Soon followed two firsts which simultaneously opened the world to us further. In the 1880s while George Eastman invented roll film and the box camera, the combustion engine was ignited, rendering photography and global travel accessible to middle class and working class families. Seeing and portraying the world firsthand was no longer reserved for the privileged elite. Tourists were photographing the great pyramids as early as 1890.Continue Reading…
Today photographs continue to fuel the tourism industry, but photography and travel have the ability to lead us far beyond glossy brochures. Departing from the tourist snapshot used to evidence “being there” or to consume place, the artists assembled in Foreign Affair focus the camera on the experience of the foreign, exploring our multifaceted relationships to travel, exploration, and dislocation. From expectations of the new to the confrontation of realities, from the rapture of release in a new environment to the anxiety of estrangement, the work presents a dialogue about transience, elation, loss, and discovery in a world where boundaries are ever shifting.
Many travel seeking beauty with the innocence and optimism that there is a better place beyond the one they call home, where a release from the rhythms of our daily routine will allow our problems to melt away. One glance at that photograph of a swaying palm tree on a beach is all one may need to get packing, but rarely do our actual experiences meet the expectations which a carefully composed, distilled photograph can inspire. Scott Whittle’s colorful images of sightseers in unfamiliar landscapes mine the gap between our fantasy of exotic travel and its less-than-ideal reality. We see the sites but also the obligatory omni-present vacationers who have become part of the view. What is refreshing about Whittle’s images is that in fully encompassing the tourist into their temporal destinies, we move beyond the package tourist mentality and see people interacting with the sublime landscapes that envelop them.
How do we process and understand a new place where the fixed boundaries of the familiar collapse? Language, food, colors, and sounds become unknown fragments overwhelming the senses, while our mind valiantly attempts to create cohesive connections. Fred Cray’s dense travel diary montages evoke a virtual experience of the dizzying layers that can disorient the traveler upon arrival in a new place. With no memories or previous landmarks, one may find this exhilarating, terrifying, or both.
In contrast to the dislocating feeling of estrangement in Crays’ work, Priya Kambli’s Suitcase series inverts displacement by carrying home abroad. Inspired by the experience of cramming her belongings into one suitcase when she emigrated to the U.S. from India in 1993, Kambli’s suitcases remind us of the self we carry within no matter the geographic location and the memories we allow to escort us as loyal companions through transformation.
Brent Phelp’s sweeping landscapes paired with original writings from Lewis & Clark’s journal literally carries the viewer on a fascinating historical voyage, to a time when the world was still “new” and yet to be explored. In this remake how do the images inform our understanding of history and move us into the mindset of seeing for the first time?
Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz’s collaborative images of snowglobes containing figures in transit subvert the objects’ cheerful conventions. Departing from the idea of the destination altogether, they frame the journey itself: solitary commuters, wanderers, and the lost attempt to find their way amidst the anxious territory of the unknown and the uncertainty of what lays ahead.
Tom Hunter’s series was created over a two-year jaunt through Europe in a double decker bus. His detailed portraits of the domestic environments of a contemporary nomadic group express his concern with the political issues surrounding the rights of ‘squatters’, ‘travelers’ and those viewed as ‘outsiders’. Not rooted by the geographical and cultural conventions of traditional community, these modern day gypsies are viewed as ‘others’ based on their lifestyle choices and priorities that keep them on the move. In comparison, Soon-Mi Yoo’s video, Isahn, brings to light the extreme challenges faced by an epidemic proportion of people and cultures forced into exile due to political unrest and conflict. Exploring issues of loss and alienation, Yoo recreates the experience of displaced North Koreans looking through tourist stereoscopes near the North/South Korean borders as they view images of a country they can no longer return home to. Crossing borders to make a new beginning they must negotiate a conflicting state of non-belonging and learn to assimilate the new and simultaneously preserve their uprooted culture while coping with the pain of separation.
Finally, what has often propelled us forward into uncharted terrain is the quest for knowledge and the idea that enlightenment could be within our reach. Vicki Ragan’s iconic imagery of astronomical charts, moonscapes, and explorers awakens longing, wanderlust, and the elation of discovery.
A transient position affords a unique perspective and can expand our understanding of how we know the world. The artists in Foreign Affair reveal that photography and travel share the ability to shift the frontiers of perception, empowering us to see beyond the confines of the world as we know it.
Should the chosen guide be nothing more than a wandering cloud I cannot lose my way. – Wordsworth
– Kate Menconeri, 2005
Kate Menconeri served as CPW’s Program Director from 2000 to 2007.