Site Seeing: Explorations of Landscapes

curated by Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman

January 24 – March 29, 2009

Recognizing the complex layers found within the everyday landscape, the 11 photographers and film makers featured in Site Seeing: Explorations of Landscape utilize a wide range of visual practices in order to unveil the sublime truths found beneath our feet and before our eyes.
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Historically, artistic representations of the Landscape has been a canvas for the given society’s projection of its values and aspirations, its expansionist dreams and romanticized connections with the natural world. In the 20th Century, such photographers such as Ansel Adams utilized their work to advocate for a stronger connection and greater protection of our cherished environment. Others such as 19th Century photographers, Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson created images that celebrated nature’s beauty while instilling Western Society’s notion of natural order. These forbearers and others like them (and many today) utilized the medium of photography as a tool to convey the undiscovered, to share the immense physicality of the untamed Landscape. These images of far off and mysterious places inspired our desire to physically explore the landscape.

We now live in an age where everything has been mapped, charted, graphed. What is left for the explorer to discover, to reveal? Where can the modern explorer go? Today while there are but only a few places on the Earth’s surface which do not bear the mark of discovered, the photographers/artists working in our midst are deeply aware of their presence and affect in relationship to the Landscape. The deep pool of histories which reside within it and the multiple layers of meaning and connections inherent to the Landscape are also far more apparent. Additionally, the Landscape’s ability to bear evidence to our presence and follies is better understood now more than ever. And man’s ability to artificially alter and define the Landscape for our own purposes has grown abundantly clear.

None of these image-makers are contented approaching the Landscape on solely aesthetic criteria. Rather the ‘explorers’ in Site Seeing offer perspectives that take into account the personal, political, cultural, and social layerings embedded in the Landscape – ranging from the documentation of grand land engineering projects as by Sze Tsung Leong which behold the collapse of past, present and future upon the landscape onto a single frame to Joan Fontcuberta’s digitally engineered landscapes which evoke a long lost sense of mystery and romanticism found within the depiction of uncharted places yet to be “discovered”.

Cities, urban centers are perhaps the most definitive mark of man’s historical presence on the landscape. The subtle shifts and transformations embodied within architecture cumulate into a cacophony of past and present. Photographer Sze Tsung Leong’s series History Images are grand gestures in the tradition of photographers such as Carleton Watkins and Eduard Muybridge in their desire to capture a mechanical transformation of the Landscape which embodies the simultaneous depiction of destruction and creation; the past, present, and future. Leong notes that China has over the past century repeatedly broken from and recreated its ties to its own history visa via the Landscape. With the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in the early 21st Century, as well as the spontaneous emergence of luxury housing and shopping centers, Leong notes that China (more specifically its government) reacts to the Landscape as a canvas for its definition of self.

Like Leong, Stephen Chalmers works in a tradition akin to the giants of the Romantic Landscape Tradition however his intent is to articulate the Landscape’s role as witness by accessing a layer of the Landscape’s history which is not visible by its physicality alone. Through research into the significance of the sites he photographs, the Landscape evolves from a seemingly vapid locale into a haunting resting place for those who fell victim to some of the 20th Century’s most sinister serial killers. Chalmers’ purposeful juxtaposition of benign Landscapes with shocking subtext reminds us of the histories buried deep within.

Diane Meyer is also interested in history; however the histories Meyer investigates are ones which are falsely placed on the Landscape. Her series Lone Pines documents visitors to the Alabama Hills in California where 70% of Hollywood Westerns were filmed. These sites have come to be celebrated for what they represent as opposed to what took place in their valleys and along their trails. As Meyer states in her artist statement, “In a strange circle, the Western was originally inspired by the Landscape, and now the Landscape is inspired by the Western”. Meyer’s images observe the behaviors of visitors to Lone Pines as they attempt to connect with a misplaced American mythos.

Exploration of the idea of falsehood in our reading of the Landscape verberate throughout the works of Dawit L. Petros’s series The Idea of North. Inspired by the pianist Glenn Gould’s radio documentary from which he has derived the series’ title, the Eritrean-born Petros who was raised in the Saskatchewan province of Canada creates images which explore the complex issues of self, race and illusion through the metaphor of whiteness found in sites that evokes diametrically opposed environments. His use of confounding and overlapping landscapes spanning from salt deserts of Death Valley to the glacial topography of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa call attention to assumptions held about race and culture in connection with the Landscape.

The Landscape has throughout the centuries, born witness to our need to claim, organize and control. The distress of separating and policing the Landscape on an individual’s creative and physical freedom is revealed through Palestinian-artist Annemarie Jacir’s short film like twenty impossibles. Based on the filmmaker’s actual experience, this reenactment of a film crew’s effort to travel to a location for their film, a seemingly banal task, is magnified by the current tug-of-war over the highly-contested Landscape shared by Israelis and Palestinians. In watching Jacir’s film, we travel along this historic Landscape, bearing witness to the weight of present day events driven by an imbued past. With Jacir, the connection between the artist and the Landscape is derived not from an intellectual curiosity or sense for exploration alone, but goes to the core of her sense of self

There lies a deep deceit in a work of art’s promise to fully communicate the experience held between man and nature. Reka Reisinger’s quirky and playful images from her Cutout series raises that question in a full frontal fashion – attacking the notion that one’s ability to authentically represent our experiences (with the Landscape) through photographs is possible. In injecting a “removed” representation of herself into each Landscape she photographs, Reisigner appears to be asking us whose experience are we witnessing?

Combining photography’s ability to bring light to forgotten places and site-specific installation /performance art’s ability to inject a metaphorical dialogue within a time and place, Mexican photographer, Alfredo de Stéfano’s personal interventions in the desert Landscape, brings awareness to a Landscape whose rich diversity and complexity is under-considered. De Stéfano’s ritualistic and ephemeral performance/installation images rediscover a forgotten terrain.

Taking into consideration a Landscape all to familiar to contemporary Western Society, Matt Siber’s Floating Logos II series reintroduces a sci-fi sense of the spiritual by manipulating the corporate visage which litters the Landscape of our main roadways. In his exploration of the ubiquitous presence of commercial signage and language in our roadside Landscape, Siber seems to ask us (albeit, tongue in cheek) to consider whether these monumental cultural landmarks are no less awe inspiring than Ansel Adam’s Half Dome or Fredric Church’s grand views of the Hudson Valley from his home at Olana.

Hidden meanings within the forgotten Landscape are unearthed in the works of Bill Brown’s non-narrative films. In Brown’s film Mountain State the past and present of the place’s topography are whimsically interwoven. Through the guise of a “historic” investigation that brings to mind such “educational” or “informative” films as those shown to us in grade school or distributed by regional tourist bureaus – Brown takes us on a journey in which forgotten dreams and desired imbued in the American Landscape are dug up and shown, battered, tattered, but still evident. Brown adds the past as an aesthetic tool in his approach through his use of 16mm film whose blown out exposures, scratches, and fallibilities remain as evidence as our societal memory of a place or time.

Expanding this exhibition’s notion of a “site”, David Graham’s images from In Defense of America stand apart from the other works featured in Site Seeing in that their creating was propelled not by the photographer’s curiosities (though they line-up with Graham’s ongoing interest in (in his words) “the odd and semi-unusual”) but by the US Government’s need to document its activities. The images, deadpan in approach reveal our Military Complex’s Nuclear Testing activities in the late 1980’s in the American Southwest. The transformation of the Landscape, both in purpose to test and as a result of those tests, reminds us of the long standing role warfare holds in obliterating the past, clearing the our imprint on the and making room for new Histories to be laid on the Landscape.

Subverting military mapping technologies, conceptual photographer Joan Fontcuberta offers a seductive vision of uncharted terrains that are entirely false. In his series Orogensis Fontcuberta creates what he describes as “Landscapes without memory”. Utilizing software engineered by the military for the purpose of rendering 3-D images of topographical maps, Fontcuberta “feeds” the program images – such as the three photographs referenced here by photographers Bill Brandt, Alfred Stieglitz, and Eugene Atget. Ironically Fontcuberta’s fictitious Landscapes, filled with grand peaks and inspiring vistas are real representations – each river, each hill standing in for the computer program’s reading of such prescribed terrains as the surface of Bill Brandt’s 1947 photograph Isle of Skye or Alfred Stieglitz’s 1926 print Equivalent, reminding us that understanding and perhaps seeing is all in the translation.

Collectively the artists featured in Site Seeing: Explorations of Landscape ignite a dialogue around the explorer’s role in “discovering” / revealing all that is written upon, around, and within the Landscape. With a diverse range of perspectives, agendas, and relationships to their subject matter, they rediscover the Landscape while recognizing the complex layers, which define this relationship. For our part, as viewers, inhabitants, and stewards of the Landscape, their work demonstrates the ongoing need to not just reconsider what is before our eyes but also to explore the layers of history the Landscape has absorbed as to better comprehend ourselves and where we may be heading.

-Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, 2009

Ariel Shanberg has served as the Executive Director of CPW since 2003. Liz Unterman worked as CPW’s Education Coordinator from 2007 to 2010.


Site Seeing: Explorations of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2009   Bill Brown

Site Seeing: Explorations of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2009Stephen Chalmers

Joan Fontcuberta

Site Seeing: Exploration of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2013David Graham

Site Seeing: Exploration of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2013Annemarie Jacir

Site Seeing: Exploration of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2013    Sze Tsung Leong

Site Seeing: Exploration of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2013Diane Meyer

Site Seeing: Exploration of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2013Dawit L. Petros

Site Seeing: Exploration of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2013  Reka Reisinger

Site Seeing: Exploration of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2013Matt Siber

Site Seeing: Exploration of Landscapes, Ariel Shanberg & Liz Unterman, January 29 - March 24, 2013Alfredo de Stefano