Techne - A Candid Look
by Ileana Marcoulesco
The ancient Greeks made no distinction between art and techniques, even though poetry and drama were supposed to provide pleasure and catharsis. The making/generating— poiesis — of the fine arts was called, at the dawn of this civilization, techne, implying craft — a precursor of technology. Hence artifacts. Little by little, art detached itself from utilitarian values, espousing instead ritual, religious, political and social functions, until finally it declared independence from any outside criterion of reference except its own. Technology in its turn became the true medium of the progress that we cultivate and in the light of which we bask, the "enframing" subjugating, enslaving force that we know today.
Yet ours is the time in which, as Martin Heidegger repeatedly pleaded, we must turn back to the primordial fusion of arts and techniques. The artist alone has this "saving power" to "frame the enframing" by setting it at a distance, and thus, through a calm and unpretentious look at all its paradoxes, restore Earth to a site worth dwelling on — poetically and productively.
This show contains 23 chromogenic color photographs all from a 1998—99 series that marks, in the course of Dingus' career, something like a turn: from the purely lyrical meditation on nature to a more severe, inquisitive look into the meanings of technology as part of the global environment and reflective of ourselves. The theme, obsessively treated in this past century by philosophers and sociologists alike, and admitting of all possible angles and biases, animated innumerable ideological and intellectual debates.
As purely visual exploration, however, it seldom was tackled in such an even-minded, straightforward and simultaneously ironic way as we see it is presented in this exhibition.
There is no false purism here, no preconceived idea, or affectation of any sort; just a wondering at what is, a letting things speak by themselves, even though the artist speaks eloquently enough through his choice of subjects and their framing. In an overall neutral fashion, Dingus reviews vital nuclear installations or giant electronic plants originating in the twentieth century, as well as minuscule additions to long forgotten sites of arche-ological import, pieces of ancient habitats,geological structures. All are panoramic vistas achieved with a WideLux panoramic camera and exhibit his signature rectangular format (16" x 38") with curvature on the horizon.
The intensity, sometimes even stridency of some colors, the severe, raw illumination of rooms where technologies are devised, experimented with, and later applied to the control of life, contrast powerfully with the soft colors and the nebulous horizons in those rural places where the impact of technology is incidental or only marginal.
The artist holds neither a theory about "the goodness of technology," capable of infinite development and self-improvement through constant scientific self-criticism, yet eventually conquering the human universe; nor that it is evil — the root of all evil — the consequence of a Fall. Nor does he hold a theory of unlimited optimism and ensuing beautification of the technical devices nor demonization of their catastrophic misuses. Dingus' fascination with the miracles of atomic physics (his brother was a physicist), for example, is balanced by an empathy with man's primitive attempts at modeling his immediate environment, creating his niches, as well as by a nostalgic look at some of yesterday's grandiose constructions, today slotted for removal.
All in all, a show of a naive yet reflexive "regard," — beginning of all true thinking on shapes and destiny.
Dingus' mentor or precursor was the famous American photographer of the classical era, Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882), on whom Dingus wrote his master of art thesis that was later published.1 O'Sullivan's 100 year old oeuvre testified to an exquisite artistic integrity that led to a style of "artlessness," an avoidance of formal devices, a blend of scientific precision of detail and contained artistic impulse. It abounded in scenes of the Civil War, ruins of Indian settlements, geological structures, archeological sites, canyons, bridges, pontoons, and boats, details of forts, earth works. Like Borges, O'Sullivan had a sense of mythology and the Heraclitean impermanence of all things. To capture in an unity the mosaicmultiplicity of fragments (of time and space), he had used multiple angles and the whole variety of shots available to him — long, medium and close-ups — synthesizing several viewpoints and juxtaposing different moments in time. All these images and procedures exercised a crucial influence on Rick Dingus.
Animated by a similar curiosity and passion for the truth of things human, Dingus exhibits the same fundamentalintegrity as his predecessor, in the choice of frames as well as in the objective, un-contrived manner in which he juxtaposes them. But the drama underlying contemporary uses and misuses of technology, added to the chromogenic effect, even in this rather scant format, surpassed in both intensity and formal effect his mentor's vision.
Here are a few of the most unusual photographs in this show:
Solar Powered Home in Fog near Boulder, CO (1999) expresses a mild irony: the house situated on a slope is a modest, old-fashioned structure enveloped in a dense morning fog, and yet it claims to heat and cool itself by means of solar elements visible on the roof. The irony may be misplaced; apparently, the latest models of devices capturing solar energy have the power to extract and accumulate energy even under overcast skies; nevertheless, as a work of art this photograph makes visible the contrast between high and low technology in a suggestive way.
Caged Cave near Los Alamos, NM (1999) is a dusty pink view of an old Indian dwelling probably more than once defiled by impious visitors. The iron gate, a look alike of prison gates at the turn of the century, seems to muzzle the entrance, if not, as the artist himself thinks, to put a chastity belt around it. Of course there is no way of deciding between these twofunctions of the "cage"; this indeterminacy makes the picture even more attractive with its mixture of poetry and the cruellimits imposed on it by civilization.
Similar in color and impression of vast loneliness are the two images of dams (Upper and Lower Elwa River Dam, WA). Under the common title, Scheduled for Removal, they definitely point to the transiency of technology: pride of builders and inhabitants alike one moment, become obsolescent and victims of ecologically corrective demolition the next moment. In the Lower Elwa River Dam photograph, the water tower is a stylish, turn-of-the-century building, similar to a castle (the name for a water tower is, in French, Spanish and other Romance languages, "Water Castle" ...) of an antiquated beauty that makes its imminent razing even more poignant.
Recycled Beetle, Swetsville Zoo, Fort Collins, CO ( 1999) is a funny take of an old VW beetle perched comically atop some curved pipes, as on legs, looking like a sculpture of a giant insect hopping in the grass.
Dam and Viewing Platform, Shoshone Falls, ID ( 1999) is a spectacular view of the falls in the majesty of an opulent and dangerous cascade, an outpouring of natural violence. There is stark historic and visual contrast between this picture andthe one immediately below it: the placid, if not depressing, photograph of the Statue of a Water Witcher, Waterville, WA(1999); the pewter cast shows a man searching for a water source with his old cane-detector in the middle of a small townplaza paved with cobblestones.
A strong comment on human hybris is the photograph of the Movie Theatre/ Picture Window, Mt. St. Helen's VisitorCenter (1999). The backstage of that theater has an enormous window, framed with red scalloped curtains, that opens on a view of Mount St. Helen's with its snow peaks — as if the owner wanted at all costs to possess the sublime landscape forever, at least visually.
The most striking picture, however: After the Collapse, Crater Lake, OR (1999) is that of an extinguished volcano half-immersed in the deep blue waters of a lake. With the exception of the close-up of a marker explaining the geologicalphenomenon to visitors, nothing is man-made in the subject of this picture. It emerges at the end — or the beginning — of a series to which it does and does not belong — a powerful outsider image — witness, as it were, to the entire exhibition.
The installation was quite thoughtful as far as gradation in intensity of colors and meanings is concerned. Also, by having the descriptive titles placed next to the pictures, it responded well to the need of the visitor to rapidly connect the visual artifact with the referent that localizes the scenes in time and geography, and thus makes far more intelligible the artistic intention. •
Footnote:1. The Photographic Artifact of Timothy O'Sullivan. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982