Exhibition Review by David Crossley
This installation at the International Center of Photography was the second of ICP's planned triennial events to show contemporary photography and video around a major issue. It was an exhibition full of nooks and crannies and futuristic sculptural surfaces to create somewhat immersive spaces for much of the work.
Almost everything was large scale so the sense of, "Oh, I see..." about the environmental theme was immediate and constant. An impressive degree of skill and enormously hard work was evident in many of the pieces. A video called "Safari," by Catherine Chalmers, is an amazing, very close look at small creatures scurrying around their ecosystems. It turns out to have been shot in a manufactured aquarium in Chalmers' studio, but it feels wild and fantastic and sparked that, "Good grief, I've never seen anything like this before" reaction that is so much a part of photography's usefulness.
A little room with two black-and-white projected videos shows, on one wall, a group of soldiers preparing for something, listening intently to an officer describe what will presumably happen next, and on the other wall a distant video of tiny little people scurrying about in a desert scene with mountains in the background and little explosions happening all around. The feeling is of watching the lambs, which are very young, getting ready to venture out into that desert in Iraq or Afghanistan, although it turns out they're actually in training in California. It's frightening and sickening until the instant you know about the California part, and then it's suddenly almost without meaning. But the image survives and even today I get something about Iraq that really only came to me through a stand-in, or symbol, of the real thing.
The perspective of seeing nature as Other, or outside humans, is an old and honored one in photography, and some of the spectacles actually do seem to build on and supercede what has gone before. These photographers see the environment as either fabulously beautiful and interesting or as blighted and dying (or occasionally horrible and beautiful), generally because of human actions. In these works we learn some new things to worry about, including the concept that in some "near future" certain great natural places that are now national parks might be closed to visitors and essentially disappear, including from maps.
But only Mary Mattingly really plays with the idea of the human as an intrinsic part of nature, struggling to belong. The disturbing image of a single person looking away from the camera and into a vast and distant landscape that looks very difficult in survival terms, is made creepy and powerful by the great shaggy coat and other clothes the person is wearing, which are then described as a wearable home. The notion of the single individual wearing everything he or she possesses and striking out into the world to try to live not only suggests some awful disaster has taken place, but also gives that fear of nature and need to "conquer" it a troubling context that describes the plight we're actually in.
Curiously, I haven't been able to find any discussion of why the exhibition is called "Ecotopia," a term that implies an environmental utopian wonderland and was the name of an earlier novel that described and proposed such a place. The vision of the artists and photographers here is profoundly dystopian with rare exceptions, most especially a large and gorgeous landscape (Mountain XIII) by Clifford Ross that breaks technical ground in its use of a large new camera invented and built by Ross that claims to be "unparalleled in its ability to sharply render detail." One of his images of Mount Sopris in Colorado is described as the "most technically perfect mural-size photograph ever." Mountain XIII is pretty perfect, as is the subject matter, which it is refreshing to realize is still actually there in the world.