Desert Sound-Shapes

By Johannes Birringer

Staged simultaneously with, but independently from, the 1990 Houston FotoFest, Ned Bosnick’s Texas Sand exhibition created a somewhat anomalous and very provocative occasion to view photography in a theatrical setting that invited comparisons to film and filmic narrative. Although photography and film have had a long and entangled history since the beginnings of the kineto-phonograph and the motion picture in the 1890s (Lumiere) or, earlier still, the cinematographic studies of the human body-in-motion in Muybridge’s sequential photographs, Bosnick’s exhibition claims the status of “the world’s first photo-film.” Despite this claim, and Bosnick’s mundane comments on the distinction he wants to explore between film (“the director presents a rapid series of individual still photographs to a seated audience”) and his own work (“Texas Sand presents a series of still photographs to a moving audience”), the exhibition remains a traditional show that could be viewed like any other show that is hung on walls.

The challenge lies in the mode of display that effectively directs our viewing through its theatrical design (lighting) and the musical score that enframes and constructs a narrative experience of the images over time. The play of enframing, via light focus, picture-framing and collaging devices, and musical texture and rhythm, generates the truly inspiring quality of the work: the viewing of Texas Sand turns into an imaginary journey, a complex symphonic experience of a time-landscape that is both abstract and full of figurative and realist connotations. The illusion of having watched a film is entirely created through the interplay of light and sound; since all the images are similar (taken from a desert in West Texas), the cumulative process of viewing them in sequence becomes a particular kind of film production. Although the structure and dramaturgy of this production are inscribed, the identification of meanings remains subjective and, ultimately, depends on how the sand shapes, as narrative images, are read by a female/male viewer.

I will briefly describe my journey past the 116 black and white photographs that are hung (some are placed at floor level) on the walls and partitions of the gallery, creating a meandering movement that starts in the dark and ends in the last several black-outs. There are 54 lighting instruments variously spotlighting the particular frame I am meant to see. Paul English’s original score gently develops an ephemeral, wind-like sound-landscape that is gradually altered into more dynamic, percussive textures and rhythmic colors (including two jazz-oriented sections; English’s synthesizer and piano composition incorporates voices by Isabelle Ganz, cello by Max Dyer, and bass clarinet by Richard Nunemaker). The journey is an intimate one, since Bosnick only allows small groups of 4 to 5 to embark on it at a time. Throughout the 25 minutes of the staging, I am viscerally conscious of my fellow viewers, of our relationship in space and towards the images. Perhaps it is this physical awareness of my body which makes me begin to project a kinetic and sculptural dimension into the contours of the desert.

All the desert landscapes Bosnick has photographed are pristine, monotonously undulating spaces, one gently sloping sand dune after another, with no interruption in the eternal and abstract surface except an occasional dot of brushwood or some craggy driftwood. But Bosnick presents them in increasingly complex variations, some of them cropped, altered in size or scale, pasted together in mirroring configurations, tilted upright or set afloat. A seismic shifting of lines and curves, the “scenes” from the desert begin to become anthropomorphized. I see voluptuous forms, outlines of a woman’s body, breasts, thighs, vulva, pores of the skin. This projection of the eroticized “figure” of the landscape is accentuated at one point by the soft female voice we hear over a throbbing cello line on the soundtrack. But this beckoning voice, part of English’s musical composition which in itself creates a spatial atmosphere of romantic expanse and unfulfilled yearning, cannot be reconciled with the metaphoric archetypes (Desert/Nature/Female/Body) that are set in motion during this journey which ends in front of a frame with an empty, white sheet of paper. Although the personification of Nature as female and as a sexualized body is tempting, the cliché of the fetishistic icon of female Nature is ironically contradicted by other cultural meanings evoked by Bosnick’s cropped and altered desert shapes. The sense of a masculinized, austere, barren and sublime landscape is equally present, informed by the ideology of the Western movie and a masculine metaphysics that projects its narratives of heroism, silence, and death into the vast blankness of the desert.

My journey is inconclusive. Since Bosnick’s desert shapes are not silent and yet remain undefined by English’s fluid, poetic music, I experience a constant desire for interpretation, for control over the erotic and spiritual image associations produced by the unconscious. At the same time, I am growing aware of the “movement” of the exhibition; my relationship to Texas Sand is wholly imaginary, and the sand dunes are as indifferent to my fantasies as the white sheet of paper at the end which mocks the transcendental or material values, the hidden plot of this film narrative, that one would want to write into these deserted images which reflect nothing except, perhaps, the unfulfillable nature of human desire itself.

Johannes Birringer is a theater director and video artist. His documentary film, “Memories of a Revolution,” premiered at the Rice Media Center in March.