September 1: As the environment is changing photographers try to keep pace, some by recording the present, others by envisaging the future.
Two exhibitions, both of which opened yesterday, Saturday August 31, but 7,000 kms apart, serve as examples; Gideon Mendel‘s Drowning World at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, 333 North Laura Street, Jacksonville, Florida, until December 9, and Ilkka Halso, Landscape Anatomy – Dissection, Photographic Gallery Hippolyte, Yrjönkatu 8–10 sisäpiha, 00120 Helsinki.
Because his project has been ongoing for more than ten years now, we have all had the chance to see the extraordinarily graphic demonstration by Gideon Mendel (*1959, Johannesburg, South Africa) in his Drowning World of the effects of climate change—of frequent and increasing flooding—on people.
He makes his work not at the breaking-news front-line of the events, but during the aftermath, photographing the flooded inhabitants as they wait for the waters to recede and to salvage their livelihoods, property and possessions.
He finds them willing; as his ‘submerged portraits’, they are given opportunity to be visible in their vulnerability, not merely statistics. As the resulting images of the project mount up, they provide a comparison of the shared human experience of devastation and upheaval in the midst of this disorder of nature.
What is striking about Mendel’s images is the waterline that truncates his subjects, immobilising them as portrait busts, vivisecting their bodies and slicing through their homes. The alien black water or congealing mud is an invader whose mark is left not only on walls and furniture, but on faces.
Ilkka Halso’s show is aptly named and his anatomy lesson, his dissections and biopsies are more than documentary; they provide a visual analysis or abstract, a pathology of landscape. We are used to seeing slices of the Earth from above, flattened as if on a microscope slide, photographed from a balloon, a plane or a satellite, and more recently, from a drone.
The latter instrument is an essential item of kit for growing numbers of photographers, and many of them, tellingly, work for real estate agents. Halso uses it too, but ingeniously. Instead of mounting his camera on the remote-controlled aircraft, he uses it to carry his lighting! His pictures are shot at night (or during the extended Finnish dusk, as in Nattanen Peak, above) and the drone is positioned above the landscape subject.
For his dissections Halso uses light for his scalpel, firing a flash several times as the vehicle flies over a portion of the landscape. Trees and terrain in the foreground become silhouettes, while the background is a solid and impenetrable black.
His is a startlingly new representation of the environment that prompts a rethinking of its form. Unlike the contour map, these layers, especially when they are stacked as in some of his ‘exploded views’ (like Knolls, Pallas Fell – exploded view, above) the sensation is of miniaturisation, as if one is looking into a museum diorama or through the scenery flats of a theatre stage set.
‘Exploded view’ conjures an act of violence or destruction, and that is clearly what is intended; Halso’s vision of landscape is dystopian; it is nature subject to scientific control and exploitation, or at its most benign as preservation.
In a previous series naturale, nature is modularised, flat-packed and stored ready for purchase, transport and reassembly, as if in the gargantuan warehouse of a certain Scandanavian furniture merchant.
Ilkka Halso reveals the back-story to this series;
My work deals with people’s ambivalent relation to nature. It’s typical for human beings to mould nature, justifying their actions with their aesthetic and economic aspirations. But nature can’t endure everything. In my photographs, control over nature has acquired a concrete form. The elements of nature have been rethought and have, for logistical purposes, been packed into modules that are easier to handle. The whole of nature is stored in a gigantic warehouse complex and the most common types of nature, from soil and flora to fauna can be easily assembled into working ecosystems. What’s happening? Has nature been evacuated to await better times, or has it been simplified into merchandise and absurd tableaux? I’m looking into the future.
I don’t like what I see.
For what we see, in his 2013 image Island Cove, from naturale, is the Isle of the Dead.
Ilkka Halso is a resident of Orimattila (100km north of Helsinki), around which the landscape provided the location for Landscape Anatomy – Dissection. He was awarded a Master of Arts in 1992 and his works have been shown extensively both in Finland since the early 1990s, but Halso deserves to be better known by the rest of the world.