Esse Arts + Opinions 88, Fall 2016, 32-39.
Kendra Wallace: Field of Appearances
Despite all the mechanical artifacts that now surround us, the world in which we find ourselves before we set out to calculate and measure it is not an inert or mechanical object but a living field, an open and dynamic landscape subject to its own moods and metamorphoses.
— David Abram1
There’s something about the genre of “landscape” in the history of Western art that makes it continue to operate as if it were neutral — or, worse, pastoral or picturesque — even though we know better. That something, it seems to me, is the way in which the eyes of the West continue to consume and appropriate nature for sentimental — and let’s face it, profitable — ends. If we think back to the hierarchy of genres in the European academies during the Enlightenment, landscape conveyed ownership, a timeless Classical past, or, later, a Romantic yearning to experience the forces of nature that engulf us, without ever actually being engulfed. No one feared, for example, that Caspar David Friedrich’s lone wanderer might actually fall off of that precipice and disappear into the murk, just as no one feared (back then) that the Tahitian women bathing in brilliant fields of fuchsia in Paul Gauguin’s primitivist reveries might one day jump out of the canvas and say, “Hey, ça suffit!” But with a little push from feminist and postcolonial theory, they did, and in their defiance they revealed the conceptual framework for what it is: the power of the West to cloak its biases in the prettiest of languages in order to facilitate the acceptance of the conventions (and political policies) operating under their cover.
Neither the sublime-picturesque, nor sexism, nor the aggressive colonization practices of European nations in the late nineteenth century, have anything to do with Kendra Wallace’s intervention in the landscape genre. So why this false start? Because, in these examples, the security of the identity of the “seer” is assured by overpowering its subject matter: the tumultuous clouds of mist are framed in a way that keeps them separate and under control; the “primitive” women are equally kept under control by being objectified as such — that is, “othered.” Herein lies a problematic that is far more compelling than the rehearsed art-historical critique. In her photographic practice, Wallace strives to go beyond critique and ask, how can one surrender the control that an artist has over her object of study; how can one sink into the inseparability of subject and object and depict their co-implication; how can Westerners bypass the ingrained ways of seeing of the West in order to experience the visual field as something to actively partake of rather than “take”?
Wallace’s recent series of large-scale photographs titled The Field of Appearances2 is an astute — and also profoundly meditative — response to this set of questions. And with a camera in hand, the dilemma is further exasperated: the device’s speedy and greedy mono-oculus “capture” allows for little flow between subject and object, and the space of the land in front of its lens almost instantly turns into a flat and sharply delineated picture. It is seized. Or we could extend Louis Althusser’s term “hailed”: the land, pulsating and alive and in excess of signification, is interpellated by the camera as “landscape.”3 Wallace’s photographs actively work against both this technological foreclosure of meaning and the more general lens of Western appropriation by interfering in the operation of the camera, by concentrating on colour rather than image, and by emphasizing materiality and full sensory perception.
I will elaborate on each of these points in turn, but first a brief description of the exhibition: fifteen large sheets of colour — ranging from soft coral and amethyst to a vibrant, almost pure magenta, and from pale lime to the deep, rich hue of a goldfinch — hang slightly off of the wall, revealing the gentle undulation of the photographic paper. Interspersed between these “colour fields” are photographs of golden barley fields of the same scale and material (Juniper Baryta paper), which gives the work a sensuous, slightly glossy quality, like skin. It is surprising to learn that these various intensities of colour are actually photographs, not paintings, and it is equally surprising to learn that they are photographs of flowers. A flower is perhaps the most difficult life force in nature to experience without sentimental overtones and without the desire to literally appropriate it by bringing it home, where it — this life force — effectively becomes a still life. Photographs of flowers typically function similarly, arresting the flow of time in order to capture the pregnant moment of full bloom, when nature’s potential has been obtained and its demise is not yet in sight, and then carefully preserving it behind glass as a keepsake of whatever occasion the flowers were intended to celebrate. Yet in Wallace’s exhibition, their life force is uncontainable, spilling out over the edge of the frame like the colour waves that radiated from the flowers themselves, hovering, palpable, and pulsating.
In this work Wallace deftly bypasses the (egocentric) assumption that flowers are inherently “for me” by compromising the authority of the photographic oculus and the strictures of modern vision. Rather than using her camera for its capacity to capture every minute detail, Wallace removes the lens entirely, thereby redefining photography’s “macro” function as one of opening-out rather than closing-in. This radical opening allows both time and light to enter in a far less controllable way; it allows them to bounce around and refract inside the body of the camera, filling it with unpredictable play. Gone are the straight lines of single point perspective that cut up Euclidean space like so many parcels of land to be conquered in time (and by time). Without its “eye,” the camera can no longer measure space and keep it at a safe distance: its open body is continuous with its surroundings, sensing and absorbing all the waves that come its way — in this case, waves of colour. As such, both technically and conceptually, Wallace’s working process makes objectification impossible.
What is most compelling about Wallace’s work, however, is that it goes beyond interrupting the naming and seizing of its object — flowers — and thereby goes beyond simply critiquing objectification. It goes beyond by trying to push through to the other side and see what flowers would look like in the light of intersubjectivity rather than objectivity. It is on this point that I’m hooked, because to experience Wallace’s photographs is to experience a release of the conceptual strongholds that keep all binaries fixed in their established hierarchies and, by extension, the status quo. Mind over body, ideality over materiality, subject over object, the list goes on and on. Vision, for example, continues to be prized over all the other senses due to its alleged proximity to objective knowledge, even though visuality has long been defined as a field that is fraught through and through with cultural conventions and signifying practices.4 Wallace inserts herself into the visual field (a garden full of flowers) in order to subvert the privilege and power allocated to her as the seeing subject, the power to designate an object (a flower). Wallace levels the playing field, so to speak, by removing the lens and allowing the flowers to look back. The resulting colour intensities are not “of” the flowers at all; that is, they are not an abstraction. Rather, they are “of” the encounter. And rather than presenting this encounter as a breakdown in language, Wallace celebrates its “asignificance” as a source of potential in the sense of the word that we learn from Deleuze and Guattari: the perpetual potential of becoming-other.5
If we accept this proposition, the world starts to spin, as it did for Jean-Paul Sartre’s protagonist Antoine Roquentin in Nausea when he could no longer distinguish between his own body and the old gnarly roots of the chestnut tree he was sitting beside in the park.6 The line between subject and object became indiscernible to Roquentin and, likewise, it is difficult to discern the line between “me” and “not-me” in Wallace’s photographs. This brings us back to a discussion of landscape, the picturesque-sublime, and primitivism, because each took hold in a context of fear and fascination — fear that the modern Western subject might lose his power to own and control the world around him and cease to function as its centre, and fascination with the more obscure moments when his mastery seems to falter. Wallace embraces such “obscurity” for the philosophical challenges that it implies, rather than turning it into an image and thereby calming the waters. In brief, she opens her full sensory apparatus (much like she opens her camera’s body by removing its lens) in order to allow for a material flow between herself and the world she finds herself embedded in. This emphasis on the materiality of her own body, of the camera’s body, of the flowers and fields that she photographs, and of the resulting photographs that hang in the gallery, is equally an emphasis on affect. Wallace’s series of radiating colours provides an antidote to the kitschy sentimentality of flower photography (or melancholy, if we consider Roland Barthes’s lamentation) in favour of a radical inter-“being” devoid of personal emotion.
To conclude, consider the four photographs of barley fields, windswept and golden, like silky flaxen tresses, with all the cultural connotations that the simile implies. They seem to call for viewers to wander into them, close their eyes, and curl up to sleep in the breeze, warm and safe as though in the bed of a private dream. The horizon is so far in the distance that it is somewhere out of the frame altogether, imperceptible except in one case, in which there is a small glimpse of sky along the top edge. This is the only ground line that Wallace offers in the entire exhibition, the only space where time can be measured, the only photograph that can be classified as “landscape.” It is also the only photograph that invites viewers to penetrate, providing a line of sight for their eyes to follow and a trampled-down dell for their bodies to occupy. As such it may seem contradictory to her entire project, but I see it more positively: it is the tipping point where a critique of the landscape genre falls by the wayside and a sincere investigation into a (post-)human’s elemental connection with the land begins. The other eleven photographs in the exhibition embody this connection in a way that opens onto delight rather than enlightenment, rapture rather than capture. Thereby they liberate potentialities that can edge Western eyes into seeing “other-”wise. •
1 — David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York and Toronto: Vintage Books, 1997), 32.
2 — Trianon Gallery, Lethbridge, Alberta, November 7, 2015 — January 24, 2016.
3 — Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001 ).
4 — Hal Foster, ed., Vision and Visuality, Dia Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture 2 (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988).
5 — Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
6 — Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New York: New Directions, 2007 ).