A Turkish worker is alone with a shovel on a barren, muddy shore. Not more than 50 yards behind him looms an enormous freighter half submerged in water and mud. Digging his shovel into the mud, the man appears oblivious of both the ship and the camera that takes this picture. He does not seem to be moving the mud from one place to another, nor does he seem to have any reason for digging a hole — he just shovels.
This hauntingly simple photograph by Allan Sekula — with its deadpan articulation of the relationship among natural, social and economic systems — is a useful point of entry into “Flight Patterns,” the Museum of Contemporary Art’s somewhat unwieldy exhibition of landscape-based works. The exhibition is composed of 23 artists from Southern California, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who explore aspects of the natural and social landscape using methods of topography — or who are, in the more flowery terminology of the catalog texts, driven by “the topographical impulse.” Despite the exhibition’s somewhat gratuitous academic inflection, the distinction it draws between methods of topography and methods of landscape art is actually an interesting one and lends a useful focus to a diverse body of work. If landscape art involves the poeticization of the image and serves a romantic, even mystical purpose, topography is a mode of observation or study rooted in geology and sociology rather than aesthetics. The best of the work in “Flight Patterns,” then, is characterized by a lucid and insightful gaze that incorporates both artistic and archivist sensibilities. It examines the surface detail of social, urban and environmental landscapes to present timely portraits of contemporary life in the Pacific Rim region.
Some of the work responds to institutional and economic conditions, often with political inclinations. Christina Fernandez’s photographs, for example, document the prisonlike façades of Los Angeles sweatshops with a cold and steady documentary gaze, exposing their formidable nature with eloquent understatement. Other works are anthropological in nature, exploring the details of everyday experience. Gavin Hipkins’ two dozen photographs capture the humble but quirky details of New Zealand’s bicultural landscape. They include some of the most beautiful images in the show: a house at dusk, seemingly aflame with the yellow light from its windows; a bronze lion oxidized to a brilliant shade of turquoise; or — my favorite — the sails of a model clipper ship, rendered magnificent by a close view and a delicate interplay of sharp and soft focus. Other works chart fantastical, dreamlike landscapes. Rodney Graham’s double video projection of a dark wooded area illuminated by a helicopter’s roving spotlight is spine-tingling in its simplicity. The foreboding roar of the helicopter, with its connotations of surveillance and violence, consumes the dark room while the harsh light pulls unnatural shades of green from the dense foliage, flooding the space with a sense of imminent danger.
The framework, in other words, is compelling. Unfortunately, however, “Flight Patterns” suffers from the tentative, even sketchy quality of other important parameters, particularly time period and medium. Ultimately, it should be — and seems to want to be — an exhibition of solely contemporary photographic and video works. Photographic mediums have a very specific and historically unique relation to issues of landscape and topography; they engender a particular method of investigation that doesn’t apply to other mediums. Thus, the handful of nonphotographic works in the show — such as paintings by Tim Johnson and Lee Mullican — seem out of place and somewhat irrelevant next to the other work. Similarly, the noncontemporary works — Paul Outerbridge’s travel photographs from the 1950s, Anthony Hernandez’s photographs of public fishing areas in the late 1970s and early ’80s — seem randomly chosen (why Outerbridge, a Modernist known for his still lifes, and not Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander?) and are difficult to read outside of a historical context, which curator Connie Butler has opted not to establish. A historical survey of the “topographical impulse” in art would certainly make for an interesting project, but “Flight Patterns” is not such a project; these historical works speak of a different time and a different world, and only distract from the important contemporary discourse engaged by the rest.
That said, half the fun of an exhibition this size is in sorting through the clutter — and there are plenty
of gems to be found. Notable among these are Miles Coolidge’s monumental, almost abstract photographs of shipping containers used for the housing of migrant workers in Mattawa, Washington; Glen Wilson’s colorful video installation about an African-American farm worker in southern Arizona (a piece that is moving in spite of its unfortunate positioning in an unsheltered thoroughfare, which sadly dilutes its sound quality and undermines its subtle intimacy); and Doug Aitken’s multiscreen video installation blow debris (2000). If Sekula’s Shipwreck and Worker, Istanbul is an appropriate entry point to the exhibition, Blow Debris is an equally fitting exit point — at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of style (Sekula’s photographs are documentary realism, Aitken’s videos are closer to science fiction), but similarly mythic. The piece leads the viewer on a hallucinatory trek through a world that looks a lot like the deserts of Southern California with a band of Edenic nomads who look a lot like movie stars, into a nondescript suburban interior that is subsequently torn to pieces in a gloriously apocalyptic windstorm. After the world has been thoroughly disintegrated, suddenly the process reverses, and everything comes together again into an order more perfect than before but devoid of human inhabitants. Like the worker with the shovel, who is a tiny fraction of the size of his ship, which is itself a tiny fraction of the size of the ocean, Aitken’s explorers are as easily swallowed by the earth as they were created from it.
Two concurrent exhibitions at the Getty Center also explore the relationship of photography to landscape, but with the historical context that “Flight Patterns” lacks. “Voyages and Visions: Early Photographs From the Wilson Family Collection” presents an extensive assortment of travel photographs made before 1860 by European photographers, who generally saw themselves as amateur archaeologists. Shot in North Africa, Asia, India, Russia, obscure corners of Europe and elsewhere, the photographs exemplify both the wanderlust of the 19th-century European bourgeoisie and the role of the camera — at the time a novel contraption whose ultimate usefulness was still relatively undetermined — in the service of that wanderlust. The photographs are fascinating as historical documents, because they represent the Western world’s first photographic record of life beyond its own borders, albeit one that was constructed very much in European terms. For the contemporary viewer, they offer a twofold glimpse into history: They provide a physical description of the non-Western world in the 19th century while also illuminating Europe’s colonialist mindset by literally embodying its viewpoint. And as relics of history — actual physical objects that followed these photographers on the backs of mules, on horse-drawn carriages and on ships — they’re eerily resonant.
The second exhibition, “Mexico: From Empire to Revolution,” features a variety of photographic objects — cartes de visite, commemorative albums, post cards and documentary photographs drawn from the collections of the Getty Research Institute — relating to the invasion of Mexico by France in 1861. The invasion was instigated by Napoléon III, who appointed the Archduke Maximilian as emperor of Mexico before promptly withdrawing his support and leaving the unfortunate Maximilian to a doomed defense against the forces of displaced President Benito Juárez. The exhibition includes documentation of this short-lived empire by court photographer François Aubert — including a chilling photograph of Maximilian’s bullet-riddled execution shirt — as well as works by other French photographers of the time documenting different aspects of the Mexican landscape, particularly its pre-Hispanic ruins. It’s an intriguing moment in history and an engrossing collection of artifacts, fortified by the sort of thorough but accessible historical information that characterizes the Research Institute’s exhibitions. If this collection is any indication, it’s worth looking out for its second half — scheduled to open in late February — which will explore Mexico’s emergence as a modern, industrialized nation in the 50 years following Maximilian’s defeat.
FLIGHT PATTERNS | At the MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART | Through February 11
VOYAGES AND VISIONS: Early Photographs From the Wilson Family Collection | At the GETTY CENTER | Through February 18
MEXICO: From Empire to Revolution At the GETTY CENTER | Through January 21