Thursday, September 25, 2008
And then here are some more pictures of the latest Gettysburg images on glass. Now it's only a matter of choosing the best three or four for the exhibition, preparing the appropriate stone bases, and materializing some pedestals (and transporting them to Boston in January, the worst part). I've decided to name them the Cenotaph series, and thanks to Jesseca Ferguson for the word. It literally means "empty tomb," which fits in very nicely with my absence/presence theme:
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Sunday, May 4, 2008
Saturday, May 3, 2008
“…How we understand space is affected by how we understand time. What was here is inseparable from what is here: it must all be considered together, without recourse to nostalgia or amnesia.”
Perhaps living in a place like Gettysburg naturally causes one to become more responsive to landscape. As a child I would go to the Civil War battlefields here and see thousands upon thousands of people stare across a field, studying every rise and dip in the landscape, every tree and rock, as if these things themselves contained the essence of the horrific events of 1863. In very few other places would one see a phenomenon such as this. Since childhood I seem to have been drawn to other areas prized for their landscapes for one reason or another. I have lived in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, known for inspiring artists from the Hudson River School, and now I work in and reside near Cooperstown, NY, best known for baseball (“invented” by, ironically, Abner Doubleday, who fought for the Union at Gettysburg and has a monument there) but also for the beautiful Otsego Lake, headwaters of the Susquehanna River.
Each of these places is visited by tourists for different reasons, and an interesting future project for me would be to investigate and record how areas become and are maintained as grand tourism centers. At the moment, though, I am focusing my energies on understanding Gettysburg specifically, as a center for history and memory. Jim Weeks, an American history professor at Penn State University, has written a crucial book on the subject of Gettysburg as a marketer of memory. In Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and An American Shrine, Weeks outlines what few have taken the time to study: the history of Gettysburg after the battle. He explores how those in charge of maintaining the battlefields and town over the years have created a unique blend of the sacred and secular. Nearly 150 years after the battle, however, the marriage is not complete. States Weeks, “In his most famous speech, [President] Lincoln said the living could not hallow the Gettysburg battlefield any more than the dead who fell already had. Successive generations ignoring those words have met with frustration over a work that defies completion.”
The current method for achieving this unattainable completion is the idea of restoration. Media projects over the past few years, including Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War, Michael Shaara’s blend of historical fact and fiction in the book The Killer Angels, and the Ted Turner-produced film Gettysburg have invigorated a new population of battlefield-seekers (and Civil War reenactors) who wished to see the landscape in its historical setting. What did the soldiers who fought on Little Round Top or at Pickett’s Charge see in 1863? In an effort to reflect the current theme of what Jim Weeks calls “heritage,” the Gettysburg National Military Park Commission (GNMP) has begun an effort to restore the landscape as much as possible to how it appeared in July of 1863. This plan will, for example, “remove 576 acres of ‘non-historic trees’ but restore 115 ‘historic’ acres of trees and 160 acres of orchards (using ornamental rather than fruit-bearing trees).” These actions inspire Jim Weeks to ask, “If all agree that certain ground is hallowed, does it need to have its historical integrity restored? Moreover, is there not a difference between preserving land to remember an event and transforming the land to look like it did when the event occurred?” The question becomes all the more pertinent, and complex, when one realizes that this restoration process does not include the removal of the nearly 1,400 monuments scattered across the battlefields, making Gettysburg the most monument-filled battlefield on the planet.
“Monumental architecture and sculpture rarely hold their own against space or time. The feeling of reverence sought by monument makers is not easy to come by in our irreverent society.” Lucy Lippard’s words ring very true – Maya Lin is the only artist working today that immediately comes to mind who has produced effective contemporary memorials – in regards to the plethora of marble and bronze sculptures at Gettysburg. The heyday of monument-building on the battlefields was between 1885 and 1910 (although the construction of them continued throughout the 20th century), building to a point where certain areas of the landscape truly look like oversize versions of the rural cemeteries the post-war battlefield plans were modeled after. Politics played a major part in the size and placement of monuments, as each regiment and family members of important generals fought to ensure that their respective sculptures were as imposing and impressive as possible. However, as a child in Gettysburg I spent very little time studying the monuments; I was far more interested in the landscape, especially the grand boulders of Devils Den, and the striking expanse of fields that became the setting for Pickett’s Charge. Monuments only interested me if they permitted me to achieve an overhead view of the landscape surrounding it, such as the tower on Little Round Top or the massive, two-story Pennsylvania Monument on statue-laden Cemetery Ridge. Returning to the battlefield this year as a 29 year-old, I noticed that other visitors had a similar relationship to the monuments. Rarely do they now inspire the kind of reverence which was intended when they were created; they simply become oversized, expensive information tablets – they fought here, he died there – or convenient backdrops for group photographs. They are an archaic method of remembrance, overly laden with nostalgia and taken seriously by practically no one in either the art world or society in general.
So now, perhaps absurdly, I am using a photographic process that many would agree to be archaic in order to create images in which I can erase the equally antiquated Gettysburg monuments from the landscape. I am utilizing liquid emulsion to create black and white photographs of the Gettysburg battlefields and monuments on thick sheets of glass. Then, I scratch the monuments off of the glass using an X-acto knife, leaving a transparent silhouette of the statue. What remains is the landscape surrounding the statue. When I first started performing this act, I asked myself the question, how would if affect the Gettysburg landscape and its interpretation by the public if the monuments were no longer on the battlefields? The intention was partly to complete the job of the restorers, taking their restorations to limits that they may sometimes consider but would never act on, for fear of repercussion. However, I soon realized that the erasure of the monument from the image actually returns the viewer’s gaze to the space the monument once occupied. The figures become ghosts (fitting, since Gettysburg has a lucrative market involving ghosts and ghost tours these days), permeating the landscape and invoking loss, time, and memory. The images also invoke photographs taken at the battlefields, using glass plate negatives, directly after the battle by photographers such as Matthew Brady.
It must be remembered that the monuments I am scratching out of my photographs were made by artists. Local, little-known sculptors as well as famous artists are both represented by memorials at Gettysburg. The North Carolina monument, completed in 1929, was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, who is best known (for better or worse) for sculpting the giant portraits at Mount Rushmore. The sculptures, especially the portrait statues and equestrian monuments, are direct throwbacks to ancient Roman art and architecture, and while this may have been significant imagery to American culture during the 19th century, it has since lost much of its import. When it comes to monuments in contemporary culture, it seems that less is more. States Lucy Lippard, “some of the most impressive ideas for monuments have dealt directly with the fact that absence can be more powerfully evoked than presence.” She cites examples such as the large hole that Claes Oldenberg had dug behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967, creating a negative space to offset the monumental, mausoleum effect of the museum itself. In scratching out the monuments from my photographs, I wonder what the general public’s response will be. Offended? Amused? Indifferent? Will the erasure affect how the viewer interprets memory, history, and the landscape? I am hopeful that my works will add to a crucial, post-modern conversation about these issues.
 Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local (New York: The New Press, 1997), 116.
 Jim Weeks, Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and An American Shrine (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003), 225.
 Ibid, 191-192.
 Ibid, 194.
 Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local (New York: The New Press, 1997), 107.
 Ibid, 110.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
After a long spring and summer in chemo treatments, and finally surgery, everything seemed to have gone perfectly. Ron was gaining his strength, in great spirits, and looking forward to all the activities that he was hoping to be doing before the cancer hit, including making a grand trip of Asia, where he had made many friends in the Peace Corps years ago. Then a few weeks before Christmas his cancer returned and it spread more quickly than anyone could anticipate. When he called me a week before he died I didn't realize how bad it was, that he was actually going through his entire list of friends, spending hours upon hours on the phone because he knew the end was coming. The next thing I knew he was gone.
I say all this to finally say something not very eloquent but damned true: cancer sucks. I hate it. I want to destroy it before it gets to anyone else I hold dear (I just learned that one of my aunts has cancer now too). I've done Relay for Life for the past few years, but now it holds extra meaning. If you wish to donate to the cause, please go to the following link. Thanks.
And, here's a link to some of Ron's work. "Me and my RC" will always be a classic to me. :)
Friday, April 4, 2008
MFA Thought Paper
“The map, and map-derived art, is in itself fundamentally an overlay – simultaneously a place, a journey, and a mental concept; abstract and figurative; remote and intimate. Maps are like ‘stills’ of voyages, stasis laid on motion. Our current fascination with them may have something to do with our need for a meaningful overview, for a way to oversee and understand our location.”1
My interest in maps reaches far back to my childhood. As an adolescent I would spend hours poring over road and trail maps, creating detailed plans for trips that would more often than not never become realities. I can remember planning elaborate daily schedules for vacations to places like Glacier National Park in Montana and Baxter State Park in Maine, studying the maps and guidebooks closely and writing out timetables so that we could squeeze as much exploration as possible out of every day. I would use the contour lines of a map to attempt to determine the steepness and overall difficulty of a trail and would adapt the timetables accordingly. The destination for most of these hikes and trips was a prominent view or scenic overlook; these, to me, would make the trip worthwhile. These “trips on paper” were idealized vacations, plans not affected by forces such as weather, delays, or fatigue. The only factors that mattered were distance, time, and destination.
I still use maps to plan hikes and trips today, but hopefully I am now a bit more realistic about the expectations. However I often continue to want to idealize the landscape, which has led to years of emulating photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Not only did they photograph in the beautiful, exotic locales I had always hoped (and in some cases, planned) to visit, but their images of Yosemite and the Western U.S. amplified the romantic qualities of these landscapes and turned them into the sublime. I have never been to the West, but I have spent a great deal of time in places where the spiritual precursors to these photographers, the Hudson River School of artists, painted their sublime landscapes. I photograph in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Catskill Mountains of New York, and I often find myself drawn to vistas that share this romantic quality.
If contemporary art has taught us anything, however, it is that this style of landscape photography, or any photography for that matter, is inherently a lie. Even when a landscape photographer intentionally strays from the conventions of composition and form, as in the case of someone like Lee Friedlander, the rectangular frame of the photographic format automatically forces the artist to make choices about what is to be included in the image. What is behind the photographer? What is directly above and below? What time, and on what date, was the photograph taken? All of these potential unknowns add a crucial layer of uncertainty that makes the photograph a compelling image to look at.
Similarly, a map attempts to show the absolute truth but falls short no matter how hard it may try. Denis Wood states, “No map can show everything. Could it, it would no more than reproduce the world, which, without the map, we already have. It is only its selection from the world’s overwhelming richness that justifies the map.”2 However, Wood’s statement is only a part of the paradox. While a map shows less than what actually exists for practical reasons – the absence of trees, stoplights, and telephone poles on a road map, for example – it also shows more than a person living on earth can see at any one time. The overhead, birds-eye view of a typical map is not affected by walls, trees, hills, or the myriad of other obstacles that block our standard, gravity-enforced view of the world. One can see the topography of an area as a whole, which creates a new relationship to that area. This information helps us to imagine what exists around that hillside, behind that tree, or even underneath our feet.
I am exploring the issue of truth in the representation, and knowledge, of the landscape as it is recorded in photography and maps, through a series of artwork. Poring through my negatives of photographs taken in the White Mountains, I have begun to search for images where 1) I can locate on a map with near exactitude where I was standing when the photograph was taken, and 2) a great expanse of the landscape is visible. I am studying these photographs closely to determine with as much accuracy as possible what sections of the appropriate US Geological Survey topographical map can be seen in the image. Using this information, I then block out all areas on the map in black paint that are not visible in the photograph. When the photograph and the altered map are juxtaposed, the respective difficulties that each medium has with the notion of truth are revealed.
“To ask for a map is to say, ‘Tell me a story.’”3
Not all mapmakers create what they may consider art, but many artists make maps. Peter Turchi, an author and teacher, argues in his book, Maps of the Imagination, that writing is a form of mapmaking because writers need to know how to lead a reader from Point A to Point B. There are many visual artists who have used maps directly in their work, or have taken scientific elements from them. Jasper Johns incorporated maps of the United States in some of his paintings. Architect and artist Maya Lin explored maps and topography in great detail for her recent Systematic Landscapes exhibition. Lin utilized computer mapmaking technology to create sculptures in a gallery setting that spoke both to the landscape and the systems humans use to understand it. Other artists use maps to understand the story of their own lives or to create new realities. Katherine Harmon compiled many examples of these kinds of maps made by artists such as William Wegman and Claes Oldenberg in her book, You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination. By appropriating the symbols and techniques of mapmakers, all of the artists listed here create new meanings and stories that relate to traditional maps but add a conceptual layer to them.
The recent event that sparked my new interest in maps and mapping was my October trip to Gettysburg, where I lived as a child. There I was reintroduced to a style of map that is familiar to any school student in a social studies class: the battlefield map. One of the key methods used by people to understand the movements of troops and the strategies used during battle are maps that reduce the soldiers, sometimes hundreds or thousands of troops, to simple colored rectangles and/or arrows. These abstract symbols quickly come to be understood by the viewer, or reader, as people and events within the story of the map. The rectangles (often colored red and blue, especially in Civil War maps), become the people participating in the battle, and the arrows not only depict the direction traveled by the troops but are also understood as representing a particular span of time. Once the symbols are deciphered, a viewer can quickly begin to see which group is attacking, which group is defending, and perhaps most importantly, who is winning. Therefore, these battlefield maps are quite effective in telling stories, as they give us setting, important characters, conflict, and a sense of the passing of time.
The conquering and defense of territory has a long history in the Western world that I need not detail here. It is sufficed to say that this conflict comes in both grand and small scales, from the invasion of entire countries to a homeowner’s battle with a neighbor’s curious dog. During my lifetime I have lived in many different places, rarely attaining a true sense of home in any of them. Some of these places I lived in for ten years or more; others, only a few months. Regardless of the length of time, there was a lingering sense in all of these places that my existence there would be temporary, that I would be moving on at a moment’s notice. Part of this feeling was due to a natural bit of wanderlust on my part, but I also felt a sense of various outside forces threatening to push me away from my recent “claim.” I have begun to play with this phenomenon in a series of artwork called Personal Conquests. “Play” is a carefully chosen word here, because children play War from an early age. Forts are constructed from snow or wooden boards and are fiercely defended by the kids who claim them. What begins as a game can sometimes turn ugly and bring out as much raw anger and emotion that a real war, waged by adults, can generate. The artworks I am creating, from a conceptual standpoint, are barely more sophisticated than one of these childhood battles. I am making a series of maps in which I “attack” and “defend” the places I have lived during my lifetime. I first traced on mulberry paper the contour lines from USGS topographical maps that correspond to the regions where my homes were, including Littlestown, PA, Augusta, ME, and Crawford Notch, NH. Then, using the lay of the land as a guide, I laid out battle strategies for my imaginary troops on a separate sheet of paper. Troops in red attack and attempt to conquer; troops in blue defend their home. I plan to attach these two sheets together using a thin layer of encaustic wax, creating a translucent effect. Because these fictional stories of battles are depicted through maps (and because they will be sealed in wax), they will have an air of authenticity to them despite their complete absurdity.
The two projects of mine that I have discussed in this paper have something in common other than the use of maps. They are both grounded in, and taken from, the places that have been important to me over the years. Places that I have called home, and the places where I actually feel at home (there is a difference) are the subjects of these artworks. I am combining the nostalgic and the scientific, the fictional and the real, in my work. Both are valid ways of perceiving and by combining them a rich – if complicated – method of understanding place can be achieved.
1. Lucy Lippard, Overlay (New York: The New Press, 1983), 122.
2. Denis Wood, The Power of Maps (New York: Guildord 1992), quoted in Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (Texas: Trinity University Press, 2004), 40.
3.Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (Texas: Trinity University Press 2004), 11.