Beautiful, and Utterly Terrifying
A landscape is never just about the land. It is filtered through the eyes of the artist and ends up saying more about us than about our geography. American landscapes have traditionally depicted a paradise that embodies the nation’s self-image and ideals. The Hudson River School painters imagined an Eden where nature and agriculture coexisted in harmony, a supernatural light illuminating the terrain and expressing divine approval. Later, Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler celebrated the march toward progress as embodied by the geometric beauty of industrial architecture. So what are today’s landscape artists telling us? In his eponymous show at the Hirshhorn, John Gerrard presents us with scenery that reflects a very different view of America. Rather than inspire us, the Irish artist constructs images that fill us with anxiety, hopelessness and a sense of imminent disaster. And we can’t look away.
Gerrard is not trying to imitate reality. He creates psychological spaces that explore ideas about man, technology, and our relationship to the environment. His work is visually very convincing, but he is not afraid to let the seams show. Gerrard’s finished products look like videos, but there is something too smooth about the way the camera travels across the terrain and something a bit too uniform about the speed at which the objects move. In fact, these are not films but animations made from hundreds of photographs. Gerrard takes pictures of locations in the American Dust Bowl Region from all different directions. He then sets them in motion using Realtime 3-D, a popular game-design software. Gerrard refers to these constructions as “virtual sculptures.” As you watch, your eye is slowly led around a central location, giving you a panoramic view of the terrain. Gerrard’s technique allows him to adjust the speed and subtly alter the appearance of the site he is depicting. In “Sentry (Kit Carson, Colorado), 2009” (2009), we are presented with a rotating image of an oil derrick against a desolate background that pumps endlessly at a plodding but steady pace. There is something hypnotic and a bit uncomfortable about the machine’s unfaltering rhythm. It seems to function outside of time and without any human assistance.
Gerrard’s fascination with stark, desolate American landscapes and their potential for metaphor is particularly interesting when we consider that he is an outsider. Born in Ireland, he currently lives and works in Vienna. His decision to focus on a land other than his own gives him the freedom to transform it and to use it as he sees fit. Despite being created by a European, these virtual sculpture capture an element of the American character. Gerrard is not looking through a veil of patriotism or sentimentality and he is able to show us something about ourselves that we would not otherwise be able to see.
While the American landscape is clearly a source of inspiration for Gerrard, his constructions transcend borders and speak towards a universal modern condition. In fact, Gerrard creates some of his scenes by combining photographs from multiple locations. The resulting hybrids bear little more than a metaphorical or conceptual connection to any one location. “Dust Storm, (Dalhart, Texas), 2007” (2007) is one such fabricated scene. Gerrard combines several photographs to create an imagined environmental disaster. He merges a vintage photograph from a 1930’s dust storm with a picture of a dust storm taken by an American soldier in Iraq. Gerrard then animates his imaginary force of nature and combines it with footage of a remote farm near Dalhart, Texas. The storm cloud moves a bit too smoothly and at times seems to be standing still, but the result is remarkably convincing.
While undeniably beautiful, Gerrard’s landscapes do not inspire hope or good feelings. There is something ominous about these pieces. “Sentry (Kit Carson, Colorado), 2008” (2008) depicts a row of identical white buildings in the middle of a flat empty landscape. Its soft light and pleasing geometry recall the painting of Sheeler and Demuth, but these uniform structures do not represent progress. The piece’s stark beauty is contrasted with its unglamorous subject matter: this scene depicts a pig-processing plant and each structure is stuffed with hundreds of animals waiting to meet their fate.
“Dust Storm (Dalhart, Texas), 2007” (2007), the third and final piece in the show, is also by far the most disturbing. The animation is projected against the back wall of an empty gallery. Gerrard’s photographs were shot at eye level and the screen starts where the ground meets the wall. You almost feel as if you can walk into the scene. Several people momentarily forgot that they were looking at a projection and tried to approach the piece, only to be startled when their own shadow obstructed the image. The 8-minute sequence opens onto a flat, unremarkable landscape. Soon, the dust storm enters the corner of the picture, still a distant threat. A small cluster of buildings sits in the distance and you find yourself feeling a tinge of anxiety for their inhabitants. Dust Storm is astonishingly captivating despite its slow pace. The dust cloud slowly advances towards you. You imagine what it would be like to be caught in its center, closing your eyes, trying not to inhale the dirt as it envelops you. You realize that there is nothing that you can do to prevent the cloud’s advance or escape from it unscathed. Like Gerrard’s other montages, the projection takes its time, and the sense of waiting for something to happen only intensifies your anxiety. Finally, when the cloud has nearly reached you, the view on the screen rotates and the dust cloud slowly retreats from view, as indifferently as when it arrived. In the calm after the storm, you realize that you are sorry to be denied the catharsis of the tempest’s arrival.
When experiencing Dust Storm, we cannot even take comfort in the awe-inspiring hugeness of natural forces. We know that this cloud is a construction. We can tell from its pace and way of moving that it has been digitally manipulated. If Gerrard is neither presenting us with a realistic depiction of the land or an embodiment of American values, what can we make of this terrifying scene? The piece becomes an expression of our anxieties, our fears, of our destructiveness as a species, Most of all, it becomes a metaphor for the tragic fact that the forces outside our control that are seemingly closing in on us can no longer be attributed to God, or nature or anything greater than ourselves. Instead, we fear war, global warming, environmental destruction, and economic collapse. Some of these threats may not have completely materialized, at least in a way that affects all of our daily lives. At the same time we feel that they are slowly advancing and, like the dust cloud, will swallow us whole.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: November 5, 2009 to May 31, 2010