As the final “exam” for History of Photography, we were required to curate a show with photo-based artists. My show is entitled Human/Nature, and addresses my incessant drawbacks to romanticism. Upon receiving critique that I needed to back up my romantic notions with history and research to create a contemporary argument, I took this curatorial project as an opportunity to dive into that information. So thus forth is my curatorial statement for Human/Nature (including a photograph from each artist mentioned):
In the exhibition Human/Nature, I aim to investigate 21st century connections to nature that are reminiscent of the romantic sublime natural reverence of the 18th and 19th century. It’s interesting to think of the timeline of romanticism’s existence in an art historical context in that it “ends” near the beginning of photography. Pictorialist photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameran were criticized for their lack of photographic skill. It wasn’t until photography heroes Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen advocated the pictorialist aesthetic, revering nature and the idea of spirit in a photograph. Nowadays, romanticism is criticized as shallow and something of the past. With this exhibition, I seek to confront this with an opposing view. Many contemporary photographers gear toward documenting the human index on nature and question the validity of contemporary culture’s advertisement of nature. The artists I’ve chosen cannot be included because they embrace nature and its existential link to humankind. They approach nature with awe and seek to revive mythological, mystical, and fantastical engagements with nature in the face of a digitalized world. Human/Nature welcomes Romanticism and recognizes it as an innate quality of humankind. It is the intrinsic need to find connection, to look beyond material, beyond ancestry, even beyond the scientific and biblical connection between our earth and our being. These artists—while engulfed in a world that depreciates Romanticism into a dirty, played out world—present their romantic notions in images that evoke that inherent, sublime connection to a natural existence.
“…Romanticism is not something that—in the 21st century—we need to either affirm or guard against as neo-value or revivalist zeitgeist; it is rather, something to accept as an enduring, mercurial, and persistent modern tendency now intractably woven into the fabric of modern psyches and societies, something immanent to modernity and ever ready to be reanimated and reinterpreted.” – Paul O’Kane Arists
David Uzochukwu, Eugenia Loli, Kahn and Selesnick, and Slevin Aaron base their images on an emotive narrative. Uzochukwu takes inspiration from anything around him and expresses that in an image. His images Pull and I Will Learn to Love the Skies I’m Under place people in surreal places in nature. A man clad in his boxers, hunching toward a mystical green bank of hills. Another man, this time in a suit, seems to be floating in the skies. Eugenia Loli based her collage series New mythology on Greek mythology as inspired by today. She juxtaposes vintage photographs, pulling from perhaps a more romantic era, and scientific images, pulling from futuristic ideas, to create surreal narratives of mythical beings such as Amphritite and the Oracle. Kahn and Selesnick thoroughly create a narrative by creating a fictional performance troupe entitled Truppe Fledermous. This troupe performs in areas with no audience, deep in natural locations. The only proof of the performances lie in the photographic evidence. Slevin Aaron attempts to capture emotion through his own narratives that often have influence from mythology.
Ryan McGinley, Ana Mendieta, and Acacia Johnson have a more fleeting approach to their photography. McGinley goes on road trips to unpopulated areas with beautiful, young models. He encourages them to act on their teenage angst and human instinct; thus, McGinley leaves us with beautiful images of beautiful people engaging in nature as instinctually as possible. Mendieta performed a connection between her body and the earth in her spiritual connection to her homeland of Cuba. Her earth-body works left indexical imprints in an otherwise unbothered nature. “My art is the way I establish the bonds that tie me to the universe,” she exclaimed. This is a crucial theme of Human/Nature. She emphasizes the body’s physical spatiality and its relationship to the world’s space. This relationship breaks down identity, bridging nature and human, allowing Mendieta to create a surreal and fragile temporality in her images. Johnson, mesmerized by the northern landscape, searches for magical moments. Her interests lie in the enduring relationship between people and the mythic landscape; the mythic landscape being the point where the local landscape and the natural landscape overlap.
Eric William Carroll is enthralled with outer space and his lack of understanding about it. He focuses on the idea of the word sublime. His work is based off the Grand Unified Theory (GUT), the search to solidify the forces of the universe in one idea in order to reach the Theory of Everything (TOE). He appropriates images from archives and scientific publications to make his own image sans information, futher expressing the unknown. He often links together earth-scaled personal images or objects such as children’s toys and sunsets with vast scientific images of outer space; the juxtaposition questions our relation to the universe and restates the sublime Carroll feels with the unknown.
By placing the works of the eight artists in an abandoned train yard, I force the viewers to experience the sublime as they tread through nature’s overhaul of the building. The 26 pieces of the exhibition exist among nature, as human kind exists among nature and from nature. The location begs the audience to experience a surreal adventure in a place otherwise avoided or ignored; such as romanticism is avoided or ignored in the contemporary world.
As Novalis said, “The world must be romanticized. In this way its original meaning will be rediscovered. To romanticize is nothing but a qualitative heightening. In this process the lower self becomes identified with a better self. Insofar as I present the commonplace with significance, the ordinary with mystery, the familiar with the seemliness of the unfamiliar and the finite with the semblance of the infinite, I romanticize it.”