When I was about halfway through Geoff Dyer’s bewitching new collection of essays and reviews, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition, I dropped by the Phillips de Pury auction house in New York to peruse a hangar-full of contemporary art that was about to go on the block. I couldn’t afford to buy any of the stuff, but I try to keep up with how the other half lives. The big sale of the two-day auction turned out to be Andy Warhol’s 1963 painting of Liz Taylor, “Liz #5 (Early Colored Liz)”, which went for the queenly sum of $27 million. And here I thought we were still grinding through the worst recession since the Great Depression. Try telling that to the other half.
But it wasn’t the big names like Warhol and Basquiat and Lichtenstein that caught my eye that day in the auction house. Rather, it was two lesser-known artists who, by pure chance, I had just read about in Dyer’s book, the photographers Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky. I had been unaware of Misrach’s work – just one of many lacunae in my knowledge of art – but I was well acquainted with Burtynsky’s. Stumbling upon them together in the revealing light of Dyer’s essays was, to borrow a Dyer formulation, like being summoned to a rendezvous. It was as though I’d been drawn to that auction house to visually complete the circuit of learning begun by Dyer’s revelatory writings. Which is not to say I wound up agreeing with everything Dyer had to say about these two very different artists. Far from it.
Misrach, as I’d learned from a Dyer essay that originally appeared in Esquire magazine in 1993, is best known for Desert Cantos, his ongoing, 30-year project of photographing the American desert, its military bombing ranges and air bases, its atomic testing sites, its emptiness and its silence. While cruising around the desert with Misrach, Dyer hears “a silence so extreme that the slightest sound receives maximum amplification: a fly buzzing, a lizard scuttling drily, grit crossing the road… Sound here is the red surf of blood in your ears. The trick is to subdue the clamor of thought, to let your head become as empty as what surrounds it.”
Indeed, silence seems to be the subject of the first Misrach photograph I happened upon at the auction house. “Black Line” is a large image divided evenly between a pearl-hued sky and the vast white platter of the Bonneville salt flats. The two halves of the image are split by a thin horizontal band of sere, purplish mountains. A black line runs from the center foreground into the middle distance, like the mark of some pitiless god. And that’s it. This stark world is unpeopled, seemingly unfit for human habitation. Thanks to Dyer, I found myself listening to the photograph. “In the hands of some photographers,” Dyer writes, “film becomes as sensitive to sound as it is to light. The best photographs are to be listened to as well as looked at. Misrach is the great photographer of silence.” I had never thought about that before reading Dyer’s words, and I had never experienced it until I saw one of the photographs he was thinking about when he wrote those words. I felt an electrical tingling as the circuit was completed. That tingling, in turn, reminded me of a remark Marilynne Robinson made about Raymond Carver’s fiction: “His impulse to simplify is like an attempt to create a hush, not to hear less, but to hear better.”
On the wall next to “Black Line” was a Misrach photograph called “Danny Boy”:
The title refers to the object positioned in the middle of another bleached chunk of the salt flats – a long sausage of silver stainless steel with a cockpit and a single tail fin, one of the screaming, otherworldly machines that come to the salt flats every year to wind out to speeds approaching 500 m.p.h. Two men in cowboy hats stand beside Danny Boy, whose skin is adorned with the names of his sponsors, including High Mountain Hardware, Quik-E-Mart, Hamilton Farm Equipment and Harper Auto, a litany straight out of smalltown gear-head America. The scene, unlike the bleached world of “Black Line,” is brushed by peachy sunlight.
What makes this picture so alluring to me is its embrace of contradictory elements – a machine that seems to have come from outer space, those sponsors who come from the sticks, those cowboy hats that come from the Wild West, and that warm light on that icy platter of salt. In this impossibly forbidding world, anything seems possible.
So why is Misrach attracted to such places? And why should we be? Dyer answers with a deft little history lesson: “American landscape photography…fed directly into the cult of Yosemite, which culminates, photographically, with the work of Ansel Adams. Increasingly, however, it is the sun-scorched emptiness of the desert, a place that is at once pre- and post-historic, that exerts a hold on us. Don DeLillo has described the desert as ‘a container for emptiness’ and, in a world stripped of transcendent values, we are drawn increasingly into that vacuum.”
On a nearby wall I came to a picture called “Shipbreaking #31 (Chittagong, Bangladesh)” that I recognized instantly. I’d seen it at “Manufactured Landscapes,” a jaw-dropping exhibition of Edward Burtynsky’s photographs at the Brooklyn Museum in 2005. That show included his large-format photographs of marble quarries, tire dumps, baled scrap metal, discarded circuit boards, oil fields, and the Third World business of dismantling the First World’s decommissioned oil tankers, an oddly beautiful bit of ugliness known as “shipbreaking.” A press release from the museum stated, “Burtynsky’s photographs are not intended as a political statement against the devastation caused by industry, nor are they meant to celebrate the achievements of technological progress. They serve merely to draw attention to aspects of manufacturing and technical production that are usually overlooked. At the same time, these photographs challenge viewers to redefine their concept of what constitutes a landscape.”
That’s exactly right. And it brings to mind another artist who has found a sort of ethereal anti-beauty in the most overlooked – or, rather, the most reflexively ignored – landscapes. I’m thinking of the great, under-appreciated Rackstraw Downes, who has produced a stupendous body of onsite paintings, without the aid of a camera, of such things as oil fields, lumber yards, landfills, housing projects, construction sites and the underbellies of bridges and highway overpasses. (A retrospective of Downes’s career is on view now at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, N.C.)
But back to “Shipbreaking #31.” At his best Burtynsky is a superb colorist, and that gift is on display here.
There are dozens of colors in the rusting steel of the ship’s hull. Sunlight catches the orange cranes on the deck, sending their reflections wiggling on the water, which is a glassy lake of used motor oil, plummy black. The shore is oozing muck. An eggplant-colored chunk of the ship lists in the water, a limb sliced from this awful beast. The scene, like Misrach’s desert, is at once pre- and post-historic.
In his essay on Burtynsky, written in 2009, Dyer finds much to admire. “Like Richard Misrach,” he writes, “…Burtynsky produces images whose beauty is freighted with a political/ecological purpose that is unavoidable and unobtrusive. The pictures can never be reduced to a polemical message, are always compelling – often puzzlingly so – in and of themselves.” After citing such influences as Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson and Charles Sheeler, Dyer concludes, “Burtynsky, then, is an original artist in exactly the sense described and prescribed by T.S. Eliot: part of a tradition that is actively extended and reconfigured by his contribution to it.”
But when he considers a later Burtynsky show called “Oil,” which includes some images of tire dumps and shipbreaking from “Manufactured Landscapes,” Dyer begins to turn sour: “Burtynsky offers a vast portfolio of images, from oil fields to refineries, to highways, cities, and industries, to recycling and eventual waste. It’s an obviously admirable, important, and well-intentioned project by a serious and committed artist. Why, then, does one balk at it?”
Dyer offers many reasons, including “the uncomfortable sensation of bloating” and “a lurking potential for self-aggrandizement” and “too much of a messianically good thing.” He concludes that “once the doubts start to seep in – the suspicion that Burtynsky is photographing the crisis of peak oil and climate change like someone fluently producing company reports – they prove dangerously corrosive… One gets the sense, in fact, that this may be as close to stadium rock as a landscape photographer is ever likely to get.”
Stadium rock?! To excoriate an artist for daring to take on a big subject and present it on the grand scale it deserves – especially in this age of attenuated artistic ambitions – this strikes me as almost criminally unfair. To liken Burtynsky’s work to…stadium rock. The words actually made me angry. No, they made me furious.
That I could agree so completely with Dyer’s take on Misrach and disagree so completely with his take on Burtynsky was not, in the end, a fatal turn-off. Quite the opposite. In her perceptive review of Otherwise Known As the Human Condition here in March, Jessica Freeman-Slade aptly likened Dyer to “a dragonfly hovering above the surface of a pond” because “his criticism skims across a subject rather than diving in.” Dyer himself freely admits in the introduction that he sees the book as “proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” He is a self-proclaimed “gate-crasher,” which is to say he’s Nietzsche’s kind of guy – someone “who never penetrates into the depths of a problem, yet often notices things that the professional with his laborious poring over it never does.”
There is a bit of Montaigne in this approach, this willingness to follow the mind as it flits from one subject to the next. As a result of this approach, Dyer’s writing is so whimsical, so free-wheeling, so eclectic and unfettered that no reader could possibly agree with all of his opinions and critical assessments. To his credit, Dyer appears to have no interest in winning agreement or praise, or even so much as a pat on the head. He is, instead, interested in sharing the way his mind works and, in doing so, spurring us to think for ourselves.
Is it possible to ask more of any writer?