What is the Lay of the Land: Part II

by Joshua Mason

Editor’s Note:  This essay is based on Mason’s presentation at DePaul University last October. See Part I here.

To ask ‘What is the lay of the land?’ is to ask what the land looks at when it sees itself.

Joshua Mason_Mirrorworks B.jpg

I’ve continued to photograph mirrors in the landscape. Of course the mirror has become a symbol retaining a long history and meaning, from reflection and perception to a stage in the formation of subjects, etc.. Is it a symbol of our seizure by desire, a beautiful hallucination, or is it the artist’s embraced place allowing for artistic liberty? Is it a way of looking at the world implying a psychological opening? All works of art are quotations of moments of the reflectivity as visual proof of one’s existence—it is ‘here I am’ for a time—but art is a terrain truly of that which is not me. As an artist I am not reflected in the mirror.[1] The mirror is also an abyss, shedding our interpretation for an unaccountable infinity. The other of us that it reflects is the stranger of the mirror itself.

Joshua Mason_Mirrorworks

Critchley, paraphrasing Socrates, says that to do philosophy is “to learn how to die.” I think something similar ought to be said about doing art, which is after all a form of philosophy. We are all subject to finitude. I think every artist who is sensitive to their craft knows this on an intuitive level: they feel it in the materials, at the edge of the catastrophic. As an artist I am conditioned by my own extinction.

Certain abstractionists wanted surfaces to be smooth, streamlined, hygienic—a sterilized picture plane, an insinuation of reduction of nature, complexity and chance. But time asserts itself upon sleek surfaces. Malevich, for example, who wanted to break from the earth and in whose discourse the earth takes on negative valences.[2] The Black Square, nevertheless, as one of the pivotal works of twentieth century art has cracks upon the painted surface. It is the revenge of the geomorphic quality of painting.[3]

The Extinctions series is a recent set of photographs. I am using a black square placed into the landscape. It cuts into the landscape like a black hole. It places a bomb in between images and the associations attached to them.[4]

Black Square.2

Escaping from words and into being, to be silent in the face of a work of art is to practice that silence elsewhere in the face of other objects. That being is catastrophic, poised always at the edge. It is subject to materialization and decomposition, sedimentation and erosion—to becoming. From confrontation with the edge, I look at nature in wonderment and trepidation. I am interested in geomorphic tendencies to mineralize the imagination. I am caught up in excitation and intensity. I am interested in speculating on my own disappearance in the midst of nature. To stretch out beyond oneself in a condition of difference, to that which loses the intellect. When this occurs the initial question—what is the lay of the land?—disappears.

All photographs by the author.
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[1] The mirror, traditionally associated with identity, is placed into the natural environment: the forest, the field, the shoreline. I am not reflected in the mirror because it is important that in the face of nature I attempt to displace identity. The beholder also sees the photograph of nature that includes the mirror but the mirror does not reflect the beholder: instead what appears in the mirror is the forest, the field, the shoreline—the land looking at itself, captured in a moment.

[2] See Malevich to Mikhail Matyushin, June 1916, cited in Zhadova, Malevich, 124, n 39. The symbol even of the negation is itself subject to nature’s ubiquity: entropy, erosion, sedimentation, disposition, weathering, time—becoming.

[3] Geologic catastrophism covers over the culture of painting like a landslide.

[4] A dream of escaping from words into being. Leaving the realm of conventions behind—historic, linguistic —in order to attain immediacy, moving signification out of the realm of the discursive where the object’s meaning would be the essence itself. To the challenge of the crisis of the sign, via signing and naming nature, via the image and its association, the black square is an extinction.

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1 Comment

Filed under Art, ecologies, Objects, photography

One response to “What is the Lay of the Land: Part II

  1. Pingback: Dark Ecology. What’s a Human—to Do? | environmental critique

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