Of Landscape and Place: Megan Vossler’s “Overlook: Landscape Studies.”

Written By: Christina Schmid Constellation 18 2.1.12

By Christina Schmid

Places not only are they happen.

—Edward Casey

The forest is awash in hues of green: spring leaves on beeches, elms, and birches, interrupted by the occasional conifer or a cherry tree in bloom. The scene could be idyllic, were it not for the terrible legacy this forest harbors: buried among its roots lie the remains of toxic sludge excavated from the ruined reactor of Chernobyl.

Megan Vossler’s untitled video was shot from a bus traveling through the zone around the disaster site. Its oddly arresting, stop-motion quality literally interrupts what we think we see when looking at the forest in bloom. It points to the perceptive gulf between appreciating verdant woods and remembering the horrific nuclear accident of 26 years ago. “I don’t know yet if I will use this video,” Vossler said in conversation a few days prior to the opening of her new show at Macalester College. But its subject—place, landscape, and the visible and invisible traces of human presence—are right in line with the questions “Overlook: Landscape Studies” raises.

Following the artist’s travels from the Ukraine to Vietnam and the Southwest of the United States, “Overlook” questions how we look at landscape, experience place, and understand our role in it. Rather than simply impact the environment around us, we, as on- and over-lookers, tourists, and spectators, are in turn impacted by what we perceive and, conversely, fail to notice. In drawings, videos, and photographic sketches, Vossler directs our eyes to the way light plays on the rugged bark of pine, the graceful slant of a dead tree’s ghostly-gray limbs, or the wall of lush green growth taking over an abandoned quarry in Wisconsin.

Her first solo show since “Sound Signals” at Franklin Artworks in 2010, “Overlook” presents studies in looking and asks how we think we know, or indeed are able to know, a place.

“Landscape Studies”—the very word “landscape” implies distance. From a distance, we look at the panorama, the scape, before us. Vito Acconci writes that landscape always implies an e-scape: the land escapes from us, recedes away from us, as soon as we adopt the position of onlookers, over-lookers, positioned above, as superior to, the landscape.[i] Such hierarchical thinking not only harbors harm for the land in question but impacts us as well. Pretending to be separate from our surroundings, we lose our footing and our balance.

Rather than reiterate distance, though, Vossler brings landscape close and imbues the act of looking with an unsettling intimacy. Rather than scenic-panoramic overlooks, her work focuses on what has been overlooked: movement, for instance. Her landscapes come alive with a sense of innate movement. Slow but still perceptible changes in light lead to delicate formal investigations. At the same time, her work resonates with an awareness of vast and imperceptible movement: geologic forces slowly grinding tectonic plates into each other, compressing, lifting, folding the very ground we stand on. Capturing this sense of typically undetected movement visually, for instance, in a plein air drawing of Bryce Canyon, is part of “Overlook’s” aesthetic agenda. Vossler’s lines imbue the iconic hoodoos with a sense of incompleteness, emergence, and movement: places not only are they happen.[ii]

In three studies inspired by Ukrainian Ivan Shishkin’s paintings, Vossler’s charcoal drawings of trees and forests convey a similar sense of animation and aliveness. Understanding place in this way, as a complex, constantly evolving, deeply alive ecosystem whose intricacies easily exceed our limited perceptive abilities, removes the distance between us, the subjects, and “it,” the land, a movement that recent efforts in land ethics underscore.[iii]

“There is no knowing or sensing a place except by being in that place,” writes philosopher Edward Casey. “To be in a place is not, then, subsequent to perception—as Kant dogmatically assumed—but is an ingredient in perception itself.” Being in place, in a place, precedes perception and thus inevitably shapes what we know. “Such knowledge, genuinely local knowledge, is itself experiential… Local knowledge is at one with lived experience if indeed it is true that this knowledge is of the localities in which the knowing subject lives. To live is to live locally, and to know is first of all to know the places one is in… Perception at the primary level is synesthetic, an affair of the whole body sensing and moving.”[iv]

The only human body visually present in “Overlook,” silhouetted against surging ocean swells off the coast of Vietnam, appears in another video. Perfectly poised in a hemisphere-shaped vessel, the man seems unfazed by the bobbing, shifting, swirling nutshell of a boat and keeps casting and retrieving his line. This is what knowing a place looks like: a body sensing and moving in sync with an environment, transforming a complicated balancing act into a graceful and seemingly effortless, perfectly functional dance.

The challenge that “Overlook” presents us with is how to look differently, know differently, be in place differently. How do we begin to value the knowledge of the stubborn spiral twist in the growth pattern of pine at a certain altitude? How do we convey the importance of knowing the squeak of snow under our steps on a February morning in Minnesota, the instantly frozen tears on cheeks bitten red by the cold, the beards of ice pellets on smiling dog muzzles?

Vossler’s drawings suggest a tactile knowing, grown from gestures that do not assume a mind’s precedence over being-in-place. And yet this intimacy comes complete with a sense of futility: how can two-dimensional renderings come close to capturing the complexity of the visible and invisible traces we, as a species, leave on our environment and, on the other hand, the indelible marks the places we encounter leave on us? As the 26th anniversary of Chernobyl dawns, as communities around the United States are debating bans on fracking, and as presidential candidates weigh in on whether to construct a pipeline from Canada’s tar sands (a euphemism designed to disguise the devastated Athabasca river valley), the questions about our relationship to land and place have never been more pressing. Rather than overlook them, Vossler’s work engages them with a subtlety that does not disguise their urgency.

To end on a speculative note, it is interesting to note that Vossler’s “Overlook: Landscape Studies” is part of what seems to be a surge of interest in landscape. Last year, Richard Barlow showed “Crow’s Nest” at Macalester, an exhibit that included large-scale chalk drawings of forests. West-Saint-Paulite Carolyn Swiszcz’s urban amalgamations affectionately capitalize on (sub)urban dread, while Pamela Valfer has been working on simulated landscapes, combining landmarks and -scapes in detailed drawings. Ed Charbonneau’s “unusual landscapes” are committed to questioning what a landscape can be, keeping paint active and moving for longer than seems possible. Why this interest? Has biophilia come home to haunt us? Are we getting tired of virtual spaces and the disembodied experiences they have to offer? Who are we in relation to place?


[i]              Vito Acconci, “Public Space in a Private Time.” http://www.visarteost.ch/-/andereorte/texte/vacconci/vapubl_e.htm. Date Accessed: January 30, 2012.
[ii]             Edward Casey, How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena.” In Senses of Place. Edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1996. 18.
[iii]             Cynthia Lane, conservation biologist, recently shared various statements of land ethics with me that communities are in the process of developing to ensure sustainable practices of engaging with their surroundings.
[iv]             Edward Casey, How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena.” In Senses of Place. Edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1996. 27.

Images

1) Megan Vossler, Undulate. Graphite on Charcoal. 2010.

2) Megan Vossler, Undulate. (detail)

3) “Overlook” postcard with stills from South China Sea (2011).

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