Sense of Wonder: The Landscape Photographs of Maslen and Mehra by Chris Townsend
Can you imagine the wonder with which the first man, cresting a ridge, saw the landscape laid out below and before him? He must have seen a vista that, in its scope and its potential, seemed to bear all the promise of mankind’s future. Coming down that escarpment (perhaps it was the red earth of the East African rift valley, and it rutted and slid around his bare feet as he half-stumbled, half-skied towards the green) he, man singular and man in general was entering a world without history. Indeed, those ruts in the earth, those tracks made by the animals scared by his precipitous entry, his memory of the vision from the ridge (although he didn’t know enough yet to call it memory; although already, half-way down the slope, he was simultaneously forgetting and changing what he had seen), these were the beginnings of history.
His life, and the lives of those around him, all the first, running, tumbling, red-earth stained towards the future, would not last long. There were far nastier things in the scrub, the forest, the jungle, than man, not yet equipped with the requisite technology to kill large animals or indeed other men. Man the hunter-gatherer, hunter of beasts large enough to provide a good meal, small enough not to be too dangerous, gatherer of fruits and plants that might feed him or might poison him, left few marks on the landscape, few marks that could be called history. The disturbed earth of the scree, the broken twigs in the scrub, these would soon be transformed again by the earth’s own activity; the soil would slip, gravity and weathering being what they are, the plant might grow new foliage, and if not, if perhaps broken by a fall, it sickened and died, so what? Who would notice? Vulnerable, insignificant, ephemeral, what trace is there of the first man in the wilderness?
We know, of course, that the first man was not like that. Indeed, we know enough to know that there was no “first man”, that there was not, suddenly, a conscious being, equipped with language, memory, a sense of self and a sense of time, who suddenly saw his world, his companions – now equally abruptly rendered equally sentient – as if newly minted. So unlike us is he that how can we even call him ‘he’? Even though he, or the children of his clan, quickly learned to represent the world to others, he didn’t know he had a future, far less that he was, somehow, the representative of a species that is still to come. Of our beginnings there is, effectively, no trace, unless it is the absence of a trace that ghosts into the landscape, that stands at the very corners of our vision. And yet, with the right kind of eyes, you can see him there, small, scared, inadequate, the prey of beasts.
And you can see him change, through technology becoming the hunter, the predator, and however familiar the step became, never quite losing the sense of wonder that his ancestors experienced the first time that they stepped into a new landscape and into history. The trace is always there. Certain tribes, certain cultures, see that trace more clearly than others; the bushmen’s and the Australian aborigines’ imagination of the world is structured by the ancestral memory of walking and seeing. The boundary between the regimes of present and past is permeable; not so that the dead rise and walk with us, but that they never went away.
What pervades Tim Maslen and Jennifer Mehra’s large-format photographs, mounted as they are in light-boxes, is precisely this sense of seeing something for the first time, and of sensing that experience of landscape. This is, of course, not only the experience of the “first man” but also that of the explorer (who bought all his history, his cultural organisation of the capacity for wonder to landscapes that were, already, peopled by descendants of that “first man”, who related their experience of landscape and history in wholly different ways). There is something about their polished aluminium silhouettes, placed in the landscape and then photographed, that is, for all the sophistication of the image, of the material, and of the artistic strategy itself, inherently “primitive”. They remind me of the cave painting, with its tracing of man in nature, on nature, as easily lost to natural processes as these silhouettes are lost in their capacity to reflect the landscape. And despite the immediacy of the photograph, its re-presentation of a moment in the present, there is, because of these silhouettes, something intensely “archaic” about the situation. We do not seem to be looking at a moment so much as at a time-line laid out across the landscape, in other words a history. We are looking at those traces that are otherwise invisible to us.
The mirrored metal reflects the world in which the figure is placed: the trope of man is clearly a product of the world he inhabits, in which he ventures. And that reflection, almost inevitably, “reduces” man to be nothing more than a trace of landscape. Looking at Shell Beach, Shark Bay, with its white sand and intense blue sky, one could be witnessing a family group of “first men”, or better their ghosts, still occupying the landscape that made them in its image; which they never wanted, never needed, to so master that they made it instead in theirs. But the horizon line, with its strip of ocean, hints at other entries, reminds us that history, in one sense, is nothing but a series of entrances, whether permitted or unauthorised, into the space of others. Surely a central characteristic of the human is our need for movement, whether it is the cyclical re-treading of the same paths of the nomad or the pursuit of the edge of the world that characterised European exploration. Both movements are for “economic” reasons; the migrant shifting to sustain and exploit seasonal growth, the explorer to find the edge of the market, but both are primal impulses.
This sharp juxtaposition of the primitive-natural and the cultural finds another manifestation in two recent works where Maslen and Mehra placed mirror silhouettes of wild animals in the heart of Paris (and therefore, one might argue, at the heart of western culture). Three miniature wild horses of the Camargue (based it would seem, in turn, upon a well-known poster of these animals, a mass-cultural domestication of nature) run down the cobbled streets beside the Centre Georges Pompidou. A pair of Ibex, Alpine mountain goats, face off in a territorial ritual outside the glass pyramid and classical architecture of the Louvre. The animals are defined only by their outline, otherwise they reflect back their surroundings in a camouflaging that effects a loss of identity rather than self-preservation.
Indeed, in their work in general Maslen and Mehra would seem to be saying something rather important about representation and obliteration; suggesting that representation is itself a form of obliteration. To fix the thing itself, the experience of seeing the thing, is to shift the nature of one’s relation to it, to lose the thing by which one is transfixed. Turning experience into sign (nature into culture) so that one might communicate it to others is to also destroy the intimate sense of relation with nature, the sense of wonder that is the sublime encounter with the world.
This is work then that has a significant concern with language and mediation, to such an extent that it is self-referential. Even as it shows us a particular image, Maslen and Mehra’s work comments on its own impossibility. It’s not surprising that the human silhouettes can be understood in a variety of ways, carrying out a variety of tasks. On the one hand we can see them as “first men”, but because some figures are carrying guns they are clearly more sophisticated than that, soldiers perhaps – explorers with force – or hunters. Sometimes, as in a recent sculptural work, the gun might be a camera. I cannot help looking at the pointing, gesticulating, map-reading figures of Ramsey Island II without thinking of them as the scouts for a film crew, seeking the perfect spot to shoot the landscape for a mass audience nature programme. The perfect spot is that used by the artists, using their mediation as a commentary on the mediation of nature.
In this context the mirror finish of the silhouettes makes perfect sense, at once a commentary on man’s place in the landscape – his history – and his representation of that place – his language. The mirror acts as what the French writer André Gide called in his journal a mise-en-abyme, in which an element of the work is at once representation and a commentary on the work’s own process of representation. A classic example of this – the one pointed to by Gide - would be Van Eyck’s painting in a mirror a tiny reflection of himself painting the subjects of the Arnolfini Marriage. However, it is a recurrent trope of self-portraiture, and even in the modern era we find examples of it in the work of Tracey Emin. Maslen and Mehra’s use of the device is unusual in that it escapes the self (unless those silhouettes are meant to explicitly reflect upon the artist at work) and takes it directly to the question of language and failure. The silhouettes are at once the artists and significantly more than the artists; they are us; they are our ancestors. Maslen and Mehra make explorers of us all and at the same time they illuminate for us the problems of exploration, our inability to adequately explain the encounter to ourselves, our inability to make meaning and understanding transparent.
© Chris Townsend, November 2006.