“The disappearance of discernible items that we consider part of the terrain from fire hydrants to road signs seem obliterated and marshmallowed under the soft, yet threatening canvas or blanket of ice that permeates each picture. Houses tend towards the gingerbread with too much icing and though it can be suggested that it is possible to find “Good Pussy” and shelter, I cannot fathom how to do so”.
We normally find comfort in the idea of a blanket. The contours and folds hold heat and heart and can be considered a trusted defense from the monsters of the outside world. That is of course, unless the word blanket is fitted towards weather or atmospheric conditions such as ash, smoke, or snow. The idea of something that blankets the land becomes charged with a suffocating potential. When we consider its use, particular with the elements of snow and ash, we are torn between the normal concepts of a blanket as protection or security and instead, we are given the option to consider its cloaking form as unwanted and threatening. That is not of course to discount the potential of a blanket’s deadly charisma.
When I look at Polar Night by Mark Mahaney (Trespasser) I feel as though I am looking at a model of a town reduced to the scale of a doll’s village with gargantuan and looming dogs threatening malice when I peer in the icebox that is Utqiagvik, Alaska where Mahaney made the work. There is an oblique nod to the freezer and its contents as seen in some of John Water’s more curious images of frozen peas and frozen box goods. I am reminded of several looming potentials for Mahaney’s work which oscillate between his brilliant use of high definition imagery and the cinematic outcomes thereof towards the idea that on the this spinning globe called earth, there are still vestiges of places in which I cannot fathom their potential as real.
That night is the condition for which we interpret these works in their cloaked and muted form and their nocturnal state serves to distinguish their potential of the place towards something upside down by normalized approximations of how we imagine and render a township or a postcard version of it. The disappearance of discernible items that we consider part of the terrain from fire hydrants to road signs seem obliterated and marshmallowed under the soft, yet threatening canvas or blanket of ice that permeates each picture. Houses tend towards the gingerbread with too much icing and though it can be suggested that it is possible to find “Good Pussy” and shelter, I cannot fathom how to do so. Cars, their doors left ajar bear the brunt of howling and disastrous winds and the accumulating snow within their interiors recall great shoves of ice adorning the tops of alpine and river views alike-miniature cathedrals contained in spaces that cannot support their purpose, instead flat-packing the space with an alacrity that borders on disorder . I consider what Polar time is, if it is a thing or concept like geological or deep time to assess history, life and the complications of these ideas. Polar time, seems to incur the wrath of Odin and Achlys alike-here the lands are judge, jury and executioner with little room to service a position between. That time cannot adorn a Judeo-Christian schema or calendar here is of note. Polar time is flat, cavernous and without beginnings or ends. It refuses in its way to be easily identified as heliocentric.
When I speak of the cinematic in Mahaney’s Polar Night, I relate hereby to a number of historical propositions that along with his penchant to use high definition cameras define my attitude to viewing the work. There are a number of free associations that I am forced to consider largely due to how my own interests with film. This sentiment exempts Mahaney himself from certain indebtedness to Hollywood and its particulars. It is rather my own projections that place the work first and squarely in a number of movies whose genre, if any would lean towards horror. It would be impossible for me not to mention one of my favorite films that relates to the work-John Carpenter’s The Thing.
The Thing is widely recognized as Carpenter’s most influential film next to perhaps Halloween. Though it was filmed in Canada on a glacier, we can see faint echoes of an idea of Alaska or arctic climes. The opening sequence in the film features a feral wolf, not wholly unlike the dogs featured in Polar Night. In both cases, the dog becomes a sort of protagonist or a stand in for something else, mystery in Carpenter’s case and perhaps human subjects in Mahaney’s work. We understand their position in his book to be harnessed by their proximity to man and yet, the wolf in The Thing and the dogs in Polar Night offer something more sinister under the surface, but with different conveyances.
In Carpenter’s film, the dog and later dogs evolve into monstrous mutations-their purpose as hosts serve a parasitic alien organism which searches desperately, unleashed from millennia under ice, to find a human carrier to take it to larger populations to dominate. In Polar Night, the purpose of the dog is geared towards protection, an omen of dropping temperatures. It is noted within the book that a “Three Dog Night” is how Polar communities judge by vernacular terminology the relevance to how many of the hounds are necessary to protect humans from the outside cold during slumber. In this case, the dog’s sinister quality is not reliant on what it can do, but rather what it means to need their support in terms of heat against the bitter and biting cold.
There are two striking images within the book of said dogs. Three actually, but two are of note for my purposes. The first is a pair of dogs held by their leash ferociously cavorting towards the source of Mahaney’s flash, pulling against their lead with teeth bared-you can almost hear the leash groan and snap under the pressure of canine might. This image is what implies outside threat or discontent of the environment creating a tension of unseen hazard. The second dog offers a somewhat different potential. If you look at its descriptive high definition portrait, you can see what looks like its mouth holding its own leash, the clip for the collar visible almost as if it is looking to bring the lead to an owner. It does not look threatening. In fact, the dog itself looks as though it is perhaps trying to find its own home in the face of the frigid night or something positively Cthuluian and threatening-you can hear a whimper. Here again, I am reminded of another reference to cinema.
“In the case of Antichrist and the parallel that I want to draw to Mahaney’s work in Polar Night is the overtly sublime use of high definition camerawork to detail a series of moment’s from which Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe’s child tumbles from the unlocked balcony door while the have sex through a glittering winter night only to land on the snow-blanketed pavement below, teddy bear shortly following”.
In Lars Von Trier’s 2009 Film Antichrist, we are confronted early on with a scene in which there are some floating connections for examination with Polar Night. Not being a Von Trier fan normally, I found the whole of Antichrist to be on par with most of his films-deliberately shocking, trashy at points and downright silly in its finale. However, in a few of his films, notably Melancholia and in the beginning of Antichrist, there are passages in which his use of color is paraded with atmospheric elements such as snowfall and moonlight and it reminds one that lurking under the surface of shock tactics that there is a profound romanticism possible in Von Trier’s work.
In the case of Antichrist and the parallel that I want to draw to Mahaney’s work in Polar Night is the overtly sublime use of high definition camerawork to detail a series of moment’s from which Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe’s child tumbles from the unlocked balcony door while the have sex through a glittering winter night only to land on the snow-blanketed pavement below, teddy bear shortly following. This slowed down sequence of the film is indebted to some idea of the potential moments between frames as its rate is slowed. This scene conceptually-speaking could be considered as an ongoing photograph as much as it can be considered true cinema. The child’s body falls through a heavenly street lamp’s glow and the snow that invited the child towards the balcony, its downy reverence hiding its true intent is the catalyst for the comparison.
In Polar Night, The image of the dog holding its lead is caught with the same fortitude and high definition effect as snow gathers around its mange. The static portrait of the dog promises movement, continuation and has its potential in a series of forward motions in which I am caught projecting the possibility of it perhaps joining Antichrist itself and meeting the falling boy during his slowed and lamentable tumble. Somehow it feels as though the dog in Polar Night could have been ushered towards the cooling body of the boy in Von Trier’s film. It’s a push perhaps, but somewhere between the atmosphere of the snow, the high definition camera work and the ability to consider cinema slowed down as potentially photographic and to reverse the order by considering sped up or sequential photography potentially cinematic, we find a hinterland of possibility, of exposure and of a conjoining force for consideration.
Finally, to speak of night in cinematic form, we can think of the oppressive darkness and strange color palette and light in Mahaney’s work to be reminiscent of a few potential leads or rather traditions. The crushing atmosphere of night could be found in any number of Bela Tarr films and the slowness of the image or rather what we believe the elements within and their potential to be reminds one of Tarr’s use of not only night, but also the incredibly long still frames he employs to carry out his cinematic mediations. This is more of a feel in Mahaney’s work as comparisons between the still and cinematic image have some foundations for discussions, whereas the overall “feel” or atmosphere between the two artists can only be suggested here.
It would be equally solvent to suggest that instead of Tarr’s monochrome cinema that we could consider also Tarkovsky’s use of color and here we find perhaps a more apt compatibility given Tarkovsky’s own interest in still images and the strange way in which his polaroid work carries a different, but not quite unsympathetic or distant relationship to the glow of Mahaney’s photographs and their governance from such abstract and isolated terrain.
“If I were to combine all the elements of his book between dogs, color, threat, atmosphere, and environment and propose a close kinship in film, it would be remiss of me not to note David Slade’s 2007 30 Days of Night”
Perhaps the most congruent note to make about Mahaney’s Polar Night is one last ditch toward the cinematic. If I were to combine all the elements of his book between the dogs, color, threat, atmosphere, and environment and propose a close kinship to a film, it would be remiss of me not to note David Slade’s 2007 30 Days of Night, a horror movie to be sure, but underneath there is a visual companionship to Mahaney’s work that strikes a fair and well-intentioned consideration. In 30 Days of Night, a small village in Alaska is besieged by a horde of what can only be considered vampiric humanoids speaking some form of guttural language not unlike what I imagine ancient Egyptian to sound like. The village itself is experiencing the siege on the longest day of the year therefore incurring a long and drawn out 48 hours in which to survive before the sun makes a faint return, or so Hollywood would suggest. The village is small, the cars, streets and homes, the set if you will, are very reminiscent of Mahaney’s “set” in Utqiagvik. The few streetlights and strange orange and blue glow feature in both and one almost expects to see a fire erupt at any point in Polar Night. You can imagine that if Mahaney had made still frames of the police station, the post office and general store, you might even catch a glimpse of Josh Hartnett in bear skins lurking in the shadows.
Though I semi-reluctantly lavish so many cinematic view points on Mahaney, I find that the world that Polar Night draws me towards contemplating film and not the photographic. Todd Hido did not invent night photography and I guarantee that if Brassai had access to color film when he made his own opus about Paris, we would see the history of that particular use of fog and color and homes differently. That is not to take away from the Mahaney, Brassai or Hido, but I have heard the comparison of Polar Night to Hido’s House Hunting and to be honest, I don’t give it too much thought. Both are fecund with cinematic possibility, but there is more of a suggestion of action and movement, further stills, scenes and protagonists etc. in Mahaney’s book than Hido’s. Nobody owns the night and as Herbert Ponting will also tell you, nobody owns either the arctic or Antarctic (more precisely) in photographs. My point here is to focus my placement of Polar Night towards larger potential and to disengage lazy criticisms of “kinda like”. It stands on its own and frankly, has more possibility for doing so.
I cannot fathom what it must be like to be dropped into such isolation and to what it would mean to have the temerity to make photographs in such blistering and adverse conditions for the simple interest of doing so. After all, Mahaney is not a new world conquerer or some sort of frigid mondo filmmaker. He is an artist that realizes the abstract potential of such remotes climes. There is less and less of those places available to us and new terrain is being developed daily that has held its ground for eons unchanged. One can only but consider Australia and Brazil as its forests burn its millions of dead life forms charred and moulting to soil to be reminded that such extremes are doomed toward some kind of change before long.
On a final note, I consider this book one of the strongest titles of the year so far. For me, the reasonably oversized plates and physical book itself are worth celebration. It came out after Parisphoto last year and for this reason it will remain on my list for 2020. I think Trespasser deserves a sincere nod for putting this out. There were 800 copies available and it is already sold out. The price point isn’t light for the number of images, but the reason for that is due to the book’s size and the quality of printing. I imagine it was not inexpensive to produce. I suggest that this book is a great if unusual companion to Garrett Grove’s Errors of Possession that came our shortly before Polar Night. I hope to see this level of quality from Trespasser going forward. The publisher seems to be crafting a quite interesting niche in which land and Americana are set upon a beautiful collision course where the opulence of its possibility is seen as a bedfellow for its potential to remind one of the dangers of its frontierism and their vast swathes of nebulous possibility. It is also worth noting when visiting the artist’s site that he is also represented by Claxton Projects whose devotion to agency talent is very interesting as many of his artists walk the line between sincere commercial work and high-end personal projects. If you are wondering where Mahaney’s skill set comes from, have a look at his clientelle! I can’t recommend Polar Night enough.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Mark Mahaney.)