“I think what was really drawing me to Marina’s book was how it was animating this story of the mountains, their potential and actual destructive forces and how human lives are so dwarfed in the scale of that force yet so emotionally attached to life there.” – Sunil Shah
What follows is an experiment of sorts. Often before writing a review, various conversations happen, some in person, some online. Sometimes these conversations are more interesting than the resulting review. I’ve had many such conversations around photography with friend and colleague Eugenie Shinkle. When it came to reviewing Marina Caneve’s Are They Rocks or Clouds, released last year on FW: Books, I proposed we continue our initial conversation in the space of review, to which Eugenie very kindly agreed. Marina’s book is excellent. It is not only beautifully designed and produced, it has a compelling, multi-layered approach to its subject matter which draws you in further and further and raises many interesting thoughts. Here are some of them thoughts through an email exchange.
Sunil Shah: Are They Rocks or Clouds, seems to me to be a blend of archival material with a kind of ‘late photography’ approach which also utilises many elements like the environmental portrait, text and extended captions as well as photo collage elements to its design. It is rich in content and addresses traumatic historical events very well through these layers of detail, those are my initial thoughts, what are yours?
Eugenie Shinkle: I’m interested in the way that you’ve invoked the idea of ‘late photography’, because it suggests something about the geology of the area that Caneve’s photographs hint at, but don’t express explicitly. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading about the geology of the Dolomites, and about how unstable the area is – the topography is constantly changing, sometimes slowly, sometimes catastrophically quickly. So, the idea of a photograph that ‘foregoes the representation of events in progress’ (as late photography is typically defined) becomes quite complicated. The archival images at the beginning of the book document a major landslip that took place many years ago, but there’s nothing about the contemporary images that states clearly when these later events – the rockslides, collapses and landslips shown in the images – actually happened. As such, I find the timeline of the book fascinating, the way it combines a single and identifiable historical catastrophe with a host of other ‘micro-events’ that signal a danger which is much more subtle and insidious, but equally deadly.
“I find the timeline of the book fascinating, the way it combines a single and identifiable historical catastrophe with a host of other ‘micro-events’ that signal a danger which is much more subtle and insidious, but equally deadly.” – Eugenie Shinkle
SS: Yes, I was thinking that the book responds to the aftermath of these catastrophic events and how they bring about a state of trauma, but also how the geological activity of the region brings with it a state of anxiety in the inhabitants. The landscape in this respect is alive and fluid. It was learning about plate tectonics years ago that instilled in me the awe of how over geologic time landscape is on the move and in such a region as the Dolomites, this geologic time is compressed, bringing with it events that can be experienced a number of times within a lifetime. The static nature of landscape representation is to do with our perception of it, yet this book deals with its rupture, its potential and the effects of its continental shift.
ES: In this respect, I was fascinated by the way that the design of the book treats this distinction between stasis and rupture. Many of the landscape images are almost wilfully unspectacular – so I found myself really drawn to the ‘fractures’ that are created by the layering of images in the layout. Did you find something similar? How do you experience the work?
SS: I think what was really drawing me to Marina’s book was how it was animating this story of the mountains, their potential and actual destructive forces and how human lives are so dwarfed in the scale of that force yet so emotionally attached to life there. Life can be so precarious in there but at the same time be so stable for years upon years. I’ve visited the mountains for winter sports so many times, I am equally frightened by them as I am in awe of their beauty. The book gives me some of that, I see the figures in the book as mountain people that respect the mountain and make it their home – maybe it’s an aspiration of mine. Going back to the book, I think it’s really effective in creating an abstracted feeling of being in the mountains, I like how the portraits all look up towards the mountains, something I do when I am there. I guess it’s the sublime for me, but for these figures, its perhaps the mind’s gaze to the past or the prospect of future disaster?
ES: I like the way you’ve linked the past and the future to the way that the portraits express that anxiety of (being in) the present. At the back of the book, there’s a short section that makes these links between the past and the future in a different, and much less equivocal way. Here, as the reader learns, the theory of ‘return periods’ suggests that an even more catastrophic event is likely to occur in the same region within the next fifty years or so. All of the images in the book, shown as layers and cropped fragments on the previous pages, are presented uncropped, as thumbnails, with clear, almost scientific explanations of what they represent. We also see other images for the first time: scientific instruments for measuring and surveying land movement, for instance. We see more portraits too, this time with quotes that express the anxiety and fear of the inhabitants. At this point, we know exactly what we’ve been looking at. All of the tension and uncertainty that’s built up in the book to this point, is suddenly released. It’s a really clever way of organising something – the possibility of future catastrophe – that can’t actually be represented, by using a structure of tension and release that’s analogous to that of the geological event itself.
“Given that so much of our planet has now been altered, in one way or another, by human activity – whether that takes the form of megastructural projects like the human-made islands off the coasts of Dubai and Japan, or more passive alterations like plastic waste washing up on the beaches of Antarctica – it’s clear that dealing with issues around ‘landscape’ has to involve more than just making images of a particular place.” – Eugenie Shinkle
SS: It shows how the construction of the book is such an integral part of the concept of the work. I can imagine how such a fragmented and layered approach to the book would translate into the exhibition space. I know of Marina when she and Gianpaolo Arena (Landscape Stories) co-produced/curated the Calamita – a project which was a multi-artist, multi-layer photographic research project on the Vajont Dam territories exploring landscape through multiple perspectives, something I think Marina has brought into the approach for this project. I am wondering, as someone who has paid close attention to how the landscape is represented through modern photographic conventions and styles, how does this approach sit within the recent history of the medium?
ES: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think Marina’s images fit into the category of landscape photography, at least not in the conventional sense of a ‘view’. There are very few photographs that comply with the classic foreground – middle ground – background structure, and the layering throughout the book really complicates the sense of scale. And although, as you point out, there are allusions to the sublime scattered throughout the book (usually in the form of images within images), I don’t feel that it really belongs within the boundaries of Romantic landscape either. If we’re going to set it in the context of landscape at all, I think it makes more sense to think of the work in relation to fields like human geography, which deal with landscapes as complex lived spaces rather than representations.
SS: I think what I was thinking is that like the geological shifts of the land, landscape in its more traditional ‘view’ representation is metaphorically, broken apart, either consciously or unconsciously. For me it reflects a certain trajectory in contemporary documentary practices, which embrace, almost scientifically, research, field notes and collected data, visual or otherwise. The aspects of more traditional visual formats such as landscape and portrait are subsumed into the work in a much more fragmented way. Additionally, the book has a scrapbook feel, like a research file, a range of images and texts are included, yet unlike a more editorial layout, there is greater space given aesthetically to formal relationships, collage and certain visual details which as you say are expanded upon in the thumbnail section at the end of the book. So I wonder if as a visual strategy this breaking apart of traditional formats is a way of reflecting the complex nature of this subject? A way of digging deeper as opposed to presenting a romantic idea, which would be more reductive, perhaps? Human geography is an absolutely great term to describe this work, I think.
ES: Definitely – and the inclusion in the book of texts by a geologist and an anthropologist, as well as a writer on photography, is another way that Are They Rocks or Clouds? signals this complexity. Saskia Sassen observed almost twenty years ago that topographic representations are incapable of capturing the spatialization of power – all they can do is to document the traces and effects of processes (political, infrastructural, natural) that are much more diffuse in nature. Given that so much of our planet has now been altered, in one way or another, by human activity – whether that takes the form of megastructural projects like the human-made islands off the coasts of Dubai and Japan, or more passive alterations like plastic waste washing up on the beaches of Antarctica – it’s clear that dealing with issues around ‘landscape’ has to involve more than just making images of a particular place. For practitioners working with landscape photography, this means acknowledging, implicitly or explicitly, the limitations of the medium. And as you’ve pointed out, there is a growing tendency amongst photographic artists to address these limitations by means of subtle but clever formal and aesthetic strategies.
“It is in light of this that Caneve’s project crystallises in my mind, when those portraits of people looking up at the mountain no longer connote the anxiety of waiting for the next disaster but are the inhabitants of the mountain seeking wisdom from ancestors who have lived through the disasters, asking, how do we coexist with nature, and from which myths can we learn?” – Sunil Shah
I’ve been looking through Aglaia Konrad’s photobook Carrara, which is about the quarrying of marble in the Apuanian Alps. Half a million tons of marble are taken out of the mountain every year, with violent disruption to the mountain’s ecosystem. Two thirds of it ends up as waste. Here, the damage caused by human intervention isn’t about what’s added to the landscape, but what is taken away – what can’t be seen. Carrara uses a similar visual strategy of cropping, layering, and visual disorientation to encourage the viewer – as Angelika Stepken observes in her short accompanying essay in the latter book – to encounter the image as incomplete, and, at times incoherent, structural information.
SS: I think that is why text and discursivity are so vital to projects like this. I think that crossovers and relationships between the three catalogue texts allude to this interdisciplinary nature of the subject. Emiliano Oddone’s notes on the geological precarity of the Dolomites, Taco Hidde Bakker’s reflection on the dichotomy of documentary and poetic modes of thinking through the mountains and Caneve’s project, and Annibale Salsa’s elaboration on the mountain’s cultures and the calculation of hydrogeological risk against the displacement of time and memory. Indeed, it is Salsa’s declaration of the hubris formed when prioritising science and ethical-political models in which traditional coexistence models are ignored and eventually, generationally fade away that leave the mountains in an even more precarious state. It is in light of this that Caneve’s project crystallises in my mind, when those portraits of people looking up at the mountain no longer connote the anxiety of waiting for the next disaster but are the inhabitants of the mountain seeking wisdom from ancestors who have lived through the disasters, asking, how do we coexist with nature, and from which myths can we learn?
ES: Questions such as these point back to something that lies at the heart of Are They Rocks or Clouds?, and that’s the notion of identity. As Salsa points out, the growing use of technology to hold this unstable terrain in place represents a shift in relationships to the landscape, where the mixture of respect and reverence for the environment that has defined local identity in the past is slowly being replaced by interventionist strategies – solutions imposed from elsewhere. The problem isn’t specific to the Dolomites, and in this respect, Caneve’s book points to a growing tension, on a global scale, between managerial perspectives and situated knowledges. These historical links to place have been somewhat obscured in contemporary debates around identity, which are predominately – though not exclusively – focused on urban populations, which tend to be younger and more nomadic. And yet, if we are to find ways to live together sustainably in an increasingly crowded world, we also need to think about the way that social and political identity are shaped by our relationships to place and place-making. I think Are They Rocks or Clouds? has an important contribution to make to these discussions.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Eugenie Shinkle & Sunil Shah. Images @ Marina Caneve.)