Artist Nika Kaiser presents an essay evaluating her intimate relationship with desert spaces and its particular role in contemporary art over time, written in conjunction with a recent lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson.
I was born in a city 45 minutes from the Mexican border, a substantial speck of civilization surrounded by four mountain ranges and beyond that, vast Sonoran desert. The name of this place, Tucson, is derived from the Tohono O’ohdam tribe’s name for it, Cuk Son, meaning “at the base of the black mountain”. It’s no surprise then that the experience of nature, despite this upbringing in semi-suburbia, was a nascent orientation for my way of seeing, a constant line of sight on every horizon.
In my practice of making and experiencing others’ art, the idea of landscape is ubiquitous, as we ourselves are of the natural world. Observing humanity’s disconnected history with land and its destructive impact on the planet, we are in a position to confront the impending/present tenuousness of our existence as species. My practice functions as a means to express these ideas—not through direct activism nor the depiction of this rupture in our freedom to exist as we have in industrial society, but as an opportunity to draw a line back to the connection we inherently possess to our planetary space. Practices manifest for all makers in different forms who approach such ideas; I’m interested in the dissonant quality of making work that is reliant on technology and depicting reality in a very tangible way—namely, how photography, video and other lens-based work, can function as an opposite to nature, extrapolating these ideas in clarifying, complex ways.
As we’ve severed our intertwinings with the natural world, a collective absence has taken place at the site of who we are as living beings. The gesture of trying to reintegrate into the natural world manifests in awkward, vulnerable, absurd, and seemingly futile ways. Within art, this gesture began to occur in the 1970s, with new modes of performance and active site-based work. At the same time in photography, landscape’s historical conventions were broken down from all directions. Women like Judy Dater entered landscape seeming to have arrived without the usual guidelines: that landscape is separate from portraiture, that the photographer belongs behind the camera, that wilderness is impersonal, that the nude woman is aligned with a metaphor for nature. Her landscape self portraits show an artist responding to the loneliness, power, intimidation and freedom felt in such places, redefining the female nude in the process. They seem to measure her closeness and distance, the consciousness and unconsciousness elicited by the sites.
Similarly, Ana Mendieta’s various performances of the 70s and 80s, documented in photography and video, show the female form attempting to re-converge in a very direct way with land, placing materials on the body. Mendieta’s work was diverse and motivated by thematic ideals of early human spirituality, Latin American folklore, and an insistence on reforming a relationship with nature that has been disengaged over generations of industrialism. In her performative attempts to form with the land, the effect has an almost supernatural/woman-as-spirit quality. But the immediacy of her gestures also makes the act of trying to become these things feel somewhat futile, a raw absurdity is felt in the desire and urgency to re-form with these elements while still being inherently separate and currently human.
In my recent series Desert Varnish, similarly inspired actions take place. Desert Varnish, which is a dark iridescent coating found on rocks in arid regions, possesses properties of both a living biological being and a geologic composite; it is scientifically debated whether this illusive veneer can be considered earth or animal. In the series of images, landscape and mammal are captured as one and the same; boundaries blurring as they become each other. The sublime qualities of the Sonoran Desert serve as a catalyst for manifestations to occur, suggesting that this locale itself is the creator of such happenings and that each human and space are one-in-the-same.
As it is a site for reflection of our future, land is also a location of our origin. In that, my work often makes use of the natural world as a setting within the mind. The southwestern desert, in particular, possesses qualities that allow this parallel to be so easily made. In Libby Lumpkin’s New Mexico essay she suggests that ‘the desert landscape is a readymade allegory of the Surrealists memory-littered unconscious, with volcano cones and ancient fields of black lava, sea-creature and dinosaur fossils, archetypal rock paintings, all juxtaposed among vast lunar stretches of dust and rocks.’ As I create work, I envision the world depicted within these forms, such imagery becoming a metaphorical backdrop for my own psyche where a hum of unease, drollness, and beauty possesses a single timbre.
The arid landscape takes form as an active site for self-exploration, cyclical representations of time, and ecstatic movement in Alejandro Inarritu and the LA Dance Project’s 2013 short film Naran-Ja. The work depicts a woman continuously encountering herself as she scales the same hill, descending into a ravine to articulate movements, and is then joined by a group of dancers, who appear as though of her own imagined manifestation. They seem to be working out a complex system of physical communication, parsing out small notions of the psyche. The setting of this dance video is what drives its transformative, psycho-dramatic quality– what could otherwise feel like a passive, distant theater stage, becomes its own small inner universe.
Looking back on film and moving imagery, the animation work of Suzan Pitt arises as a pivotal moment also highlighting, as Naran-Ja does, nature as an active, psychological form in the female mind. In Pitt’s 1978 short Asparagus, flowers spring from orifices, the protagonist observes wildly active garden spaces through a moving window tableau, and gives blow-jobs to asparagus plants. Relationship of plant to body is direct and explicit, sexuality and inner psychological space are represented through the natural world being active and floating; plants behave as their own beings or fragments of human selves.
Cicada Cadence, a single channel video I produced in 2013, extracts its meanings from similar origins. A cyclical walkabout, Cicada Cadence mines the desert landscape as a milieu for transformation and unfixed identities. Drawing from cinematic works by Maya Deren, regional mythologies and personal symbology, a narrative of myself as a desert dweller is drawn upon to create a universal map of self-ness through layered associations.
Eyes with which to see
It might seem dissonant to approach the expression of inherent connections to the natural world through means of technology. The sublime in relation to nature has been imparted for centuries by pigment and organic sculpture. Yet it feels significant at this position in time to take what we have made and reflect it back upon what we have come from. The camera as a hybrid version of the eye has the ability to hone in upon and exaggerate what already exists while also capturing and depicting fantastically fabricated versions of “truth”. The tenuous space of examining our future selves and simultaneously honoring what still exists of our connection to nature is one that I find well articulated by the camera, digital effects and technology. It is at once a fantasy, a reflection, and a window.
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