I’m looking at the photograph Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada, taken in 1867 by Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Three rock formations do not protrude so much as float on calm, featureless water. Though enormous, the tumored rocks appear like props or specimens, partitioning the image in sections until water and land bleed indeterminately into sky. This was one of many photographs taken during the 40th Parallel Survey, an expedition commissioned by the US Army that travelled from north-eastern California to Wyoming. In her 1982 essay ‘Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View’, Rosalind Krauss discusses two versions of this image, arguing that aesthetic concerns inherent to modernist histories – whereby the appreciation of the photograph undergoes a ‘retrospective construction’ to become art – undermines the historical specificity of how such photographs came to be, dislodging the image from its system of knowledge. There is an important difference, Krauss claimed, between seeing this photograph as art in an exhibition (within the landscape tradition) and discovering it in its original archive (as a ‘view’). The fact that curator Magalí Arriola has included O’Sullivan’s photograph in her exhibition ‘Sunset Décor’ offers a clue to her take on the dismantled archive. If I were to guess, this is in part an attempt to critique or contradict the sort of curatorial practice that sits too comfortably with its own organizing concepts; to challenge the curatorial impulse that squeezes out all confusion from the gathering together of disparate images and objects.
In order to explore the exhibition as a site of and for contradiction, as well as generative confusion, Arriola invokes the ghost of Marcel Broodthaers, interpreting two photographs that he took of his 1975 show ‘Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers’ at the ICA in London. In two ‘period rooms’, Broodthaers arranged objects less within the tradition of the readymade and more as Hollywood props – combining replicas of weapons with domestic and commercial items (for example, in the 19th-century room, a pinned-up photograph of the 1969 Western Heaven with a Gun, two Napoleonic canons, Edwardian chairs, a revolver, candleholders, a large stuffed python, liquor barrels and a lobster playing cards with a crab). The result was a play without a plot – furnishings that suggested, as Broodthaers stated, ‘the relationship between war and comfort’, or, if we take up the centurial timescale of the work, the metastasizing intimacy between European colonialism and American imperialism.
In her exhibition, it seems Arriola is concerned with representation and complicity, and the lingering relationships behind the making and interpretation of land, people and things – especially the violent conquest and mythological construction of the American West. Some objects appear as historical portents: a taxidermied bald eagle shot down inadvertently from the sky during the Battle of Gettysburg, on loan from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, next to an open wooden display box for a Colt Single Action pistol (the weapon, famously known as ‘the Peacemaker’, is conspicuously missing). Superflex’s film The Parley (2015) brings to life, in HD slow-motion, the painting Pioneer and the Indian (1903), originally attributed to Frederic Remington but now considered a fake (a print of the painting is also included in the show, doubling the fiction).
But it is photography that does the most work to connect the ongoing and entangled histories of the ‘settled’ West. A selection of photographs from Lothar Baumgarten’s series ‘Carbon’ (1989) – an in-depth study of the impact of the railroad on indigenous peoples and their land – melancholically shadows survey photographs from the 19th century, such as those taken by O’Sullivan, as well as Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge (also included here). Trevor Paglen’s photographs of classified satellites, which he tracks and captures like shooting stars above the deserts of California, show how such instruments have become, as he writes, ideological and technological equivalents of earlier attempts to map, and therefore tame, unknown terrains. Like a map, photography summarizes, abbreviates, simplifies. Between 1850 and 1890 the US government funded several geographical surveys in an effort to map and document the western territories. Photography, a new technology, became increasingly significant as a means for augmenting scientific research; it did not survey the American West so much as fabricate it. The camera’s imposition was often that of expansive emptiness: land first had to be deemed unoccupied or unproductive in industrial, agricultural and economic terms before identities could be flattened, utilized, compartmentalized, exploited. By summoning and confusing this history of territorial struggle, Arriola is not so much dismantling the archive as creating one that, as Broodthaers wrote in relation to the spirit of décor, ‘is not an end in itself.’
Main image: Marco Esparza, Carne seca, 2015. dry meat on steel cable, dimensions variable . Courtesy: Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
First published in Issue 190