Charted Course

When I was a child I was looking out of our large picture window when an indigo bunting flew into it, moments later her mate did the same thing.  My viewpoint caused the death of my subject.

Through frames made out of wood or metal I observe the world at large from my home or car or plane. The degree of separation from my focused subject varies physically, culturally, intellectually and emotionally.  The camera as a witness to my experience, captures the moment compressing both time and space, creating a flattened photographic version of the original experience.

I reduce the immeasurable complexity of the natural subject into a picturesque moment- a frozen and entrapped kind of visual trophy.  In the rural landscape of Rice County I can shift my camera angle and ethics to portray poor farming techniques, such as soil erosion as a lovely sunset landscape.  This dangerous memento can be retrieved as a teaching aid in the classroom, as a way to frame the larger question about our relationship to the natural world.

For this exhibition, I examined a series of teaching charts in Carleton College’s biology collection. They were used from the 1820s to the 1960s as visual aids for a wide range of courses including: botany, zoology, biology, geology and anatomy. They were large enough for students to view them from their desks.

The Embryology of the Frog from 1941 shows a sequenced series of drawings in the development of a frog. It is clear and straightforward. Now through nostalgic eyes it seems even more beautiful and lacks any irony.

The charts in this exhibit explore how we frame the land and birds around us both through language and visual means. From the picture window to Microsoft windows- we struggle to analyze and package our experience. Sharpening pixels, increasing the contrast, removing a telephone wire, I observe, compress and represent. I wonder how one would measure nature’s carrying capacity for images?

“Nothing is in the understanding that has not before been in the senses!  Only through diligent observation, personal viewing and personal investigation, is it possible to banish the worst enemy of any formative teaching: verbalism.”

– Otto Schmeil (1860-1943) Advocator of early education wall charts.

Review by Ross Elfline of joint exhibition with Fred Hagstrom

In Victor Hugo’s novel of medieval Paris The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the protagonist of the story, Claude Frollo, utters the famous words, “This will kill that.”  “This” is the book sitting upon a nearby table; “that” is the imposing edifice of the Notre Dame cathedral.  Frollo’s point (as well as Hugo’s) is that the printed book will soon replace buildings as the medium of power, authority and moral suasion, and the ensuing years have proven this true.  The circulation of words, ideas and arguments around the globe precipitated one of the most profound cultural shifts of human history.

The book had a good run.

Embedded in Hugo’s argument of media succession is the idea that, eventually, something will kill off the book, and indeed in recent years the appearance of digital mediums has superseded the printed word as the preeminent medium of persuasion.  This exhibition takes as its starting point one of the downsides of this relatively recent form of mediation: the fact that instant access to information and images has dulled our collective interest in the natural world that surrounds us.  The two artists in conversation within the exhibition Charted Course—Fred Hagstrom and Linda Rossi—have diagnosed acute cases of this malady in their students at Carleton College, though it certainly transcends generational boundaries.

Importantly, the two artists find immediate inspiration for their works not within the space of the real, but rather within other formats and mediums.  For Rossi, the didactic pull-down wall chart so common to biology classrooms not long ago serves as her point of departure.  Images of the Minnesota landscape or an Oregon marsh—seen through the window of an airplane or the windshield of an automobile—are carefully dissected and served up like other scientific specimens.  The accompanying text coolly outlines the terms of documentary nature photography before trailing off into states of reverie.  “Aerial,” for instance can both define a point of view from which the camera stakes its claim, but can also mean “airy, unsubstantial or imaginary.”  Of course, it can also be an antenna receiving radio or television signals.

Hagstrom takes his inspiration from the wondrous and elliptical engravings of the 19th century naturalist Ernst Haeckel.  Intricate and painstakingly precise, Haeckel’s images confound the viewer who must wonder what exactly these bulbous and spiny entities are.  Are they vegetable or animal?  Their scientific name—radiolarians—provides little help, though this name, too, leads the viewer to daydream.  Are these spines antennae, or, indeed, radio aerials?  Hagstrom, in one print after another, repeats these fascinating images with slight and subtle variations.  The radiolarians shift, add spikes, appear honeycombed on their surfaces, and we viewers become absorbed into these changeable figures.  Is it a surprise, then, that research into Haeckel’s work shows that he may have exaggerated the features of his objects of study?

The works of Hagstrom and Rossi, then, offer a counterargument to Hugo’s schema of the succession of mediums.  Here, a group of outmoded mediums—the didactic chart and Hugo’s own victorious book—are mined for their relevance to contemporary viewers.  One is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s fascination with outmoded objects and images when he argued that they appear to us in a flash in the present moment to remind us of some long-repressed emotion.  It is their reappearance that allows us to consider them afresh and to better understand their inner workings.  While contemporary society may have lost a sense of curiosity about the natural world, one could also say that we have lost our curiosity about images themselves.  We take what we see on our screens for truth.  Perhaps by returning to those mediums that have been made obsolete we might learn once again how to slow down, how to look, how to be curious, and how to daydream.