The Politics of Representing Landscapes
December 15, 2017
During a 2015 performance in Santiago, Chile, Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo constructed an artificial desert landscape in a gallery with an enormous dune made from sawdust. For two hours, Galindo was entombed in the dune with only her head exposed. The sawdust referenced Chile’s lucrative timber industry and its centuries-old impact on Mapuche people and dismemberment of Patagonia’s forests. This legacy of colonial encounters is the subject of Unsettled, an exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art, in Reno, that explores how dozens of artists have interpreted the dramatic landscapes of the western edge of the American continents.
The museum has a relatively new curatorial focus called “the Greater West,” a region they define as the eastern Pacific Rim, Australia, New Zealand, and the island of New Guinea. While the museum regularly exhibits work by Aboriginal Australian artists and from the western US, this is the first exhibition to explore the Greater West in a broad sense.
The museum makes a case for the Greater West in the exhibition catalogue, citing plate tectonics, the fact that the region was populated by humans later than elsewhere, an abundance of natural resources, and a colonial presence in recent history. Given that some of these are broad parameters shared across many regions, the reasons for excluding Southeast and East Asia are unclear. And because Unsettled focuses on the Americas and not nearly as much on Oceania, the exhibition does not have the opportunity to flesh out the concept that underpins it. While there are works that engage with the western Pacific — Bruce Connor’s film “CROSSROADS” (1976) about nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll and Bruno Fazzolari’s perfume inspired by sandalwood and tea trade in the South Pacific — there are no artists included who are actually from there.
Unsettled succeeds, however, in how it considers the landscapes of the western Americas and their complex relationships with their many residents. It’s a rare treat, for example, to see the work of contemporaries like Mexico’s Dr. Atl (born Gerardo Murillo) and Canada’s Emily Carr in the same exhibition, who are often only shown with artists from their respective regions. Both artists were landscape painters who spent time around the turn of the 20th century studying and painting in Europe, but while Carr depicted a romanticized version of Vancouver Island through the lens of a colonial gaze, Dr. Atl attempted to rebuff European aesthetic standards (and even his own European name) to create work more deeply rooted in Mexican aesthetics.
But while some artists like Carr, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Agnes Pelton can easily focus on light and color in representing landscapes, many Indigenous artists have had other urgent concerns for the landscape. These works are the exhibition’s greatest strength.
Generally perceived as a vacant and empty landscape, Nevada has long been exploited as a nuclear testing and dumping ground. Between 1951 and 1992, 928 nuclear tests were conducted at a single site, the Nevada Test Site, located on Western Shoshone land. In his watercolor painting, “The End” (1983), Western Shoshone/Washoe artist Jack Malotte envisions an ostensibly apocalyptic scenario in a landscape that resembles Nevada’s Great Basin. But the three mushroom clouds and barrage of surface-to-air missiles in the painting are hardly science fiction; after all, the Nevada Test Site is now considered one of those most radioactively contaminated sites in the US.
It is easier to desecrate these lands if they are declared empty and without history. Efforts by governmental and commercial interests to erase Indigenous claims to land are exemplified in Tlingit/Unangax̂ artist Nicholas Galanin’s photograph “Your Inane Perspective: Haa Aaní Haa Ḵusteeyíx̲ Sitee (Our Land is Our Life)” (2015), which pictures an official roadside sign indicating “No Name Creek” on Baranof Island in Alaska. Of course, the creek already had a name, Watlachéix’k̲’i Héen, when it was given its new unoriginal moniker. This Tlingit name is acknowledged in a smaller sign below the other, serving as a monument to colonial obstinacy.
Apsáalooke (Crow) artist Wendy Red Star addresses the flattening of Native American identity in “Four Seasons” (2006), a series of four photographs that place the artist in artificial natural landscapes. In “Spring,” the artist lounges on AstroTurf in front of a backdrop of a serene lake. She is flanked by cardboard cutouts of a deer, a rabbit, and a coyote. The scene recalls the Land O’Lakes butter package and numerous other popular depictions of Indigenous people as timeless and at home in, and only in, nature. Red Star, however, renders the absurdity of this visible, whereas many advertisers, filmmakers, and consumers struggle to recognize this in their daily lives.
Unsettled is a sprawling exhibition that is sometimes overtaxed by the concepts used to describe it. It is chiefly an exhibition about a long stretch of land from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego — a stretch of land that shares impressive mountains and sweltering deserts — and how these lands have been interpreted across cultures and colonial divides. While O’Keeffe’s paintings and lithographs emphasize the serenity that can be find in these vast landscapes, artists like Malotte force viewers to confront the violence and devastation that inhabit even the most beautiful landscapes, helping make the case that the representation of land is always deeply political.