The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization, identifies and acquires ecologically important sites to protect them from development. Often, after a period of study and restoration, the conservancy donates these sites to local governments for transformation into parks and nature preserves.
In response to place
To raise public awareness of its work (and funds to support it), the Nature Conservancy identified 200 of its flagship conservation projects ("The Last Great Places") in the U.S., Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia. Next, the conservancy asked photo critic Andy Grundberg to select 12 photographers to take pictures of a "Last Great Place" of their choice.
The chosen photographers are William Christenberry, Lynn Davis, Terry Evans, Lee Friedlander, Karen Halverson, Annie Leibovitz, Sally Mann, Mary Ellen Mark, Richard Misrach, Hope Sandrow, Fazal Sheikh and William Wegman. Their work was published in book form as In Response to Place. Approximately 130 of the published photographs are on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, Jan. 24-Mar. 28, 2004, under the title "In Response to Place: Photographs from the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places."
According to the Nature Conservancy, the photographers were selected "to reflect a variety of approaches to the medium, including portraiture and photojournalism, in addition to landscape and nature photography." Each photographer was asked to "respond to the specific experience of a site (or sites) toward which he or she felt a special affinity." Simply stated, some of the artists were certain to deliver the goods while others were gambles. The result is an uneven show.
The most rewarding work comes from Karen Halverson and Terry Evans, who are both long-time landscape photographers. Halverson has spent the last several years photographing Western rivers that are restricted by dams. For this project, she chose to take pictures of California's Cosumnes River, which is the last free-flowing river on the western side of the Sierra Nevada. Wonderfully painterly, with rich colors and meticulous cropping, Halverson's images make a powerful conservation statement. We see the wild landscape, also signs of settlement. "I am never interested in showing just the beauty or just the mess we've made," Halverson says. "Both things are true."
Terry Evans is a poet of the prairie, the Willa Cather of photography. She photographed the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma from a two-seater airplane at day's end when raking sunlight revealed topographic patterns in the land and human disturbances that we cannot see clearly from ground level. Once a working cattle ranch, the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve was grazed but never plowed. The native plants are relatively undisturbed, which recommended this site for preservation.
William Christenberry, who has documented life in his native Alabama, had to return several times to his state's Cahaba River and Bibb County Glades before he could take satisfactory pictures without people in them. Christenberry is more matter-of-fact about the landscape than either Halverson or Evans. He stretched himself to make this work and there is no poetry in it.
The New York-based photographer Hope Sandrow first made her name back in the 1980s for especially dynamic portraits of East Village artists, black-and-white photographs in which both the photographer and subject were often in motion. Her kinetic interests are present in her color photographs here, too -- they were taken from the water with the camera half-submerged, while Sandrow was being swept by ocean currents around the volcanic island of Komodo in Indonesia. The result is pictures that are "in the flow," and often fraught with emotion.
Leibovitz in the mountains
The biggest surprise in "In Response to Place" is Annie Leibovitz, who contributes striking black and white images of the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York where she has country property. Leibovitz, who is best known as a fashionable celebrity portraitist, chose the Shawangunks because she "felt obliged to better understand my own back yard." Marvelously she captures the feel -- almost, it seems, the actual smell -- of the Shawangunks. Some of the plant communities in this area are unique in the world.
Richard Misrach, whose "desert cantos" photographs show how humans have used and abused the American West, contributes images of Pyramid Lake and the Lahontan Valley Wetlands in Nevada. He visited this site just after unusually heavy rains had created a temporary inland sea where sand normally is. "The play of light on water was like nothing I've seen anywhere else," he states. "After all these years in the desert, I am still making discoveries." True, but these photographs struck us as tired and mechanical. Misrach takes too many long views with the horizon line at dead center.
Two "people" photographers -- Mary Ellen Mark and Fazal Sheikh -- do what they do best and contribute work that says nothing about the landscape. Mark takes pictures of people in the Alaska's Pribilof Islands and Virginia's eastern shore, while Sheikh photographs the poor of northern Brazil.
Sally Mann and William Wegman are failed gambles. They either do not understand what the show is about or (more likely) are incapable of responding. Mann contributes pretentious blurry images of the Cakamul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico, which communicate nothing about Mexico, its land or its history while Wegman, a one-joke photographer, shows his dogs running around Cobscook Bay in Maine.
Despite this, "In Response to Place" is a beautiful photographic tribute to a splendid cause and a great organization.
Jaume Plensa -- Silent Noise
Until late March, the Arts Club of Chicago is presenting 13 sculptures and about six works on paper created by the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa over the past decade. Plensa is well known in Europe and has shown in New York and Chicago galleries. This, his first retrospective to tour the United States, travels to the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans, in April and to a third venue to be announced later.
Plensa makes big sculptures and some of his installations require a much larger space than the Arts Club has. Kathy Cottong, Arts Club director and curator of this exhibition, has edited Plensa's work to present it at a practical scale and has produced a catalogue with photographs of the larger installations.
Plensa uses a striking variety of materials in his work: light, bronze, alabaster, water, rope, cast iron, glass, steel, polyester resin and more. Neither a creator of new forms nor an explorer of materials, he is a conceptual artist who makes skillful use of theatrical effects. His sculptures seem to belong on the stage -- and it comes as no surprise to learn that he has created spectacular sets and lighting for European opera and dance productions.
The Pilgrim (2000) hangs in the staircase at the back of the gallery. This piece consists of three large clear glass teardrops and a fourth colored red, all provided with steel eyehooks and joined together by strips of white cotton cloth. Lush and tactile, The Pilgrim is a visual delight. According to Plensa, this piece refers to human circulatory systems, with the three clear glass teardrops suggesting water-based fluids and the red vessel standing for the blood. The body is a key subject for Plensa, who scales his work to his own body.
Wispern (1998) is a single cymbal (there are 72 in the museum-scale installation) hung from the ceiling on a long red rope. A drop of water falls slowly from the ceiling onto the cymbal, causing a sound. The cymbal is inscribed with words from William Blake's Proverbs of Hell and the sound that it produces is determined by the amount of metal removed to incise the words in it. The full installation, in which each cymbal bears one proverb and has a unique tone, is said to recall a murmuring crowd.
Plensa and poetry
Blake's Proverbs of Hell spells out some of the mystical themes of his poetry and contains many polar opposite expressions, which Plensa has adapted in his work. These include silence/noise (as in "Silent Noise," the name of the Arts Club exhibition), day/night, dream/desire and many others.
Silent Rain (2003), a new piece, is eight ceiling-hung curtains of cast metal letters strung together with wires so they form words and phrases when read from top to bottom. The Silent Rain texts are excerpts from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, Shakespeare's Macbeth, Dante's Inferno, Allen Ginsberg's Howl, William Carlos Williams' The Descent of Winter, Goethe's Faust, Vincent Andrs Estells' L'Hotel Paris, and Proverbs of Hell. Plensa does not really expect viewers to read these texts very carefully, to recognize their source, or to absorb a message from them. "I was trained by means of words," he has said, "and my mental health requires me to use them, if less as concepts than as materials, just as I may use iron, resin, glass, etc."
Polar opposites, the body, and text as material are just three of many themes in Plensa's work. The artist throws a tremendous amount at the viewer and gives critics much to write about, but he never shows his heart. He is also very ambivalent in that he trusts neither art nor words -- and backs away from both. The Pilgrim, for example, stands on its own as a visual creation, but Plensa insistently verbalizes about it, connecting it to human circulation. Was he really thinking about blood and water when he made The Pilgrim -- or about material, color, and surface? Do we need to know his "explanation" to appreciate this work? What is he trying to say?
In Silent Rain, Plensa uses words, but denies them. He selects texts that were written in five languages by eight men from six countries. Only a person with a good literary education would know these literary works in context. Yet after going to such lengths to choose words and phrases for his sculpture, Plensa claims that they mean little and are merely "material" like wire or paint. When an artist makes choices -- and evasively backs away from them, we wonder how serious he really is.
Jaume Plensa is a gifted sculptor who has created a variety of attractive, theatrical work. He gives us much to look at and think about, but reveals nothing of himself or his true intentions.