Sunday, July 13, 2008

Adventures at the Wichita Art Museum #3: "American Ruins"

Arthur Drooker, Cook Bank, Rhyolite, Nevada. Image found here.

Yesterday being Saturday--free admission day at the Wichita Art Museum--I biked on over and had a look at a selection of photographs by Arthur Drooker called American Ruins (he has a book out by the same title). The exhibit's subjects come from points throughout the northeastern, southern, southwestern and western U.S., with a picture from a site in Hawai'i thrown in for good measure, and the structures range in age from the 3rd to the 20th centuries. There are images of cliff dwellings, churches and missions, businesses and factories, homes, military structures . . . it's something of a picturebook archeological history of the United States.

I like this idea very much, and I approve of the exhibit's intention, as presented in its introductory placard:

They're rarely seen, mostly forgotten and completely obsolete. Photographer Arthur Drooker visited these vestiges of our shared past to forge a spiritual connection with those who came before us, and restore what they had built to our collective memory.


As a photographic series, these images present a rare overview of some overlooked landmarks and allow us, as Americans, to see where we came from, measure how far we've come, and gain a vision of where we might be headed.
Still, I felt in these images some strangeness, one due to the medium Drooker chose, the other to the inclusion of one image, that seem worthy of a few words. What follows isn't criticism but observation.

First is Drooker's chosen medium--depending on the information you happen to be reading at the time, either digital pigment prints (the cards accompanying the pictures) or digital infrared prints (WAM's website's description). Whichever it is, the result is something that I can't always appreciate when seeing the same images on my computer monitor: a startling three-dimensional quality in the images that immediately reminded me of those on my old GAF Viewmaster discs or, alternately, of photorealistic collages. In other words, the objects imaged in the various pictures--not just the ruins themselves but the surrounding vegetation, too--stand out starkly relative to each other, rather than melding more or less comfortably into each other as would have seemed to be the case with traditional photography . . . or, for that matter, when these structures are seen in person. Perhaps, in keeping with his stated intention, that quality is precisely Drooker's point: he wants the viewer really to see these structures, to contemplate them rather than their gradual reclamation by Nature. Still, as I said, this particular quality in the images wasn't something I was prepared for.

And now for the one image in particular, one that made me wonder about what Drooker has in mind when he says "ruins" and compels the post-structuralist in me to want to start unpacking the first sentence in the placard that introduces the exhibit: A picture of the Alamo. Given that structure's centrality to the Texas mythos--not to mention that for decades now it has been Texas' most-visited place--it's difficult for me to think of the Alamo as being in any way "rarely seen [and] mostly forgotten." I will grant, though, that to describe the Alamo as "completely obsolete" would make for a fascinating discussion, among Texans, as part of a "Whither Texas?"-type socio-cultural debate: To what extent does the story--not necessarily the history but the lessons and near-legendary narratives--of Texas' winning its independence and becoming a sovereign nation have a bearing on what Texas is now (whatever that may be) in the 21st century? Also, I'd suggest, if one thinks about the Alamo's hundred-year history from 1836 to the Centennial, one could argue that it was more ruin-like then than it is now: the story of the battle there may have gone far in shaping the Texan self-concept, but whether and how to preserve the structure itself as a trace of that story was clearly not something unanimously agreed upon during that time. Meanwhile, I wonder what the descendants of slaves who worked in the sugar mill on a Florida plantation that Drooker photographed might have to say about that place being designated a "ruin," or the descendants of the cliff dwellers whose structures are depicted here.

All this matters because Drooker himself makes clear that he's interested in much more than creating aesthetically-pleasing images. He wants them to do the work of "restor[ing] what [these structures' builders] had built to our collective memory." Thus, these pictures are more or less implicit political acts, in the broadest sense of the word: they are intended to evoke discussion about why Drooker has chosen them, what he is trying to say--perhaps even argue for--about the American collective memory and how that squares with our own understanding of that memory's (dis)contents.

EDIT: One further thought: In rereading this, I found myself remembering Gertrude Stein's remark about America's having "a history-less history." There is a strong cultural impulse in American cultural history, as embodied in the phrase "The American Adam" (the title of R. W. B. Lewis' classic study of American literature), that is precisely about "forgetting," very broadly defined: through erasure, through a re-writing of the story of one's origins, etc. (To return to the Texas Revolution: The colonists certainly had legitimate grievances against the Mexican government, but it wouldn't be much of a distortion of things to make the case that that Revolution, especially towards the end, was ultimately, at best, a clash of cultures--and at worst, a race war. But the Daughters of the Texas Revolution would rather not tell things that way.) Anyway, Drooker's project engages in a sort of passive-aggressive cultural rabble-rousing, which I personally am okay with.


R. Sherman said...


Let's space out these good posts so that your readers can catch our breath, eh?


dd said...

Photographers have so many options today... but so many present their digital prints as a traditional art object...

I would enjoy seeing more of his images but in general I would rather sit in my library and look at a good monograph with a glass of wine than peer through glass to see photography in a gallery. Maybe I am lazy... but I do love seeing photographers push the medium and present their work in a format appropriate for the content of the work. I'll definitely keep my eyes open for a catalogue or monograph of Drooker's work.

John B. said...

A belated thanks to both of you for dropping by.

dd, your comment about preferring not at pictures displayed under glass reminded me of something I witnessed at the WAM that day. The docents there are usually pretty cool, but that day they seemed a bit on edge: when a teenage-looking girl got up close to (but not intending to touch) one of the pictures, a docent came up and told her to remember that "the glass and frame are the artwork, too." Incidentally, that same thing happened to me years ago when I visited an Ansel Adams exhibit in Houston.

My point isn't to argue semantics but just to note, as you do, that looking at photographs in museums is a vexed proposition. To position yourself so that reflections from lights don't intrude, you have to get close to them; but then you run the risk of incurring the wrath of the docents.

All that said, I'm extremely glad I visited the Eudora Welty exhibit of photographs when it came though the WAM last year. And no one got on my case then as I fogged up the glass on some of those pictures.