“I was very motivated by Deborah’s Bright’s 1985 essay: Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men, which stressed the importance of differing subjective viewpoints from the established patriarchal vision.”
Susan Lipper’s “Domesticated Land” published this year by MACK is an unusually adept book in which sub-structures of narrative, gender and terrain mix in a balance that leaves the viewer with intrepid questions about the potential for a story, but also questions the idea of character and time in general as it oscillates along the dusty rock strewn frontier of the American West. Within the book, these questions hang, but are not performed in direct and punctuating inquiries, which makes the content largely successful in letting the viewer operate on grounds of an unguided unfamiliarity. This suggestion does not mean that the content itself is without placement, intent or distribution of either, but rather that it exceeds in sending a transmission or several to its audience and lets them roam or travel along the borders within.
The sub-texts that Lipper does present with some amount of finite questioning revolve around several topics from meta-narratives of place to the engendered capacity of imagination in the American West for which these questions of character or propositions of historical points of view are coupled with present-tense fantasy to weave a sub-narrative is distinctly Lipper’s. Without forcefully straining my own perceptions to the point of conflating Susan’s intent, I was able to speak with her candidly in person this year in Arles and enjoy a longer mediation on all sorts of topics found within the book. As a given point of reference, it is extremely important that the viewer err with caution as to the position of interviewer and the interviewed. There are questions that present themselves in the written dialogue here that are at the heart of Susan’s interest in voice, narrative and reception that find their way in each of our questions and respective answers. I want to express a sincere bout of gratitude to Susan for taking the time to answer my written questions and to reflect on my observations however in line with her initial vision or other….
BF: Your book “Domesticated Land” at its surface is about the American West. It is quite stark. The monochrome images bear the weight of the blistering sun. I feel almost blinded when I look at the vast expanses of rock and sand in the images. That is not to say that they are ungoverned by people-perhaps that in and of itself is a point, which we shall discuss. The book makes no real allusion to what I read within the pages. There are several (pun intended) frontiers in which meaning or potential topics may be assessed. First and foremost, I want to ask you about borders. I see border agents in their Humvees and I see hints of a wall and check points. Though I would like to ask about gender and landscape, my first inclination is to ask you about whether or not this work is a work concretely involved in the current political discussion surrounding Trump’s America and the border wall with Mexico. If it isn’t, please forgive my reading of it this way. There are clues like the Humvee, the spot of blood on wood and several architectural indicators…
SL: I am glad you intuit political frontiers. In fact, this work has been structured loosely to apply to any and all of these. However I think it would be best to place Domesticated Land within the framework of its fictional role completing a trilogy including my previous works Grapevine (1994) and trip (1999.) It would also probably be advantageous to become acquainted with my female persona who began traversing the United States from East to West 30 years ago, seeking an American utopia of independence and transparency. (I allude to her obliquely in one of the final passages of the book.) Your thoughts about gender and landscape are pertinent. I was very motivated by Deborah’s Bright’s 1985 essay: Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men which stressed the importance of differing subjective viewpoints from the established patriarchal vision.
BF: The history of the Western American landscape in images, particularly in cinema has a palpably male-fronted categorization. Sam Peckinpah through to horror movies such as Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” are obliquely concentrated on violence, but also the oppressive and difficult terrain of the American West. It is suggestive of where hopes and dreams meet the reality of untamed land in a not altogether hospitable pursuit, but this is clearly the illustrative environment of fantasy based on historical books and dime store novellas. And yet, the role of the female is almost always quarantined to sewing at the fireside or huddling with the progeny under the wagon during an attack of Native Americans. How consciously did you work with these tropes of gender in your book or perhaps refute them? Does this history of the land present a certain sort of problem for you when trying to re-imagine the engendered diplomacy of image making in the American West? Do you see it domineered by men?
SL: It would be hard to deny that Cowboy Westerns both in literature and in the moving image are major players in establishing historic popular imagination. So much so that it becomes difficult to envision a woman on a solitary quest or to see them enacting heroic roles. However, my underlying concern is more about the creation of our understanding of the world, and the role of the documentary image in how we come to know it. One would think that it behooves us to cast as wide a possible net to retrieve the vantage points that have been relegated to the sidelines. Some of this imperative was behind my remaking of the ubiquitous American male vehicular rite-of-passage in my book, trip. With the desert in Domesticated Land, I was trying to record my/my persona’s reaction to a new environment. I also wanted to explore initial subjectivities which included a profound sense of well-being, healing and groundedness in the desert solitude.
BF: I want to reference the sublimity of your work. As Americans, we have a small tradition of working in the sublime, mostly in the 19th Century by painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and other members of the Hudson River School whose work in the Rockies has been well documented for their grandeur and sweeping romanticism. Photography is linked to this as well. On a side note, Edward Bierstadt, the brother of Albert was a stereoscopic photographer. His brother used his views in reference to paintings. This format of photography greatly enhanced the unnatural three-dimensional image, which added layers to the grandiosity of the image. I mention this for historical reference, but also because when I look at your work in California, I do feel or rather do I see (?)-A grave sense of the sublime, though the terms in which this mode is presented to me is foreign, fantastical and yet, to say romantic would be wrong. The West presents itself in a strange way to people. It is very hard to delineate a response if asked to describe it…. Do you find your way of working on this project as romantic?
SL: Sublimity refers to an artistic awareness of awesome and unchartable power. The desert does command that kind of respect.
“As an alternate economy, desert people do make do and repurpose constantly.”
BF: The Architecture of Desolation is a term or set of values that I have been pondering recently. It started with John Divola’s work “Vandalism”, but I see it in your work as well. It is simply the idea of using ruins or non-specific, but distanced use of architecture and space. What I propose here is that it does not have to be a central point to the work, but rather adds a layer of mystical celebration and de-tuning of the presumptions of time or era within the frame. The architecture can be used as a lever in which time is dis-bound, jarred or pulled into question. I see this with some of your images in Domesticated Land-the sides of houses or building, the raw –honed concrete border stops, but also the solar panels. There is an image of man in what looks like a monochrome Hawaiian T-shirt (never a better oxymoron for fashion). He stands next to this solar panel that looks like it might have been a leftover prop from war of the worlds. I cannot place the time of the image. I know when the book was made according to your text…and yet…I feel displaced between it and Humvee. This use of architecture provides an interesting uncomfortability between the grandeur of the landscape, but how we relate to time. There are several uses of images in the book that configure similar possibilities. The shift of time that I am seeing…do your images also affect you this way? Do you feel this or was it something you employed when making the work?
SL: I am quite sensitive to the desert’s trans-historical properties. One artist I greatly admire is Frederic Sommer whose work often stressed the inescapability of natural forces. In some of my images I use elements like crumbling concrete juxtaposed against sand to suggest that the desert will win in the end. Human biologic time is way shorter than geologic. Reyner Banham in Scenes in America Deserta mused on how in the desert, the work of man always attracts our attention. As such, I concur that objects fabricated by humans stand out in contrast with this pristine environment and felt obligated to limit their distracting presence to only what was required.
Interestingly, the image you describe has different content for me which would be important to explore. Earlier we talked about the established fictional role of women and the likely need to counter that. In fact the figure with the solar panel is a woman (albeit seen from behind) who also appears a number of times in the book – for example she can be seen leading the way walking up a hill. She also stands with a group of people towards the end of the book. I guess that I am guilty of placing a sub-plot within the narrative. These additional characters can be read as part of my persona’s world, the people with whom she associates. In terms of the outdated solar panel and its practicality, I was referencing one of the basic needs for human subsistence in an off the grid environment. As an alternate economy, desert people do make do and repurpose constantly.
BF: Writing, the word and the image. As well as cinema and the American West, photography also shares a long history with the printed word. I noted that the quotes you used, such as Margaret Atwood and Kathleen Haun’s frontierism piece allude to women in the Western expanse. The role of the woman within the landscape, but also the role of the individual against grievous conditions, social and atmospheric provides some context as to your intentions. Can you elaborate on how you came to choose those texts and perhaps how you see the words carry or perhaps butt against the work you make? Do words ever fail your images or vice versa?
SL: The text passages, of female voices, are not meant to blindly support each other. One can’t run them together and intuit a whole message. Rather I think they function more like a Greek chorus to remind us of some pertinent associations. They define an atmosphere of uncertainty, inertia and reappraisal existing over multiple time frames. As for their role in interacting with various image sequences, it was my intention that they function to open the narrative beyond the present tense and knowable scenarios. My title Domesticated Land derives from Annette Kolody’s important scholarship on the early writings of Women going West. Kathleen Haun’s journal from 1849 could have been written today save for the section where California was not yet part of the Country. As for the other passages, Margaret Atwood popularized the genre of Speculative Fiction about mostly unthinkable but still plausible events in the near future and the Sibley’s lyrics predate but also echo the crippling inertial felt by many of today’s desert dwellers especially after the recent election.
BF: I wanted to ask if you had looked at images of former atomic testing sites. Not necessarily Misrach etc., but more images from the 50’s and 60’s? Some of your images feel very close to authorized images of testing sites in Nevada, while being staged (I never noticed the duplicate role of “being staged” between war and photography until now) in California. Did you prepare any research into making this book or was the way in pursuing the images more automatic. When did you realize that you had something?
SL: I certainly think that I was influenced by those sorts of archival images as well as Sci-fi movies from the 50s. Research has played an important part in all my projects but it is hard to recognize its role in the final product as I don’t specifically chose to document past events unless something about them is visually resonant and the events also contribute even fictionally in some way to my narrative. I recognize that readers, over different time periods, will come knowing and responding differently to image content
BF: Finally and not least, I want to ask you about chronology and image. I look at some of your images, notably the image of a man near some solar panels and it gave me pause to think about time and image and perceived chronologies. I cannot place him, mostly due to his clothing, but it made me realize, and not that this is un-symptomic of the age we live in, but perhaps there is a cobbled together narrative here that exceeds the timeframe of the declared invention? I don’t know what I feel this way and perhaps as a reader/seeker of your images, it leaves me vulnerable to ask, but…are the images in this book all relative to the dates you describe? Have you embellished for our narrative? If so, what would that mean for your authorship?
SL: From the outset this project has employed large doses of creative license – for example Domesticated Land and its role within a trilogy. My work has always been motivated by subjective questioning of the American zeitgeist and I found that linking projects created over a 30 year period had the potential to reveal much more than could be initially intuited as these projects were played out in real time and affected by actual historical events. So in the current age where “truth is not the truth,” it is a small leap to the present photographically described is not the present. The proposed “action” in Domesticated Land stretches from pre-history to either the end of the next American Civil War or post the apocalypse which could be one and the same thing.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Susan Lipper.)