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“Are We There Yet?”
Exhibition Text by Dawoud Bey
GASP! – Gallery Studio Project Space - Brookline, MA
Hyde Park Art Center - Chicago, IL
Americans have tended to take their ability to move freely through the world for granted. This ability to enact ones own mobility defines in some way an indelible aspect of the archetypal American character. To get in one’s car and “hit the road” as a form of wanderlust has long been a part of the popular construct of the American leisure ideal. It is apparent, however, that this ability to move freely through the world is not a privilege that extends to all quarters, and even Americans are finding increasing intrusions into their travel routines are now imposed by both the present national security dictates along with the rising cost of gasoline. But still American’s penchant for casual wanderlust persists as a kind of psychic birthright. For others the act of travel and moving from place to place can be a much more complex experience, enacted for any number of reasons, of which pleasure might be the least of them. Whether to escape political persecution or to better one’s station and opportunities, a vast number of people are in movement from place to place for reasons of a more urgent and imperative nature.
The camera itself has a long history of being used as a kind of passport, making accessible the inaccessible, and legitimating the photographer’s presence in a place that would otherwise be off limits. This desire to venture out from home may, in fact, also be motivated by a desire to re-establish just what and where home is in relation to ones personal history, since in the case of immigration or voluntary or self imposed exile the notion of home may not be a singular and fixed notion. Often the journeying out into the seemingly familiar reveals information that gives the lie to the reassuring sense of familiarity we expect to find in the places more close at hand.
The exhibition Are We There Yet? examines, through a range of lens-based work, the ways in which a shifting sense of place is visualized through various conceptual strategies. In the photographs of Howard Henry Chen, we come face to face with the artist’s own dual sense of home, and his attempts not only to visualize that back and forth journey, but also his attempt at cultural and personal retrieval. Born in Vietnam, Chen, at age three, left with his immediate family to come to the United States just as the war broke out in the mid-1970s. In his pictures we see a Vietnam that conforms to neither the war torn popular media image nor do we see the pre-war Vietnam that he left behind. Instead, the present Vietnam is a place where history, tourism, and a global culture and economy are surreally commingled. Alan Cohen’s photographs depict the sovereign borders of nations, states, and institutions throughout the world, the locations and markers that separate “here” from “there.” Using a highly formalized and consistent visual strategy to achieve his ends, along with the reductive materials of black and white film and print, he reduces these sites to cryptic descriptions that are as visually restrained as they are loaded with social history and tension. The photographs made in the Panama Canal Zone depict the site where, in 1964, Panamanian students challenged the imposition of this internal and international border in a struggle with U.S. Marines, with fatal results. Christine DiThomas’s photographs made in passing from the windows of numerous rail train trips describe an experience that will appear familiar to many, even as the motivations for those trips are as different as the persons engaged in them. Nonetheless, the scenes themselves exude a quality of déjà vu that makes us feel we that these experiences are ours as well, and that we remember seeing them before…somewhere. These haunting views of the passing American landscape evoke a timeless sense of longing, unmoored wanderlust and endless travel.
For Aron Gent, the rather bucolic sense evoked by his photographs of his family gathered at their summer home on the lake is offset by the presence of his aunt who is has Down syndrome. Currently looked after by Gent’s aging grandparents, her care when they depart lingers as a concern that helps to infuse these otherwise pastoral and leisure vacations scenes with a sense of uneasiness. Deftly staging these pictures, in which he often appears, Gent at once creates photographs rich in behavioral nuance and the evocation of place. The various encounters between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians at the Qalandia checkpoint, one of the largest Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied West Bank, is the subject of Rula Halawani’s photographs. In these pictures we see not the faces of the subjects locked on two sides of this tense interaction, but rather the isolated gestures of power and need, as papers, possessions, and person are scrutinized in a relationship of unequal power. In Halawani’s photographs ones right to passage is literally and visually scrutinized in such a way that even as we can’t identify the subjects, we can indeed discern the tense social narrative of closely monitored and regulated movement.
The transient experience of recent immigration is the subject of Surendra Lawoti’s photographs. Himself Nepalese, he has photographed amongst this particular immigrant community. The photographs are rich in the visual evocation of impermanence, and contain rich visual signifiers for the urgent moving from place to place, without ever setting down deep roots that marks much of recent immigrant life at the social margins. Curtis Mann has taken a radical material means to deconstruct the sense of place in his pictures. Beginning with appropriated photographs downloaded from different online photo sites, he then prints and chemically removes a good deal of the visual information in the photographs—along with the attendant specific narrative of place—leaving just enough information on which to then create his own fantastical and variously charged landscapes of the imagination. In Oscar Palacio’s photographs we are made to confront the distances between the mythology of historical sites, and the actual underwhelming experience that often occurs when one visits them. The mundane physical experience of these sites often stand in stark contrast to the constructed and received histories of them that compel us to drive endless miles across country to bear personal witness to them. Looking at Adriana Rios’ video “There is No Time,” it is apparent that the experience of place and time are entirely subjective, based in no small part on a host of social determinants. Time clearly moves more slowly for those with either no place to go, or those lacking the agency or station to determine their everyday movements in the world. The subjects in her video occupy socially and politically charged spaces that suggest a host of lingering tensions pulling at the edges of daily interactions.
Taken together, the various works in this exhibition challenge any easy sense of just where “there” is in the physical, geographical, political, and psychic landscape.