Et in Arcadia Ego1
Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.2 —Simon Schama
Much has been discussed since Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring came out in the autumn of 1962, about what it environmentalism means. Humanity’s hubris and engineering skill have led us to build projects that cannot be unbuilt, like Hoover Dam. We are capable of reversing millions of years of natural accretion in the short span of 40 years as we have with the Mississippi river delta wetlands outside of New Orleans. Our desire for ever more efficient systems and greater consumption and growth has caused us to change the ecosystem of the entire globe. As a child I marveled at NASA’s missions to the moon without the slightest understanding of the energy expelled by a Saturn V rocket (enough to electrify New York City for approximately 75 minutes). I couldn’t comprehend the hydrocarbons our gas-guzzling Vista Cruiser station wagon was contributing to the atmosphere. I watched the ads with the Indian crying on TV and witnessed first hand the smog of LA but few people understood our persistent desire for a ‘better way of life’ would be responsible for altering the climate of the planet.
I first met Eirik Johnson when he came to Stowe, Vermont in 2009 to participate in an exhibition I created called The Relentless Eye. Eirik had kindly submitted to whittling down over 1500 photographic submissions from hundreds of photographers to a mere 130 for an exhibition on cellphone photography. He carries a classic photographer’s dedication to both the frame and the equipment. He admitted that despite his love of the immediacy of his phone’s camera, the majority of his work is shot using traditional 4 x 5 cameras and film. You might imagine this would stimulate a leaning toward a nostalgia, a desire for a more idyllic past that was in turn reflected in his photography. When I first encountered Eirik’s work I was pleased to discover an aesthetic quite far from any sense of nostalgia.
Johnson’s work primarily focuses on the hidden where arcadia butts firmly against the urban or suburban. The photographs are about residue, not effect. His focus is not so much on the horrors of human impact as the questions the aftermath of such an impact leaves for us. Wherever Homo sapien has roamed, destruction or at the very least, unalterable change has occurred. Only beavers produce as direct an engineered affect on their landscape as we do. Johnson himself says these “transgressive spaces bridge the gap between the understood and the uncanny.” The uncanny in Johnson’s work is the irreconcilable relationship we as humans have with our landscape.
In Nicolas Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia ego, a small group of shepherds are reading an inscription by the same name on a tomb. The art historian Erwin Panofsky deciphers Poussin’s intent thusly;
The correct translation of the phrase in its orthodox form is, therefore, not “I, too, was born, or lived, in Arcady, but: “Even in Arcady there am I,” from which we must conclude that the speaker is not a deceased Arcadian shepherd or shepherdess but Death in person.3
Poussin’s painting is a precise analogy to Johnson’s photographs in the way it confronts our concept of the pastoral, the idyllic landscape of our memories. The tomb of Death itself sits as a stark monument to the realization that the damage has already been done and herding sheep is not an equivalent to the wild. This warning is something in modern times we have ignored: In Johnson’s photographs a copse grows in sediment washed into a drainage tunnel; plastic chairs and tarps are strewn amongst an otherwise secluded and idyllic under-canopy of trees. It would be easy to dismiss his work at first glance as a commentary on our apocalyptic tendencies but there is a depth to the work that prevents this. Instead, more often than not, Johnson’s ambiguous compositions present the landscape as a monochrome backdrop for the color infusion of human intervention. This even more present in Johnson’s elegiac series. Sawdust Mountain, a photographic essay that looks at the landscape of the Pacific Northwest.
The Pacific Northwest is a landscape imbued with exotic beachfront and trees that predate the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. Huge rivers penetrate volcanic mountain ranges, ancient rainforest and rolling hills that produce some of the finest Pinot Noir in the world. It is also a place of contrasts where the 19th century economy of logging rubs up against 21stcentury ecology. A two hour drive between Portland and the Oregon coast reveals the potent and melancholy reality of hundreds of acres of old growth forest reduced to stumps and scrub. Somehow, Johnson’s photographs — a stack of felled timbers or the lone hawk poised in a tree overlooking its clearcut landscape — manage to convey not just the sorrow of loss but the intricacy of our universal complicity without falling into didactic perdition. Johnson’s gift is to avoid that the idyllic sentimentality that Samuel Beckett extolled, “In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness.” Johnson intuitively, it seems avoids all reference to precision on either side of the debate, whether it nature or man. To expose a precision suggests engineering and that would push the images into metaphysics, diminishing their strength. As Schama says, “landscapes are culture before they are nature” because they are named, witnessed and transformed by us. The comedian Lewis Black has a joke about golfers, that sums this up nicely, and I’m paraphrasing here; “A golfer can be the biggest environmentalist on the planet until he hits his ball behind a tree, then the first thing he thinks about is a chainsaw.” Our view of landscape is forever entangled with our cultural viewpoint, sometimes only in a single moment in time. As environmentalists we can herald Julia Butterflies’ tree-saving exploits while we voraciously consume a plethora of products ensconced in materials that require trees. One could look at Johnson’s photographs and begin to ask is it better to create monoculture tree farms or farm old growth forest? Is there another material that could replace trees? Would that simply deplete a different natural resource? Is it ok to find an image of destruction beautiful?
In this age of hyper change, we grapple with debates about climate change and overpopulation. Like teenagers forced to tell the truth, we now coyly admit responsibility, but assuming stewardship is another matter. We are a species, although unique, born of the same basic molecular material as bears and bees. As with the idea of invasive species and viruses, humans are natural despite our own descriptions of ourselves to the contrary. Poussin’s and Johnson’s reminder to us is that we are not the creators we think we are, nor necessarily the destroyers. Nature has a way of leveling the playing field, as death’s tomb reveals.
In my mind, Johnson’s most potent work is the photo series Animal Holes. Here we have all the great dramas of antiquity and modernity meeting face to face in the simple awareness of holes in the ground. Johnson’s photographs of animal holes provide a matter of fact presentation of something normally overlooked in everyday life. These holes, of course, are all around us, from our own backyards to the park down the block to the deepest wilderness. They become both hidden places of secret nature as well as conceptual points akin to the Beatles asking “how many holes does it take to fill Albert Hall?” In many cases, the surprise of the photographs is how closely they appear to be Andy Goldsworthy sculptures. The fact that Johnson sees animal holes as an aesthetic idea outside of any loaded environmental or conceptual conceit is revelatory and liberating. Animal Holes become a visual haiku.
Which brings me back to the strength of Johnson’s ouevre. The best artists embrace ambiguity while holding a deeper more abiding truth. As artists we all know that any kind of ultimate truth is elusive. Our desire to unravel the world is really more a desire to know ourselves and in so doing, know humanity and connect with it. What makes the eerie photographs of Eirik Johnson so compelling is not in their subject matter per se, but in how he manages to place that subject matter on a razor’s edge between contentiousness and freedom. His photographs suggest there are no easy answers or rectifying promises anymore than the tomb in Poussin’s painting provides solace to the shepherds. We are on this earth and we must make the best of what we inherently have in our genes. The dynamics of human evolution and cultural change up till now has been centered on one word: progress. Do we see the floating logs in the Columbia river or the concrete waste on the Pacific coast in Johnson’s photographs as progress? Is it possible to look at the intersection of humankind and our surroundings objectively given we’re the ones doing the looking? The environmental writer Derrick Jensen puts this another way which exposes the ambiguity, perhaps unintentionally;
In a lot of cases, progress is good for some and bad for others. For the perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust, the technological progress that made possible more efficient ways to kill large numbers of human beings was “good,” or “useful,” or “helpful.” From the perspective of the victims, not so good. For the perpetrators of the United States Holocaust, the development of railroads to move men and machines was “good” and “useful” and “helpful.” From the perspective of the Dakota, Navajo, Hopi, Modoc, Squamish, and others, not so good. From the perspective of bison, prairie dogs, timber wolves, redwoods, Douglas firs, and others, not so good.4
Asking the perpetrators of an act to view their actions after the fact with objectivity and contemplation borders on absurdity. As Jared Diamond has so eloquently portrayed in his novels Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, “History as well as life itself is complicated — neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency.” The photographs of Eirik Johnson persistently remind us of this fact couched in the beauty of a singular experience and discovery.
1 Erwin Panofsky, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition,” in idem., Meaning in the Visual Arts (New York, 1955), 295-320
2 Simon Schama, “Landscape and Memory”, Fontana Press, Harper Collins, (London, 1996), p. 61
3 Erwin Panofsky, “Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition,” in idem., Meaning in the Visual Arts (New York, 1955), p. 307
4 Derrick Jensen, “High on Progress”, http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/5505/