A Country Of Mine
UP & CO
New York, New York
“For an undetermined period of time I felt myself cut off from the world, an abstract spectator.”
‑J.L. Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”
The Character in the short story, “The Garden of Forking Paths” by Borges participates in a detective story that occurs in parallel universes. As an abstract spectator of his own fictional mental construction, he discovers a long lost symbolic labyrinth. It turns out to have been “constructed” by his great, great grandfather over a thirteen-year period. Here we asked to consider complex metaphorical situations of infinite continuity, a meditation on the nature of time and family. This short story could be seen as an analogy to the most recent exhibition at UP&CO.
Entitled “ A Country of Mine” and including painting, photography, film and performance documentation, this exhibition features the work of Joe Andoe, Angela Hill, Antonio Longo, Daniel Miller, Uscha Pohl and the group p.t.t.red. Unfortunately, the restricting title may have been a tad euphuistic. It was uncharacteristic of the content of the majority of the work I found on view. To ask to be identified with any place or state of being is tough enough for many of us. To get behind concepts such as “country” and “mine” would seem to be a recipe for disaster. For many Americans of a certain generation, or of a particular class structure, this country of theirs is full of racism, sexism, and a political system that seems to be out of touch with everything but it’s own survival. To many others this country of ours is nothing but what the power-structure imposes upon us. It is an abstract concept, a myth. This country of mine is McDonalds, Coco-Cola, TV and Rock-and-Roll. It’s DUMB. In general, this is the perception of the United States throughout popular culture in many countries.
The exhibition attempts to address issues of place, and of the global change that is happening with the breakdown of the post-war structures, of the DDR and West Germany, the Berlin Wall, and the continual erosion of the British Empire. It is a metaphorical exhibition on the themes of being and change, and the results of those changes, either actual or perceived. The relentless assault on the natural order is touched upon. “A Country of Mine” does address a broadness of poetic imagination, with a few hints of possible spiritual renewal thrown in for good measure.
Antonio Longo, who lives in a small town outside of London, seems to have taken the position of the “abstract spectator.” His black and white photograph of his father is distant and aloof. One cannot help but notice that connections have been severed, at least symbolically. No one is there, not the father or the father’s father. Longo has to witness this, and in an abstract way this is the strength of his work. Longo’s work functions best as a type of conceptual documentation, well removed from the particularities of his sources and surroundings.
Angela Hill, another photographer from Great Britain, portrays a physiological sensibility completely different from Longo. She is best known on this side of the Atlantic for her full-frame portraits of young teenagers. There is a seductive visual strategy at work here, akin to advertising and employing a lot of the same techniques. Hill is able to direct the gaze of both the image she seeks to record and the viewing of the image. Programmatically, there is an effort to control subjectivity which is interesting because Hill is expert at re-routing visually through a filter of mythology. The end result is a kind of timeless impressionistic space.
Uscha Pohl contributed two works in a strict autobiographic context. Nomadic in experience, these works allow a glimpse into her private reflections and past personal experiences. “Plane Glass” is a film and photographic installation that focus on the sensation of returning to a familiar but unresolved situation. The nice thing about this work is its early experimental film quality. The 8mm format contributes a rawness that is absent from the other works in this exhibition. This film loop was shot out the cabin window of a flying plane; we only experience the continuum of descent. The loop is projected upon a photograph of a misty country road that disappears into perspective; the knowledge that this all is intimately connected with the artist’s childhood adds a special poignancy. Another work, Diary of a Traveler” is a curious memento to thoughts, feelings and random musings on travel, coupled with a small diamond painting of a landscape by Joe Andoe.
Andoe also exhibits a large painting of the prototypical symbolic subject, the she-wolf. Andoe’s technique is interesting because he really isn’t painting with brushes, but by the application and removal of layers of oil paint with rags and paper towels. This archeological approach to painting, of unearthing and of removal, is in harmony with the majority of the images he chooses to work with. Andoe, who is from Oklahoma, has been able to access some of the more primal iconography in the classical genre. His paintings of birds, horses and, more recently buffalo and wolves all demonstrate an ongoing concern for the endangered or the disappearing.
The break up of the former Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall were a few of the defining moments of recent post-industrial development. Daniel Miller is able to salvage some compelling images from the crumbling facade of theses areas, enabling one to visualize the dire consequences. I am reminded of the social documentational format practiced in this country through the great depression by Walker Evens, Dorothea Lange, and many others who were able to capture rapidly changing moments of social and political development.
The performance group p.t.t.red (paint the town red) rounds out this exhibition with a selection of images from their performance “Ursa in Orbit/Ursa in Motion”. This performance, either by calculation or happenstance, touched upon deep historic symbolism. Within and beneath the construction of German identity, they were able to uncover dormant mythological areas, which they demonstrate as almost-entertainment. We see the two artists together in these photos dressed in what looks to Americans like Smokey the Bear costumes, minus the hats; typical pop stuff at first glance, but here it gathers resonance. It seems that someone mistook the artists for actual bears, but bears have been absent from Germany for almost a hundred years. The return of this species of wildlife to the Berchtesgaden National Park would be like discovering a woolly mammoth in Yellowstone. Its implication to German national heritage, not to mention prestige throughout the world, would be enormous. Unbelievable as it sounds; the news got around, “Bears have returned to the national forests of Germany”. These artists are famous for this, and even had to take photos of themselves, bear heads in hand, looking over the forest in a Casper David-Friedrich-like pose to prove the truth—“Not in this country!” The Berchtesgaden National Park, like the Rhine, is one of the most symbolic natural spaces in all of Germany. Bavarian folklore claims the Frederick the first (Barbarossa) lies in mystic slumber in this area, soon to awaken, bringing peace and prosperity throughout Germany. Hitler also took refuge high above these forests in Obersalzberg. Evidence has been discovered of prehistoric circumpolar cults of bear worship that extended all the way down into Nuremberg, the heartland of Bavaria. These alters of arranged bear skulls and bones date back 200,000 years to the era of the Neanderthal man and point to ancient preoccupations with this animal. “Ursa in Motion” was the constellation around which the strongest elements of this exhibition revolved.
Newton, New Jersey
First published in Zing Magazine, vol.2 Fall 1998, pg 248-250