A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Susan Sontag
My recent photographic series Roadside Memorials focused on grief and loss expressed through personal shrines created for loved ones killed on the road. It was while working on this series that I also came across many other victims, the dead animals that in some places almost festooned some roads. With the passing of time has come the ceaseless expansion of roads, of their scope, capacity and use. In parallel, wild life habitat has sometimes been reduced to small corridors of natural forest or bush where the daily routines of native fauna have become more dangerous. Roadsides also attract animals because of the drainage ditches, freshly slashed vegetation and food scraps thrown from cars. Dead wildlife also becomes a food source attracting others and reinforcing hazards.
About three years ago I began to collect images of roadkill, photographing the animals as they were on the road; sometimes flattened, sometimes reshaped in their moment of death. In their stillness I could look at them unhurried, observing closely their size, form, patterns and beauty (or what was left of it). These stark circumstances gave me the opportunity to closely examine a wild animal in contrast to trying to observe a distant or fast moving one. Being dead, their appearance often surprised me, leading me to question their identity and behaviour.
With my images I have sought to create a death mask (akin to those used for identification during the 18th and 19th centuries) to record the characteristics and distortions of the animals as in a true portrait. Accordingly, I have isolated the animal from the distracting complexity of the road surface in the original photograph. The image is also enlarged so that the animal’s presence becomes overpowering and cannot be overlooked. Imagining the suffering and loss of these animals saddened me. Several times I witnessed that one of a pair had been killed and its mate was still lurking, puzzled by the accident, returning to the dead body, touching it but not understanding what had happened.
People create roadside memorials to express their grief and perhaps also communicate their sorrow to a wider public than they could with a conventional grave. Handwritten notes and personal belongings that symbolize the deceased are carefully positioned on site. The majority of these memorials also show a photograph of the deceased. The photograph plays a crucial role: it makes the deceased a non-interchangeable character and brings them back to life by showing us their face.
My roadkill portraits function in a similar way. They are witness to the animal’s existence and death and make them part of our life. Absence is reversed to presence.
Facing ongoing changes in our environment and a growing population with further demands on shrinking habitats, one wonders how long we will be surrounded by these animals - will they soon be history? Some might argue that the presence of roadkill is a positive indication of the existence of animals. Their very presence means that there are animals around and adequate environmental quality to support them. If there were no roadkill, what would that say about our environment?
My photographs are a place for safekeeping. They keep the visual mementos available and alive, confronting us with loss. Memory is coagulated and preserved in the images that refer to the animal itself, representative of nature and its vulnerability. Photography not only stabilizes our memory but also refreshes memory. It freezes time and helps us to both observe with precision, and look back. It builds a link between the past and the present, the living and the dead, us and our environment.
What is it to see signs of life in the non-living? How do we explain the experience of sensing something ineffably life-like in a thing that is not alive?
To sharpen one’s focus on the life of things is to begin to unravel a complex layering of lives.
To begin this unravelling; the first layering of life in things is more like a coating, a varnish. What we often see first in the things around us is the power that we as humans hold over these things. This is the power of humans to use things, to change things, and ultimately reconceptualise things as tools, to help us eat, to work and to play. The evolutionary progression of modern humankind has been a product of our utilisation of things: from the factory machine, to the car, to the computer. When we see things, machines especially, we firstly see this history. Projected onto things is humankind’s historical life – the life of humanity as bent and shaped by the use of things.
The second layering, closely related to the first, is the layer of the thing as a life-generating machine. This layer dwells in the gritty materiality of the thing, in its surface, its texture and thickness. It is the dead matter of the thing that allows us to characterise ourselves as alive. We see ourselves in a world of objects from which we stand aloof as more-than-objects, as not-objects. When we look at a thing we look as though into a mirror – the living as the product of the non-living. This is the thing as an anthropological machine.
But finally, and if we look carefully, we can sometimes see that there is always a form of life in the thing itself. This is the life that is hardest to explain. It is the life that appears to shake and shimmer in the thing, that communicates itself through a subtle movement or a faltering gesture of the thing – a movement or gesture that seems to pulse with something that reminds us of, but is not, human life. This is the real, and poetic, life of the thing. Perhaps what we are seeing at this moment is a visible shadow of the unseen movements of microscopic molecules and atoms that dance and self-replicate at the heart of all matter – a life that goes beyond the merely human, but is perhaps even more fundamental.
The thing that Laura Woodward most often works with is metal. Almost all metals are made up not of a hard singular surface, but of an array of tiny crystal-like grains, which jostle with each other to form a structured lattice. The series of interfaces formed and negotiated by these crystals, and the free-roaming atoms that escape the layering structure of the crystals is what gives metals their varied properties. This is known as the ‘polychrystalline’ nature of metal.
With intelligent grace, Woodward negotiates the polychrystalline properties of her things, and with careful hands folds and unfolds the polychrystalline layering of lives that these things always bear with them.
During 2009 we had the opportunity to spend time in the Japanese landscape as guests of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial. Echigo was an important experience with numerous and lasting outcomes. It brought into focus questions many contemporary artists are struggling with in relation to production and reception of artworks. One of the most important aspects of the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial was the engagement with the surrounding rural communities and the real life issues brought about by great social, economic and not least, environmental changes.
These are universal question across the world: agricultural communities are losing the youth to the big cities and employment; agriculture is being taken over by new industrial methods of cultivation. Difficult and less productive land areas will have to be abandoned and returned to nature, but is this possible? Satoyama suggests not, the landscape having been carved and shaped, the rivers manipulated and harnessed for a couple of centuries. It is impossible to let go now as the results would be catastrophic: mountains will slide into the rivers; the remains of the soil will be colonised by the most vigorous ferns, bamboo, morning glory and numerous other invasive plants observed by Rizkalla and Davies during their stay. These would form impenetrable barriers to the access of large areas of land.
Letting go would inevitably bring the demise of many villages and the loss of significant aspects of Japanese culture.
Rizkalla and Davies interest is not specifically the Japanese countryside but the highly cultivated landscapes in both western and eastern traditions that have been manipulated into an ideal either for aesthetics or for agricultural production.
For this exhibition the fusing of objects and photographic images as installed at Place Gallery brings together the idea of ‘Satoyama’, an exploration of the relationship between humans and nature. The microcosm of the bonsai underlines human intervention and the shaping of the countryside.
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