I’m pleased to announce that The New Explorers is now officially on sale (order here and here). This small yet expansive survey of twelve female artists highlights certain changes occurring both in the art world and in the culture at large. I mean to bring attention to artists whose fresh perspectives reveal an abundance of opportunity for discovery in the twenty-first-century landscape and the continuing search for an identity that is uniquely “American.”
In Part I, “Expeditions,” I discuss three photographic projects in the context of the archetypal nineteenth-century male explorer and examine how the legacy of imperialism has shaped American narratives of landscape. The Oldest Living Things in the World is an ongoing work by Rachel Sussman. Following in the tradition of the Western naturalist explorer, Sussman travels all over the world to photograph nonhuman organisms that are more than two thousand years old. Camille Seaman’s The Last Iceberg is a moving series of ethnographic portraits of disappearing icebergs, which chronicles her expeditions into the waters of the Antarctic as a photographer on a Russian icebreaker. For her project Outerland Allison Davies has documented herself for more than a decade as the fictitious explorer of vast empty landscapes throughout the world. Visually, she mines viewers’ understanding of landscape photography and their estrangement from nature as she questions the role of the scientific explorer as a neutral presence.
In Part II, “Archaeologies,” I examine three projects that counter American technological creation stories. Sarah Kanouse’s audio tour America Ponds uses the framework of tourism to get her audience to think more critically about the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in southern Illinois. Cynthia Hooper’s Anthropogenic Aquascapes uses video as a medium to explain complex water delivery systems, visually representing the history of cooperative ownership of land and resources. And design collective smudge studio proposes to (re) design and (re) install markers at nuclear test sites, many of which are on public land and adjacent to or within national forests—spaces commonly misperceived as unmanaged “wilderness.”
Part III of the book, “Surveys,” explores visual representations of women in the contemporary American landscape. Artist Amy Balkin launches a web-based endeavor in which she buys a piece of land and instead of developing it, questions the narrative of America as an ownership society by creating a “counter space” of public access. Suné Woods’s Bountiful Darkness juxtaposes images of women of color with unpopulated landscape images. Woods challenges American preconceptions about whose bodies “belong” in nature and counters the “common sense” notion of rural geography as simply empty space. Linda K. Johnson’s Living on the Line/The View from Here uses her body to represent the expanding boundaries of urban growth in the region as she engages members of the community in dialogues about land use.
In Part IV of the book, “Topographics,” I call attention to performance as an artistic strategy to promote a better understanding of twenty-first-century landscape. In the video Herbert Hoover Dyke, artist Christy Gast physically engages the material landscape—by literally tap-dancing her way across a Florida dike, producing a mesmerizing auditory and visual experience. Amy Stein’s project Domesticated asks the question: In the current moment, which environment is more natural, Yosemite—which is carefully managed and maintained by the National Park Service—or Matamoras, a small borough of Pennsylvania? The section ends with Tide and Current Taxi. By transgressing the fixed boundaries of public and private and expanding cultural parameters to redefine what constitutes nature in American landscape today, Marie Lorenz approaches the reality of polluted industrial landscapes as the new frontier.
The projects in The New Explorers present the topography of everydayness as ripe for cultural examination by a new type of explorer. These artists engage the land and what resides within it. They present fresh approaches to landscape that supersede the classically American ideology and heroics of rugged individualism. As American culture slowly begins to let go of outdated mythologies—such as the fantasy of true nature as pristine and the antidote for the ills of civilization—there is space, as well as a need, to make new cultural meaning.