by Maria Porges
Photographer Michael Light’s images convey the big picture: expansive views of landscape that can only be seen from the kind of aerial distance that reveals secrets invisible on the ground. Planetary Landscape, a survey of nearly 20 years of the artist’s projects, presents a selection of works that convey, through both archivally sourced images and Light’s own photographs, some related and recurring themes. These include mapping, the sublime, the impossibility of comprehending the vast breadth of geologic time, and—perhaps, most consistently — the impact of human activity on the landscape of the West.
In Light’s first book, Full Moon, many of these themes coalesce in familiar, even iconic images, taken from NASA’s vast archives of the Apollo missions. By scanning negatives and transparencies originally shot by astronauts as part of their geological survey, Light was able to create pictures whose eerie sharpness and brilliance is startling, even after repeated viewing. Ten square prints from the series, hung in two rows of five, resemble nothing so much as the storyboard for a movie. Though they were shot on multiple missions, they appear to narrate a single trip, from launch to reentry.
In 100 Suns (2003), selections from which are presented here in a dense cloud-like formation, Light selected military pictures documenting America’s nuclear bomb tests between 1945 and 1962. They’re supplemented here by Light’s own documentation at Bikini and Enetewak Atolls, along with a mesmerizing video loop (Black Bravo, 2003/2016) shot by the artist while scuba diving in a crater. It features a meandering shark and a lot of ocean-floor debris punctuated by the effervescent flow of bubbles from Light’s respirator. In both the video and the atoll photos, the tonal relationships are reversed– meaning, black and white trade places, a conceit Light employed to visually represent radiation and suggest multiple sources of light or energy. For much of the nearly five-minute video, the camera points straight up at the sun, its dark stain, both amorphous and ominous, intermittently obscured by the rising bubbles. It’s hard to look away.
The remainder of the show is given over mainly to the American West. Many of these large-scale images, which Light shot from a self-piloted small plane or a rented helicopter, show the changes of the Anthropocene: our present geological period, in which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment. An image of an inconceivably vast copper mine in Utah and a vertigo-inducing grid of nine photographs of oil derricks near
Taft in southern California are particularly compelling, as are pictures of housing developments in Arizona’s Paradise Valley and in Nevada. Lake Las Vegas: Terraforming “The Falls At Lake Las Vegas,” Northern River Mountains, Henderson, Nevada (2011) shows a jaw-dropping view of the extensive terraforming that precedes construction, in which whole mountainsides are carved into terraces. In Great Rift/Snake River/Shoshone Falls: Houses on the Edge of the Snake River Lava Plain, Canyon View Road Looking North, Jerome, Idaho (2009), mansions built by potato barons are dwarfed by the mammoth scale of the steep cliff, cut by the river along the Great Rift. Perched at the edge of a cultivated and domesticated plateau, these homes– with their commanding views of the river and the wilds beyond– could stand as textbook example of the perils of Manifest Destiny.
Other pictures seem to make this same point by suggesting a relationship between human and geologic activity. An astonishing photograph of the Meteor Crater near Winslow in Arizona created 50,000 years ago makes an interesting companion for a large-format (59 x 74-inch) picture of the MIKE crater made by a 10.4 megaton bomb in 1952, now just a declivity below the ocean’s surface best viewed from the air. A picture of a burned pine forest and ancient volcanic flow in Mono Basin — mostly white, with tiny marks of black—is paired with one of Los Angeles at night: deep black, with trails and pinpricks of white light emanating from buildings and automobiles.
Perhaps it is the sheer immensity of these subjects that draws Light to them — these giant holes, created by bomb, excavation, meteor or volcano; these almost-limitless vistas. But there is always a reason for his choices, a story to tell. As he explained to Lawrence Wechsler in a 2010 interview: “I love idyllic places and the kind of suspension of history they offer. But noble beauty is not enough these days. One must complicate the picture, because there’s now nowhere to “escape” to on the planet in pursuit of a hermetic pastoralism or a redemptive wilderness sublime. Earth is now a human park.”
Between the front and back galleries, two of the gigantic photo books that Light has published over the past several years are propped up on special stands. With white gloves, visitors can slowly page through 18 aerial views of Los Angeles, shot in 2016, and 19 of Paradise Valley, made in Arizona in 2008. Unfolding these stories by turning the pages back and forth allows you to unpack the real breadth and meaning of Light’s work. So does the interactive light screen found in the foyer where the show begins and ends. There, all of Light’s books and series can be accessed. Tap on one of several small images and you can swipe your way through hundreds. It is worth taking the time to engage with the work in this way because it brings alive not only Light’s ecstatic pleasure in flying over land or water, city or open space and the miracle of capturing what he sees, but also the conscience and curiosity that drive his explorations.
Light grew up with a keen awareness of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, and later, the 1975 New Topographics exhibition and its transformation of what pictures of “nature” encompass. In the decades that followed, it became difficult for any artist addressing this subject to completely transcend those legacies (or the presence of contemporary figures like Edward Burtynsky and David Maisel). Light’s grid of nine pictures of Taft oil derricks, for example, seems to be a bit of an “in” joke — a deliberate evocation of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s grids of industrial buildings.
By shooting from an aerial perspective, Light has created his own point of view, but also a problem engendered by the very distances from which he shoots. There are virtually no people in any of these pictures — only the effects of their presence. The unremittingly vast scale and emptiness of one image after another — the bleakness of their beauty — brings about a kind of scopic fatigue.
Still, two astonishing images that hang in the vestibule suggest that Light has opened up a new line of inquiry. When, in honor of its 45th anniversary, the Palo Alto Art Center commissioned Light to make a work, he was initially intimidated by the significance of the site (Silicon Valley) and the consequences of all that has taken place there. What he discovered walking around the city this past spring was its trees, which he described as “great sentinels of time and space and patience that symbolically balance the speed, planned obsolescence, and profound
disruption of digital software and hardware.” Finding one of the city’s most venerable oaks in nearby Rinconada Park, he set about photographing it with a remotely-operated drone. Eight hundred fifty images fed into data visualization software resulted in a machine-created vision. A cloud of shining, undulating forms, silhouetted against a dark background, reveals itself to be that tree, seen from above in one image and from the side in the other. Both are sheer magic: skeins of light describing the shapes of branches and leaves as cobwebs or jellyfish — microorganisms or nebulae from some distant galaxy.
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Michael Light: “Planetary Landscape @ Palo Alto Art Center through August 27, 2017.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.