by Mark Van Proyen
This exhibition includes seven of Richard Mosse’s photographic prints from his latest series, Ultra. All are large, but none so large as to be Jeff Wall/Andreas Gursky-sized. Part of what makes them seem that way is the deceptive smallness of their biomorphic subjects, those being night-blooming species of vegetation common to the jungle canopy ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest. Using a variety of complex, ultra-sophisticated lighting effects, Mosse creates a kind of cinematic zoom effect that condenses several superimposed exposures of various plants, capturing them as they slowly open up to the night air, as if releasing bioluminescent energy directly into the camera. Sometimes, they seem covered in a reflective coppery dust that appears to be natural lichen, as is the case with Dionaea muscipula with Mantodea. At other times, as with Acinta superba (I + II), they are suffused in what some people might consider to be a lurid green-violet coloration. In at least four of these works, the plants start showing themselves to be more than vaguely anthropomorphic, bringing them into the orbit of photographic Surrealism, or so it would seem. But maybe they are doing something that is the opposite of photographic Surrealism, which makes them look surreal only because of how utterly commonplace photo-based Surrealism has become.
“The mainstream of photographic activity has shown that a Surrealist manipulation or theatricalization of the real is unnecessary, if not actually redundant,” wrote Susan Sontag in her famous essay from 1973 titled Melancholy Objects, which point out that the absorption of Surrealist photography into the manufactured stylizations of everyday media representation made it something quite the opposite of the kind of “marvelous” practice that Andre Breton imagined that all things surreal would inevitably become. This point was confirmed by the rise of Pop and post-Pop esthetics, which turned every visible object into a kind of anthropological relic of itself and the world, proposing a new reality of sign systems displacing the older reality of nature. The rise of new technologies of visual display and production further confirmed this paradoxical march of naturalizing the artificial, subordinating it to the march of technological and financial determinism, setting the stage for the crisis of representation that comes when a conventionalized absurdity suddenly fails to have the power to ward off everyday anxiety.
Mosse is best remembered for The Enclave, his exhibition in the Ireland Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennial, which I would say was the single most memorable presentation in any of the national pavilions that I have seen among my ten forays to that event. For that reason, I have tried to follow his career, and have come up with a few relevant facts, one being that he splits his time between New York, Berlin and Dublin, and the other being that he received his MFA in Photography from the Yale School of Art in 2008. The Venice exhibition was a collection of large color photographs and a six-screen video projection focusing on the front-line battlefields of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, showing the ravages of jungle combat in a ghoulish pink-magenta hue that was made possible by the use of Viet Nam-era thermographic film stock and a camera technique that made it appear as if the photographer were floating ghost-like above the subjects. Here, it’s worth remembering that at the time, the optimism of the early Obama years was in full flower, and the drawdown from the Iraq war was well underway, and thus, Mosse’s powerful exploration of the terrifying misery and depredations of another far-off war was unsettling, especially since that war went virtually unreported in the international news media. Given some hindsight and the current state of world anxiety, it now seems that Mosse’s Venice presentation was an alarmingly prophetic collection of imagistic canaries cast into the
soon-to-be-historical mineshaft, one that was an all-too-real rebuke to a comfortably unreal artworld that would afford us a glimpse of the rising tide of mendacity that would engulf the globe just a few years later.
Much has changed in the past six years, and Mosse’s Ultra works again seem far ahead of a new curve, even as the world has sadly caught up to the dispiriting vision of the earlier Enclave project. His recent forays into the Amazonian jungle do not seem to be an accident; instead, they seem to be informed by the desire to find a healing alternative to the pandemic insanity of the post-2014, post-Brexit world. I cannot tell if the plants that he photographs are, in fact, medicinal (there are a great many such plants in the region), but he treats them as if they are, implying that their living energies can open up new pathways of non-destructive consciousness. I would go so far as to say that Mosse’s new work should be taken to be a proposed cure for the agonies of spirit so dramatically reflected in his earlier projects. The shamanistic healers of the Amazon region learn their trade by undertaking extended diets with certain "master plants" to make themselves more amenable to what they believe to be telepathic messages that those plants convey, with specific plants conferring specific powers to those initiated. The most well known of these medicinal plants is Ayahuasca, a potent neurological purgative as well as a powerful entheogen that functions as a catalyst and amplifier for many other plant medicines, giving it the status of a deity. At the risk of going out on a limb (or a vine), I would suggest that Mosse’s new photographs can be taken as visual representations of what it might be like to receive and be enlivened by plant-based telepathic communication. Certainly, their stunningly
electric colorations can be seen to invite such comparisons. But if I am wrong, they can still be seen as starkly affirmative departures from the radical melancholia of his earlier work, that melancholia being part and parcel to the one that Sontag ascribed to Surrealist photographs and photography itself, in part because of the way that they can technologically reveal a linkage between visual energy, health and sanity that is otherwise invisible to the naked eye.
In a separate room from where the seven Ultra works are located, there are some older grey-scale images from a 2017 series titled Heat Maps, which seem to follow up on the earlier Enclave project. Two of these are horizontal panoramas showing the dehumanizing living conditions of refugees (near Athens and in Lebanon), and their icy cold tonality represents an extreme, almost crystalline contrast from the Amazon rainforest. Five smaller images are stills from a film titled Incoming, which will be shown at the SFMOMA throughout from October 26 to February 17, 2020. Judging from the stills, digitally printed on metallic paper, the film will be a stunning reflection of the refugee crisis that is ongoing in Europe.
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About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.