Yutaka Sone, Renaissance Society, and Timothy O’Sullivan, Smart Museum University of Chicago, Winter, 2006
Last winter, the University of Chicago was being landscaped, not physically but through the work of Yutaka Sone at the Renaissance Society and Timothy O’Sullivan at the Smart Museum. The two artists both deal in issues pertinent to their times -- O’Sullivan with presenting the western territory of the United States to a new nineteenth century audience that needed evidence of its existence, and Sone with presenting a landscape to a public oversaturated with it, seemingly no longer inspired to either wonderment or horror, in need of imaginative transportation somewhere else.
Sone and O’Sullivan could not be more different. O’Sullivan was a virtually self-taught Irish immigrant, employed by the government to survey the western territory with the help of his associate William Bell. He was pragmatic, straightforward, and was noted for his painstaking, chiseled images of the American landscape. O’Sullivan’s photos are not charming, they are brutal. Simply laying a scene in front of us without guile, his landscapes don’t glorify or deify the land or its people. Sone, on the other hand, is noted for his quirky imagination and constructed scenarios: he had friends record scenes from buses in foreign cities in an exasperated attempt to live their experiences, he made futile bikes that can never be ridden, and he positioned ficus trees in sand with marble copies of the display in close proximity. Sone’s worlds rely heavily on the postmodern reflexivity principle, the need for an artist to self-consciously expose their created worlds as myths rather than reality.
So what could Sone say to O’Sullivan and vise versa, more than a century apart? There seems to be a strange connection for it hardly felt jarring to walk from the Smart Museum to the Renaissance Society. In fact, one does not even want to do the obvious -- to move Sone’s work into the white, modernist spaces of the Smart, and in turn, take O’Sullivan into the cramped confines of the Renaissance Society’s revivalist classroom building. The artists seem at home where they are presented and also communicate with each other.
The answer lies in landscape, in what landscape means and how it functions, the critique of both landscape as a picture to be composed and as a space to be navigated. In both exhibitions, in different cultural contexts and for different reasons, the idea of the picturesque is played down and abandoned in favor of something else. For O’Sullivan, the end of the picturesque comes by simply presenting the facts. For Sone, the picturesque is opened up into a livable environment and then critiqued by the very materials that are used in its construction.
When O’Sullivan made most of his photographs, roughly 1863 to 1885, little was known about the western territory of the United States. When he was asked by the U.S. government to do a geographic survey of the fortieth parallel, O’Sullivan had little need for his imagination – the scenes in front of him were grand enough, rough enough, and spectacular enough to be interesting. O’Sullivan did not need to make a painting or to compose spiritually weighted scenes like Ansel Adams would later do of the west. O’Sullivan simply needed to record. Furthermore, that was the constraints of the U.S. survey; it was what O’Sullivan was being paid to do.
For this reason, the work most cited in discussions of O’Sullivan is the Inscription Rock, 1873 which was in the Smart show. The photo shows an old Spanish inscription, but more importantly shows a ruler, a measure that could be recognized, nature and the west was brought down to a recognizable size.
It was true that O’Sullivan was looking for pictures, looking for scenes to present, but what separates him from photographers like Adams and Eadward Muybridge is that his scenes do not register like paintings, they are not composed to have symbolic and cultural weight. One needs only look to Adams’ highly aestheticized and polished Inscription Rock, 1948, a reprise of O’Sullivan’s photo, to see how truly different O’Sullivan’s work can be. The notion of culture controlling and dominating a landscape is met with disbelief by O’Sullivan. Instead he espouses another nineteenth century approach to landscape, the idea of keeping nature wild.
There are reasons why this nineteenth century duality between the control of a culture over landscape and nature’s inherent wildness is downplayed in the work of contemporary art. One reason is simple: every moment, more and more of the globe is apparently conquered -- in a world of strip farming and growing tourism, the earth does not stand a chance. The other reason is offered in theory: in our increasing control, we use nature, not according to its inherent moral structure and essence, but according to the pre-established social mechanisms that guide how we use it. These two facts pervade Sone’s exhibition. After all, this man once proposed to wrap the surface of the moon in Astroturf.
Sone’s idea of landscape aims at showing that landscape is no longer something given but something we create for ourselves. Sone, unlike O’Sullivan, does not have the benefit of wonder to enhance the reception of his work. We’ve seen snow before, we’ve been skiing. There is no way his installation could strike us like O’Sullivan’s west must of struck someone living in cramped late nineteenth century New York. The whole project rightly has a store window feel. Expect to find such an installation in Macys littered with toys and punctuated with electric buzzing. We look at Sone’s landscapes and know it is created. Sone takes over the Renaissance Society’s space with snow and pine trees. The trees are real. The snow is made of plastic shavings and Styrofoam. Laid out in a meandering fashion, the gallery goer simply wanders around the forest, occasionally running into a badly made painting, an expertly carved block of marble, a bunched up pile of paper, or a gaudy snowman. The result is spectacle. Inside the installation, one forgets that one is in a university, that you climbed stairs to get a space inside a classroom building, that Renaissance Society could ever be hot in the summertime.
Just like O’Sullivan presents the brutal truth of landscape to escape asethetisized, apparently spiritual sense of landscapes presented by the romantics, Sone seems to take our current received symbols of a spiritual landscape and thwart its power through exaggeration. Sone knows that landscapes can have a powerful effect, and it does not escape him that a snow covered hill or meadow can carry a sort of sublime rejuvenation for people, that snow can become a sort of spiritual site. The spiritual comes with all of the symbols and icons that are typically taken as spiritual around the world – the short exhibition essay talks about the cultural significance of the snowflake, its boundless variation suggesting an intelligent design. Sone presents this snowflake while at the same time enhancing of the Renaissance Society’s space as is the fashion in Japanese gardens or in Shinto Shrines, where the nuance of nature is meant to be constantly promoted by the constructions of man, latching a person in with the rhythms of life.
However, Sone’s spirituality is purposely flimsy and transparent. In a world driven by the desire of the dollar and mired in a pervading cynicism over the power of symbols in the arts, the snow and the snowflake quickly become weak, easily commodified institutions. The multiplication and marketable quality of the snowflake and the winter landscape suggest kitschy or low brow attempts at spirituality. Sone’s glass snowflakes register like enlarged versions of grandmother’s dated paperweights. The landscape becomes one for skiing and resorts. The beautiful and the sublime become simply “pretty.”
All of this is presented through reflections on the self-critical nature of postmodern thinking. We are not allowed to simply exist in Sone’s landscape, being shaped by it or allowed to be present in its confines. The landscape is never at any moment something other than contrived. Sone’s installation is a sculpture in the expanded field; we walk around in it, we are part of a situation and environment instead of being placed before it like in a photograph or a in a painting. We are constantly confronted with sculptures, drawings, and paintings of vastly ranging quality that give the installation a hand worked, constructed nature. In this respect, it takes on the feel of being temporary. Nature, to Sone, is a world shaped, enhanced, and twisted according how society has designed itself to view it.
So the University of Chicago presents us with two great landscape artists, both equally against any notion of the picturesque, both grounded in separate systems of critique. Both subvert romantic notions of landscape but do so in different ways. O’Sullivan’s critique is less conscious. He is the documenter, the surveyor. He shows us the brutal nature of the west and asks us to look, not to be inspired but to simply know it. Sone’s critique is pointed and cynical. He presents an initially beautiful world that we can walk around in wonder, and slowly over the course of the installation, we start to notice that the world is more and more constructed.