New American landscapes

by Grace Linden
Reviews / Exhibition • 04.02.2019

The exhibition This Land at Pier 24, San Francisco, takes its title from Woody Guthrie’s song ‘This Land Is Your Land’ (1940), which was written as a critical response to Irving Berlin’s ‘God Bless America’, and which has since become an alternative national anthem. Guthrie’s lyrics allude to long-simmering doubt and the impossibility of the American dream, and the ways in which such a faith can fail so many. The original lyrics included verses much bleaker than the version taught in schools: 

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the Relief Office I saw my people — 
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me. 

Guthrie’s vista was the American landscape before the Second World War, and the artists presented in This Land, a mix of emergent and established photographers, consider the same subject across eighteen galleries more than half a century later. With the exception of the first, introductory gallery, each room is given over to a single artist or to two artists working collaboratively. Taken together, they present a vision of the United States as unstable and capacious, both in terms of the terrain but also as a symbol of the nation’s people. Indeed, This Land asks visitors if it is possible to distinguish between topography and the metaphoric ideal of America.

Anxiety is a palpable undercurrent throughout this exhibition, suggesting not simply that the centre of this current America will not hold but rather that it has already started to crumble. Guillermo Galindo and Richard Misrach’s scenes from the Mexican border FIG. 1 and Paolo Pellegrin’s photographs of white police presence within African American communities speak to a volatile politics FIG. 2. Galindo and Misrach’s image depicting a single L-shaped wall standing within a vast landscape appears farcical, while centrally framed images of discarded rubbish and personal belongings at the border represent the very real toll incurred through these crossings. Only so much can be carried across, and that which is left behind must be quickly discarded. Pellegrin’s series Heat of the Night instead focuses on a single community; it weaves together the populations of Rochester NY, Miami and Milwaukee, by picturing them within a narrative of police apathy and civilian incredulity.

These two examples attest to widespread instability, but all the photographs exhibited look to local contexts. Community, in its manifold forms, is central to This Land, and its expression or lack thereof ties together most of the displays. Alec Soth’s black-and-white series Songbook is a narrative exploration of a community’s connectivity. His subjects go to church, dance at the high school prom, and eat dinner at restaurants, experiences that could be occurring simultaneously throughout the United States. Whether he is photographing a Jewish family walking along a road on Shabbat FIG. 3, or a lone man searching the cemetery’s grounds, Soth gives his subjects the space to swell proudly into existence. This empathy is mirrored in Ed and Deanna Templeton’s energised record of Southern California’s suburban neighbourhoods FIG. 4. While not exactly in conflict with the external uncertainty, by going about their daily lives, these people seem further enmeshed within the land, here a lattice of paved streets. Most of the people are simply going about their daily routines, but life takes place outdoors in the shared space of the neighbourhood. In Huntington Beach (girls on ride at fair), two girls gleefully spin around a parking lot ride, and teenagers loaf around in Orange County Fair (sitting girls); even the furniture is outside, for sale at flea markets and garage sales.

Of course, in an exhibition entitled This Land the dramatic topography of the United States must be represented, and the show is a meditation on the terrestrial in all its variations: striated cliffs, ochre fields, the Appalachian Mountains and a slew of urban forests. In viewing the exhibition, however, it is difficult not to reflect upon the Trump administration’s short-sighted attack on the environment, from the rollback of clean water rules to withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Moreover, at the time of writing this review, the United States was in the midst of a government shutdown that furloughed around 16,000 employees at national parks, resulting in untold damage to these ecosystems. Land, for this administration, is at best an afterthought and at worst a resource to be plundered.

Scenes of human construction and intervention evince various forms of pervasive violence: abandonment, in Bruce Gilden’s foreclosed properties FIG. 5, waste, in Brian Ulrich’s disused shopping malls FIG. 6, and excessive consumption, in Daniel Postaer’s chronicle of San Francisco’s rapid growth FIG. 7. So often the conception of violence is tied up with immediacy and force, but, as Rob Nixon has argued, we must confront environmental violence that is neither ‘spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries’.1 While the earth may someday reconquer these sites, incisions with gross and permanent consequences have been made nonetheless.

In many ways, slowness is the theme of This Land, and these photographs show the ebb and erosion of human time. Exhibitions at Pier 24 tend be structured around loose propositions: past shows have pondered portraiture, appropriation and a sense of place. In the case of This Land there is no cohesive thesis or even much of an argument at all. The show is not uneven but rather voluminous, each gallery its own disjointed vision. Almost anywhere else, the lack of specific and identifiable links would be a serious shortcoming but here, looking and experiencing these images mirrors the effect humans have on the land. The photographs penetrate gradually but profoundly and ask to be considered slowly; long after the current version of the United States disintegrates, this land will remain.


This Land

Pier 24, San Francisco

1st June 2018–31st March 2019

About the author

Grace Linden is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of York.