CAM exhibit surveys the terrain of surveillance

dmenconi@newsobserver.comOctober 19, 2013 

  • Details

    What: “Surveying the Terrain”

    Where: Contemporary Art Museum, 409 W. Martin St., Raleigh

    When: Through Jan. 13, 2014

    Hours: 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. weekdays except Tuesday (when the museum is closed); noon-5 p.m. weekends

    Cost: $5; free for members, children 10 and under, active military and N.C. State College of Design students, faculty and staff

    Info: 919-513-0946 or camraleigh.org

— Few art exhibits are as timely and of the moment as “Surveying the Terrain,” which opened at Raleigh’s Contemporary Art Museum this month.

With public unease over government spying in the air following recent revelations about the National Security Agency collecting records of Americans’ personal communications, a show of high-tech found-art objects featuring works based on surveillance technology is perfectly timed – and it all came together in about six months.

“The museum’s original plan was to show artists who use map imagery in their work, which I felt had been done repeatedly over the last 20 years,” said Dan Solomon, an artist and collector from Dana Point, Calif., who curated the show. “So I thought of a different slant, of artists using mapping technology and issues relating to aspects of mapping and surveillance in creating their works.”

The very first work Solomon selected was Maya Lin’s “Blue Lake Pass,” which converts a topographical map from a satellite photo into a three-dimensional landscape of cut wooden particle boards that viewers can walk through and imagine themselves becoming part of the surveilled landscape. That led to further ruminations about satellites as well as images available via Google Earth and Google Street View, which figure prominently in some of the show’s most intriguing pieces.

For his series “A New American Picture,” California artist Doug Rickard culled Google Street View pictures of some of America’s worst slums, taking photographs of his computer screen to make them look even grittier. Matthew Jensen’s more ethereal “49 States” features Google Street View photographs of scenes from every state except Hawaii, with a flash of sunlight serving as a recurring element in each picture. And neither artist had to leave home to do it.

“Matthew visited 49 states from his apartment, and I found that idea interesting,” Solomon said, “As opposed to the past, when Robert Frank needed a Guggenheim fellowship and two years of traveling to create ‘The Americans.’ Matthew has a great quote about the common motif of a solar-flare sunburst in each picture: ‘Just as the sun used to touch everything, Google touches everything now.’”

“Eighteen Pumpjacks” was another work Solomon picked early on, and it takes up almost an entire wall of CAM’s main gallery. British artist Mishka Henner assembled it from satellite photos of oil fields in Texas, California and Kansas, and the stark landscape appealed to Henner’s outsider sensibility – all the more because he has yet to see a pumpjack in person, only from afar.

“America’s landscape is this incredible thing that tells you all sorts of things about the country, culture and industry,” Henner said. “The relationship between art and society is interesting, especially in America. The expressionist artists were doing works about their inner landscapes, their own energy and dynamism. Compare that to the American landscape and the relationship seems so strong, you wonder if the artists are projecting their inner experiences without even knowing it.”

On the wall opposite “Eighteen Pumpjacks” are four aerial photographs that are more colorful and more disturbing. Taken by California photographer David Maisel as part of his “Black Maps” series, they show the environmentally catastrophic after-effects of mining operations in bright shades of color. Maisel himself calls the feeling they trigger the “apocalyptic sublime.”

“A sense of both sublime beauty and horror comes through,” Maisel said. “These pictures look at environmental sites that are the end cycle of how we use and misuse landscape by turning the earth into something we can mine. We’re destroying the environment, which we’re doing to ourselves as well. That gives the images almost a sci-fi aspect. They don’t seem like they could exist on Earth as we know it.”

Environmental degradation also figures into another work by Lin, “What Is Missing?” – a video loop highlighting species driven into extinction by human activity. And the most moving work in the show is Alfredo Jaar’s “Lament of the Images,” which ties together ideas about imprisonment, blindness and censorship with a surprising twist.

Not everything in “Surveying the Terrain” is heavy. Clement Valla’s “Postcards From Google Earth” warp roads and bridges relative to the terrain they occupy with humorous results (and visitors are even allowed to take one of the cards for free). But the overall tone is quite serious, especially Trevor Paglen’s long-distance photographs of military installations and drones – reminders that Big Brother is always watching, now more than ever.

“I began to see that all these artists are showing us places we normally would not see, from interesting perspectives that make us look more closely and think about what is going on,” Solomon said. “Like Trevor taking pictures of restricted military bases from 65 miles away. That makes you think about these places that are off-limits. With the found-art pieces, many might say they’re someone else’s image. But I think the conceptual basis is fascinating, the way the artists think about things.

“I didn’t want to come up with answers, just raise issues and get people thinking,” Solomon concluded. “Technology has been an incredible benefit to create these magnificent works. But it comes at a cost.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/onthebeat

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