Extraterritorial Landscaping

Lynette Smith, A bewilderment, Gallery 3, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, 4 August – 17 September, 2017

Lynette Smith’s five-channel video A bewilderment on display at Centre for Contemporary Photography balances between presence and absence. In spite of its representational qualities ‘it is not really a picture of a particular place but rather the sign of a condition, or a state’.(1) Hovering above the floor the three-minute video installation appears to be stripped not only of spatial but also of temporal location. Smith’s work conjures the (un)familiar feeling of being somewhere yet belonging nowhere. It stirs and steers our emotions towards constant wandering (wondering) while leaving us bewildered somewhere along the way, lingering in the limbo of human condition.

Foreign Land

The images that make up the body of the video were taken in Nida, Lithuania, over the course of a residency at Nida Art Colony in the winter of 2016. A small fishing town and a local summer resort, Nida is located on the Curonian Spit—a sand-dune peninsula, 98 kilometres long and 4 kilometres wide—which is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The main characteristic of the Curonian Spit is the ever-changing sand dunes which, throughout the land’s existence, have been constantly threatened by the natural forces of wind and waves. Its only savior is purposeful human presence. Today this presence is small with eight modest settlements and, during autumn, winter and most of spring, barely felt at all.(2) For most of the year, the Curonian Spit is barren. Time stands still. Always there yet never-the-same, the relentless wind and tide sculpt it each and every day.

Extraterritorial Landscaping

The place represented in Smith’s work is in many respects extraterritorial as the Curonian Spit just happens to be one of those nooks and crannies that Edward Colless talks about—but even more so because it offers that “prospect of immunity, asylum and temporary autonomy”.(3)Yet what is interesting in Smith’s case is that the agency of the subject is not inscribed on the territory and the landscape in question. The aggressive potential of extraterritorialization—appropriation, assimilation and naturalization—never materializes in A bewilderment.(4)

This becomes more apparent when compared to an artwork with similar representational qualities, which also addresses a particular landscape. You Belong to Me is an ongoing project started in 2014 by Lithuanian contemporary artist Geiste Kincinaityte. By juxtaposing the Martian landscapes captured by the robotic eye with her own photographs, the author initiates a dialogue between digital and analogue imagery, contrasting their origin of their different realities. The principal objective of the project is to analyse the mesmeric extraterrestrial images and prompt the viewer to perceive the distant and unfamiliar as close and recognisable. The work reveals the importance and the role of photography in claiming and occupying a territory, body, or planet.(5)

Both Curonian and Martian landscapes seem free of human presence. Both are documented by a series of snapshots joined conceptually and address the question of origin and place. However, the character of these two works are markedly different. In You Belong to Me the predatory approach towards territory before anything is encoded in its title whereas in A bewilderment it is absent altogether. The landscape that Smith portrays is free-standing, autonomous, unyielding, unlike Kincinaityte’s where it sits as a defenseless victim awaiting its planetary dissection. Ironically the distance between the subject and the landscape in Smith’s work feels much greater than the one in Kincinaityte’s Martian chronicle even though the physical distance between the two places in question is close to 400 million kilometres.(6)

Something That Does Not Exist Anymore

Smith’s work does not perform an appropriation. This place, acted upon, inhabited, but also weirdly autonomous resists that act. Rather than representing and reinstituting the artist’s presence in the landscape it seems to do the opposite.(7) The work shows the ever-growing absence of the subject that once inhabited it.

The only marker of her presence in the place, on the other hand, is language. The silent words that appear on the video screen speak about the artist taking a walk through a wintry Nida landscape. The narrative is driven by the words rather than the images. The language is connected to the landscape it is describing i.e. one sees and reads hollow, while at the same time being disembodied. For example, the artist lies on the ground (arms outstretched / mouth open / coat open) but does not leave a footprint on it unlike the dog whose footsteps she is following. Then again we don’t get to see the dog, its footsteps or any traces of it ever being there. In the end, we can only trust the words.

The language that the artist uses is scarce. Words short and small appear on the middle screen by fits and starts. This motion of words and images appearing and disappearing creates an uneven syncopic rhyme and rhythm. Their scarcity and simplicity leaves one thinking that once, perhaps, there was more said in this story. That over the course of time language gradually eroded leaving gaps in the narrative. Perhaps that same wind and tide took a toll on it, rubbed it away, just like it did with the ridges of the dunes. The energy stemming from the place is translated not only into a visual but into a linguistic form.

Language has its limitations though. The sound of words is replaced by the sound of the Curonian Spit that the artist recorded while she was in-situ. It is the voice of the wind and not that of the artist that is heard in A bewilderment. It is as if though during the meeting of the two, the artist and the landscape, the latter imposed its will over the former. Going back to an earlier comparison between A bewilderment and You Belong to Me it seems extraordinary how in this case it is the landscape that potentially claims and occupies the body of the subject. And instead of the subject’s predatory gaze the subject herself might be the prey.

In A bewilderment we see a representation of something that doesn't exist anymore.(8) In the most direct sense it means the Curonian Spit. The landscape’s lack of stability makes it hard to grasp and its representation becomes somewhat conditional—one moment it is there the other it’s gone. A dune never stands still. This is also true about the work: a visual sequence made up of quickening images invokes a sense of fragility and fleeting temporality. The image stays for a brief moment and then it slips away.

However, after a few loops of the video one gets a feeling that that something has more to do with the absence of the subject (artist/narrator) than the object (landscape). The landscape portrayed by the artist is like a reminder of the presence that was once felt in that space but is gone now. As though the author was sending a postcard to herself which reads: I am here from a long-gone time and space, in such a way trying to recreate her image in the present. It never reaches its destination, though, instead it gets caught up in a state of perpetual absence.

Phantom Asylums

Zooming out the origin of a residency can be seen as extraterritorial in its own right. As a foreign artist residing for a few months in a distant country and working in an alien cultural landscape it could be said that Smith was offered ‘immunity, asylum and temporary autonomy’ by an art institution.

Its promise of immunity and autonomy is deceptive. Apart from facilitating the making of new art (world) products and stimulating cultural exchange, the residency also silently performs its art political duties by providing a site for networking and the mining of symbolic capital. On the surface an asylum, a residency is often a battleground on which an emerging artist’s career prospects might depend. Getting into this asylum is challenging as open calls are often marked by fierce competition.

The institution allows an artist to form a temporary relationship with her surroundings but gives no guarantee that it will be a long one—again, the state of being present and absent at the same time. In the end, the artist today more than ever is a nomad, wandering from one place to another, being everywhere yet belonging nowhere. A residency is an oasis in her travels and the cost of stay is always calculated on the current (cultural) exchange rate.

A bewilderment wears this origin lightly. It is light. It comes from wandering. Smith wanders without a sense of appropriation or even a desire to know or connect or achieve ‘site-specificity’—that favoured concept of the residency circuit. She returns with a souvenir, rather than spoils. Place, time and subject stay nameless throughout the process and as a result cover the work with the air of impersonality. Yet A bewilderment is a subtle and personal work of art that engages with the viewer on many levels. It tells of a place and time that was once but is no more, but more than anything it questions our being, here and now.

Writer’s note:

For the record I did take a walk with Lynette Smith in Nida in 2016. We didn’t see any dogs.
 

(1) Lynette Smith, A bewilderment exhibition statement, http://www.ccp.org.au/exhibitions.php?f=Gallery_3

(2) UNESCO website, http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/994

(3) Edward Colless, x-it, Art + Australia, Issue One, 2017, (53.2): Extraterritoriality, p. 6.

(4) The fierce nature of Colless’s editorial, particularly its vocabulary, makes it comparable to a manifesto.

(5) Geiste Kincinaityte, You Belong to Me project statement, http://cargocollective.com/YBTM. I use italics here to point out the language used by the artists that is compatible with the idea of extraterritoriality being fierce.

(6) NASA website, https://www.nasa.gov/topics/journeytomars/index.html

(7) ‘Landscape’ here denotes what is represented and not the form of representation. Smith herself expressed the notion of creating ‘anti-landscapes’ as part of her practice.

(8) Lynette Smith, A bewilderment exhibition statement.
 

 

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Lynette Smith, A bewilderment, 2017, 5-channel video with sound, full arc 10.5 metres.

Christian Capurro

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Lynette Smith, A bewilderment, 2017, 5-channel video with sound, full arc 10.5 metres.

Christian Capurro

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Lynette Smith, A bewilderment, 2017. Still image courtesy the artist.

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Lynette Smith, A bewilderment, 2017. Still image courtesy the artist.

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Geiste M Kincinaityte, You Belong to Me, 2014. Giclée print, 70 x 90 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

You Belong to Me_Geiste M Kincinaityte_Image credits-NASA_JPL-Caltech.jpg

Geiste M Kincinaityte, You Belong to Me, 2014. Giclée print, 70 x 90 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

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Geiste M Kincinaityte, You Belong to Me, 2014. Giclée print, 70 x 90 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

You Belong to Me_Geiste M Kincinaityte_4.jpg

Geiste M Kincinaityte, You Belong to Me, 2014. Giclée print, 70 x 90 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

Paulius Andriuškevičius is an art curator and writer from Vilnius, Lithuania. Over the course of his career he has worked in and for art institutions such as Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice), Venice Biennale, RUPERT Art and Education Centre (Vilnius), National Gallery of Art (Vilnius). His texts on art appeared in Lithuanian and English press. Paulius is currently based in Melbourne.