“The goal of art is not to change things – they are changing themselves all the time anyway. Art’s function is, rather, to show, to make visible the realities that are generally overlooked” (Boris Groys)
Historically, explorers, photographers and artists have been captivated by the mystifying beauty and dramatic landscapes of the American West. From the early 19th century, geological survey teams up to the present day movement of American Land Art, this mythic “West” has been represented as a significant iconic environment. Photographers like William Henry Jackson, Charles Roscoe Savage and George Edward Anderson helped establish a powerful iconography of the seemingly uninhabited Western wilderness. The simultaneous development of technology and transportation and ideology situated both an enthusiasm for photography and western expansion into the social realm just at the moment that the transcontinental railway was completed in 1869. The complicity of photography tied to Manifest Destiny at a moment of expanding mass transportation assisted in the creation of the myths and images of the West. This was an “American West” which has often persisted although its perpetuation is more problematic in light of urbanity, industrialization and military presence in today’s western landscape, as well as contemporary art which has interrogated its hold on the American imaginary.
In recent history, artists have also acted as curators to re-think collections and archives. Their research and production have often resulted in new knowledge through exhibitions and other intellectually accessible presentations. Using what is often called “action research”, artists have scoured collections and archives to produce new insights into traditional iconography to added emphasis and nuance to conventional knowledge.
Historical Echoes is one example. It sets out to explore select some of the holdings of the Harold B. Lee Library and the L. Tom Perry Special Collections with the intent to demystify or expose new considerations through the perspective of photographer Victoria Sambunaris. Sambunaris, who has dedicated 16 years of exploring the American West, revisits specific Utah locations held in the collection: Echo Canyon, Black Rock and Bingham Canyon Copper Mine.
Today with another simultaneous development of technologies, ideologies and artistic impulses, new methodologies from social geographies, spatial studies, and deconstructive studies have emerged in both the artistic and academic realms. They are being used to re-think, re-imagine and re-position historical understandings of the American West – in this case to produce a re-visioned landscape, no longer entirely “sublime”.
Victoria Sambunaris is a landscape photographer based in New York. She studied and taught at Yale University and travels the country by car with her large format camera photographing the impact of industry, culture, and politics in the landscape. Her monograph Taxonomy of a Landscape (Radius Books, 2014), was selected as one of 27 photo books that “defined 2014” by TIME magazine. She is a recipient of the 2010 Aaron Siskind Foundation Individual Photographer’s Fellowship and the 2010 Anonymous Was a Woman Award. Her work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Lannan Foundation.
Victoria’s projects can be seen here: http://victoriasambunaris.com/