Saturday, May 12, 2007

Handheld Landscape at AKA Gallery

Handheld Landscape
Toni Hafkenscheid and Tim Van Wijk
March 30 to May 5, 2007 - AKA Gallery, Saskatoon

I first saw Toni Hafkenscheid’s photographs at the Aperture Foundation in New York. I suppose my reaction to them was similar to that of most people--an assumption that the photographs were of scale miniatures, followed by the realization that his subjects are actual landscapes (as actual as any photographed subject is), manipulated visually.

Hafkenscheid’s work, featured at AKA Gallery alongside Tim Van Wijk’s mechanical Landscape Generator, is less a practice of photography of or about something external than it is about photography itself. As viewers, we go through the aforementioned stages of assumption and realization a number of times. While looking at these photos, I found myself wondering why we first read his subjects as miniatures; his distortions are not the product of narrow depth-of-field, but rather the product of a particular type of lens (this is why there is a band of focused image through the middle of each piece, with blurriness radiating from it regardless of how close to or far from the camera a given object in the frame would have been).

Compounding the photography-as-subject tendency in these works is the fact that viewers, observed during my time in the space, were discussing the success of a given photo relative to another based on formal qualities and the quality of the illusion generated by Hafkenscheid’s process. That is, if there arose a claim about which of the images was “better” than another, it was supported by evidence including the difference in blurriness between the middle and the side of the photograph, or of the discernability of the people pictured, or of the way the saturation of the image made the objects look plastic. In other words, typical photo-aesthetic analysis--concerning light sources, composition, dispersion and proportion of colours, etc.--was not applied to these photographs by viewers. I suspect this is not due to a lack of knowledge (AKA shares space, and audience, with PAVED Arts, and both institutions have a photo-savvy core audience) but is instead a result of the clear intentionality of Hafkenscheid’s work; because he has not entirely fooled us, we are interested in discussing how he was able to come so close.

Hafkenscheid has given these works what seem to be deliberately inane titles (Motel, for instance, or Train Trestle--both of which are pictured here), and I suspect this is to further the focus of these works as a technical one rather than one based on content or subject matter. I suspect the artist could continue to produce these images indefinitely, although I’m less sure of whether that would be a good idea or not--such photographs would likely be as successful as their earlier iterations, but would also not contribute anything new to the dialogue.

Tim Van Wijk’s Landscape Generator, on the other hand, is designed and built to be functionally transparent. The work is a large machine composed of a series of axles, wheels and cogs made of painted wood; it has a hand crank protruding from its back and as a viewer turns the crank the gears are set in motion. These gears in turn cause circular sections of landscape--visible from the front of the machine--to rotate at different speeds, creating a pseudo-illusion of passing in front of things at various distances from one’s eyes. This is assuming, of course, that one has a friend willing to crank the machine for him or her. But the large trees in front move more quickly than the smaller trees in back, and faster still than the mountains behind those; this is all viewed in motion through a white sheet in a gold frame with a windshield-wiper arc-shape cut out of it.

I use the term pseudo-illusion because there is no attempt made by Van Wijk to deceive, even briefly, his viewers. This machine is theatrical in a way that Hafkenscheid’s photographs are not--it requires physical interaction and produces a certain awkward illusion of depth, but it does so in a way that introduces one to the means of illusion before the illusion itself can occur. We are asked, therefore, to suspend disbelief from our first encounter with the work, and this is fortunate. Otherwise, we may wonder why a single tire could fit around several trees, or why we seem to be looking out the front windshield of a vehicle when the landscape is moving sideways.

As for the combination of these works, to emphasize landscape seems at first to be a grasping at a connection between two very different practices which both happen to image landscapes; I don’t believe that any of this work is really about landscape as content. Rather, the two practices employ the imagery of landscape to interrogate, from opposing approaches, the nature of illusion and our willingness to participate in the acceptance--or generation, or perpetuation--of the illusions that surround us, whether those are environmental, social, utilitarian, or purely visual. However the decision in both cases to explore illusion while imaging landscape suggests--potentially--a cultural trend that is responding to the possibility of ecological disaster. "One day," the thesis could go, "all landscape will be illusory."


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