The Tall Tales of Jonas Becker

Notes from the Field

Notes from Montalvo

The Tall Tales of Jonas Becker

By Vivian Sming August 17, 2017

A series in collaboration with community partners.

A series developed in collaboration with Lucas Artist Residency Program at Montalvo Center for the Arts.


On a hot summer evening, I visited soon-to-be Chicago-basedartist Jonas Becker on one of the final days of his residency at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California. I nervously drove up to the top of a very steep hill and breathed a sigh of relief upon arriving at Becker’s studio, which overlooks the surrounding redwoods. For the past month, he has worked and lived here with his dog Booger, continuing a body of work that has been several years in the making. The series, titled Same Rock (2015–present), takes a variety of formal and tonal approaches—from quiet and subdued sculptures to videos narrated with a sense of corporate optimism. Despite the range in materials and voice, at the project’s center are the beliefs, perceptions, and values of the Appalachian landscape that surround West Virginia, where Becker is originally from. This strategy of producing what Becker calls a “cacophony of visual languages” reveals how authenticity is constructed and shapes our understanding of truth.

Jonas Becker. Same Rock, 2017; installation view, Actual Size, Los Angeles. Courtesy of the artist and Actual Size. Photo: Brica Wilcox 

In Same Rock, Becker reflects upon the history and geography of Helvetia, a census-designated town in West Virginia that is known as “Little Switzerland.” Founded in the mid-1800s, the area was marketed specifically to Swiss immigrants through creative advertising that suggested the region’s similarity to the Swiss Alps. While the Swiss Alps are iconic for its majestic peaks that lure explorers and adventurers, the mountains of Helvetia have become heavily damaged through decades of mining and milling. This conflict between a landscape of leisure and a landscape of economy is represented in the multi-media piece Mountain is a Mountain (2015-present). Becker projects the two mountain ranges onto a horizontally severed rock—on top, the snowy angular peaks of the Swiss Alps, and on the bottom, an inverted image of the forested rolling ridges of Helvetia. The piece includes an audio narrative with various individuals describing what they think a mountain looks like. Becker solicits multiple voices in attempt to locate a universal understanding of a mountain. With descriptions such as “reassuringly brutal” and “white snow drifts across the top,” Mountain is a Mountain reveals how the Swiss Alps specifically have formed the archetypal mountain in the Western cultural imagination.

Jonas Becker. Mountain is a Mountain, 2015-present; single channel HD video with sound projected onto rock; approximately 10:00. Courtesy of the artist.

Becker further explores the tension between reality and myth in relationship to the Appalachian environment in the video Holographic Mountain (2017), showing a mountaintop removal (MTR) mining site in Helvetia. MTR is a method of coal mining that involves blasting the top of mountains to retrieve its minerals, thereby leveling the mountain. This decapitation process has an enormous impact on the health of nearby rivers, forests, and residents.2 It also has an enormous impact on how the mountains are seen and experienced. Here, the mountain is not a refuge or a place for leisurely subliminal exploration. The flattened peaks are surrounded by barren and dry deforestation and filled with the noises of construction. The federal requirements of MTR are such that after a company is finished mining, they are obligated to restore the area with something of “an equal or better economic or public use.”3 While it sounds promising, in practicality, companies have maneuvered around the requisite by planting a weak field of grass, delaying the completion date of a project, or in one case, proposing the construction of a prison.4

In Holographic Mountain, the leveled mining site is layered with a disappearing and reappearing translucent image of the Matterhorn. The video proposes the reclamation of the mountain by projecting a hologram of the Swiss Alps onto the decimated sites. A voiceover describes this proposal in an uncomfortably emotionless tone, while presenting it as a utopic solution for Helvetia’s residents. The narrators suggest: “The Holographic Mountain Project will not only unify the geographies and heritage of Helvetia and the Swiss Alps, a place of neutral, serene tranquility, but also introduce new nodes in the structure of tourism.” In another moment, the narrator brings contemporary context to the proposal, producing the sense of a believable outcome in the nearing future: “In order to understand the impact, recall Coachella 2012: an immaculately chiseled Tupac appeared on stage, 16 years after he was fatally shot in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. That is the kind of magic the Holographic Mountain Project will create.” Becker explains that he researched presidential writings (particularly that of George W. Bush), paying close attention to how contradictions and historical connections are embedded into scripts. By virtually producing its iconic peaks, Holographic Mountain fulfills the role of the Swiss Alps that the region’s initial immigrants were promised.

Jonas Becker. Holographic Mountain, 2017; digital video; 2:45. Courtesy of the artist.

On Becker’s studio walls are pieces he is currently working on for a solo exhibition at Actual Size in Los Angeles. Three-dimensional topographical maps of popular mountain ranges, including Lake Tahoe and Aspen, are spray painted in white to match the white paint of the walls, removing all distinct characteristics of each region. Minimal and quiet, the series, titled Untitled Topographies (2016-present), withdraws from Appalachia’s specificity to engage in a broader imagination surrounding the idea of a mountain. On Becker’s desk sits a sketch of an unrealized public-engagement sculpture, which is most likely unfeasible. The piece commemorates the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster of 1931, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of workers died from silicosis, a lung disease, during the mining and consequential inhaling of silica while constructing a tunnel in West Virginia. The exact number of deaths attributed to the mining incident is unclear, as many workers resigned and departed at different times due to illness. Becker’s sketch proposes a public glass-blowing happening, in which a large glass mountain is formed with as many breaths as lives lost.

Becker’s work bridges urban and rural communities and the polarized understandings of landscape—how it is used, experienced, and valued. As a born and bred Californian, I admittedly have given West Virginia little if any passing thought. I don’t have enough knowledge of either its cultural or natural landscape to understand the depth of experiences and concerns the state and its residents face. This lack of understanding undoubtedly has contributed to the larger divide between rural and urban America. Becker’s work offers a bridge, creating a connection through a foundation based on basic human emotions. As Becker and I talk about what it was like growing up in West Virginia, he speaks of a longing for its culture of creating relationships through music and storytelling, rather than political ideology. Storytelling, particularly through tall tales, holds a long tradition in the region.

Jonas Becker. Untitled Topographies - Poconos, Pennsylvania, 2016-present; paint on molded plastic and metal; 32 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Brica Wilcox

Tall tales are exaggerated, partially untrue, accounts that are told as truth. They are a part of West Virginian culture—so much so that the state even hosts an annual Liars Contest, in which storytellers are judged on their delivery, confidence, story development, and originality.5 In a 2006 NPR interview, five-time champion of the Liars Contest, Bil Lepp, talks about the importance of creating stories and using humor to overlook and cope with the hardships faced in the state. He jokes, “If you lie good enough and long enough, eventually the government will hire you.”6 While probably funny at the time, Lepp’s joke is now jarring in the context of the lies being put forth by the current administration.

It might only be incidental that Trump won by the largest margin in the state of West Virginia during the 2016 election, which so dramatically changed the fabric of America, further dividing rural and urban sentiment. West Virginia was also one out of two states where Trump won in every single county. Just weeks ago, Trump revisited his base to deliver a speech to the Boy Scouts convening in Jamboree, West Virginia. In his now virally shared speech, Trump conveys a story in which the details and facts are both disputable and have changed over time.7 After all, the importance of a tall tale is not in its truth but in its outcome.

Jonas Becker. Thank G-d for Mississippi:  Sliding Rock, WV, 2009; FujiFlex Digital C-Print; 55 x 44 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Becker describes his introduction to photography through thinking of the medium as a tall tale. Historically, photography has been understood as a representation of truth, but as Becker suggests, it requires a set up to convey a story. The photographic series Thank G-d for Mississippi (2009) uses the medium’s narrative malleability and is one of Becker’s earliest works focusing on the Appalachian region. As a state, West Virginia faces harsh socioeconomic conditions, falling at the very bottom in areas concerning poverty, healthcare, and education—often ranked 49th in the United States.8 The title Thank G-d for Mississippi, Becker tells me, alludes to the fact that Mississippi is ranked at 50th. It’s an adage that reflects the sentiment that things could be worse, reflecting the dark humor expressed in West Virginia and how hardships are coped through language. The series consists of eight large photographs—each at approximately four by five feet—depicting oceans, cliffs, rocky waterbeds, and other sites in the state of West Virginia where people are known to jump—often, to meet their fate. Becker captures these locations by hanging a camera from a boom to retrieve the perspective one would get after having jumped. Their scale enhances the photographs’ askew composition and creates a bodily sense of vertigo. Thank G-d for Mississippi is one of Becker’s early attempts to complicate landscape, revealing that environments are never neutral and hold individual consequences.

Professional liar Lepp has stated that it is important that liars be able to tell apart fact from fiction. Liars need to know when they are telling a lie. By choosing to work in a variety of forms with disparate voices, Becker follows a similar outlook. The “cacophony of visual languages” in Becker’s work allows for the “tallness” of the tale to be demonstrated, revealing the construction of the tale through his relentless investigation into universal human beliefs, hopes, and fears—how they are both shaping and shaped by nature and culture.

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