This Land Is Not Neutral: Georgina Reskala and Dionne Lee

New Takes

This Land Is Not Neutral: Georgina Reskala and Dionne Lee

By tamara suarez porras April 17, 2019

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency in partnership with c3: initiative, a platform for critical inquiry in Portland, OR. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributors and Art Practical residents are Tamara Suarez Porras and Kelly Kirkland.


Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.1

First proposed by the French philosopher Guy Debord in 1955, psychogeography suggests that urban spaces can be intuitively traversed, in ways that cannot be mapped or measured by conventional systems of knowledge. In order to navigate a space through psychogeography, a participant moves through the world based on how one feels versus what one knows. In taking on this critical framework, this reading suggests that bodies respond to psychic forces that are also impressed upon natural spaces—and that these forces reflect and complicate larger questions around identity. How, for example, might personal memories and collective histories affect intuitive geographical navigation, particularly for a marginalized body?

Georgina Reskala and Dionne Lee photograph landscapes of what lies beyond the visible. Both artists consider how bodies affectively orient themselves when confronted with embedded histories and memories in space. Eschewing the awe-inducing spectacle of certain traditional landscape images, Reskala’s and Lee’s photographs reveal often unsettling and unsettled imaginaries and critical thinking about how the act of relating to land and site can be restorative.

Georgina Reskala. #041218, 2017; gelatin silver print; 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Georgina Reskala’s photographs explore the uncertainty and mutability of memory. For a series of gelatin silver prints, the artist folds the photographic paper prior to exposure, distorting seascapes into mercurial and kaleidoscopic forms. The ocean in #041218 (2017), for example, appears crushed, a jarring rupture in the otherwise ordinary image. Reskala’s seascapes are not the calm waters of a windless day; instead, they suggest physical disruption caused by raging waves of an internal storm. In Untitled #180707 (2019), a grid of fifty-four 5-by-7-inch prints, Reskala’s hand molds the seascape to almost unrecognizable abstraction. The grid is interrupted by a cropped photograph depicting an embrace, with the heads of two figures barely visible in the composition. Reskala’s photo-sculptural methods aim to make physical the emotional effects of traversing a landscape laden with memory and history. A long walk on a beach depicted in a Reskala photograph is not a picturesque, contemplative stroll; it’s a frenetic course through memory that tugs the body through impossible, almost cubistic dimensions.

Georgina Reskala. Untitled #180707, 2019; 54 gelatin silver prints; 5 x 7 inches, each. Courtesy of the Artist.

Reskala often reuses images across different works, a manifestation of the cyclical quality of both memory and daily routine. Untitled #18572844 (2019) and Untitled #152392 (2016), for example, depict a fence-post-lined trail with a large, silhouetted tree in the foreground. This trail, reminiscent of one that might be revisited on regular walks, seems electrified; it vibrates with allusions that this spot holds more than it reveals, something beyond its surface. The artist’s slight camera shake produces an unstable, resonating blur while shadows obscure the image, evoking a haunting quality. In Untitled #152392, this scene is digitally printed onto a large piece of linen that drapes on a wall and cascades to the floor. The wrinkled surface of the textile adds a sculptural quality to the two-dimensional image. Unraveling threads suggest a simultaneously destructive and deconstructive mark while embroidery throughout the work both enhances and obscures the composition. In Untitled #18572844, the photograph is rendered as a grid of six 16-by-20-inch gelatin silver prints. The grid is prominent; its seams are visible, as edges of the paper curl outward. In this piece, Reskala addresses the fragmentary, elusive nature of memory. Some prints within the grid are heavily scratched, which suggests gestures at once of redaction and of reaching, as if attempts to return to sites of memory only obfuscate its traces.

Dionne Lee’s work is grounded in racialized sociopolitical narratives interwoven within the American landscape, which deeply affect one’s relationship to nature. The natural world, she writes, is “traditionally presented as a refuge, a space of peak contentment and peace…[at the same time that it is] also a place of violence and alienation.”2 Her work asks: How might Black bodies move and be moved through a landscape imbued with centuries of generational trauma? What cognitive dissonances exist in trying to find solace in nature as a Black person, in a place where colonial and systemic violence and exclusion coexist with the restorative splendors of mountain, sky, and sea? The dualities and layers within Lee’s work affirm that, as a Black person, the gesture of orienting oneself in the American landscape (and indeed being enlivened and restored) is an act of resistance, reassertion, and reclamation.

Dionne Lee. A Test for Forty Acres, 2016; archival inkjet print; 8 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Lee’s A Test for Forty Acres (2016) employs Mylar emergency blankets to plot a section of a wooded field: a formidably rippling silver square extends over the soft grass of a hillside. The gesture, an ephemeral intervention into the landscape, is a reference to the 1865 proclamation, Special Field Order 15, which decreed that former slaves would be granted land “of not more than forty acres of tillable ground” as reparations for the crimes of slavery; it called for four hundred thousand acres of land along the southern East Coast to be redistributed among a local population of eighteen thousand Black people.3 This failed legacy of land promise as a step toward restorative justice underscores not just the historical economic necessity of land ownership but also the psychic one.

A Test for Forty Acres alludes to the layered significances of the Field Order. First, to the expansiveness of forty acres: the “test” component of this work indicates that the blankets laid out do not equal that size, which would exceed the bounds of this photograph; to own land is to establish a foothold in the American economy. Second, to the affective impact of having space: Mylar blankets often provide sanctuary and warmth after exertion or exposure; here, they serve as a mode of gently holding the land and its ancestry; to call land one’s own is to belong. Third, to ephemerality and failed promises: the order was overturned within the year by President Andrew Jackson. A Test for Forty Acres reminds us that the natural world is not neutral, not without laws and histories that acutely affect the orientation of Black bodies. Lee writes that when she is in wilderness, she is “haunted by a ghost of sorts.”4

Cairns are human-laid piles of stones that act as markers and monuments within a landscape. They declare position, passage, and presence. Lee creates variants of the cairn in a triptych of black-and-white contact prints, reforming what is left behind in the American landscape by its many ancestors. Cairns (2018) begins with an image of a traditional trail marker: a precarious stack of thin, irregular stones. In the second photograph, the artist’s fists grasp thin twigs, held at an intersection: an X marking a spot. In the third, a tarp loosely hangs with white rope over soil, suggesting an anthropomorphized and spectral presence. The American landscape is laden with psychogeographic cairns that mark the violent histories of slavery, white supremacy, and racism. Yet it can be a space to reclaim, one in which to take the solace that it proffers. The cairn in Slow Build (2019), held by the shadow of Lee’s hand, has a wraithlike quality that is heightened by the dense greys of darkroom solarization. It is at once tender—the artist holds the land as kin—and haunting. These works visualize intangible yet palpable presences through the form of the cairn, a metaphoric guidepost that has more to tell than the immediately visible.

Notes

  1. Guy Debord, "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography," in Situationist International Anthology, ed. Ken Knapp (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), 5–8.
  2. Dionne Lee, artist statement.
  3. Though credited to General William Tecumseh Sherman, the stipulations within the field order emerged from a meeting with local Black leaders, during which they determined the fundamental necessity of land allocation as reparation.
  4. Lee.

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