The Eye is a Door
Recently, I went to see "The Eye is a Door," an exhibit of photographs by Ann Whiston Spirn at the Smith College Museum of Art. This brilliant photographer is also a professor of landscape architecture and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of several books on the language of landscapes. Her work is stunning. Her photographs conveyed a sense of place so complete that I felt I was occupying the environment with her. I was inspired by her invitation to hear the stories behind the images, and to compose stories of my own, stories that seemed as natural as the ecological processes captured by her work.
“Certain moments of color one may never see again.”
This simple statement of a painful reality is part of Spirn’s narrative accompanying “ The Shadow of the Earth,” a series of photographs that starts the exhibit. The blunt truth of this statement needs no further elaboration, which doesn’t mean I won’t attempt one. It is part of what makes the heart leap at the sight of profound beauty, a visceral feeling of wanting to grab and capture a moment of color, of balance, of light, of movement, before it leaves your awareness forever. In this moment, everything changes. You will never have the experience for the first time again. And this principle applies to greater changes still, profound moments in your life, both joyful and heartbreaking, moments that will serve as orienting fixtures, against which you measure “before” and “after.” These moments, too, are saturated with sensory detail, which, no matter how powerful, are failed by memory. It reminds me of an exhibit I saw at the Mass MoCA in 2008, Spencer Finch’s “Trying to Remember the Color of Jackie Kennedy’s Pillbox Hat,” which is based on Finch’s memories of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Finch’s exhibit consisted of 100 pastels, each depicting an oval in varying shades of pink. Finch can’t completely remember the color of Jackie’s hat, and each time he tries, he produces something cooler, or warmer, or richer, or lighter. Memory just doesn’t deliver.
Spirn reminds us that art is not meant to capture a moment. Art tells a story. In text accompanying the exhibit, Sprirn invites her viewers to build this narrative, asking, “What story does the landscape tell? What can the connections and patterns you’ve discovered tell you about the history and life of this place? What parts of the story do you still wonder about?” Even Finch’s work, described above, while less representational than a classic landscape, tells a story, in this case, one about the failure of memory. Perhaps ironically, given my use of Finch’s work as an example, the stories we tell when we experience art are utterly informed by our memory. Every time I see Wim Wenders’ great movie Wings of Desire/ Dear Himmel Über Berlin, a different part of the story becomes more important to me. For instance, the first time I saw it, I was moved by details capturing the simple joy of existence, the second time by the love story, the next time by the story of war and wall torn Berlin. My reaction to Wender’s movie reflects my position on my own life narrative, which is shaped by the memories I have collected and then selected to understand myself in the world. This is true for our interaction with anything beautiful or expressive that has meaning to us.
Our interaction with art is shaped both by our immediate reaction to the beauty and truth of the work, and by the passing of time in our lives. Spirn’s exhibit reflects this process writ large, as she notices small, fleeting details of patterns, anomalies, color, and light, while documenting the gradual processes of nature. One photograph in particular demonstrates interaction. It is a photograph of a barn in Sweden. The simple composition of the photograph is exemplary of many in the exhibit: wide bands of color and texture arranged with perfect balance. In this case, the photo features horizontals band of green grass and a rust red roof, with three vertical bands between them; the dark brown barn door in the middle, framed by two stone walls. The text accompanying this photograph explains: “The granite stones that form the walls of this barn in southern Sweden were transported hundreds of miles by a glacier long ago – the different colors and textures make it possible to identify the part of northern Sweden or Norway where they originated.” I thought about the length of the stones’ journey, both in time and distance traveled, as the glaciers slowly withdrew from the landscape, and the people of Sweden who gathered these stones, their origins and development. I saw them building the stone wall. The story of this barn spans millions of years. We arrange and understand millennia as we arrange and understand our lives: through the stories we tell.
With all these thoughts, there was the simple experience of Spirn’s exhibit that I can’t go without mentioning. While I was spending time at the museum taking in these photographs, I noticed a conflict between thinking about the photographs, taking notes about the photographs, assigning meaning to the photographs (which is both a conscious and unconscious process), and just being with the photographs. Because as much as I think about the passage of time, and the failure of memory, and the stories we tell, there is still that moment of color. There is still the way the heart fails when you interact with beauty. The beauty of Spirn’s photographs delivered this moment, the heart failing before comfortably resting in her visions of landscapes.