saint mary university art gallery’s fall season opened with a dazzling show by halifax photographer, lorraine field. having returned to nova scotia after five years spent living in istanbul, field showed work set in canada, turkey, texas and the middle east.
field uses a swing-lens panoramic camera that enables her to photograph a wide swathe of landscape without distortion. as importantly, many of the pictures in the show are double-exposures, allowing field to layer one image over another, as in the illuminated petrographs 2001-2003, or to perform and catch movement in front of the camera such as the blurred, dancing figure that appears in the body/field: temporal inscriptions 2005-2006. later work, running, 2007-2008 and call and response, 2006-2008, relies on the doubling that occurs with formal similarities in landscape, such as the diptych of the artist lying in the deserts by the border of syria and iraq, and the border of texas and mexico. both are contested places; both lie close to oil-fields that signify much of the world’s current conflict. these layerings and doublings highlight the complexity of field’s presence in all three locations, as a european immigrant (albeit of several generations) to canada, as a canadian resident in turkey, and as a blonde woman ‘of uncertain age’ in the middle east.
then there is the other voice within the work. it is the voice of the landscape itself, various, certainly, in the geographic range shown in the work, but constant in its iteration of the eternal presence of earth and sky. even though the vital context of field’s work is the politics of the wars over oil, and the discontinuity and upheaval that accompanies immigration, her invocation of the light of the sky, the weight of the earth, and the horizon that lies between them is, for this viewer, an inescapable presence in the work that provides the setting of the endless time belonging to earth and sky for the ephemeral life of humanity.
the illuminated petrographs are made with a literal layering of one culture upon another. field projects images of european and asian porcelain onto the canadian landscape. in one such image a massive granite boulder on the nova scotian shore is layered over with a detail of the elaborate gold arabesques of a royal crown derby dish. all of the photographs contrast the vast complexity of the land, with the desire for order or distillation that characterises most human picture-making. these ceramic details are a reminder of the home immigrants left, and the way in which human endeavour reduces the chaos of the unknown. but these pictures also show the other side of immigration, that of intrusion and forced removals. the delicately coloured ceramic images glaze the scene of far more disturbing pictures – land that was colonised, fought over and in some cases destroyed. i am reminded of the expression ‘to varnish the truth’.
in all of the refined and elegant photographs that make up the illuminated petrographs, the landscape is a perpetual presence, although less the individual geographies -- the west coast’s lush rain-forest, the scrub of norrthern ontario – as the pale beauty of the sky at dawn or dusk, and the weight of stone, sand, or water. i found myself increasingly engaged by the edges of the pictures, looking to the horizon.
field’s subsequent large body of work, the body/field: temporal inscriptions directly addresses the question of our relationship to the landscape. she writes, “these images articulate a desire to witness and state what may seem obvious, that we have passed here, not as smart bombs or massive dam projects, but as one person with a foot in contact with the earth at a specific moment in time.” the photographs are made with the swing-lens camera; the photographer appears as a blurred figure animating a landscape whose very stones seem pregnant with mythology. a blurred, draped figure, the photographer herself, seems to invoke powerful, female gods, able to set the earth trembling as in tomb, (turkey), 2007, or swooping in an arc of brightest green from beneath an ancient stone bridge (bridge, (greece), 2006). organic as these figures feel in relation to the landscape, there is a sense in this work of the artificiality of performance. my understanding of the work -- deities animating an ancient land -- comes from the traveller, the armchair traveller, one who knows a place through myth-making rather than lived experience.
the desire to speak of lived experience in relation to place is articulated most strongly in a later series, running. here the wars of oil, land and religion in the middle east and in which europe and north america are deeply invested is the urgent, unstated context for the work. each of the six pictures includes a figure in a landscape. in all but the last, running, syria, 2008, the figure is running away from the camera toward a barrier of some sort. in texas, a trousered woman runs toward a range of mountains, in arabia it is a low hill that blocks the horizon of a black-robed, stumbling figure. jerusalem is bounded by what appears to be a boarded-up building, dubai by a glittering city. only in syria does the figure, the photographer, run toward us, and only in syria is there no obstacle to the distant horizon. the pictorial elements that lucidly describe the time and place in which the picture is made – the massive black lorry that could be carrying oil, ammunition, or food, the stone shacks, the battered sign that points to baghdad and damascus – are in the foreground of the picture. behind and beyond this scene is the expanse of the syrian desert. the softest rose-gold, it stretches farther, farther, and farther away. beyond sight it dissolves into insubstantial mountains that melt imperceptibly into a tender pink sky. it signifies the stretch of time that people have lived in this place, and its eternal presence beyond us. in this picture, there is no vanishing point, no end point. the photographer, her gray-blonde hair gleaming in the light of early morning runs toward the viewer, but looking back. she could be our experience of time itself, set in the endless, eternal depth of the land.
field’s work is richly complex. for this viewer, her most poetic moments are those in which she describes, with subtlety and tact, the abrasive correspondences between one culture and another – syria and texas, or england and canada – while setting these human moments within the greater context of the rising and setting sun, and the earth where it all unfolds.
published in ‘c magazine’, winter, 2009