Joyce Campbell - reviewed
On the Last Afternoon: Disrupted Ecologies and the Work of Joyce Campbell
Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, curated by John C. Welchman
27 July – 20 October 2019
Reviewed by Connie Brown for PhotoForum, September 2019
What is it like to walk through a forest? For Walt Whitman, the American poet, it is “solitary, ancient, grim,” sprawling “hither and yon,” with “no two places, hardly any two hours, anywhere, exactly alike.” The forest pulsates and flickers; it soars and shrinks; it replicates and mutates. It reconciles irreconcilable gestures, patterns, processes and sensations. Mostly, what one notices when walking through a forest is that it just never stops.
Photography, on the other hand, is all about stopping. Galleries, similarly, favour pause, interlude and delay. On the Last Afternoon: Disrupted Ecologies and the Work of Joyce Campbell grants its visitors a rare, suspended moment with the forest through the work of New Zealand-born interdisciplinary artist Joyce Campbell. Curated by John C. Welchman and hosted in the towering canopy of the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, On the Last Afternoon surveys Campbell’s twenty-year career, a career that has doubled as a rigorous theoretical inquest into ecological mutilation and collapse. But whether the forest and its distress emerges, or can ever emerge, in this suspended form is a pressing question—both to ask of this exhibition, and of today’s environmental art more generally.
Campbell was raised in Wairoa on the North Island’s east coast. Her home town and its surrounding landscapes feature extensively in her work, as do the deserts of Southern California, where she lived for ten years, and those of Antarctica, where she completed a residency in 2006.
Ghost Scrub (2018) is a 16mm film work, and the first encountered upon entering the space. Shadowy tendrils of kānuka and mānuka bush in the Hawkes Bay’s Ruakituri Valley are cast across the Adam’s main feature wall in a three-channel projection, animated by a wandering, first-person camera. But this dynamic perspective is a teasing one. In fact, Ghost Scrub encapsulates the titular, titillating idea of the exhibition, that of a disrupted ecology: aerial spraying of these lands with pesticides has not only drastically and irreversibly altered the usual rhythms of the valley, but halted them entirely, in the most fatal of ways. Rather than a rich, textured and teeming terrain, what we see is merely the ghost of such. Campbell thus invites us to take pleasure from the natural world in the way we are habituated to do, but leaves us instead haunted by its death.
Similar tensions and temptations are at play in Last Light (2006), a series of photographs taken by Campbell in Antarctica. The images are daguerreotypes, one of the earliest photographic techniques developed, and – the exhibition text eagerly claims – the first of their kind taken of the hostile and remote continent. Viewed at a distance, the silver-plated copper surfaces of the daguerreotypes are luminous, but move closer to make out details and the luminosity is lost, little detail is gained, and all you see are trenches of darkness amongst near-featureless white plates—and, of course, your own reflection. Antarctica is already steeped in intrigue without the allure of vanguard. It is thus doubly frustrating when these first-of-their-kind landscapes merge into nothing but vaguely skull-like abstractions. The untouched lands might remain as such, but ‘untouched’ is an arbitrary, imaginary notion when the act of looking alone is sufficient to obliterate them. Similarly, the absence of any physical markers of human activity upon the icy expanses does not, as we all know, denote their immunity to its effects.
This question of access in respect to the photographic document is a concern which vines through the exhibition and informs the artist’s impressively diverse use of analogue and antiquated photographic technologies. Techniques such as the daguerreotype, the ambrotype, and the photogram favour texture and surprise where their digital equivalents might give precision and clarity. When representing the natural world, this choice is an effective one. While its constant movement is what characterises the forest, it is a movement to be felt rather than seen. It emanates from the alien, invertebrate world of the microscopic substrata, worlds which are here evoked by the printing flaws of Campbell’s photographic process. Crown Coach Botanicals (2008) is a series of twenty-eight wet-plate collodion prints on glass that survey the botanical population of downtown LA’s industrial district and their uses. In the series, the patchily-poured collodion wash lends a cloudy quality to the images that often resembles fungal blooms, shafts of sunlight or, in some instances, slick, crystalline snail tracks. It is this quality to which the Adam Art Gallery’s Director, Christina Barton, refers in her preface to the exhibition’s illustrated catalogue, where she describes Campbell’s photography “as a physical process taking its place amongst others in a situation desperately needing a means to reconnect humans to their world.”
In each of these series, and in all of those included in this survey, Campbell seems careful to maintain a degree of ambiguity and mystique in her depictions of the natural world. But she is equally careful to maintain uncompromising certitude when asserting the critical state in which these environments and ecosystems find themselves.
Art’s ability to represent our environmental and existential crisis is often questionable. It risks functionalising, aestheticising and consequently ‘unrealing’ the dire reality of this era, or reproducing viewing positions that centre human subjects, distanced from and in dominion of the natural world.
Joyce Campbell doesn’t want to simply remind us what it’s like to walk through the forest and grant to us those pleasures. Through an intricate weaving of the physical/material and the symbolic/spiritual, and in her reflexive use of photographic media, the artist brings into her viewer’s orbit all the things we take from the forest, all the things we transpose and enact on it, and all of the violent disruptions we subject it to. In doing so, she gestures to and warns of a possibility once thought impossible: that of the forest’s total and final halt, of the eternal night that follows the last afternoon.
Connie Brown is a Wellington-based student of art at Victoria University, and a lifelong lover of forests.