Transmission I: On Landscape, was the first of two series of film screenings that are part of Affinities: a series of performances, screenings and conversations linked to the exhibition Joan Jonas: From Away, currently on view at DHC/ART. The films in this screening focused on artists who, in the 60s and 70s, were exploring various ideas surrounding landscapes. Many of the themes and ideas presented overlap with Jonas’s interest in working with and in nature. There were references to honeybees and logging, there were actions and sounds, there were inquiries into the very nature of art: what it is and what it possibly could be.
The short film by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, Mono Lake, 1968/2004, was among the most intriguing to me. The roughly twenty-minute film documents a visit to Mono Lake, California, by Holt, Smithson, and Michael Heizer. We follow the artists along their road trip, while country music plays on the car radio, as voiceovers by Smithson and Heizer recount facts about Mono Lake – specifically, about the distinct ecology created by the alkaline lake. The car is abandoned, and we then follow the artists by foot as they explore the landscape, while learning about the birds, the alkali flies and the unique salt structures. We listen to silence during snapshots of the artists’ expedition; we hear amplified sounds when they are walking, focusing on the flies, or collecting pebbles; we can delight in the sheer joy that they experience as they role down the pebbly mountainside, abandoning themselves to the pull of gravity. The film ends with a marshmallow roast. After tasting the gooey sweetness, Smithson smudges the golden marshmallows on to a map of the region, and sets it on fire. He then uses the cinders to create the work Mono Lake Nonsite, 1968.
There is something very honest about the film. The historical and geological description of the site, paired with the simple act of visiting, observing, photographing, collecting… the artists are essentially portraying themselves as informed travelers, with their maps and their snacks. There is a beer being consumed in one shot, an outdoor pee caught on camera before hopping back into the car in another; a shy smile at the camera here and a kiss there.
What is interesting to note when pairing Smithson’s specific concerns with Jonas’s is that their interest in ecology is born from completely different places. Jonas, in our present time, is concerned with climate change, and the threat of extinction that multiple species are facing. Smithson, in his work, was interested in ecology from an aesthetic standpoint. He wasn’t an environmentalist. He didn’t concern himself with saving nature for the sake of nature. He was concerned with saving nature in the name of aesthetics. His land reclamation projects from the early 1970s were all about encouraging corporations to artistically improve the land that they had used through mining and other tactics – not for environmental reasons, but for aesthetic reasons.
While one could question Smithson’s motives, I think a more worthwhile approach would be to focus on the outcome of the potential that these projects had, and what could have been had Smithson’s life not been tragically cut short by a helicopter accident while surveying one of his outdoor works. This interest in aesthetics-above-all is a relevant cause for an artist to tackle, really. And a noble one, in its own right.
Photo credit: Installation view, Joan Jonas: From Away, 2016, DHC/ART. Joan Jonas, They Come to us Without a Word (Bees), 2015. Originally commissioned for the U.S. Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale by the MIT List Visual Arts Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy of The Kramlich Collection, San Francisco. © DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art, photos: Richard-Max Tremblay.