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Rodney Graham at Dia

At Dia, Rodney Graham presents photographs of inverted trees along with technical drawings of a tower. The tower houses a camera obscura, from which an observer could monitor the growth of an oak tree which, through the refracted light of the camera obscura, appears upside down. The photographs represent hypothetical vantage points from the tower.

Rodney Graham, Welsh Oaks (4), 1998, monochrome color print, 94.5 x 74.25 inches, edition of two, private collection.

To the extent that our experience of nature is defined by parks or preserves, Graham’s tower reflects on contemporary detachment from the natural world. The camera obscura provides an image for analysis or appreciation which offers none of the sensual immediacy of standing before a tree with its multiplicity of color and movements. Graham’s projects seem almost an admonition against further misuse of the environment. When the forests and wilderness are gone what will remain but these specimens that become distorted reflections of what has been.

Graham’ project is a complicated one, and resonates beyond social critique or the curiosity of the camera obscura evoking a sense of the tree as both symbol and image. The photographs register immediately as trees, perhaps reflected on a body of water. As this hypothesis gives way to a realization that trees and landscape have been overturned, the photographs become unsettling. The viewer’s eyes move instinctively upward only to be weighed down by a band of dark earth. There is no architecture or support for this mass. At length the viewer comes to accept this surreal condition of an upside-down landscape, bereft of color, which is somehow quite beautiful.

The foliage of a tree’s mantle is visually echoed by roots beneath the earth and our perception of a tree is conditioned by knowledge of the unseen structure which permits it to stand. Graham’s photographs subvert the viewer’s preconceptions, making the overturned tree appear root-like. The photographs evoke a mythic reality, suggesting Yggdrasil, the tree of life in Nordic mythology whose roots were gnawed by an evil serpent. Cabbalistic texts describe a tree with roots in the air, that derives sustenance not from the earth but from the spirit.

Roots of a tree drank from the water of Lethe, the river of oblivion in Hades, and perhaps the ultimate success of this tree series lies in its ability to make us forget what we know about a commonplace image. At a certain point, the photograph ceases to demand our perception of a tree and enters the realm of photographic or painterly abstraction. The outstretched branches/ roots become abstract lines or capillaries into which pigment has bled to create complex networks of line and form. The field of sky becomes a field of shapes and values as does the grassy plain in the last of a series of distinct metamorphoses.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2000.

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