“The significance of images is on their surface,” writes the Czech critic Vilém Flusser in his influential short book Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Of course, Flusser intended to complicate this signifying surface, which conceals its complex technical and cultural intersections, in the same way that artist Jay Youngdahl complicates the surfaces of his images in the exhibition The Mangroves of Masters Bayou. For Youngdahl, the seamless surface of our contemporary present is folded and knotted through poetic ecological dialogue with a Pre-Columbian past.
Youngdahl’s exhibition is installed in the large interior windows and study area of the Brizdle-Schoenberg Special Collections Center at Ringling College of Art and Design, and includes photographs printed on commercial sunshades, found objects displayed as artifacts on glass shelving, vinyl graphics adhered to the glass and an artist book which contextualizes the project. As one approaches the exhibition on the second floor of the modernist-style college library, the glass in the Special Collections center architecturally multiplies and expands the images with overlapping reflections, recalling a dashboard of a car, the surface of water, and the histories of transparency used by architects like Le Corbusier.
Indeed, the surface of the water in Masters Bayou, which is a tributary connected to the Tampa Bay ecosystem in southwest Florida, produces some of the first images that confront the viewer. These images are exhibited in the form of five sunshades stretched across the glass windows of the Special Collections room. These sunshades include images that at first glance seem to be vernacular photographs of Florida coastal objects and wildlife, but slowly reveal a deeper concern with the surface of the water that joins these subjects. In Youngdahl’s images, photographed from his kayak, the surface shimmers with intensified color and distortion, conjuring a space of both facticity and illusion. That these images are constrained as cheap carshades suggests a troubling ‘mechanical’ element to the exhibition – the recognition that the boundaries of these ecological spaces are porous, vulnerable to the mechanized forces of late modernity. The sunshades serve as both frames and limits, emphasizing their effect as reflectors as one views them from the interior of the special collections, and as image holders in the view from the exterior. Silver dots of insulating material on the sunshades formally echo dots on the vinyl patterns and the accumulated biomaterial on the found objects displayed on shelving below the sunshades.
Adhered to the glass interspersed between the sunshades are brightly colored magenta and green vinyl patterns which seem to suggest a mapping of the bayou. The thick magenta shapes form tributaries and vectors while green dots suggest patterns derived from mangroves. These graphics are presented as fragments, connected formally to the sunshades that surround them, by contingency and suggesting an aerial view of the bayou. In the accompanying artist book, subtitled after Flusser, “Towards a Philosophy of a Natural Spot” it is made clear that the source of these vinyl graphics is derived from patterns found on shards of Pre-Columbian pottery that has been found at the nearby Weedon Island archeological site. In the artist book these shards are placed on opposing pages to Youngdahl’s photographs, with a transparency highlighting the graphic pattern freely moving over either the shard or the image. Details of water surface from some of the images are blown up and adhered directly to tables in the study center, allowing viewers to view books from the collection with these lush photographs as background. The delicate surface of these images has become marked and scratched by use over the course of the exhibition, reiterating themes of accumulation and time that move through the assembly of objects in the installation.
Using these strategies of collision, Youngdahl activates a delicate temporal connection from a Pre-Columbian observer to the artist, each moving silently through the mangroves in their boats, creating maps that describe the structures and interactions of the bayou. By staging these multiple temporalities, the artist suggests that this ‘natural spot’ has been permeated by human activity for centuries. The eco-theorist Timothy Morton writes “realizing that there are lots of different temporality formats is basically what ecological awareness is,” in his book Being Ecological, and that becomes an opportunity for contemplating the time-scales that do not simply surround us, but actually compose us.
As Youngdahl writes in his artist book:
To truly consider nature is to recognize the concept of totality. In each particular site a system of interacting elements exists, in total interconnection. Each element is a dynamic cause and recipient of phenomena and interactions.
These systems of interacting elements are clearly indicated by the found objects included in the exhibition. Resting on glass shelves, a rubber dog toy becomes something more unknowable and hybrid as it is encrusted in biological matter, a branch accumulates the shells of marine life, and a camping stove fuel container evolves into a mysterious artifact, as its man-made material is transformed by the erosion of salt water.
In presenting images and objects from the bayou as both familiar and strange, Youngdahl subtly implicates the viewer as a part of the process that they are observing. Here, “beauty” and “nature” is produced through an interlaced network of systems and relations where both our own vision and bodies are contingent parts. The ‘natural spot’ of Masters Bayou is not actually singular, but is in fact a series of interacting phenomena, some located in the viewer, and many produced by objects and forces larger and smaller than the human observer. Fragmented surfaces of indigenous pottery become a kind of ancient GPS for considering our place in this bayou, and for finding an embodied poetics in the ‘natural spots’ where we might find ourselves.T
The Mangroves of Masters Bayou: Towards a Philosophy of a Natural Spot at the Ringling College of Art and Design’s Special Collections Center on the second floor of the Alfred R. Goldstein Library is open through May 15. To visit make an appointment firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Wes Kline is an artist, photographer, filmmaker, and teacher living in southwest Florida. He has earned his MFA in photography from University of Illinois, Chicago, teaches expanded documentary practice at New College of Florida and exhibits his work nationally and internationally.