Isabelle Hayeur: Desert Shores (Lost America)

Isabelle Hayeur
Desert Shores (Lost America)
Galerie Hugues Charbonneau
September 3 – October 22, 2016

“A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
Thomas Stearns Eliot, The Waste Land

What is the role of photography in shaping our collective imagination of a landscape?
For over 150 years, the image of the landscape has been formed through a variety of photographic traditions and genres.

In America, photography’s development coincided with the exploration and the settlement of the West. Their simultaneous rise resulted in a complex association that has shaped the perception of the West’s physical and social landscape. In the early years, in the 1860s and the 1870s, the federal government played an important role in the creation of the photo image of the American West and in its visual documentation that affirms and expands the central myth of the West in American thought. They sponsored ambitious exploring expeditions, employing scientists and photographers. The photographers involved, such as Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, John K. Hillers, documented the region’s highest peaks and deepest canyons, its grandeur and immensity. Through these photographs, most Americans encountered the West for the very first time. They depicted the West as terra incognita outside of time and history, an unoccupied place rich in natural resources and ready to be developed, ignoring the central fact that the conquest of the West would involve not only just a struggle with a wild landscape, but a struggle with the peoples who already lived there.

West America recurs in the first solo exhibition by Isabelle Hayeur and organized by the Hugues Charbonneau Gallery. But this time, it is a completely different image of the West, one that addresses cultural dislocation, environmental devastation and failed social aspirations.
Desert Shores (Lost America) (2015-2016) presents the new series documenting the deserted region of Salton Sea, in south-western California. Hayeur has selected five photographs from this vast body of work, as well as a 35-minute video and an album of 60 other photos from the series for on-site consultation.

Her artistic approach examines the relations between nature and culture, a somewhat critical eye on what American society had become. Altered landscape is  the one of the most recurring themes in Hayeur’s practice, presented by using video and photography to explore the ways we relate to the places we live in and to investigate the impact we have on the land and our environment. She has mostly documented industrial areas, tourist sites and abandoned places, following the spirit and aesthetics of the “New Topographics”, a label for a group of photographers (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, and Stephen Shore) who came to prominence in the 1970s. They brought a new perspective to landscape photography which focused on an objective documentation of locations, as well as emphasized the relationship between man and nature through the documentation of human intrusions on land.

Desert Shores documents the area surrounding the Salton Sea, a large salt lake located on the San Andreas Fault, accidentally created at the beginning of the last century when the Colorado River overflowed its banks and was contained. In the 1950s and 1960s, it became a very popular attraction and its shores were dotted with numerous hotels, marinas and yacht clubs. Towards the 1970s, it was observed that the lake’s water level was dropping and its salinity rising, in direct relationship with the augmentation of agricultural activity in the surrounding area. The mirage was replaced by no-man’s lands and ghost towns: today this area is deserted and desolate, alluvial deposits saturated with fertilizers and pesticides pollute the water, and algae blooms are decimating fish stocks. Beachside resorts have given way to trailer parks, homes for the poor, the marginalized, and Mexican immigrants.

The Hayeur’s work depict a dystopian land and the failed modernity dream. Not far from Palm Spring and California studios, a vast land reveals modern ruins, dried-up fish carcasses and disturbingly coloured bodies of water. Her images, loaded with political and environmental implications, awaken in us an ambiguous feeling that reflects our discomfort and reveals the flaws of a dehumanized system.
Her images leave us thinking.

Hayeur’s analysis doesn’t end here.
Presenting the image titled Exposure (a blinding light enter through a broken window on an abandoned site) introduces another concept, the Meta-photography (from the Greek word μετά: “beyond”, “upon”, “adjacent” or “after”) a theory investigating the photography itself. The window, the world in a frame, together with the light, two basic tools of the photography process, become metaphor of the the medium itself. Hayeur reminds that photography couldn’t be entirely a neutral objective act or impersonal record because it is always a subjective vision, a personal interpretation of the subject. The composition is always dictated by the photographer’s personal thoughts.

In this case, Hayeur’s vision maintains order and beauty despite all the fragmented landscape. Reporting photographer Robert Adams’s words: “By Interstate 70: a dog skeleton, a vacuum cleaner, TV dinners, a doll, a pie, rolls of carpet… Later, next to the South Platte River: algae, broken concrete, jet contrails, the smell of crude oil… What I hope to document, though not at the expense of surface detail, is the form that underlies this apparent chaos”.

Eleonora Milner

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