Andrew Wright, “Water’s Edge.” Peak Gallery, Toronto, May 2 - May 26, 2007.
Andrew Wright is well known for defamiliarizing the technologies and subjects of the lens. Because he dwells on transformations of vision from camera lucida to drawing to photograph in Artist Draws Dead Specimens Using a Camera Lucida in the Butterfly Conservatory of 2004, for example we can experience an exhilarating and informative self-consciousness through his work. For a second, we can see ourselves seeing. We also see “nature,” but never without the inverted commas. The title of Gilbert & George’s brilliant series from the early 1970s, The Nature of Our Looking, provides an apt overall rubric for Wright’s projects: we see an object, nature, but also attend to the way that we see. Wright is an artist of extremes. In Untitled Rocket Launches (2007), for instance, miniature video cameras are propelled aloft for several minutes by amateur model rockets. The randomness of the data beamed back to Wright’s computer lends a nice twist to the notion of “unmanned” space travel. On one hand, this drama of distance and proximity, of strangeness and familiarity, suspends our normal contexts of vision so effectively that we wonder what we are looking at. On the other, the stills that Wright selects cannot help but fall into institutionalized categories of landscape, panorama, sky, and abstraction.
“Water’s Edge” is even more daring and pleasurably disorienting. The large, tonally intricate digital C-Prints in this series bring us close to churning “standing waves” in the Niagara Gorge, downstream from Niagara Falls. These perpetual plumes of water rise 3 to 5 meters high; as the largest in North America, they are a tourist attraction, presented in a thrilling but controlled manner along the “White Water Walk.” For most visitors, the raw power of the water is transliterated into an aesthetic experience in ways analogous to how the threatening water current is domesticated into hydroelectric power that we can switch on and off at will. Wright makes sure that we enjoy none of the familiar aesthetic frames or safety precautions prescribed for tourists. He photographed the waves at night, using 4800 watts of strobe flash power and accompanied by a trained police officer to keep him from disappearing over the innocent-sounding “water’s edge.” He uses an abundance of electricity, but in the service of the unexpected.
What we see in these immaculately detailed images is astounding. Under the extreme foreground illumination that produces an infinitely deep night-black backdrop, the water is at once solid, frothy, and crystalline. Droplets act as lenses, breaking up and refracting the intense white light that captures their movements. “Water’s Edge” was shot in April of 2007: there are still pieces of ice in the water, though as with everything here, their size is anyone’s guess. There are other reorientations. Coming into the downstairs gallery from the street, the prints read as black and white. But the water’s greens soon saturate our vision. The waves are arrested and silent here, but one can feel their frantic dynamism and hear the range of sound experienced by Wright as he undertook this dangerous project.
There is no more mediated concept in the human repertoire than that of “nature.” Wright subtly manipulates the perceptual cues we rely on to make this point. In Standing Wave # 11, the flashes throw a deep shadow behind a wall of water. Shadow gives us depth and a tenuous orientation in the image. In another instance Wright allows us to see the merest silhouette of trees standing on the opposite shore of the gorge, producing “perspective” of the most fragile sort. When I asked him how far away this shoreline was, he really couldn’t be sure.
If “nature” is produced by our habits of seeing and by the technologies that we use, however, it also remains for most people both real and occasionally dangerous because it is separate from us. By catching the drama of water unawares at night, Wright also shows that nature goes its own way. He presents the nature of our looking: how we see and how we construe what we see. “Water’s Edge” also conveys a powerful sense that all Wright’s efforts and their captivating results show us nothing, or that his showing and our viewing means nothing. If these photos demonstrate that we cannot adequately represent or understand nature, it is because Wright taps into the discourse of the sublime he calls it the “oceanic” import of the work - that overwhelming aesthetic experience of the inadequacy of our powers of comprehension. In its classic formulations in the 18th century, those of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, the sublime was found either in the frisson of our near remove from the unimaginable power of nature or in our ability to comprehend morally, if not empirically, our small place within a divine universe. Wright’s photographs of standing water intimate a new spin on the sublime. Recorded at night by his camera and lights, nature remains profoundly unaffected. While our looking may not produce understanding, but the ingredient of pleasure (or relief) integral to the sublime remains. Nature is in many ways independent. The most unfamiliar intimation of all is that it may survive all our best and worst attentions.
Mark A. Cheetham is a professor of art history at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Abstract Art Against Autonomy: Infection, Resistance, and Cure since the '60s (Cambridge University Press, 2006)