October 17, 2012

Off the Road

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“Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” Jack Kerouac was right. Unabashedly optimistic and slightly sinister, the freewheeling road trip has certainly earned its mystique and romance. Biophysicist and photographer Thibault Roland post grad, might agree, “I rented a car, and took every road heading toward the ocean.” That was the extent of Roland’s plan when he set off for Newfoundland, Canada, in pursuit of good subjects to photograph. An arduous but awesome 20 days and 5,000 km later, Roland returns to Mann Gallery with Terra Nova, a raging and racing photography travelogue that still manages to be impeccably poised.  Roland accentuates the much-celebrated glory of the road trip by giving “Aftermath,” his photograph of a long and winding highway, its full color in a gallery of mostly monochrome prints. The violet sky has been shattered. The road takes on a richer purple and the yellow and white painted lines make their vivid mark on the highway. The pylons, apparently everlasting, have poles like crosses — making this scene some kind of Golgotha … You stop yourself because you’re most definitely over-reading “Aftermath.” The scene is probably just the product of an inconvenient storm. But there are too many colors and symbols to reconcile. And the feelings evoked are too preposterous. This rush that pulls you into the picture, sets a vortex of thoughts into motion, is precisely what makes the picture so incisive, intrusive almost. Otherworldliness and opposition are not lost on Roland, a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell’s Howard Hughes Medical Institute. In his exhibition at Mann Gallery this past spring,  Timescapes, the prize-winning photographer presented ethereal and elegant black-and-white pictures of Cornell and its environs. Terra Nova is an equally meditative but far more strident selection, perhaps because Roland takes on the new role of awestruck stranger. Roland’s compositions realize Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world in which everything, including language, has broken down and given way to ash and darkness. Some of McCarthy’s lines in his novel The Road make for incisive descriptions of Roland’s work, “Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black.“Roland’s Terra Nova doesn’t exactly resemble Ed Ruscha’s deadpan Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a book containing photographs of 26 gas stations, each labelled with its brand and location. In contrast, Roland’s Brave New World is devoid of  any of the staples of the drive-in society that blossomed with the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. But the two photographers’ works have a lot in common. There is a lot of art is in the concept and composition of the scenes. Their photographs are critical of the medium; each picture does not claim to tell an objective truth, but rather honestly documents the subject depicted. Every choice made, from the angle to frame, is part of a unique, limited narrative — the history of a moment.The intimacy of Roland’s pictures is as carefully orchestrated as Ruscha’s detachment. When Roland finds a suitable subject, he tries to get as close to the subject as possible, patiently retaking the photograph or altering its parameters until he achieves the picture he has composed in his mind. Most, if not all of his pictures are long exposures, between 30 seconds and three minutes a photograph. The process is as grueling as it sounds. On average, Roland estimates that he takes 30 minutes to capture each photograph. If weather conditions are less than ideal, he returns to the scene for another attempt.  Roland’s very precise work manages to be miniscule and epic at the same time.  He stands on the shoulders of giants.  He looks over their shoulders, and invites us to do the same. In “Ice Giants,” the marbled sky is placid but contentious. Horizontality dominates, imposing its leaden gaze on this scene of oppositions. Long, black slabs of land stretch from the right into the gauzy sea. They look like fortresses and yet, incredibly, they seem to float. Dark dashes are streaked across the right half the sky. In contrast, the left half of the scene is awash with light. Two radiant mounds of ice, mystically enveloped by mist, lie peacefully in the distance. The light-dark opposition is, of course, rich in symbolism. But it is perhaps enough just to stop and stare; it is enough to let the scene, and its possibilities of symbolism, arrest you. The pitfalls of today’s impossibly fast-paced life been lamented to death by a multitude of iPhone users.  But that doesn’t make putting prescribed panaceas to practice  — giving yourself over to serendipity for an instant — any less powerful.There’s a lot of play in Terra Nova. Let’s tessellate, Roland seems to suggest. “Twins” appears to be a close up of “Repetition,” framed four pictures away. In both works, boats glide into a circle of light (In “Opening,” Roland similarly uses a spotlight to frame the striking protagonist, a gap between two seemingly convergent land masses). Like stately geese possessed of lives that are fully their own, the boats slice purposefully ahead. Blurred in motion (probably due to Roland’s long range exposure technique) their ends look like the wings briskly flicked by a paintbrush. “When Rock Meets Ice” comically re-imagines the interactions between the elements of a landscape. On thickly snow-covered ground, a rock and ice slab meet. The objects, already made stark by their bold color, form a horizontal line demarcating the top quarter of the picture. They look like half-embarrassed friends who bump into each other at the grocery store.Opposition returns, this time with optical illusion, in “Breaking Waves.” The solid sky makes for a unified upper half of the picture,  but the lower half, occupied by craggy rocks and burbling water, is undeniably fragmented. The turbulent reflection of clouds in the water makes it hard to distinguish between land and sky. It’s almost as if someone copied the upper half of the scene and stirred it, which makes sense in a Salvador Dali-esque world where everything melts and swans reflect elephants in ponds. Allowing the landscape to present itself to you can be weird or wonderful, but nothing short of all consuming, as Terra Nova shows. It’s worth going on and off the road to find out, as Roland did. And so did Kerouac, who recounts in On the Road, “I woke up as the sun was reddening and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was — I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel …”Terra Nova will be on display at Mann Gallery, on the second floor of Mann Library, till October 28.

Original Author: Daveen Koh