Why do we care so much about the wildfires that ravaged Australia? Most of us have never been to the continent, let alone describe the ecologies impacted by the natural disaster, beyond “cute, cuddly” kangaroos and koalas. In contrast to natural disasters closer to home, we care about Australia because we feel like we know it. The decades of mass media attention towards the unique ecology creates a false sense of familiarity. Photography, films, and Google Earth have brought the wilds of Australia’s forests directly into our homes in ways that the media has not done for other locales, like Puerto Rico or Mississippi.
For her exhibition, You Were Never Here, artist Alyssa Baguss constructed three distinct artworks that explore how we engage our natural world through digital means in the 21st century: nature as scenery for social media, our persistent longing to be elsewhere, and our perception of place through secondary experiences.
Baguss documents the transition from physical engagement with the outdoors to intellectual and illusionistic concepts via digital means. Historically, the American relationship with nature has paralleled our history of conquest, colonization, and imperialism—the notion that nature is there to be dominated, transformed not only for survival but to thrive as a nation-state.
Our modern relationship with nature is steeped not only in this history but also the legacy of the Transcendental Movement of the mid-1800s, the romantic concept that nature is meant to be experienced on a deep and intuitive level. Photographers like Ansel Adams best encapsulate this romanticism of nature. Adams documented the timeless grandeur and sublime splendor of nature but oftentimes from hiking trails or scenic byways. Erasing the landscaping already done by park rangers and tourists.
Despite our romantic nostalgia for pioneers and explorers, the average American’s relationship with nature has always been rooted within a mediated experience—we create artificial boundaries (national parks) or terraform environments (gardens and farmlands) with the inevitable results of entire islands being transformed into human habitats (Manhattan).
In the 21st century, contemporary mediation is an extension of our digital lives. Apps like Google Earth allow users to wander unfamiliar lands while never leaving the comfort of their homes. Instagram and other social media apps provide instant access to vistas beyond our economic or physical reach. Before we rent a cabin or instead of going to a park, you can scope it out via 360-degree “tours.” Archaeology begins with LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging,before a trowel hits the ground. This new approach is at once an extension of those romanticized approaches to nature and a new way of understanding the world around us. No longer do we need to chop down trees and forage new paths. We can send a drone to scan large swaths of land, all while sitting at a laptop in the comfort of civilization.
But if and when nature is mediated by artificial or digital experiences, what exactly are we experiencing?
You Were Never Here is a continuation of the inquiry-based body of work undertaken by Baguss over the past five years. Throughout her career, the artist has investigated how technology influences the way we experience the outdoors and how it has impacted concepts and behavior about our planet and our daily lives. For Baguss, there is no social critique within the exhibition. Across all three large-scale works, Baguss simply reminds us how the medium of virtual navigation exchanges being in nature for an abstract experience.
The exhibition opens with the work Headwaters, 2019, a curtain that displays a photograph of the Mississippi River’s headwaters at Lake Itasca–an iconic tourist location and state park in Minnesota. When closed, the curtain presents a 360° view of the outdoors, indoors. The object mimics panoramic photo-documentation shared via social media apps and used as a tool by Realtors and other professions to provide virtual tours of places. As installed in the galleries, the work creates an instant Instagram moment. The translucent fabric allows you to see other visitors engulfed within curtain, as well as being surrounded by the beauty of the state park. This duality of nature as scene and scenic as backdrop cuts to the crux of the exhibition.
Understory, 2019, a pastel mural or wall-drawing, is based on a three-dimensional scan of the oak savannah forest at Silverwood Park in Saint Anthony, Minnesota. This type of imagery captures the topography (a detailed description of the natural and artificial features texture) of the vegetation through multiple photographs that are reconstructed combined into a single image. The wall-drawing presents a digitally sophisticated documentation that is presented in a very analog format: hand-cut stencils and human application of pigments to the wall.
For Curtain, Baguss hand-folded a large-scale photo wallpaper, often found in homes or businesses to emulate the experience of the outdoors. Employing a standard style of map folding called the Miura fold, the artwork highlights the manufacturing of a landscape using mountain and valley folds through the commonplace material of wallpaper. The Miura fold is found in many biological unfurling processes including the blossoming opening of leaves of different tree varieties. The hyper-saturated color of the landscape produces a theatrical backdrop scene, underscoring the idea that we often encounter the natural environment as scenery in a digital world.
The entirety of the exhibition experience reminds us of the unspoken rule of mass media—you were never there. It is the human imagination that collapses time and space when presented by the digital experience, convincing us that we are present or at the very least familiar with unknown locations. For You Were Never Here, Baguss at once created a wonderland experience, breaking the doldrums of Minnesota’s winter, while simultaneously breaking the dream by reminding us of the fact that we were not actually at the state park or in the crystal-clear sky. It was Mia, in the dead of winter, all along.
Baguss’s practice explores mediated natural environments through the drawing process. She is a 2015 and 2017 recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant and the recipient of the 2017/18 Jerome Foundation Fellowship for Emerging Artists. Her work has been exhibited at the Rochester Art Center, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and the Minnesota Museum of American Art.
Top image: Installation shot of Alyssa Baguss’ “Wish You Were Here,” 2017. Hand cut wallpaper mural. Jerome Emerging Artist Program, Rochester Art Center, Minnesota.