Evolution of the Natural

The Hollows
Feb 13, 2017 8:41PM

Artists Talita Zaragoza and Panagiotis Kotsidas compose scenes in nature, using it as more than a canvas, or space, as a character. Nature becomes a performer within their works. It is omnipresent and nearly monolithic, yet the human interaction reveals how it is malleable and easily transformable. Distinct dialogues are formed between two often-considered opposing forces. The natural world is presented as conceptually amorphous, and all encompassing yet fragile. By contrasting and staging them with a human presence or man-made interruption, they present a complex relationship, which is uneasy, tense, and subtly volatile, while still emanating a strange, mystic serenity. The “invasion” of humanity has been completed, but although they are theoretically the dominant species, they are utterly subsumed by their environment. Neither faction is conqueror nor parasite, within this state of existence, rather co-existing in an awkward unstable union.

Historically in Western philosophy, there has been an assumed sanctity in the forces of nature. Originating from concepts by 18th century philosophers such as Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, nature and its aesthetics exude a certain universal experiential power that surpasses pedestrian beauty, which according to him, is all about being balanced and delicate. This concept, called the Sublime, centers on the sense of all-consuming awe when faced with the sheer unfathomable scope of the natural world. According to Burke “astonishment…is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree,” and speaks about the effects of this overwhelming passionate, shock of incomprehensibility as inducing “horror,” “admiration,” “reverence,” “anguish,” and “respect.” It is a force the beholder submits to and, arguably, is to some degree unattainable within the artworks of mankind. Twentieth century nature artists such as Robert Smithson and Andy Goldsworthy then built their artworks out of and within the land itself as to better represent and take this concept to the extreme, carrying the Sublime into the modern age.

It is because of this well-worn preconception of the sublimity of nature that, in nature art and the photography of nature in general, there is a certain urge to avoid the presence of man, to maintain a pure image of the “pastoral.” Zaragoza and Kotsidas actively eschew this notion, instead focusing their lenses on the symbiosis of civilization and wilderness. They instead choose to depict a world well in the midst of an Anthropocene period where evidence of humanity is pervasive through every square inch of the globe. The Sublime concept of astonishment from natural vastness is undercut by how in this contemporary age, traces of people’s refuse has been observed in even the Mariana Trench, and nearly no earthly place is unexplored and uncontaminated. Unlike many environmental artworks, Zaragoza and Kotsidas recognize and tackle how in some aspects, the Sublime is less relevant to this new age as the human race has expanded beyond this notion. The natural world isn’t unknowable, as mankind has too significantly infringed upon it.

In Zaragoza’s photographs, manmade products such as silk and wire are front and center, sitting prominently and comfortably within a sylvan setting. In her Draw a Line in Between series, the intrusion is even more clearly illustrated as she zooms in on a scene to abstract it in a distinctly minimalist style, decontextualizing and manipulating nature into a very cosmopolitan aesthetic. Meanwhile, Kotsidas openly shows large swaths of people openly cavorting in nautical seaside habitats. He does not conceal or minimize the size of the crowd, instead choosing to frame them as part of the surroundings. They are integral to the scene and depicted to belong within it. However, this is not to say that either of the artists depicts humanity as in total control of their settings. They are merely acknowledged as now inseparable from the world they inhabit, in a strange symbiosis where the line between what is “natural” and “civilization” is blurring gradually each day. Two separate “sides” are gradually merging into one entity.

Elements within the photographs of Talita Zaragoza and Panagiotis Kotsidas are notable additions into their depictions of nature. In the Draw a Line in Between series, scale, what is hidden, and what is left unrevealed are of particular importance. For instance, Zaragoza’s use of hard-edged, dark graphic shadows in black and white convey a certain severity and control. However, there are hints that in reality, this close up image does not show all. While abstracted to a point, it is still obvious upon examination that the photographs are close ups depicting twisted wires stuck within sand and the silhouettes they cast. The sprawled out sand used as a backdrop indicates an unseen expanse, and the observer is only getting a fragmented view of something much larger. It is hinted that there is much more to be seen than just what is presented, and that despite its intimate, worked appearance, there are several larger, much less manageable natural factors making the photo possible. This concept of small concealments and adjustments playing with scale and magnitude are present in Zaragoza’s other series such as Silk Sigh. Seemingly minor additions create a subtle power play in the photographs between nature and the constructed, the micro and the macro co-existing yet at odds with each other.

On the other hand the use of muted colors/grayscale and location are the most important elements in Kotsidas’ Offing series. Each photograph of the shoreline is given a warm, fuzzy luminist quality. Through this effect, the sky and earth begin to meld, as the blue, gray, and white of the sky and clouds blend into the waves of sea. As they swallow each other and become one, the human figures are left in an otherworldly state. They are standing on the precipice of what is seemingly the infinite, a world without a horizon. They lose all sense of weight, almost floating within this boundless environment. Kotsidas creates a world of liminal, in-between states in his photographs, where there is no distinction among air, earth, and seas and human beings are simultaneously foreign and integral, a strange, contradictory relationship mankind has with this scenery. Messy, chaotic, and often contradictory, the photographs deconstruct long held presumptions of traditional classifications of physical boundaries and the rigid binary roles of man vs. nature.

Two artists present a multifaceted, complex view of the relationships between humanity and nature- their concepts, and the use of nature as a space and presence are both distinctly borne of contemporary thought on the natural world as a steadily declining, yet lived-in space, such as the ever encroaching depletion/destruction of nature, escalating human population and increasingly sprawling heterotopias, and built off past perceptions of nature as a divine force and the current slightly surreal reality in which we live now.

- Gina Mischianti

The Hollows