This exhibition, “Contemporary Landscaping” presents twenty new digital photographs by artist Juan Pablo Delgado Berman taken on his travels through Croatia, Austria, Canada, and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The images are produced in an itinerant documentary style that always places the photographer’s body; Delgado Berman takes part forthrightly in Baudelaire’s dictum about the artist as “painter of modern life.” He describes his work as involved in showing how human beings have “modified the natural environment that surrounds us” and in showing our “self-destructive tendency.” Indeed, we see much evidence of awkward design, foolish littering and senseless devastation.
While many of the pictures may have been motivated by outrage, the careful framing and subtle humour ensure that their emotional territory is vast. A rusty tank waits beside a cold green barrel, two giant characters that seem to vibrate with loneliness on an immense shore. This kind of sublime slapstick buoys many of the images: life, in its tragicomic dimension. More specifically, there is often a wry comic repartee between the “natural” and the constructed. An autumnal tree blooms red in a well-tempered harmony, caring little about the carelessly akimbo splinters of cast-off chairs and tables (imagine listening to Mozart while watching Survivor).
We are often shown how the waste-laden trails of our blundering human activities are soon leveled by gravity and time. In one image, discarded stuff seems to be arranged in a meaningless composition on the grass. The play with abstraction has, simultaneously, a temporal force. Things rust, lose their shape, fall apart.
Does Delgado Berman run the risk of aestheticizing garbage, making trash look beautiful – and perhaps thereby normalizing it? While much here is strange and beautiful, there is something else going on. For the fact remains: pollution is normal. The more we mourn for a lost nature, the more this romantic idealization replaces the real landscape, and the more real change escapes our grasp. Delgado Berman re-tells the story of landscape, facing, its actual transformation and making room for a more radical recognition.
The title of the exhibition “Contemporary Landscaping” allows us to inject the active verb “to landscape” where it hasn’t been. It reshapes the genre name “Landscape,” coaxing it to speak about way we shape the environment – but also, crucially, about the way art shapes our very image of nature. I believe, for example, that the Dutch Masters and the Impressionists were “landscapers” in Delgado Berman’s sense of the word; they taught us to see unacknowledged forms in nature, and, in so doing, to stretch the limits of our known world.
So, in his way, does Delgado Berman. “Contemporary Landscaping” helps us to accept our complicit selves, right now in all of this decay and shameful degradation. Denial is fruitless. “Ceda el paso.” Give way.
Sunny Kerr *
* The author is an artist, curator and PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. As an artist using diverse media to make conceptual and site-specific interventions, he stretches models of public engagement by exploiting the potential of each institutional context and by mobilizing collaboration. He is a founding member of the artists’ collectives WayUpWayDown and Corridor Culture and currently volunteers on the board of directors of Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre. Kerr graduated from Queen’s University with a BA in English before studying sculpture and video at NSCAD in Halifax and York University in Toronto.