There is something of a paradox built deep into the human psyche; it is composed of two warring desires that can rarely be simultaneously satisfied. We as humans long to be stationary and at rest in a safe and familiar place, that is, at home. At the same time, we crave exploration, departure, and the mystery and risk of the unknown that is only possible away from home. When we are at home, we long to be away, and when we are away, we can’t wait to get home. A path marks the travelled space between these two points. Every road, sidewalk, alley, and trail are permanent or semi-permanent marks made directly on our environment, evidence of time spent between home and another destination.
This dichotomy between being home and being away has been prevalent in history and art for thousands of years (the Hebrew exile, Odysseus, and Marco Polo), but it has been accelerated in the recent past by advances in technology surrounding transportation and by the globalization boom of the last hundred years. The path for us holds many metaphoric values: freedom, wanderlust, diaspora, flight, and growth or potential. The subject of the path is so general and nonspecific that we will profit from a critical analysis that pays no attention to movements or schools of thought, but that only looks at the way that a single subject is handled by widely varying artists. We will see the concept of the path handled in three very distinct manners and in three different mediums. For some artists, the path will denote looking forward, while others will look back or stare at their feet indecisively.
Whatever the mode, the path will perpetually locate away from home and not yet at their destination – constantly in limbo – and it will call the viewer to evaluate their position.
Ori Gersht’s 2001 work, Untitled Space 3, is a C-Print that measures 120x150cm. The image features a rude dirt road that vertically traverses the frame. Traces of thick, industrial or military tire tracks lead into the frame and terminate as the road is swallowed up quietly by an absolute blackness. The viewer is meant to be looking forward down the path into obscurity and uncertainty. Untitled Space 3 is a dark photograph, taken at night in the Judean Desert. The relatively dark values of the image can be understood as “a metaphor for uncertainty and exodus, binding contemporary Israel to Old Testament history” (Cotton, 171) and also as “a visualization of a void, of inhuman nothingness and loss” (171). As one spends time looking back and forth at the image, it becomes apparent that there is a struggle to resolve some detail or find some anomalous point to rescue the viewer from the ambiguity of the destination. We stand in front of the image, being denied arrival. We must choose to stay in a place of insecurity with the little light we have or venture on into the darkness and embrace whatever may lie in the shadows. Gersht’s photograph leaves us in the present, not at home, but on the path–fraught with worry about the present and dreading the future, if any future waits for us at all.
Lot’s Wife by Anselm Kiefer, is a much larger image at 350x410cm. It is different than Untitled Space 3 in almost every way. Foremost, instead of being a photograph, it is a mixed-media painting with oil paint, ash, stucco, chalk, linseed oil, polymer emulsion, salt, and applied elements on canvas that has been attached to lead foil on plywood panels (Oard). Lot’s Wife is much more immense and dimensional. Copper heating wires extrude from the frame and giant washes of salt and ash cover the image. The picture isn’t one single element, but a conglomerate of many elements representative of tragedy, decay, loss, and destruction. The use of ash, lead, and copper wire contribute to the feeling of destitution. Like Untitled Space 3, however, Lot’s Wife features a path in the form of diverging railroad tracks running from the bottom left-hand corner of the frame into its center, eventually merging with the horizon. Based on the artist’s oeuvre, one can assume that the tracks lead to Nazi concentration camps, and the copper heating element that creates the horizon brings to mind the ovens in those camps. The tracks ascend and travel into the pictorial space of the shell-blasted landscape, activating the picture.
As soon as our eyes are activated, however, the salt wash that covers the entire canvas and lead obscure the pictorial space altogether. We are able to see that there is an image, but we are not allowed to believe it. It feels as real as a dream that we are in; we are certain it has happened, but we stand apart in some way.
Kiefer’s Zim Zum is another example of this coinciding feeling of reverie (Heartney, 370). There is at once a play between the Nazi landscape and the history of the Jews that asks us to look back as Lot’s wife did in the biblical account. Unlike Lot’s wife, we are able to look back; in fact, we must look back. This deliberate obligation to reevaluate the pain and suffering of World War II is the way Kiefer works (Remembering the Future). We must remember, reflect upon, and learn from our horrors. While Lot’s Wife is not a joyful image, it does leave us with the faintest glimmer of hope for a future. After all, railroad tracks can run both ways.
Swiss artists Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs (who call themselves TONK) exhibit a very different approach to their idea of the path. For some of the work in their 2009 project, The Great Unreal, the duo created scenes that pointed to the idea of the road trip while they traversed the United States (Campany, 320). Bed Street, from 2006, is much smaller in scale at 64x74cm (Onorato). The photograph is a trompe-l’œil, featuring an asphalt highway departing from the lower left-hand part of the frame and composed similarly to Lot’s Wife in that it disappears into the center of the frame. Mountains rise on both sides of the road, sporting the patterns so recognizable from the cheap comforters at low-end hotels. The mountains are in fact created from hotel blankets and the background is a wood-paneled wall. The road itself is featured in several other images, but Bed Street is at once a complete generalization of the ideal of a road trip (driving off into the sunset and finding great adventure) and a specific consciousness of the realities of staying in a nonspecific bed in a generic hotel. The two artists are simultaneously asking us to believe and evaluate the dreams we have constructed around the ideal of the road trip and being away from home.
A path is the connecting line between two points. It isn’t home, and it isn’t where one is going – it’s where one is. One is are perpetually looking forward, looking back, or looking down at the ground, but while on the path, one is never where one is going.
I think this is why so many artists use long lines and paths in their work. Other works called to mind are Richard Long’s A Line the Same Length as a Straight Walk from the Bottom to the Top of Silbury Hill, Fischli & Weiss’ Ein Weg durch das Moor, and Joel Sternfield’s Walking the High Line. We enjoy the following and the process of the journey. It’s where the romance of the road trip lies or why we make the excuse for taking what’s often known as the scenic route. So often, however, the path is darker and more foreboding, forcing us to face our uncertainties, to reconcile our pasts, and to move in spite of our fears. When we looks at the three works next to one another, it becomes evident how much contrast there is between them individually, but if we look at the works as a whole, they begin to help us realize just how engrained paths are in our everyday lives and how they have come to represent so much of our life between birth and death.
Advisor: Judith Barry
Independent Study: Academic
April 20, 2015
Anselm Kiefer: Remembering the Future. UK: BBC, 2014. Film.
Campany, David. The Open Road : Photography & the American Road Trip. New York NY: Aperture, 2014. Print.
Cotton, Charlotte. The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2011. Print.
Heartney, Eleanor. Art & Today. London; New York: Phaidon Press, 2008. Print.
Oard, Brian A. Beauty and Terror: Essays on the Power of Painting [Kindle Edition]. Kindle. Amazon Digital Services, Inc., 2012. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Onorato, Taiyo. Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs : The Great Unreal. Zurich: Edition Patrick Frey, 2009. Print.