Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography since 1970
September 17, 2021–January 16, 2022
September 17, 2021–January 16, 2022
Climate change and social justice have finally become a hot topic in contemporary art. Right now, the most incisive exhibitions combine both, highlighting the inescapable continuity between the two. This is nature in the Anthropocene. No longer a remote place of unaltered beauty, but a precarious all-encompassing condition we have singlehandedly created and in which we are always wholly implicated.
Devour the Land: War and American Landscape Photography since 1970, on show at the Special Exhibitions Gallery, Harvard Art Museums is an impressive example of how art can help us grasp a critical situation we have ignored far too long. The exhibition features approximately 160 photographs grouped around 6 themes— Silent Spring, Arming America, Slow Violence, Regeneration, Other Battlefields, and Resistance—which illustrate the often otherwise invisible ways the US military has impacted, at times irreversibly, the land.
Devour the Land takes its title from the American Civil War. “We have devoured the Land” wrote Union Major, General Sherman to describe the enormous damage his troupe deliberately inflicted upon the land during the campaign known as the March to the Sea (1864-1865). Today as yesterday, human conflict scars the land even when conflict unravels elsewhere. To make this point clear, curator Makeda Best leverages photography’s indexical power and documental idiom to visualize an overlapping network of inferences with an undisputed sense of authority.
War is always broken down into numbers: the economic losses, the loss of human lives. But the background against which these losses occur—the land—is rarely if ever addressed in news reports as well as history books. This is another telling manifestation of our detrimental, anthropocentric state of mind: the devastation of the natural world is not perceived as a loss of significant importance. We are so alienated from it; we can’t even see it. The few photographs of animals wandering barren landscapes in search of food haunt the exhibition, asking us to contemplate empathy and otherness. Devour the Land makes it clear that some of us are less than human and that the quality of their lives is as close as that of these animals as long as the law allows it. Often uncomfortably suspended between document and art, the photographs in Devour the Land are undeniable tokens of the struggle that many communities around the US endure daily. These are the realities that don’t hit the headlines. They move at a different speed, abandoned to a seemingly irreversible process of slow decay. The photographs of Terry Evans and LaToya Ruby Fraizer place these realities on the socio/historical map so that they might at least teach us something, rather than simply be forgotten.
Ethical, ecological and humanitarian, questions rapidly begin to merge. The photographs gathered in this exhibition corroborate the knowledge that the military is by far the greatest polluter in the US. Through the exhibition, Best asks urgent questions such as “what are the rationales and the risks of environmental disaster perpetuated in the name of war?” and “what are the mechanisms of public oversight?”; and “Which parts of the country are affected and which are not?”; and “How do photographs raise or deflect awareness?” The walls are dense with images, the rhythm of the exhibition is steady. The overall impression is unsettling, as one might imagine. Some images are shocking. None are just sensationalist. And a kind of seemingly inescapable apocalyptic sublime flickers across the curatorial selection. But this is also not a problem. The US military is, as the scholar Timothy Morton would have it, a hyperobject. The scale of so much we see and try to digest in these galleries is inescapably sublime in the worst possible sense.
But at a time in which social media have eroded the notion of photography as a reliable social document, the images in the exhibition reinstate some trust. Noticeably, Devour the Land works hard at expanding pre-existing notions of land and environment. Susan Meiselas’s haunting black and white image of the wreck of the World Trade Center, at a glance, might seem out of line with the rest. The same might be said for Stephen Tourlentes’s photographs of prisons. But that’s only if the viewer has approached Devour the Land as another “Anthropocene type” exhibition. Best’s curatorial effort is more ambitious—it provides an original blueprint for future anthropogenic mappings—ecosystems in which humans are always simultaneously victims and perpetrators. The stories these images narrate invite a sense of responsibility and ownership. The tragedies and opportunities for remediation we encounter are specific and situated. Against the often-disarming enormity of climate change and melting glaciers, the devastation these sites represent is for better or worse within our reach. It is this uncomfortable proximity that shakes the viewer to the core and instills a desire to know more and spring into action.