LAFAYETTE, Indiana — How do we know where we are? Those of us who rely on smartphone maps to navigate know this is not just a theoretical question. We use visual cues in the built or natural environment and the safety of a map’s grid to reassure us that we are where we think we are. Anyone who’s seen before and after pictures following a Midwest tornado or the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami knows that as soon as you remove those landmarks, it’s difficult to identify where you stand.
That sort of disorientation comes under duress. Katherine E. Bash plays with place and disorientation every day. In her site-based works in the exhibition The Atlas for Experimental Poiesis (poiesis coming from the ancient Greek and meaning “to make or produce”), she interrupts the typical ways we see the landscapes around us, using photography and other media to create spatial poetries.
All of her techniques are described in one of the pieces in the exhibition: the thick, beautifully printed Manual for Experimental Poiesis for the Natural Historian of Event Phenomena, Both Spontaneous and Contrived (2011). Bash read a few passages to introduce the exhibition on the night it opened at Purdue University.
One of her methods is to dispense with the idea of a correct orientation in the landscape. For this, she created the Blink Chair, a solo seesaw of sorts, which you climb onto and, head leaning back, rotate on a vertical axis, until you eventually view the horizon behind you upside down.
Sadly, the chair isn’t featured in the exhibition, but three vertical panoramas translate the view from it. Bash spliced together photos that don’t quite match up, or were taken on different days — one sunny, and one cloudy, for example. Her pictures have the power to surprise you and leave you discombobulated.
Another quotidian moment that inspires her: that second when you tilt back in a chair, balancing on the back two legs, hovering between the safety of having all four on the ground and the disaster of tipping all the way back. “The Near Impossibility of Being, Precipitous Cliff” (2003, 2012) pairs two photos. In one, a sculpture of scavenged wood (later dismantled) sits in a dry, desert-like landscape; the other was taken on top of a mountain, on the edge of a deep rocky valley with a bolder hovering at the precipice. The second initially appears to bear no relation to the first landscape, but in fact, it is the analogue to tilting in your chair. Thirty steps from the sculpture, turning 180 degrees would leave you, like the boulder, clinging to the edge.
Bash is fascinated by ephemeral elements like wind, tides, and changes in light, shadow, or weather, which also alter our perception of place. One especially striking piece, “Windshirt” (2009, 2012), is a grid of 20 photographs taken at Seven Sisters, chalk cliffs on the southeast coast of England similar to those at Dover. In the series, a brilliant blue piece of cloth dances in the wind, with the figure wearing it nearly hidden from view. It waves like wings at the top of the cliffs in one photo, skims low to the ground over the rocky beach below in another, and floats gracefully among bending grasses in yet another.
“Wind,” Bash explained at the opening, “is like language. You can’t see it, but you can see its effects on things.” Language, and how it changes perception, is also an idea she explores. In order to better describe what she observes, she creates new words, like “abrisamento,” which refers to the moment when we become consciousness of a phenomenon — perceiving a slight breeze, say, and watching it ripple through leaves.
Bash also uses situated readings in her work, which she describes in the Manual:
A CHANCE READING Experiment begins simply.
In whatever site you currently inhabit,
ESTABLISH YOUR GROUNDING,
ASSESS YOUR SURROUNDINGS AND
PULL OUT THE BOOK YOU HAVE BEEN TOTING ALONG WITH YOU.
NOW, OPEN IT WITHOUT AN ESTABLISHED DESTINATION AND SEE WHERE YOU HAVE LANDED.
The text you have selected can now intervene in the relationship you have established
with the site and proposes,
I HAVE A MEANING THAT TRIANGULATES YOU AND THE SITE AND
IT IS YOUR JOB TO DETECT, INVESTIGATE AND FIGURE OUT JUST WHAT THAT MEANING IS.
Her chance reading of the poem “Perforated Object” by William L. Fox on a Brazilian beach led to Perforations (2004, 2012), a series of photographs in which Bash “interrupts a perfect scene with its own material.” For example, she used sprays of clay and salt water in some photographs of the beach, one with the muddy spray caught in midair, as if it were about to hit the camera, and one with a more viscous spray creating a mercurial, amorphous form arching in the wind. What might otherwise have been typical beach vacation photos were disturbed, but instead of feeling sullied, they had a graceful quality all their own.
Another chance reading became the basis for “Laying Down Paths,” which, like a few other works in the exhibition, is accompanied by a sound piece, in this case Bash reading her chance text aloud, accompanied by music. You can listen to these soundtracks on a loaner iPod at the gallery, but I found the readings to be distracting rather than complementary (though I suspect the same passages read silently to myself would work better). Recordings that featured nature sounds like birdsong or slapping waves provided more space for my own thoughts.
That space is important, because Bash’s work has a strong performative aspect, both for the artist and the viewer. She suggests that we lay on the floor in multiple positions to view the vertical panoramas, and her Manual is a guide for all — anyone can employ the same techniques to refresh her sense of place and space.
And what would an exhibition dealing with place be without maps? Many of the pieces have elements of cartography and geometry, like “Compass Rose,” from the series Floating Point Operation (2005–2006, 2012), which features the eerie landscapes of Floating Island in Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. In a series of experimental visual maps, this octagonal panorama shows photographs emanating from a center point like eight rays of a sun; the center is the ground from which they were taken, and the rays expand to show the landscape at several points in a 360-degree view. The few drawings and prints in the exhibition also feature a revisionist geometry, like a kaleidoscope gone awry.
The exhibition has an architectural feel, which makes sense, since architects have always used multiple renderings to illustrate designs that begin in the imagination. It also makes sense because the Manual is Bash’s PhD thesis in architecture from University College London, where, along with Texas, she is based part of the year. Her BA in biology is reflected in the experimental and iterative nature of her work, and her MFA is in design — hence the Blink Chair. Her work is highly theoretical, but while the ideas and terminology certainly expand an understanding of her work, no academic jargon is necessary to appreciate the experience of seeing places askew and anew.
The exhibition is part of Spaces of Arts, a conference at Purdue University exploring how we can celebrate a global art world while still honoring the ways culture and place play a role in the production of art. Bash’s work provides one perfect answer. While her pieces are based in specific landscapes, her transformations of them show that by choosing to look at and interact with them differently, we create new ones. As I walked out into the evening, my own experience was altered: the textual map that served as my guide to the exhibition immediately curled in the humid Indiana air.
Katherine E. Bash’s The Atlas for Experimental Poiesis is on view at the Patti & Rusty Rueff Galleries (Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana) until October 4.