Isabelle Hayeur, "Death in Absentia 2" (2011) (All photos by author)

Isabelle Hayeur, “Death in Absentia 2” (2011) (All photos by author)

Arguably the consummate bard of the American landscape, Mark Twain depicted in his writing a countryside both tamed and wild. He once wrote, “The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise.” The same description could be applied to the waterways of photographer and video artist Isabelle Hayeur’s exhibition Death in Absentia at Pierogi gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, part of the ongoing Brooklyn/Montreal, a gallery exchange between the two cities. In stunning photographs, Hayeur documents rivers half taken over by industry and development but half still mysterious.

Death in Absentia installation view at Pierogi

At first glance, Hayeur’s prints might look like canvas paintings. They’re huge, stretching to the size of large easel paintings, and the landscapes they reveal are soft and blurry, the kind of haziness that might come from a loose brushstroke but instead comes from a foggy lens and the distorting effects of water. Printed on aluminum, the photos have an utterly unique texture: They are matte and solid, with a heavy physicality that heightens their reality while maintaining a mythic quality, that sense of being larger than life that Twain perfected in literature. Yet Hayeur is entirely uninterested in transcendental prettiness.

Her images (it’s hard not to call them canvases) are dominated by high waterlines; they’re half submerged, giving hazy views into the opaque depths of the water. “Death in Absentia 2” shows a skeletal boat structure in its upper half, divided from the lower register of dark water by a thin line of reflective meniscus, the river’s shimmer surface. The compositions bring to mind Asako Narahashi’s evocative series half awake and half asleep in the water. The two series share an isolation from land, the perilous sense that you as the viewer are far away from any stable place.

Yet where Narahashi’s photos are more about the psychological state of being in and flowing with the water, Hayeur’s speak to an environmentalist sense, revealing the degradation of the natural landscape and the intrusion of the rusting hulks of ships as phenomena both frightening and eerily beautiful. She cites the Florida waterways as “dying ecosystems” in the exhibition’s press release, but the artist doesn’t entirely focus on destruction or decay; there’s still a fascination with the grandeur of the river, even as industry encroaches.

Death in Absentia installation view at Pierogi

“Castaway” (2012) is a meandering video that captures the Florida landscape in brief flashes — a sliver of water wavering between ships, flashes of lightning in the clouds. In its dark moodiness, it recalls the iconic opening sequence of Lou Ye’s film Suzhou River, a frenetic montage of shots of the eponymous Shanghai waterway choked with boats and urban infrastructure. Lou and Hayeur accept the collision of humanity and nature as a given, and step back to observe its gritty consequences. Yet through it all, the water remains wild.

Death in Absentia runs at Pierogi Gallery (177 North 9th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through February 10. 

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...