Winter 2015
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A Wide Boundless Plain

Tibet 75 by Kenro Izu, 2000

Tibet 75 by Kenro Izu, 2000

“Everything can be seen through the mist, but it is hard to make out the colours and the outlines of objects. Everything looks different from what it is. You drive on and suddenly see standing before you right in the roadway a dark figure like a monk; it stands motionless, waiting, holding something in its hands. Can it be a robber? The figure comes closer, grows bigger; now it is on a level with the chaise, and you see it is not a man, but a solitary bush or a great stone. Such motionless expectant figures stand on the low hills, hide behind the old barrows, peep out from the high grass, and they all look like human beings and arouse suspicion.

And when the moon rises the night becomes pale and dim. The mist seems to have passed away. The air is transparent, fresh and warm; one can see well in all directions and even distinguish the separate stalks of grass by the wayside. Stones and bits of pots can be seen at a long distance. The suspicious figures like monks look blacker against the light background of the night, and seem more sinister. More and more often in the midst of the monotonous chirruping there comes the sound of the “A-ah, a-ah!” of astonishment troubling the motionless air, and the cry of a sleepless or delirious bird. Broad shadows move across the plain like clouds across the sky, and in the inconceivable distance, if you look long and intently at it, misty monstrous shapes rise up and huddle one against another. It is rather uncanny. One glances at the pale green, star-spangled sky on which there is no cloudlet, no spot, and understands why the warm air is motionless, why nature is on her guard, afraid to stir: she is afraid and reluctant to lose one instant of life. Of the unfathomable depth and infinity of the sky one can only form a conception at sea and on the steppe by night when the moon is shining. It is terribly lonely and caressing; it looks down languid and alluring, and its caressing sweetness makes one giddy.”

From Chekhov’s short story “The Steppe”… I don’t think I could include any less of an excerpt to illustrate the drama of the story–a short trip from one small town to another, across a barren plain in Russia as told by a young boy traveling in the company of a group of brutish men, without his family for the first time. The story, almost plotless, is almost all profound and naive description like this–of things the boy thinks he sees. Animals, wind, the sun and moon, natural landmarks of rocks and trees, and manmade discrepancies along the terrain transform from benign and familiar to threatening and mysterious and back in the eyes of the boy, while remaining consistent or going entirely unnoticed by the range of his rogue yet sympathetic traveling companions and exotic village encounters. Along the way, all embodied both good and evil.

The articles in this issue of the journal on some level relay similar ideas about travel, emptiness, and the unknown: journeys of the mind and into dark or foreign territory and the consequent beauty of discovery. There is an article by professor emeritus at Yale, Alan Trachtenberg, “Imaginary Nation: Photographic Constructions of America”, on the imagery of photographers Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander in light of complex theories by thinkers Alexis de Tocqueville and Jean Baudrillard. I’ve written three more articles on: La Congiunta, the Hans Josephsohn museum in Tessin, a small, isolated town in Switzerland one must journey to visit–in fact, the path to the museum is as much part of the experience as the interior; the four day excursion of young Swedish artist Hilda Hellstrom to Fukushima to build pots with the only remaining inhabitant of the city from the radioactive clay of his fields; and the work of photographer Kenro Izu who has travelled throughout India, Butan, China, Nepal, and Egypt to capture serene landscapes and eroded palaces, often, paradoxically, where tyranny and violence reign. (That is his photograph above). I also had the privilege of interviewing Duane Michals on his new paintings, Judith Tannenbaum on the work of Lynda Benglis, and Pauline Vermare on the early work of Christer Stromholm. I think it will be obvious in which ways these artists have ventured away from the familiar, if not by literally traveling and cultural immersion, then figuratively through thinking and creating, and how they have broken free of “consensus reality” (a favorite term of Michals) to define their own.

The young boy’s journey through Chekhov’s “Steppe” was a series of episodes of the frenetic activity of his imagination woven with his poetic contemplation of the cool, eery silence emitted from the landscape. In the midst of his story, one night he feels completely alone and forgets himself, absorbed by the immensity of the wide, open plain. I believe many artists seek this type of empty or indefinite space to create, on the outskirts or in between geneses of society–where human lives are obviously only episodic. I will end my notes here and open the issue with these words by sculptor Hans Josephsohn (May 1920 – August 2012):

“I have spent sixty years, day after day working away calmly in my studio. I have simply followed my imagination…. All the crises, the human ones that occur in life, and all the possible adventures and all the paths through the woods where you don’t know how you will get out again, they have all taken place in my studio.”

—Ashley Booth Klein