artists & participants
In H.G. Wells' disturbing vision of the future, The Time Machine (1895), humanity is divided into two classes: the Eloi — naïve and childlike beings that live in a pantomime paradise—and the Morlocks—trollish creatures whose appearance belies their fierce power and ability to lure the Eloi to their deaths. The Eloi, doomed to perpetually reenact the expulsion from the garden, are drawn by the Morlocks towards an unmasking of their fraudulent paradise. It is a clear division of those who dwell in the sun and those in the darkness, between a hapless good and an instinctive evil. Wells' powerful allegory successfully warns of our unremitting desire to create artificial paradises that shield us from the harsh realities of existence. Such futile efforts are more likely to reveal the frailty of our counterfeit constructions than satisfy our longings. Naming the Eloi after the biblical plea, "My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Eloi, leman sabach thani?), Wells clearly places his simple beings—and by extension us—in an environment fallen from original grace; however, their very existence is also a prayer for redemption.
ELOI: STUMBLING TOWARDS PARADISE begins ‘after the fall,' when Adam and Eve, who previously had never questioned their nakedness, are cast from the Garden of Eden and forced to grapple with issues of shame and imperfection. Their goal thereafter is to regain their innocence and a place in paradise, which can be paralleled with our own existential longing for that which is missing in our lives, a quest for perfection, and pursuit of meaning which, like theirs, is never achieved. Ejected from Eden and forced to make our way in the world by our own labor and cunning, we have devolved; some of us are Eloi, prostrating ourselves through vegetarianism and meditation in an attempt to atone for our original sin; others are Morlocks who commit monstrous acts of violence and aggression. Viewed from this post-expulsion dystopia, the works in ELOI serve to highlight our attempts to extract significance from our lives and fill the paradise-shaped hole in our heart.
This sense of vulnerability and loss is poignantly felt in Malerie Marder's choreographed nudes photographed at various locations across California's Inland Empire in seedy pay-by-the-hour motels. The few furnishings are odes to kitsch—gaudy lampshades and garish curtains—evocative of itinerant porn shoots so familiar to the Southern Californian psyche. Despite their brazen nakedness, Marder's subjects remain too fully conscious of their bare-skin to convince us that they are shameless. Ill at ease and diffident as if involved in an illicit act, the lone woman in Untitled (From the Inland Empire Series) (2004) looks diminished in stature as she clutches her knees in an attempt at modesty. Not all Marder's subjects are completely nude: one man wears his underpants like a fig leaf. Another series of portraits extends her sentiment of the lost Eden. These smaller portraits—shot from the waist up—present a less self-conscious posture. Photographed in color, they are set within woodland surroundings that are reduced to black and white, creating an immediate temporal detachment from figure and ground. Nature becomes a painted backdrop that the subjects cannot occupy, a black and white past, a utopian country club where they are no longer members. They are resigned to being cast out. In contrast, Rest (2006), a video compilation of these same characters, and others, taped while sleeping, returns them to their lost kingdoms. In their dreams they are free and uninhibited and may run barefoot in the garden without fear of hurting their feet.
If Marder's subjects are lamenting their lost Eden, then Tracy Powell's landscapes are pretending—albeit unconvincingly—that paradise still exists. In Untitled (diptych) (2005), lush and fecund vegetation grows rampant and inexorably. Paradise, however, remains unattainable for it can only be viewed from behind a stark black railing that prevents re-admission. It is a nature distant and out of bounds that we may only glimpse as we move hurriedly past in denial of our detachment. The barrier suggests a diorama, an anthropological relic tucked away in a natural history museum, to be studied and scrutinized making the separation between man and nature—Eden—all the more poignant. This idea is further explored in another work, Untitled (2006), depicting an idyllic conjoining of a mountaintop with clouds viewed between the dark window mullions of an abandoned ski-lift platform. Again, although clearly visible, the experience of paradise is ultimately deferred—an alluring siren that remains tantalizingly out of reach.
In order to postpone the deadline of our inevitable mortality, we attempt to create grand statements that will outlive us; monuments, shrines, palaces to culture and other material deities—all efforts to disguise and keep the unpleasantness of reality at bay. These impulses come in many impressive forms: impossibly tall and ambitious architectural structures; great engineering feats such as dams that change the course and flow of water to regions thousands of miles apart, bridges of improbable spans and colossal art works in the form of sculpted mountains and circular quays–earthworks that use the land itself as tool and material. Knowing that such monuments will have a greater longevity than ourselves, we believe their existence will stand in for our lack of it. Like the Tower of Babel—planned so high that it might reach the Heavens—such arrogant gestures will not only fail to create a godly parity, but ultimately highlight our corporeal nature.
Liset Castillo's aerial photographs of her large-scale sandcastle models of intricate freeway interchanges express this dichotomy well. The ephemeral nature of the sand not only reminds us of the impermanence and eventual demise of any human-made structure but of the humans who make them. Castillo's photographs save for posterity these extravagant structures—utopian dreams—too fantastic to endure. As in the P.B. Shelley poem of the forgotten potentate Ozymandias (1818), whose grand but ruined achievements still boast, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" these immaculately sculpted and intricately imagined highway interchanges project the illusion of purpose, sense of order, and proof of existence that we so desperately need.
That same desire for systems that regiment, organize, and dictate existence is evidenced in Castillo's Lakewoodism (2003),—a large photograph of a room-sized beach-sand model of the first tract house community in Southern California. Built in the 1950s, and since regarded as the first fully functioning planned community, Lakewood represents the ideal of suburbia: a grid with rows and columns of indistinguishable houses, matching front and back yards, and in the middle of nowhere. Eulogized and condemned in equal measure in D.J Waldie's memoir Holy land, (1996), Castillo's Lakewoodism presents a contradictory image of order and potential collapse. The houses rest on a massive pile of dirt that, like the rest of California, is subject at any moment to disruption and ruin by earthquakes and/or land developers. Todd Hido describes another suburbia (that could pass just as well as a ghost town). His houses resemble one another in their design profiles but are individual in their desolation: the derelict neighborhoods reek of sterility, decay, and disappointment. Shot largely in Northern California, they represent the failure of the American dream and remind us of our isolation and estrangement, and that we have become, like the builders of Babel, cut off irretrievably from each other.
If a modicum of hope existed, however slight, in the work previously discussed, then it has been completely abandoned in Alex Slade and Miles Coolidge's view of the world. Evidence of our imperfection and unequivocal realization that paradise cannot be re-gained is glaringly apparent in Alex Slade's series of apocalyptic landscapes of various non-sites across the Inland Empire. Slade's barren tableaux depict the region as one continuous construction site, where everything is in the process of being built or dismantled and nothing is ever complete. Characterized by episodic piles of dirt, miles of scaffolding and unsightly distribution centers, the Inland Empire and its utopian named citadels—Sugarloaf, Sun City, and Sunnyslope—represents the netherworld of the Californian wonderland. Miles Coolidge's view is bleaker as his collection of raised highway drawbridges—digitally manipulated to appear fully perpendicular—suggests our inability to escape the imperfect world that we have created. Upright, perforated, and flat, these massive trellises tease us with paradise across the way by allowing the perfect blue sky to filter through. Utterly impenetrable and reminiscent of high-security perimeter fencing, they skillfully reinforce the idea of incarceration. Coolidge's Accident investigation Site, 2006, an 8 x 18 feet depiction of a freeway pit stop, is brutally austere. Photographed from above, the large expanse of asphalt reads like a monochrome painting, its surface distressed by unidentifiable marks and mysterious stains that discolor the predominantly grey facade—an indication of our imperfection and random expiration.
With its exceptional climate, sparkling ocean, and idyllic landscape, California is often regarded as a terrestrial paradise—fittingly named after the utopian island ruled by Queen Califia from a romance novel written in 1510. The reality, however, is less than ideal. As the frequency of natural disasters such as rampant forest fires, fatal landslides, and polluted eco-systems increases, and the social, economic, and ethnic divisions widen, it becomes clear that we are systematically and unapologetically destroying our Eden by trading our deserts for discount malls, our forests for real-estate opportunities. Instead of an earthly nirvana, California could more closely resemble the purgatory found by the Joad family in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939), who journeyed across America in search of the promised land only to be confronted with extreme exploitation, hardship, and disillusionment. Despite the inescapable perception that we have lost our Eden, we continue to build our Towers of Babel—artful constructions weighted with entropy—and like the Time Traveler who deferred death by delaying it, we too attempt to forge our sell-by dates through surgical procedures, cryogenics, and irrational beliefs.
Ciara Ennis UCR/California Museum of Photography Curator of Exhibitions 2007
only in german
ELOI: Stumbling Toward Paradise
Kurator: Ciara Ennis
mit Liset Castillo, Miles Coolidge, Todd Hido, Malerie Marder, Tracy Powell, Alex Slade