By Kevin Rouff
On my drive back to school, following a circuitous route traced by an often mysterious family friend, I had the fortune to come across many landscapes and landmarks that form, in my mind at the least, integral constituents of Americana: the Grand Canyon, vast expanses of deserts split by soft-shouldered roads simmering in the heat, Yosemite, Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forests.
At many sights along the way, ranging from Brothels on highway 95 in Nevada to Tuolumne County’s Chinese Camp, from the “scenic view” to simply a “historical marker,” signs and panels would direct my gaze towards these places in such a way that I could easily find them, take a photo and move on, regardless of what I was actually looking at.
I ate it up.
I was purposefully driving to see certain sights that I considered worthwhile based on iconic photos I had previously seen or on landmark names sprawled on my map, and I encountered others along the way that, through markers, were deemed important. By the time I reached Yosemite Valley, I was craning my neck out of my window looking for any of those iconic Ansel Adams photographs. What I found instead was what looked essentially like a university campus: paved bikeways dotted by quaint picnic tables adorned with beer guzzlers, nestled under the truly impressive mountains.
Searching for these preconceived images (and usually not finding them) is not unusual, as it is part of a monumentalized vision of our nation — of any nation — that is often propagated through images. These images are often what we seek; our eyes are looking for the same viewpoint that we have previously seen on social media, Google Images, or the more iconic images by certain photographers. Jon Szarkowski noted that photography is comparable to the “act of pointing,” and by way of this, the stream of images becomes markers. What is pointed to is then deemed worthy to be a “sight,” “monument,” “national” something or “historical.”
“Anything is potentially an attraction,” says Dean MacCannell in his book “The Tourist.” “It simply awaits one person to take the trouble to point it out to another as something noteworthy, as worth seeing.”
Greg Stimac, a recent MFA graduate from Stanford, explored many of these iconic images and sights through his own work, shaking our visual foundations, revealing voids or using this very same “monumentalization” of objects to his advantage.
For instance, in one of his works, “Old Faithful Inversion,” the YouTube found-footage is looped and inverted on film, resulting in a languid and endless video of the iconic geyser, now stripped and given an eerie feeling of premonition and warning.
Stimac told me about one man, who, though having lived and worked in Jackson Hole for years, stared for a long period of time at this work and only after reading the title did he understand this was the iconic geyser of the U.S., for the image given was one that did not fit the monumentalized image of historical art and the contemporary flood of images.
It’s as if Stimac is pointing to the transience of these symbols as they are —not just because Yellowstone might erupt into a super volcano — but rather because the concept of these monuments themselves are undergoing dramatic shifts.
In a garage sale, a phenomenon Stimac also speaks of as being a “history lesson” in his article “Home is Where We Take It,” I recently picked up a book by Tom Philip in which he explores how postcards effect the images we have of Americana and how a sight becomes in effect “a postcard reproduction of itself.”
What can be seen today is a similar change in landscape, where the icons begin to exist not as actual symbols of historical or cultural significance, but rather as depositories for our photographic eyes, as yet another line on the bucket list, and they are sold commercially as such.
We go to Yosemite, to the Eiffel Tower, to the Great Wall or even the Golden Gate carrying with us a preconception, an image already formed from Google Images or social media.
Today, when we visit, we are not seeing for the first time, but rather we are going to confirm and revalidate what has already been seen. We often read guidebooks to assure ourselves that we have traveled to the correct spot and taken away and consumed the best that we could, be it the photos, food, markets or temples.
The monuments signified in historical art and contemporary media thus lose their roles as signifiers themselves. We no longer see a unique construct of the human or natural forces but rather an inexact replica of the view we were mentally seeking prior to physically perceiving it.
This occurs to the extent that in a current work in progress by Stimac in which he set up audio recordings of the hordes of multi-national tourists at Mount Rushmore to serve as the soundtrack to handheld touristic-styled video shots of the monument, one can hear a little girl ask her father, “Is that the real Mount Rushmore?”
Yet is this recent artistic focus on the symbolic shift around tourism and monuments criticizing the tourist? I would argue that it is not — at least not directly. It is too easy to dislike tourists, to search for the path less taken and to pretend that “I’m not a tourist.”
Dean MacCannell’s book “The Tourist,” which has recently enjoyed more commercial success than when it was originally published, probably due to the artistic interest in this field, maintains that “we are all tourists,” and yet in the newer edition he remarks that he did not intend for the use of the word “touristic” to take on a negative connotation.
What recent art, more specifically recent Stanford art, aims to do is redirect the unconsciously directed gaze, the gaze that has been led by the geyser of cyber images. Professor Joel Leivick has a new series, “The Rapture,” which debuted at the Stanford Art Gallery last week, in which he photographs, remarkably closely, tourists glaring upwards through their camera screens. The tourists wear expressions that are remarkably dumbfounded, confused, and/or in rapture with hanging jaws, all lit by the same warm light of Rome’s Pantheon interior.
His photos, previously often landscapes, now point back towards the very same viewers of art, those in the Pantheon and us gazing in a similar manner at them, without a negative tone but rather one that lifts them up to the same stature of the art itself. With Leivick gazing down into his flip-screen, the tourists gazing up, and Leivick’s camera gazing horizontally forward, we are presented with a multifaceted view of the monument and art itself without actually seeing the works. In doing so, Leivick gives us a new art: his own photographs.
I cannot jump to the conclusion that these artists are criticizing the tourism of today — that thought is cliché and a much larger discussion — but rather it seems we are given views that, just like the previously discussed markers, point anew. Why are we going to this temple or that glacier deposit anyways? Why am I taking this photo? And if it really is a form of mimicry, what does this imply for the role of the artist or the photographer? Besides, most art is often a form of copying, of inspiration; the photograph itself came from the concept of copy with a negative inversion, and it recopies this impression on paper. How can my own art, perhaps as a tourist, reflect anew upon an age-old subject?
These questions are not for me to answer, but rather are products of this ubiquitous tourism. And in themselves, they prove to be of much artistic value — if not simply food for thought.