The Democracy of Universal Vulnerability: Vanessa Winship’s “she dances on Jackson”

The Democracy of Universal Vulnerability: Vanessa Winship’s “she dances on Jackson”

The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me, all things being grasped, related, re-created, moulded, and reconstructed in a personal form and an original manner.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

If there is a theme with which I am particularly concerned, it is the contemporary failure of love. I don’t mean romantic love or sexual passion, but the love which is the specific and particular recognition of one human being by another — the response by eye and voice and touch of two solitudes. The democracy of universal vulnerability.

— Isabella Gardner, from her Collected Poems

I.

From the very outset, she dances on Jackson is threaded together by the shifting contours of a line – one that splits and spreads into twinned forms, suggesting a pairing or an echo, a gesture that traces the movement of two separate but temporarily aligned forces, drawing together disparate figures in an arc that forms a unity of sensation from ostensibly separate objects. This line, properly speaking, is both analogy and metaphor. It equates multiple separate but interwoven experiences – a multiplicity of voices – and at one and the same time stands for the movement and activity that brought these images into the world. While the images in this work are not autobiographical in any conventional sense, and while the trajectory we are invited to undertake through each picture is not analogous or equivalent to some form of confessional statement, the line that threads through the work makes a piece of the variegated loss, tenderness and aspiration of all those whose indelible presence has left its mark in the life of the photographer, and in the shape of these images. In this sense, the opening photograph makes over the progression of each image into a journey mirrored by a set of ripples spreading out on the surface of the page, as they do over the river, like an expanding reverberation – drawing things together even as they become ever more distant.

These photographs were made during a period of intense grieving, which matters in terms of the images only insofar as that individual trauma has served to produce some meaningful intimacy between two or more strangers. Meaningful in terms of intimacy because an effort to live with that grief can lead to a recognition of our essential and unstinting commonality – can open up the strictures of a solipsistic emotion just enough to embrace or accommodate the lives of others. To think of photographs in terms of intimacy is, at least reflexively, to think of portraiture. However, were we to dismiss our interdependency, our susceptibility to the landscape through which we move — were we to forget the connective action of the line — we would run the risk of lapsing into a sense of independence we have never truly possessed. Our beliefs and our forgetfulness are inscribed in the habits that shape the land we occupy, however tenuously, and the figure of the line in this work draws those things together with the tenor of sadness, and resilience that characterises the acute historical moment of its making.

A superficial reading of these images might tend toward a focus on the repetitive geometry of separation, as this line recurs in differing forms through the trajectory of the images. They are themselves so frequently full of lines, taking the alternating forms of barriers, paths, tracks, telegraph poles, bridges, traffic lanes, fences, pylons, and lampposts, to name but a few… There is an undeniable sadness in these pictures that is at once cognate with the circumstance of the photographer who created them, and simultaneously generous in its recognition of the necessity of togetherness in a landscape so expert in the production of profound alienation. Sadness here is of a type that is expressed — as perversely as this may seem — in the gesture of empathetic connection between individual hardship and isolation, and thus it is grounded in the effort at reaching past despair – itself a deadening emotion – toward curiosity and community. Perhaps nowhere more so than in the portraiture, we are invited to recognise the immense virtue of that interval where a subject, a viewer and a fragment of the world in which we share are joined together, and made meaningful in their coincidence — an interval wherein distance can collapse as it is transformed by reciprocity.

At points, the reverberating shape of that line describes the repetitive limitations of function, as though the industry of the westward march toward progress had seared the figure of the wagon trail into the logic of American space, in an unending declaration of the supremacy of productivity above all else. Given the relative youthfulness of the nation, and given its improbable breadth, where the landscape has finally been abandoned the remains are invariably anachronistic in their sudden disconnection from the steady drum of activity afoot elsewhere – each cycle of growth passing swiftly through use to disuse, with little if any reuse in evidence. In this kind of landscape there are few if any visible layers to this history, so that loss can so nakedly be revealed as to make loneliness a metonym for the passage of time. Wild flowers and weeds seem more resourceful in their reclamation of what will no longer serve…

There are images sufficiently rich in this kind of intricate texture to function almost as pure metaphor. In one such landscape, we are given a burial mound that eerily resembles a heap of carcasses overgrown by neatly clipped grass, and crested by a stag sculpted in stone — a burial mound which in its ornamentation calls attention precisely to that which we cannot see. Such an image might make one think through the surface to the underlying strata of the unnamed dead: the impoverished labourer in the factory or mill, the Chinese immigrant in the snaking rail tracks, the Negro slave at the core of modern industry, the Native American in everything except the present tense. The invisible American dead are legion, and as evanescent and elusive as the deer themselves — their legacy no less proud, their deeds mostly buried alongside their bodies. What is wild in this terrain is so often the manner of its construction and casual neglect. Those cluttered symbols of American virility — the stalking deer, the lumbering bear — are as numbered as the highways against which their freedom is mapped, the correlation of wilderness to animals roughly mirroring the ratio of hunters to guns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If we can see the dead rising through the bowed arch of a burial mound, we might feel the heavy passage of rain over the jagged flanks of Zabriskie Point, sense some primordial resurrection of nature, see the deadening whirlpool circuitry of profit and productivity in the overlapping wheel-tracks of many flatbed trucks, see the colony under the cement, sense the unwavering proximity of many times in one, the alternating grasps of history, presence and forgetting passing along the surface of things, drawing us – on occasion – toward the view that unity and plurality are not opposing forces, that we are not inevitably mere subjects of history, that we need not be reduced by our difference.

where the dead are no longer sleeping, or lying
awake,
though the spirit is creeping, inchwise, through
mortar and blood,
unpicking the fabric, renewing the face of the earth.

John Burnside “Rain” from The Hunt in the Forest

 

II.

Why is there such an urge to encompass America — or at least that part of the North American continent that is the United States? Why this drive to swallow the country whole — to know it as one knows a lover, to reveal its innermost essence — when it was born of many parts, a federation of different states of place and mind? Perhaps it is the vastness of the undertaking that draws us in, the immensity of the task. Perhaps it is the ineffability of this country, its significance so great that it invites description even while it defies it. Or perhaps it is because America is really a mirror, and in the process of describing it we cannot help but describe ourselves. If this is the case, what is at issue in books about America is not just the quality of observation, but the construction of history.

Andy Grundberg “The Itinerant Vision” in American Prospects by Joel Sternfeld

As against the tradition of photography as the map-making of foreign lands, she dances on Jackson does not proceed from some point of equilibrium outside of a place these photographs seek to chart, but rather from within: the images are made from positions that are proximate to, intimate with and often subject to the particular rhythms and the often tragic grace of each landscape and of its inhabitants. The photographs wear their own curiosity openly, and speak frequently and with unassuming frankness to the transitory nature of the relationship the photographer has had to the geography from which the shape of this work has been fashioned. Consequently the images are iterative and episodic, often foregoing comprehensive description for metaphor, or totality for ellipsis. Rather than expound a detailed thesis, they concentrate on the meaningful fortuity of resonances that connect the present with its disappearing past, forging a link between the impermanent surface of modernity and the indifference of the natural environment, or noting with clear-eyed appreciation the unalterable similarities that repeat across groups of people typically segregated from one another by race, class or gender. In this the photographs depict the point at which the present and history intersect.

Such resonances arise in the way that a cross resembles a hanging man then a tree then a lynching then a near mythical beginning, far distant and near apocryphal. Some ragged cotton plants, a railroad built by slavery in the service of an industrial revolution that freed capital at a far greater rate than it did the individual, and a splintering tree collapsing under the weight of its thirst – an image in which no single element has purchase on the land, or even the intimation of a relationship to anything else. Through the seemingly unfiltered, raw quality of these landscapes, one can sense the body of histories shouldering their way back into the present, the horizon line distending, the vertical distorting – as in something slowly rent asunder, or something giving birth: an insistent resonant pattern everywhere extending of things being drawn together, or falling steadily apart.

I was those changes, the live darknesses
Of wood, the pale grain of a grove in the fields
Over the river fronting red cliffs across—
And always surrounding her the river, birdcries, the wild
Father building his sand, the mother in panic her parks—
Bridges were thrown across, the girl arose
From sleeping streams of change in the change city.
The violent forgetting, the naked sides of darkness.
Fountain of a city in growth, and island of light and water.
Snow striking up past the graves, the yellow cry of spring.

Whatever can come to a city can come to this city.

— Muriel Rukeyser Waterlily Fire

Allan Trachtenberg writes that “[b]y reflex alone photographs produce memory”, and in those depictions of devastation or emptiness it is a gentle patterning of human absence that characterises that which is most dilapidated – not the emptiness of a heroic abstraction but the small basic tragedy of absent people where once life may have thrived. At the fringes of a major city there is the distant view of things forever rising up above meagre neighbourhoods moored in a kind of stubborn decay — the remoteness not just metric, but irreversibly metaphoric. Perpetual motion seems the most common means of escape, and thus on all sides we are to some extent ringed by the prospect of escaping to some other elsewhere – bounded by at least the possibility of escape. And yet this is at one and the same time a land where roads are steadily breaking apart in such a way that the segmenting slabs of tarmac seem like tectonic breaks, a form of separateness that is both complicated and resolved within the portraits, as though each personal encounter somehow mitigated the enormity of an unforgiving terrain.

The occasionally primordial landscape makes a mantra of the nation’s immensity – its majestic extension so unbroken it seems to produce a kind of faith in the very seeing of it. To imagine a togetherness between such extraordinary extremes seems an improbability – were the actions of policy and the habit of many years of separation not enough, the realities themselves seem irreconcilable. The photographs deal with the complexities of memory not only within the ambit of death and its memorialisation, but in terms of cultural history also. At points they depict a landscape more heavily populated with the symbolism of animal life than the deep historic legacy of the first people ever to populate it – horizons and window displays peppered with a tragic reverence for a natural history that can no longer accommodate the Native Americans who first found a balance with all its elements.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In many of these images we see words etched onto the surface of things: improvised monuments erected in the landscape, or even graveyards – a form of writing in the earth. My sense is that these have a lot to do both with the effort of memory and the power of forgetting, but with the necessity of communication also – the writing in its individual effect in the images seems to be about carving out a space to say publicly that which should not to be forgotten, whether on skin or in the bark of a banyan tree. If “any belief that is acted on makes the world in its image,” as Rebecca Solnit writes, then in the landscape of shadowy banyan trees, the words “Earth is Home”mark both a certain hope and desperation in their need to proclaim as home what has grown in the earth for centuries, as though pain and some bold declaration are a necessary part of an act that seeks to express sympathy with what is dearly loved.

In the portraiture we are given images that address race by including it without invective – by insisting first, last and most consistently on the individual connection between subject and photographer, in lieu of a dramatisation of difference or some other grand abstraction. In their entirety, these portraits of Latino or African-American subjects tender to us a visible index of the brief connection made between two or more strangers, and in that way insist on at least the possibility of equality, whether it is one we instinctually feel we share, or one we might understand ourselves to be compelled to reach for by sheer virtue of the image’s richness and lucidity.

So often in these photographs the major note is one of resolve, a sense of people quietly grappling with the weight of an expected way of being, relying sometimes on pride and the insuperable momentum of the will. At other times we are given a certain unflinching openness so tender that its generosity all but overwhelms. Gentleness, so often the butt of our scornful sophistication, is in this work most telling for its spontaneity – its seemingly effortless expression. Such gentleness seems not so much a means of resistance to the pressure of worldly hardships as a willingness to disregard – even momentarily – the gravity of their injustice. A refusal to acknowledge anything other than a willingness to give freely as inevitable.

 

III.

In this infancy of our adventure, America is a mystic Word. We go forth all to seek America. And in the seeking we create her.” — Waldo Frank, Our America

If the major notes in this work revolve around connection and unity, separation and forgetting, then it is because they are built on a certain faith in the virtues of seeing the world as though everything were animate, essentially connected, and ceaselessly speaking in a way that can be clarified by the arbitrary but persuasive poetry of a photographic image. Looked at in this way, the opening image of the book depicts both a ripple in water and a mirror, the line of connecting sight drawing together attention and distance in a momentary unity so that we, looking in from outside, are bound up together, even as we acknowledge our separation from the individuated attractions of the subject delivered to us in the image. Subject and sight reciprocally constituting one in relation to an other. Seeing, in this sense, becomes a permanent possibility of recognising difference while refusing to be reduced to it, or as the poet Isabella Gardner wrote, “the specific and particular recognition of one human being by another — the response by eye and voice and touch of two solitudes. The democracy of universal vulnerability.” It is in this way that this work manages to show that we can be changed by something as ineffably minor as a photograph.

Artist(s): Medium: vanessa.winship[at]gmail.com Site: http://www.vanessawinship.com

2 Responses to The Democracy of Universal Vulnerability: Vanessa Winship’s “she dances on Jackson”

  1. amazing photos and essay

    • j’ai visité l’exposition de vous à Paris (at Henri Cartier Bresson)
      C`est manifique. :)

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