“The calamity of the rightless is not that they are deprived of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or of equality before the law and freedom of opinion — formulas which were designed to solve problems within given communities — but that they no longer belong to any community whatsoever” — Hannah Arendt
The photographer Mark Ruwedel is often, and not inaccurately, described as a forensic topographer – a term that fuses together the studious neutrality of the landscape work exhibited in The New Topographics (1975), with the scientific and analytical distance of an anthropological survey. Ruwedel’s emergence into photography, informed as it was by his interest in landforms and the work of Robert Smithson, has certainly lent to his photographs a rigorous and expansive point of view. However, the layered complexities of Westward the Course of Empire (2008) developed out of the inexplicable disjuncture that exists between differing periods of history, and differing conceptions of time. In this the work pointed up the limits of measurement, and of documentary records, when confronted by the task of bringing to life a way of thinking about a future that has long since become a part of the past. In Westward Ruwedel took up the position and perspective of a late 19th or early 20th century prospector or surveyor, but in regions of North America where the passage of time has unpicked the stability of their own expansive projections. Ruwedel’s photographs in that work demonstrated the ephemerality of ambition, the invisibility of imperial vision, and the indifference of ecological processes to the logic of the American frontier. All this is to say that at the root of Ruwedel’s systematic approach, there are fundamentally human questions about the scope and sustainability of individual and collective aspirations for stability, for a beneficent future, or for a clearer sense of our place in the world.
In the ongoing series Crossing, Ruwedel’s photographs continue his decades-long survey of a western landscape full of relics, fossils, and the degraded skeletal remains of industrial and individual ambition. However these photographs deliver a simultaneously harsh and tender measure of irony, in that they are comprised of the relics of migrants who have sought passage north across the United States’ southern border — a flight from harm, or a pilgrimage toward opportunity no different in its essence from the westward journey across the American frontier. These new colour landscapes in a sense give us an image of the ancestral siblings of early nineteenth century settlers, bonded in a common search for new freedoms and opportunities, but segregated by the strictures of identity politics and the closure of a once open space.