‘Altering the Landscape a Little Bit’ (excerpt)

Anti-assimilationism in Collier Schorr’s Blumen and David Benjamin Sherry’s American Monuments


The view is geared
(that is, the view's perspective)
so low there is no "far away,"
and we are far away within the view.

Elizabeth Bishop, The Monument

I can’t write a nature poem
bc it’s fodder for the noble savage
narrative. I wd slap a tree across the face,
I say to my audience.

Tommy Pico, Nature Poem

In 2005, the lesbian, Jewish, American photographer Collier Schorr began shooting Blumen, or “flowers,” a series that features ornamental and wild flowers artificially suspended by thread just above the landscape of southern Germany. Unsettling and ambiguous, the images transgress both generic boundaries—between landscape and still life, between contrived assemblage and documentary photograph—and legal boundaries. To construct them, Schorr broke into neighbors’ yards, picked flowers from their gardens, then relocated them to another property to construct and photograph the small tableau. She notes:

It’s the opposite of arranging a still life in a studio with a table—and unlimited time. Here, you tie a flower to two or three sticks and hope it stays up. After I take the picture, I take a step back and look at this little theater or shrine to nothing that I’ve built and then tear it down. The picture is a document of a public sculpture or an act of vandalism.

even further:

There’s something illicit about the Blumen photos, a literal trespassing. In order to get the flowers, I have to go into strangers’ gardens and yards to steal them. Then I have to go someplace that’s not my place and build this thing; within minutes, the flowers begin to wilt, changing shape and color. And inevitably, the wind blows them down… It’s the perfect illustration of the term deracinated. 1

In their ambivalence towards the boundaries between public and private, Schorr’s “shrines to nothing” involve themselves in a lineage of queer subjects that arrive obliquely into the public sphere. Her transgression of public-private boundaries acknowledges that those public arrivals frequently occur by way of the private spaces of the domestic interior, privately-owned bars and bookstores, and “the closet”; or, through the appropriation and misuse of public sites for the historically “private” activities that single-family domesticity disallows.2 3  Schorr’s transgressions suggest a queer political power that derives from a broad refusal of fixed categories of public and private. We might also see them as destabilizing the ways that landscape imagery has been used to sustain those categories. Schorr explicitly positions her photographs of the German “field and forest” in contrast to Nazi-era conservation policies, which deployed nationalist rhetoric of Lebensraum, or racialized “living space,” to protect the German forest as both a symbol of Aryan masculinity and ancient racial superiority, and a site for the perfection of Aryan bodies.4 5  She identifies a gendered dimension to the protection of the fields and forest, saying that, “the conservation of land in Germany was actually started by the Nazis as a way of protecting the monument that is the forest… in a sense there is a defense against modernity…a defense against sensuality and against femininity…in favor of athletics and self-sufficiency as a kind of ‘pure living.’”6 7  Schorr operates in that forest with small moves whose very ephemerality undermines a multivalent effort to naturalize white supremacy. Her images toy ironically with “deracination” and rootlessness: they find some affective and political power in the fact that their constructions will migrate and degrade outside of the image.8 9  But what interests me most is the way that all of these tactics comprise an aesthetic strategy of distancing. The visual impact of Schorr’s “shrines to nothing” is their ironic failure to integrate with a hostile but alluring landscape; their emotional impact is the photographs’ ironic refusal to offer their viewer a wholly resolved narrative. This respective failure and refusal is part of an attitude towards landscape representation that I will tentatively call anti-assimilationist.

Schorr’s Blumen sit in a lineage of landscape and still life imagery, but also depart from it through their conscious involvement of the biophysical landscape processes of dissolution, dispersal, and uneven colonization. By embracing landscape processes as parts of an artistic process, the Blumen images move away from pictorial logic of landscape photography and toward what the philosopher Timothy Morton has called a “politicized intimacy” between human and non-human nature. This mode, which Morton identifies as “queer ecology,” “necessitates thinking and practicing weakness rather than mastery, fragmentariness rather than holism, and deconstructive tentativeness rather than aggressive assertion” (emphasis mine), but also relies partly on the categorical estrangement of human from non-human nature.10 Schorr’s images challenge the perceived autonomy (or holism) of the photographic image by requiring us to imagine its making and dissolution. Even more radically, Schorr’s “little shrines to nothing” embrace cross-species difference to make fugitive, unassimilable landscapes that reject the totalizing ambitions of the fascist “field and forest.”

This essay will look at four contemporary photographers working with landscape in queer ways. Among them, I will argue that two photographers—Schorr and the American photographer David Benjamin Sherry—adopt an anti-assimilationist attitude. That is to say: their landscape works fail to comply with the conventions of landscape photography, and do so as a queer refusal of those conventions’ complicity in gendered, nationalist “ideology of the land.”11 I will focus on two series of works—Schorr’s Blumen and Sherry’s American Monuments—arguing that each anticipates a queer landscape aesthetic outside of nationalism and compulsory heterosexuality, and comprises a queer critique of landscape imagery’s entanglement with gendered ideas of rootedness, national belonging, and citizenship. I will argue that both artists find some aesthetic and political power in distancing, in “setting us far away within the view,” from the landscape itself and from landscape photography as a field circumscribed by formal and ontological conventions of legibility, order, and unification.12 In this regard, “anti-assimilationist landscape” is closely related to José Esteban Muñoz’s theory of disidentification as a queer strategy, as well as more recent discussions of distancing, refusal, and “bad affects” in photography and landscape aesthetics by Tina Campt, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Greet De Block and Vera Vicenzotti, Timothy Morton, Nicole Seymour, and others. Following Seymour, I believe that the “bad environmentalism” of Sherry’s Western landscape photographs and Schorr’s “memorials with a teasing manner” help us visualize the conditions under which landscape imagery doles out citizenship and nationality as part of repressive ideologies of the land.13 Schorr’s work in particular involves landscape processes with landscape iconography to enact both an aesthetics and a political ecology of difference. That is to say, her anti-assimilationist landscape works not only illustrate disidentification with/in a hostile landscape, they actively model it. This post-humanist attitude asks us to envision a political belonging made not through a human stewardship over the land, nor from a scarce natural power selectively imbued by it (eg: Nazi “Blood and Soil”), but through an abundant co-creation of meaning and political allegiance through difference.

Anti-assimilationist landscape is an oppositional way of thinking. As such, I plan to define it in the negative through close readings of recent works by Catherine Opie and Wolfgang Tillmans, two photographers whose works have addressed both queer landscape aesthetics and queer politics of assimilation and anti-assimilation without a politicized refusal of the conventions of landscape imagery or a politicized distancing from the landscape itself. I don’t mean to argue that their work is inherently reactionary, or that it contains no impulses towards politics of anti-assimilation or queer separatism, but rather that it enacts those political impulses through the prevailing pictorial orders of landscape photography. For the sake of this essay, those orders will include both the formal conventions of landscape imagery in the European tradition, as well as its epistemological conventions, namely the fixed relationship between a photographer and their subject and the photograph’s perceived ability to portray that relationship transparently. The goals of this mode are not to undo the complicity of landscape representation in the construction of a repressive politics, nor to establish an imagery outside of it, but rather to expand the scope of photography’s representation to include marginalized subjects. In this regard, I will argue that their work is a corrective project that makes previously undocumented queer politics legible to a broader audience. In contrast, I believe that Sherry and Schorr become illegible as a queer landscape practice.14

This discussion of legibility and illegibility informs the conclusion of this essay, which briefly contrasts anti-assimilationist landscape to persisting modes of “eco-revelatory design” in landscape architecture practice, theory, and pedagogy. Emerging in the late 1990s, eco-revelatory design seeks to make landscape processes legible as a way of inspiring environmentalist awareness in a disinterested or distracted public. I will focus on the concept of “hypernature,” as proposed by Michael van Valkenburgh Associates and interpreted by Elizabeth K. Meyer and Katherine E. Bennett, in which urban sites require exaggerated natures to help attune their human visitors to their processes of material flow, regeneration, and succession. I will suggest that hypernature emerges directly from the eco-revelatory discourse of the late 1990s and, more polemically, that it derives necessarily from a scarcity mindset. I will use this section to argue for the importance of anti-assimilationist modes of thinking with landscape, and for their potential impacts on design practice and pedagogy.

(1) Collier Schorr and David Velasco. 2008. “Collier Schorr Talks about Her ‘Blumen’ Series.” Artforum. Artforum International. August 4, 2008. https://www.artforum.com/interviews/collier-schorr-talks-about-her-blumen-series-20843.

(2)  see Maxine Wolfe. 1997. “Invisible Women in Invisible Places: The Production of Social Space in Lesbian Bars.” In Queers in Space: Communities / Public Spaces / Sites of Resistance, edited by Gordon Brent Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter, 301–24. Seattle: Bay Press.

(3)  see George Chauncey. 1996. “Privacy Could Only Be Had in Public: Gay Uses of the Streets.” In Stud: Architectures of Masculinity, edited by Joel Sanders, 224–67. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

(4)  Forest and Fields (Wald und Wiesen) is the title of the multivolume collection of Schorr’s images of southern Germany.

(5) Collier Schorr. “German Brutality and Roman Sensuality—Pictures of Soldiers in the Landscape.” Art 21. Art 21, n.d. Web.

(6) ibid.

(7)  More recent environmental histories of Nazi-era forestry trouble this narrative of conservation in modern Germany: in The Green and the Brown (2006), Frank Uekotter describes an uneven relationship between German conservationists and Nazi bureaucracy, with the former often opportunistically leveraging nationalist rhetoric towards its own environmentalist goals. Similarly, Tiago Saraiva would take issue with Schorr’s assertion (drawn from Simon Schama) that Nazi “ideology of the land” is uniquely anti-modern: his study Fascist Pigs: Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism (2018) posits that 20th century ecofascist ideologies in Germany, Italy, and the Iberian peninsula are a modernist project.

(8)  see recent discussions of the concept of Jewish “rootlessness” in Heidegger’s “black notebooks” by Sander L. Gilman, Donatella Di Cesare, Kimberly Maslin, and others.

(9)  Schorr notes that she usually leaves her constructions up after photographing them, “unless I really need the sticks.” Collier Schorr. 2012. “Art Salon | Book Launch | ‘Forest and Fields. Volume 2. Blumen.’” YouTube Video. Art Basel. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FR3ZqTnYwA.

(10)  Timothy Morton. 2010. “Guest Column: Queer Ecology.” PMLA 125 (2): 273–82. https://doi.org/10.1632/pmla.2010.125.2.273.

(11)  Tiago Saraiva. 2018. Fascist Pigs : Technoscientific Organisms and the History of Fascism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(12)  Elizabeth Bishop. 1946. North & South: A Cold Spring. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. I’m indebted to Nicholas Robbins for reminding me of this poem, written by a queer woman partnered to a landscape designer and architect.

(13)  Collier Schorr and Thomas Demand. 2008. “Collier Schorr in Conversation with Thomas Demand.” 032c. https://032c.com/collier-schorr-in-conversation-with-thomas-demand/

(14)  see discussion on “becoming illegible” by Jack Halberstam. 2018. “Publishing as Practice as Resistance.” Edited by Paul Souellis. 2018 New York Art Book Fair. Printed Matter, Inc. September 22, 2018. https://www.mixcloud.com/Printed_Matter_Inc/publishing-as-practice-as-resistance-by-paul-soulellis/.
©Ben Barsotti Scott 2019