Bill Fox, Director’s Fellow, National Museum of Australia, 25 May 2008
MIKE SMITH: We are still trying to locate Bill. He was around on Friday afternoon, knew the time and the place and was alive and well. I hope no misfortune has befallen him. I will do a formal introduction when and if he arrives. He’s a very complex writer, and it is hard to find a sentence that will summarise his work. What I want to do is read you a passage from one of his books to whet your appetite and show that he’s not the usual dry academic writer and certainly not the usual buttoned-up curator. It comes from a book of his called In the Desert of Desire: Las Vegas and the Culture of Spectacle. It’s the sort of book you want to read instantly just from the title. This sort of sums up the book:
Las Vegas offers us not only a place where the desert allows and even encourages the construction of an experiment but also a place to learn about the nature of reality and the reality of nature through the naked stratigraphy of its culture.
He is saying here that Las Vegas is a very brash place. He goes on to say:
And that, in turn, allows us to understand more about the role that museums and zoos play in our lives.
This book is really about the blurred lines between public and private spectacle in Las Vegas. He goes on to say:
Las Vegas enables you not only to gaze upon spectacle but also to sleep in its bed and have sex with it. … Las Vegas offers the simulacrum of such experiences on a mass scale that makes them affordable, and just as [Elizabeth] Widener bought a mix of real and re-created furnishings, so Las Vegas offers us a fake Venice but one with real paintings by Italian Renaissance masters. The fact that the spectacle is augmented by genuine artworks helps make it all the more believable as a whole. … The combination [of fake and real] provides a tangible provenance by association to European society; in Las Vegas it increases the illusion that you really are gambling with destiny on the playing fields of the rich and famous. That the illusion can be dangerous and even fatal only adds to the allure. Benjamin Siegel [an owner of one of the Las Vegas hotels] got his head blown off by a Mafia hit man, and Roy Horn [one of the performers in one of the spectacles] almost lost his to a white tiger. Such incidents add to the mystique of Las Vegas; they don’t diminish it.
This is a rather wonderful book that looks at the way in which the Mojave Desert is simply used as a blank canvas for the creation of an adult theme park which has very little sense of place. But within that theme park the boundaries between what a museum does and what the big casinos and hotels do is extraordinarily blurred so that one of the major art collections in western United States is held by one of the casinos and you enter the art collection from the gambling tables. But here is where the art is used - the appearance of an art gallery is part of the spectacle. The gallery isn’t operating as a true art gallery. There is no analysis; there is no provenancing; it’s part of the performance. But sometimes the performers are the same people: the people who work in the Los Angeles regional art museums are also hired by the casinos to set up their exhibitions. So there is an incredible blurring of illusion and reality that is going on in Las Vegas, which is wonderfully explored in Bill’s book In the Desert of Desire. Even if we don’t see the actual real Bill Fox, his book is certainly worth reading.
His work goes beyond simply an examination of Las Vegas and the culture of spectacle, a lot of his work deals with the creation of social landscapes: the way in which the human mind perceives land and, in turn, creates landscapes. In this he’s in a grand tradition of North American geographers. Some of you may be familiar with John Brinckerhoff Jackson, an American geographer writing in the 1970s. He wrote a book titled The Necessity for Ruins and Other Topics, a rather wonderful book. But at the same time in North America in the 1970s, Yi-Fu Tuan was writing about space and place. One of Yi-Fu Tuan’s quotes [from his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience] is used by Bill and rather well sums up these other aspects of his work and his writings:
What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. … Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place.
This is a strong theme right throughout Bill’s work. It’s the transformation of space into place. So the project he’s doing while he is with us, All Along the Line, is looking at some of those distinctive Australian places, but in this case he is choosing lines like the Canning Stock Route or the rabbit proof fence.
I am going to do an introduction for Bill in the hope that he does turn up and, if not, I am just going to recommend his books. These Sunday afternoons are an opportunity for Friends of the Museum and a wider audience to meet the writers and researchers who now flow through the Museum, and Bill Fox is a good example of the sorts of people who are coming through the Museum now. He was awarded a National Museum Fellowship for three months to spend some time with us. We are very interested in his work relating place, landscape and space. He’s a freelance environmental writer based in western USA but he’s also been the assistant director of the Nevada Art Gallery. He’s been on their board of advisers and so has a strong foot in the museum world as well.
Bill Fox has written a very wide range of books. Mapping the Empty: Eight Artists and Nevada looks at the way contemporary desert artists have described the land. The Void, the Grid and the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin is an exploration of the intersection between art and cartography mainly in the US. He has written a book on Antarctica, [Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent] which is a history of scientific mapping there. He has written a wonderful book called Driving to Mars, which takes a particular extreme landscape in the Canadian High Arctic on Devon Island. There’s a crater there called Haughton Crater. NASA has been using it as an analogue for the terrain on Mars. Haughton Crater is where they test their space suits and their all-terrain Mars vehicles. ‘Driving to Mars’ refers to the fact that Bill was involved with driving a Humvee to the island across the winter ice, which took his fancy. But again, this is an example of how humans intersect with very extreme landscapes. It’s not so much a deeply reflective book as a straight narrative of the work that is going on there and a particular field season.
He’s also written the book I have read the initial quote from - In the Desert of Desire - which promises an exploration of art, sex, animals and spectacle in Las Vegas, so it’s a very readable book.
His current book All Along the Line is largely based in Australia but also looks at Chile and other parts of the world taking long cultural axes across a landscape as his platform for a range of explorations about environmental ideas. In that book he is taking the Alaska pipeline in North America as well as the world’s longest line of poetry which is written on about two kilometres of desert in the Atacama. He is fascinated by the Australian desert, which is marked by a whole series of lines - the Canning Stock Route, the Stuart Highway, the Overland Telegraph Line and so forth - and he has taken a selection of them as part of his project. I don’t think that book will be completed until next year, and his fellowship is only a small part of that. He has also, quite interestingly for us, taken the Uluru Line, which forms part of the architecture of the Museum, as one of his lines. You probably are familiar with the arch and the red line that threads its way through the building, which the architects say points to Uluru. I think we did our own calculations and worked out it probably pointed to Beijing as well, which set us up well for the coming century. But anyway, Bill is taking that as one of his themes.
What I might do is pass some of his books around, while I go and see whether we have an update on whether we are actually going to see Bill. [Bill Fox arrives]
BILL FOX: Good afternoon, my name is Bill Fox. It is delightful to see you here. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is for me to be in residence at a research centre at a museum. The reason for that is that I am certainly accustomed to going to research centres, hanging out and being with smart people and so forth, but I don’t always get to be at a museum where I am around a collection and curators who work with the collection. You will see from some of the specific things I am writing about while I am here why that is important to me and why I love being here so much.
My thanks to Mike for encouraging me to apply to come here for a bit, to Peter Stanley and to Anne Faris who have been such good hosts while I have been here, to Nick Drayson and Bernadette Hince and also to Mandy Martin and Guy Fitzharding. I don’t know if you know who they are. Mandy is one of the pre-eminent painters in Australia, and her husband is one of the great sustainable pastoralists in the world, I think. They have been great hosts and great informants. And also my thanks to John Reid who has also been a terrific host and a person willing to take me around and show me things.
I spend time in these big environments looking at the difference between how we function when we are in an environment that we picture like this - this is Claude Lorrain’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt, a classic Italian landscape [shows slide]. This is the way the human beings tend to organise landscapes. We tend to look at places behind a scrim of foliage in the foreground where we are safe, we can see and not be seen; we like to see a water feature that is in the mid-ground that often has people around it; and then we like to see the landscape, that blue in the distance where the mountains are. That is the kind of way we organise a landscape, because it’s very much like the environment in which we evolved as a species in the African savannah and the woodlands. That is a conceal-and-reveal theory postulated by Jay Appleton who is pretty well known for writing a book called The Experience of Landscape.
How do we function in a place like this? This is one of the Dry Valleys in the Antarctic [shows slide]. It hasn’t rained here for a couple of million years. Snow will blow in and blow back out again, but it doesn’t really get wet. As a result, nothing is shaped by running water; it’s shaped by glaciation or, more importantly, by wind. So the rocks are shaped really by wind more than anything else. The wind and the temperature here are so fierce they can take a granite boulder the size of a VW car and turn it into dust in about 10,000 years. It’s a very harsh environment. How do we make pictures there? How do we turn this into something that is as comprehensible to us as the picture by Claude, that kind of very settled European landscape?
This is a photo of the Dog Fence - the writer and artist Kim Mahood and her truck and her dog Pirate is sitting in the front seat, I see in her place. This is the dog fence. You can’t let the dog out by the dog fence, not a good idea, poison all around. This is one of the things I am here to write about on this trip. The working title of this book that I am currently working on is All Along the Line.
What I am really preoccupied with is how we turn space into place, or terrain into territory, or land into landscape. I think land is something that is on its own without us necessarily. It is not apprehended. The second that we as critters walk into land, we begin to turn it into landscape. We automatically begin to try to figure out its size so we can scale it to our own size. It is another reason why we like that conceal-and-reveal landscape; we can understand the relationship of our limbs to those tree limbs. That is a matter of safety, of being able to get up above the ground if you are not the highest thing on the predator index there, if you are not the highest being on the food chain.
Again, what do you do when you come to a space like this? No trees and no way to measure yourself effectively. There is nothing bluing in the distance really. The evidence of this process that I look for as I wander around is mostly art, architecture, and narrative, so it is material culture. I never would have thought I would have ended up like this. I started out as a poet in the Nevada desert. I was asked by UC Berkeley about five years ago, ‘Bill, you always come and give us talks about the work that you do in cognition and landscape, but you never talk about your own work as a poet and the relationship that that must have to what you are talking about in these lectures.’ I thought about that and said, ‘Okay, so you want me to talk about that?’ And they said, ‘Yes, do talk about that.’ This is the first time I actually sat down and realised it was one single arc of inquiry. I think my book Reading Sand: Selected Desert Poems, 1976-2000 has been passed around so you have seen what it looks like, and I will talk about that.
In 1975 I was out in the Nevada desert doing my first climb of a desert peak. I had climbed some peaks in the Sierra and had been in New Zealand climbing, but I had never climbed anything in my own home desert. It was the middle of winter. It was a bitterly cold morning. My partner and I got up on top of this peak and when we looked around in 360 degrees you could see about 1000 square miles of terrain. It was a place where I had grown up. So I had driven through and walked through many of these valleys. Nevada and the western part of Utah has about 360 separate mountain ranges. The only other place that is built like it in the world is Afghanistan, where there is basin and range that is very compact and thrust together. These long valleys can run for 100 miles and the ends disappear over the curvature of the earth. But you can see a long way because you can see the tops of these peaks, so it does a funny trick in your head.
So I am standing on top of this granite block with my partner looking around and I can see the Sierra Nevada where Lake Tahoe is. I can see out towards where Pyramid Lake is where the water flows north out of Lake Tahoe into this desert lake and stops. It sounds a bit like Australia actually. When I first read about Lake Eyre, I said ‘Oh my God, I have to go there. It’s one of the great playas of the world, one of these great dry lakes. Kim was a great person for me to wander around with because she has written this wonderful book called Craft for a Dry Lake which in part is about this.
The other things I am going to write about while I am here are the dog fence and the Uluru line. I am actually writing about how artefacts that are represented in the collections here. I went in and spent some time with that section of the rabbit proof No. 2 fence that is in the collection. Then I am writing about the Uluru line, which is this great ochre-coloured stretch that stretches out towards the centre of the country. The dog fence is a very particular kind of line. It’s the longest continuous man-made line in the world and longest continuous structure in the world. The Great Wall of China is longer, but the wall isn’t one wall; it’s a lot of different walls that don’t exactly meet.
Another project I am involved with here that I am writing about is the Canning Stock Route - not so much as a person who knows a lot about the Canning Stock Route, but I am very interested in how the traditional owners are painting the Canning Stock Route as a mapping project and as an ownership project and so forth. I am working with that.
This is Nevada [shows slide]. You can see how these mountain ranges are like hairy caterpillars marching north. Here is Lake Tahoe and Pyramid Lake, and I am standing on a mountain. Up here is the playa in Nevada of 400 square miles - it is nowhere near the size of Lake Eyre - called the Black Rock Desert. If you have ever heard of the Burning Man Festival, that is where it is held. The Burning Man Festival is a concatenation of about 30,000 people who gather together for one week and have a big art party, and it becomes the fifth largest city in the state for a week when they do it.
This is a closer aerial of Pyramid Lake that was named by John C Frémont in the nineteenth century and you can see the pyramid here [shows map]. This is a dry lake bed. Water used to flow in here. This is the Truckee River that comes down from Lake Tahoe and feeds into this lake. There used to be overflow and it would fill Winnemucca Lake, which has been dry ever since agriculture took water out of the Truckee River through a ditch and sent it out into the desert to grow alfalfa - which really makes sense! I am standing on this peak up here, Mount Limbo. Isn’t that a great name for a peak - Mount Limbo? I have written a book of essays that will come out in a year or two called Climbing Mount Limbo: Essays on the Edge of Land and Language, and that is important. I will tell you why in just a second.
I am standing on top of this peak and I can read what is going on. I know where the water is coming from; I know where the water is going; I can read a couple of million years of hydrology in these ancient shore lines that are left over from the Pleistocene and so forth. And that is pretty good. It’s also really handsome territory to be in. I am really thrilled to be standing on top of this thing. But the most interesting thing that happened to me was that I started to watch my mind put all that together. It wasn’t just that I was doing this Caspar David Friedrich moment where I am standing on top of a peak and the imperial gaze is going all around or whatever; it was also watching myself - how I put together the landscape and kind of critiquing the idea at the same time - pretty silly but pretty cool too.
I have been going around the world climbing and trying to be in these extreme environments looking for that experience over and over again. That is what I want to do: see how the mind does this, and that is why I write these books. It comes from the single climb that I did.
I am going to read a bit from the introduction of Reading Sand that talks about what happens after I get down from this peak. A few months later I am laying on top of a big sand dune called Sand Mountain in north central Nevada and the sand is piling up on me on one side and running away from me on the other side, so I feel like I am sort of on a balance point of this dynamic landscape feature. This is what I wrote in the introduction to Reading Sand:
Sitting atop Sand Mountain in 1974, an isolated 500-foot dune, I wrote wind on the bright ground with my finger, the word, a shadow of sand, was instantly erased by the wind itself. Though I had no illusion that I had caused this event, it made me wonder how to make poems about the desert that would be just as physical and immediate. What would such work look like? [If you looked in there you saw how there is very minimal poems writing about lines.] I began to write severely literal poems grounded in the landscape around me and I have been doing so ever since. At times I hesitated even to call what I was doing poetry, as the text seemed more like small performances, never more so than while crawling backwards on my knees down the middle of a highway, a black highway while writing black words in the white lines of the black road in the middle of a white snow-covered desert one winter.
These big lorries are going by with sheet rock at 60 miles an hour, it is really stupid. But it was a great project and it really manifested - it made physical how I felt about the landscape, about dealing with lines in the landscape. You only write this same book over and over again. What am I doing here? That is 1974. In 1975 I am crawling down the road writing lines. Here I am writing a book called All Along the Line dealing with lines in the landscape. Really! I got distracted for awhile with doing even more severely experimental work than what you saw in that book Reading Sand, doing things that are simply letter forms on the page that form kind of constellations. That work and others like it ended up being shown on museum walls and gallery walls more often than being in text, being in print. I did that for about ten years, and that was swell. But I was really missing something; I wasn’t quite getting as far as I wanted to go. Even though I was on the end of language, the language was falling off the page; and I was climbing, so I felt like I was on the edge of land - but I wasn’t getting down to any kind of understanding about what it was that I was looking at. I really wanted to go deeper.
So I wanted to go back to writing prose. I had been a young art critic in Reno at the newspaper there, a very small newspaper, and I started writing essays about the people I was working with. I was running the State Arts Council of Nevada, which is the public funding agency that gives money to artists to do projects, and I started writing about some of the people we were funding. I eventually decided I wanted to go back to writing full time because it was so much fun. It’s a glorious life. First, I was being paid to give money to people I liked whose work I admired. The government would give me money and I would turn around - I wasn’t making the decisions myself but I was setting up the mechanisms to get that money out to them. Then I turned around and decided I am going to invent a career where I can simply spend all of my time writing about what they do. So I wrote a book called Mapping the Empty - more lines on the landscape - about eight artists in Nevada. The artists ranged from Dennis Parks, who was a ceramics guy, to Michael Heizer. Dennis digs up cupfuls of clay on his land and makes both studio works and utilitarian ware. Michael Heizer carves up the desert with bulldozers and makes the largest sculptures on the planet. They were both using the land to do something with landscape and representing it in their work.
Then I wrote a book called The Void, the Grid, and the Sign: Traversing the Great Basin. It’s a kind of a book of geography. Mike Smith is eventually having a complete collection of the Bill Fox works. This is an example of the kinds of work that really interests me. It is by Jim Sanborn, a sculptor in Washington DC. In America we have a program where all federal public buildings are required by law to spend one half of one per cent of their construction budget on art for the public. That includes the headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia, even though the public can’t go there to see the work. Jim Sanborn is the guy who was hired to make the work for the CIA. He makes this incredible work. There are photographs of two of the three parts of the installation. The third part is so secret it is not allowed to be photographed. It’s a piece of code. The first two parts have been decoded by hackers around the world, but they have never cracked the third piece of the project. Only the director of the CIA has the key to the code, and that has never been given out or talked about.
Jim Sanborn is this very interesting sculptor who can do things like: work with regular sculptural forms in metal and stone and concrete and so forth; devise a code that is world class; and be bold enough to be wandering through the CIA and see this very powerful projector that the CIA uses to illuminate things over vast distances at night. So he says, ‘That’s a really cool piece of gear. Can I borrow that?’ The CIA guys look at him and they say, ‘Sure. You can’t hurt anybody with this.’ Jim puts this thing onto his truck and starts driving around with a generator. He goes out into the desert to places like Shiprock, which is about a 1200-foot-tall volcanic plug near Four Corners - near where New Mexico, Arizona and everything meet. It’s a holy place to the Navaho; it’s a sacred site - you are not allowed to climb it, although it’s been climbed, of course, human beings being what we are - and Jim projects a grid on this. So he is projecting the western European Cartesian rational grid on, one, a piece of landscape that is enormous. So with time exposure you can see the star tracks. He is also doing that to a sacred site in the knowledge that he is doing that. What he is doing is saying, ‘Pay attention to this. There are two different orders of looking at the universe here. We are going to put them together and take a look at it.’ It’s become a well-known image. It’s really a spectacular piece. He has done these kinds of photographs around the world. He has projected grids into fog off the coast of Ireland which are simply spectacular. That is the kind of stuff that I was dealing with in The Void, the Grid and the Sign, the first third of which is set on this project by Michael Heizer. I am going to come back to this land art business at the end of my talk.
This is an aerial photograph, a kind of a spy photograph, from the early part of this decade of a project called ‘City’. This pit, the first part here was called ‘Complex One’, and if you paid a lot of attention to art magazines in the 1970s you would recognise what that is. It’s a huge almost bunker-like shape that looks like an ammo bunker of some kind with these big steel beams protruding out of it. This is about a third of a mile long, and ‘City’ is actually is now a mile long. It’s an enormous illusion to an Olmec ball court. Heizer’s dad was Robert Heizer, a famous anthropologist from UC Berkeley. He dragged his kid around to all of these places where they moved really big things, like Saqquara in Egypt and the Olmec sites at La Venta and so forth, so Mike never got it out of his system. Here is a cement truck that can give you a scale of what it’s like to be inside this installation. It’s just enormous. The stellae that he has constructed here on the walls. He is 20ft below grade and 20ft above so that is 40ft altogether - 10-plus metres or something like that. What he is doing is creating these kind of Olmec-like forms and other kinds of Mesoamerican forms and then balancing that with traditional western geometrical stuff at the other end, kind of like what Jim Sanborn is doing. So The Void, the Grid and the Sign starts out there and goes on to talk about our cartographic imperative in the west and so forth.
While I am there Mike Heizer says, ‘Gee Bill, you have written this fantastic book about the Great Basin and what we do in the deserts of the south-west, where do you want to go next?’ I said, ‘I want to go to the Antarctic,’ and he said, ‘Why don’t you go?’ I looked at him and said, ‘You’re daft, it is $20,000 to get on a cruise boat and you don’t even get into the middle of the continent.’ He said, ‘Come on, there’s got to be a way you can go.’ It turns out that the National Science Foundation, which administers our science programs in the Antarctic, has a program for visiting artists and writers. I went on that program and wrote a book about it called Terra Antarctica, which was a dream book for me to put together. You can actually find it on sale in book stores here occasionally, which is lovely. I was in Hobart and there it was in a book store.
Terra Antarctica is kind of an artistic, cartographic and scientific history of those kinds of images of the Antarctic. It talks about how do we as human beings get into a place like that Dry Valley, and how do we begin to turn that unapprehended, very difficult space into a place that we can understand through science and through anthro-paintings and so forth. The Dry Valleys are behind the fog bank here [shows image]. This is a little watercolour by Edward (Bill) Wilson who was Robert Scott’s science officer and doctor on both expeditions and who died with him on the trip back from the Pole. What I was really curious about is: here is Edward Wilson, who at the beginning of the twentieth century gives us the most comprehensive artistic record of what it is like to be in the Antarctic. He trained as a topographical draftsman like Turner, and was a great admirer of Turner. But if you are an admirer of Turner, you can’t just admire the draftsmanship and the ability to represent landscape, you also have to admire what you do with it. How do you make it symbolic of something? Here is this kind of Caspar David Friedrich-like image sure enough - man, dog, solitude, edge of the sea ice, gazing out into the infinite space. It could be the wanderer gazing down on the sea of clouds by Friedrich. And conceal-and-reveal - just enough of a feature so that we feel anchored, we feel safe looking into this window out on the world. Here is this big space, but we have some kind of foreground that we are anchored in so that we are not just going to float away. There are places in the Antarctic and pictures of the Antarctic you can look at and your eyeball just rolls off the page or rolls off the canvas. There is nothing to fix your cognition on; your mind can’t grasp it.
Here is a project done a couple of years ago to give you an idea of how things have changed. This is what I wanted to see - not that I believe in progress and art; that is kind of a funny notion - I wanted to see if there had been a change and an evolution in the way we represent the Antarctic over time. This is a piece by Lita Albuquerque, who is a Californian installation artist, a land artist who works out in the earth, who does things like put pigment on the desert and let the wind blow it around and so forth. This is called ‘Stellar Axis’. It’s a representation of about 91 spheres of different sizes of constellations that would be visible directly above if it were night, but of course this is the middle of the day. There is only one sunrise and sunset in the Antarctic per year basically. This is during the middle of the day, if you will. [shows map] That little painting we just looked at was made out here. This is Ross Island. This is Mount Erebus, the world’s southern most active volcano. The Transantarctic Mountains where the Dry Valleys are behind this over here. This is frozen sea ice. She is actually out on the Ross Ice Shelf, which is the largest single piece of ice in the world. It’s the size of France and 1000ft thick. It’s one of those features that could well break off some time soon.
Here she is creating this kind of sculpture out on the ice. These have to be tested in wind tunnels and anchored in the ice so that the National Science Foundation is convinced it won’t become litter on the continent. Then you have to dissemble them and take them all back when you are done. Then she sells them to raise money to pay back the loan that she had to borrow to get to the Antarctic - a typical artist life. Anyway, here she is with this constellation, with the stars of different magnitude. She had an astrophysicist figure this out for her and actually go with her. She had a team of five people to go out here and do this. Then the people of McMurdo Station were invited - anybody who wants to, come on out and we’ll dance, we’ll do a spiral into this thing and then we will walk back out in a spiral and make this beautiful spiral track, which says something about the rotation of the planet. So sure enough, that is exactly what they did. Everybody who works there wears these big red parkas called ‘big red’. The parka is so big you can go to sleep in them if you have to. If you get stuck, you just curl up in it and you are okay. They made beautiful aerial photographs which I don’t have with me.
I had been in the Antarctic doing this and at the same time I was talking with NASA about working in the Canadian High Arctic on Devon Island, which is the world’s largest uninhabited island. I called up the head of this project, a guy called Dr Pascal Lee, who runs the Haughton Crater-Mars project on this island, and said, ‘I would like to come with you as you do these kind of analogue experiments about how we would explore Mars, how we would actually get around, what we would see and how we would process it.’ He said, ‘Oh, you’re a science fiction writer.’ I said, ‘No, I want to write about cognitive disonnance in isotropic spaces.’ There is this nice silence on the other end of the phone - I live in LA - and then he says, ‘I think you should drive up to San Francisco, and we should have a talk.’ I said ‘okay’.
I am in the Antarctic. I go home. Then I turn around and I go to the Arctic. I worked up there on three trips over two summer seasons with NASA, looking at these perceptual issues of how we process this place. One of the things I did was very silly, and that is work with an Inuit scout where the two of us went scouting for a route to drive a Humvee across the frozen North-West Passage to get from Cornwallis Island over to Devon Island, the place where the camp is. It’s a great idea and we had found these tracks we could put on the vehicle instead of wheels, caterpillar-like tracks that you bolt on to each of the ends of the axles and away you go. A little problem, and that was the fact there is this thing called climate change, global warming - we almost went through the ice. It was really an interesting experience. But it was great fun for me to be out with Inuit people on foot or on snowmobile and even in airplanes to find out how they navigate and compare that with what NASA was doing.
A little story about navigating in the Antarctic that is relevant. By the way, I am not really an adventurer. I don’t like adventures; I don’t want adventures. I like experiences, those are good, but I don’t want to have adventures. They are dangerous. Anyway, these two adventurers from England cross-country ski to the South Pole, and at the same time some women from America come and do the same trip. When the guys get to the South Pole they have lost 15 per cent of their body mass. They’re a wreck. They are utterly wracked, and one guy has lost his ability to focus. He can’t focus on anything any more and he’s pretty scared. He goes to an opthalmologist back in London who says, ‘Oh, we saw this in World War II with WWII bomber pilots flying over the Channel for hours and hours at night staring out through the windscreen. It’s your mind, not your eyes. Your mind loses the ability to process the information. You will remember. You will get it back. It’s going to be fine.’ But that’s how screwed up they were when they got to the South Pole.
The women lost about five per cent of their body mass. They weren’t having any problems with vision. They were just fine. Yes, they were tired and they were ready to go home, but no problems. I interviewed the people who had done it about this. I asked the guys, ‘So how did you navigate?’ They said, ‘Well, GPS. How else do you navigate it, right. You look at this and you look out there and ski on.’ I asked the women, ‘How do you navigate?’ They said, ‘Oh, from feature to feature’ - and there aren’t many features - ‘there is sastrugi’ which is kind of wind-blown features in the ice, little humps and hillocks. They actually kept their eyes on where they were going; they didn’t lose their focus either metaphorically or literally. I found that interesting. Inuit to NASA, same kind of thing. NASA is busy looking at GPS; Inuit looking at which way the sastrugi are formed, so they always know where the prevailing wind is and what the current wind is in comparison to that prevailing wind - very interesting.
Anyway, we did get the Humvee over to Devon Island to be a roving platform. This is a panoramic photograph of this feature [shows image]. The Haughton impact crater is a crater 38 million years old. It was hit by a body about a kilometre wide at a really high speed. In fact, it was such a high speed the actual body of this cometoid or whatever it was - it could be an asteroid; it could be a comet - didn’t probably actually hit the earth, and there is certainly no remnants of that body to be found in this crater. What it did was, the shockwave was so great as this thing came apart in the atmosphere, that it depressed the earth by a mile; it rebounded and it formed these series of hills inside here. All of this grey stuff you are seeing is ejector from that event. Those events are so powerful it shocks rocks. There are only two places on the planet where impacts create structures like this. How many of you have been to Wolfe Creek Crater? There is no shocked rock there because the event wasn’t powerful enough, and that’s a big crater. That is a very impressive structure. This Haughton Crater is 12 miles wide and 1000ft deep. It’s an enormous structure. Shocked rocks - again there is so much power involved and so much force involved at such a short time that it literally alters the molecular structure of the rock but doesn’t blow it up. You could pick up these things and there are these lines that radiate out from a central point of the rock. It’s like the sound of the event was recorded in the rock - they are amazing looking things. We find them also at test sites where we blow up atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs.
AUDIENCE: We have a very ancient crater called Gosse Bluff.
BILL FOX: Yes, which I have not been to but which I know about. Here is what part of the inside of this crater looks like. There is a river that runs through this crater. You can see the difference with this ejector material and the rest of the stuff. There are no maps for Devon Island. How you navigate on the island if you are a NASA person is that you look at aerial photographs made in the 1950s and you navigate from snow bank to snow bank because they have kept their shape for so long. Of course that is now changing, so it’s kind of a problem, but that is how you drive around - you look at snow.
By the way, we have the Phoenix Lander that is coming down tomorrow at the north polar region of Mars, so keep your fingers crossed. This has failed before. It’s a good idea. One of the guys I was on Devon Island with was also someone who had worked in the Antarctic, Charles (Charlie) Cockell. He’s an astrobiologist or exobiologist. Charlie does weird things. He ran for prime minister of England and got 90 votes on the Go to Mars Party. He’s a very eccentric guy, very smart fellow. He has an art collection of Mars paintings. This is one of the paintings from his collection [shows image]. This is a representation of an artist on earth trying to figure out what it is going to look like if you were at the north polar region of Mars and how would we explore it. This is actually how the ice freezes in these layers and terraces. We can see this in photographs from satellites but we haven’t actually been there to photograph it. Usually NASA doesn’t want to land a craft near anything like this - anything that is a vertical structure is a problem because you can crash your craft. You want a nice gentle plain with nothing on it. That is what you want.
But of course the geologists want to see vertical structures to be able to look at strata to figure out how the planet is put together. It is also a good place to look for ice, which is the job of the Phoenix Lander. If there is ice it shows there has been water on the planet and raises the likelihood there may have been life there at one point. The book was really about what’s it like to be on this big desert that is kind of like Nevada but is colder than the Antarctic and really strange, toxic and caustic. What it is like to be there and how have we processed it in the past imaginatively? If we couldn’t send Edward Wilson with Scott to Mars and we don’t have a painter there, how are painters nonetheless painting it? How are they trying to picture it? How are they trying to process it into a place? The book is about that. The book is also an argument against why we should not try to colonise Mars and sell real estate there. I have an argument with people who are actually trying to do that. I think we should go there and explore but I don’t have any illusions about trying to live there.
You can go stand on a mountain range in the Antarctic by those Dry Valleys and look out over the ice towards the South Pole, and the map is beautiful. It’s a typical topographical map with a representation of the mountains, all the contour lines and everything. Then it becomes a white sheet just like what you are looking at in front of you, and there is a dotted line on the map and it says ‘line of completion’. It might as well be ‘here be dragons’ and there is nothing beyond that. It’s just a white sheet because why bother mapping it? It’s a plastic continent. The whole thing is in motion basically, except for the three per cent of it that is not covered with ice. How are we going to map it? Why bother? So it’s been photographed from the air. I was looking at a lot of those photographs.
On Devon Island we were looking at these photographs of snow banks to get around, and I was thinking about this aerial stuff. I actually [shows image] use this image over and over again in different books and talks. This is a mural fragment that is 8000 years old. It is about three metres long and is from Çatalhöyük, a late neolithic village in what is now Turkey. The only image of its kind found in this place, and there are thousands and thousands of paintings of the insides of these dwellings. But this one is the only one that is a map in plan as if you were looking down on the village. There are two volcanoes, one of which is erupting in elevation in the background. It is as if the artist had constructed a stage set in his or her mind. It is a very complicated, sophisticated piece of art - or is it a chart? Things like this were used a couple of thousand years later in Mesopotamia to be tax diagrams. You would plan out these villages in order to tax everybody equally so that you could raise money to have irrigation projects. That is where this comes from. It’s from this image partially, I think. That’s a good just-so story anyway.
I was looking at that and thinking: how did someone 8000 years ago have an aerial view of where they lived? They didn’t have balloons. They didn’t have any way to get up there. And those mountains that look like they are right behind the village are actually 60 miles away, so the artist has really compressed the landscape. I couldn’t figure it out. It has been bothering me for years. So I thought maybe I should write a book about how we see the world from above. I finished this book when I was here last year called Aereality: Essays on the World from Above. Jim Bowler, a geomorphologist here, actually asked me to come, and I will show you why he asked me to come in a second.
Further confusing me is Leonardo da Vinci’s 1502 map of Imola [shows image], which is the first dead-straight down absolutely accurate representation of a place made in the European tradition. How did he do that? He walked around, made measurements and so forth, but then he translates it into views as seen directly above the city in a balloon - stunning! My theory at the beginning of that project, the beginning of that book, was that only individual geniuses could do this. So the person at Çatalhöyük who made that one singular image was just a genius of some kind. And Leonardo da Vinci kind of confirmed that for me. But, oh boy, was I wrong! The other reason I started to write this book, other than being fascinated with that image of Çatalhöyük, is that I came across this black and white photograph [shows image] in a gallery in Los Angeles done by a guy named Michael Light, who did a wonderful book called Full Moon where he took the NASA photographs of being on the moon and curated them like an art show instead of NASA bad reproductions. It really felt like you were on the moon when you saw that show. Here he is flying over the White Mountains which are on the boundary of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts in North America. I looked at this and I had the hardest time figuring out what was going on. Is this landscape coming up at me or is it receding - is it going down? Why are these shadows and objects so weird? Are those trees? And what is going on over here? Is that sand or is it snow or what is it? Eventually I figured out that it’s the Bristlecone pine groves in the White Mountains and we are looking at a peak that is coming up, but it took me a while to work it out. I couldn’t figure out why somebody would make an aerial image that was confusing to people. Don’t you make aerial images to help people get around and to explain the world? Why would you make something confusing?
Here is Mike working over Los Angeles. It looks like it’s smoggy but it’s not. It is what is called air light, which is a one-micron-in-diameter dust that scatters light very efficiently in the atmosphere in this basin. It’s a natural phenomena. It is why the film makers love it here because it gives you this beautifully even light. Here is Mike at 800ft above Los Angeles - this metropolitan area that goes from Tijuana to Santa Barbara that is about the size of Ireland and has a little over 20 million people in it. It is an incredible grid, and I will show you another photograph by someone else in a second. But again, people would walk up to this and would spend like a long time trying to figure out where they were. People will spend more time in front of this than they will spend in front of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Why is that? I mean, there is a cognitive reason for that but I couldn’t figure that out.
[shows image] This was taken by another buddy of mine, David Maisel, working this time about 10,000 feet over Los Angeles, about the limit of a helicopter where you want to be photographing from. It’s actually a print of a negative. He is not printing a positive thing; he is printing this negative image of the city. So what is white should be black, and vice versa. Again, I have lived in and out of Los Angeles a lot of my life and I couldn’t quite figure this out. It took me a while to figure out where I was, where these hills were, and so forth and so on - even though it’s an aerial photograph that looks like a map. Why is David printing this in reverse? Why is he trying to confuse us? I couldn’t figure this out.
To make a long story short - you don’t have to go buy the book when it comes out next year - it turns out that seeing the world from above is an innate human ability we have when we are no later than three years old as kids. You can put a black and white aerial photograph of a child’s neighbourhood down, and that child can navigate around that neighbourhood by that time. And then we kind of lose that. Jim Bowler was saying to me, ‘If I try to teach my kids in archaeology class how to read an aerial photograph, it takes months or could take a year for them to figure the stuff out. They want me to teach them how to do it.’ However I can take this out bush to traditional owners and they will look at it and know exactly what they are looking at - and, even if they haven’t been there, they will probably know where it is. Why is that? You should come here and figure that out.’ So I was here for some months to work on that. Like I said, it turns out that it’s this innate human ability. Mike and I have talked a lot about how if you are a hunter-gatherer and you are walking, then you are really paying attention to the ground and you kind of have this aerial view of the world in any case.
I was looking at things like this image by Richard Waldendorf, who is Australia’s premier aerial photographer [shows image]. You can recognise the spinifex forms. Now I am going to show an image by someone who is deceased so if that troubles anyone you should be forewarned. What does that have to do with a painting like this very well-known acrylic dot painting of Papunya. [shows Clifford Possum image]. John Olsen does this; Sidney Nolan does this; Fred Williams does this - as soon as the airplane becomes available they are all over Australia looking at the ground from above, realising that this is how Aboriginal people look at the place as well. So I had a great fun time writing about all of that.
While I am flying around with different people, including Mandy out over the Murray-Darling and Kim Mahood over Lake Eyre and so forth, I am looking for lines in the landscape trying to figure out where I am. So what I am doing here now is writing this book about lines in the landscape. I have the first three chapters drafted. I have the first two drafted up and I will have the Canning Stock Route one done in a while. When I leave here I will go back to Chile where the world’s longest line of poetry is written. It’s by Raul Zurita, who is the leading living poet of the country and who is in his 70s now. This is on a bajada - alluvial fans that come together that come together and join up and make a raised piece of land. It is about four kilometres long. The poem basically says ‘no pain, no regret’. It’s a kind of sorry poem in an interesting way. It’s about the times under Pinochet. It’s basically saying, ‘We have to leave the pain behind. We have to leave the regret behind. We have to move forward.’ He does this with a bulldozer in this beautiful script. I don’t know how he did the script, how that was designed. I want to talk to him and find out. There is not a town too close by - Antofogasta would be the nearest one - but people go out with brooms and sweep this to keep it clean, to maintain it. This is a screen grab of what you can see of this on Google earth. It’s a very interesting line in the landscape, a line in different ways. So obviously someone who wrote Reading Sand, who was on the highway writing down the lines on the highway, would like this kind of thing.
What I am going to show next is another line in the landscape but with somewhat different intention [show image]. It’s by Richard Long, a British artist in the 1960s. There are two things going on in the late 1960s and early 1970s with artists who were dealing with land but who are not making landscape paintings. If you mentioned landscape to Michael Heizer - he is a kind of angry guy to begin with - he really gets upset with you and says, ‘This is not landscape art. I don’t care about landscape. It’s a piece of art. It’s a formal gesture, Mesoamerican reclamation of forms to the western hemisphere, and I want to throw the Europeans out.’ So there are people like Heizer who are digging up the ground and making the world’s biggest kind of structures. But it is tiny compared to the mine that say Mandy and I would fly over. He is making something a mile long and 20ft deep - compared to a mining operation that is trivial. Then there is work by other people like James Turrell, who is going to have a piece in the new wing being built onto the National Art Gallery of Australia. He is going to do one of his wonderful sky pieces. Turrell has been out carving a volcanic cinder cone in northern Arizona making a piece.
So these are big permanent gestures. They are all being run by the same group of foundations and museums where you can go in limited numbers. Lightning Field is one of these two built at the same time - I will show you an image in a minute. Six people get to go there. You have to spend about 24 hours. You are not allowed to take photographs because the image of the place belong to the artist - in that case Walter de Maria. The same thing is going to happen with Heizer and Turrell when they open up in a couple of years. Heizer will open up when he dies. He doesn’t want anybody out there. So these guys are making these huge elaborate things that a lot of environmentalists have questions about. What is this about raping mother earth with these male gestures, this male ego thing - what is that all about? I don’t have quite that problem with it but it’s an interesting position. I don’t have a problem with it because compared to a mining company it’s nothing.
But other people are doing other things. Richard Long is out making a line in the grass just by walking on it, then he photographs it and that’s the artwork. The artwork is not the photograph, it’s actually the walking. But then he makes a document of what’s left, and that becomes a trace of the activity and that is what we have of the artwork. And then the grass grows back, and it’s gone. So it’s an ephemeral gesture, an intervention, and it is saying something about landscape that is just as profound as Mike Heizer carving his mile-long trench in the earth.
When this is going on there is a scientist called Paul Crutzen who is an atmospheric chemist, a Dutch fellow who spent a lot of his time working in Sweden, and in 1970 he publishes a paper that says, ‘Actually we plough up the ground and we release nitrous oxide and it goes up into the atmosphere where it lasts a long time. Sunlight hits it and turns it to nitric oxide, and that eats up ozone.’ He gets a Nobel Prize for that paper in 1995 for being the first guy to look at that mechanism in that particular way. Other people have been looking at that problem. Then James Lovelock a little bit later on is floating around in a boat realising that it is happening all over the world and that all the CFC chemicals we have made are still up there floating around doing something similar to the ozone.
So there is this notion of the earth as this one entity that is being affected by things that human beings do. I am very interested in that notion of our apprehension, our perception of the planet as a single system that really starts in about 1800 all the way through to Crutzen and other people like Will Steffen here on campus. I am really curious about how art changes in response - is it a parallel history with the depiction of landscape? I don’t think so. I think it is actually interactive history with the science that is going on. I think Mandy and John are two perfect examples of that kind of dialogue that has been going on.
So you can look at Alexander von Humbolt in 1800 with his climbing up the Andes in South America and saying, ‘Gain 1000ft and it is like going so many miles north away from the equator or south from the equator,’ so altitude and latitude are kind of linked in terms of the biotic assemblage that you run across. You can come up to the alpine zones as if you are on Devon Island at the top of a high enough mountain, why is that? He is putting together a picture of the planet as a system, as a single entity. And people like Frederic Church and JMW Turner are reacting to von Humbolt. And people now like Richard Long are reacting to what the scientists are doing at the end of the twentieth century.
I will give you a couple of examples. [shows image] This is an image of the very famous Lightning Field project by Walter de Maria which has 800 stainless steel rods stuck in the ground. They are about 20ft tall and they form kind of a table top. If you could put some piece of glass on top of all those points you would be on the same plain. And it actually does attract lightning. I have been up there when it does it, and it is really spectacular. It is something to see. New Mexico is where it is done. But again this is a very large project, very expensive, maintained by a foundation and limited access. It’s a very traditional heavens, earth, lightning connection.
This is something made not exactly in reaction to it but certainly in reference to it [shows image]. It’s a different kind of lighting field, not lightning field; it’s a whole different thing. It’s by British artist Richard Box. He gets a residency at a science lab. He wants to work with the people who make glass containers and such for experiments and he finds that you can make fluorescent tubes - cool! Then the guy who is showing him how to do this says, ‘What’s really cool is that you can take one of these, go out and plant it in the ground at dusk or at night, and if there is a power line overhead and there is enough leakage from the power line, that’s going to come down and power the tube and turn it on.’ Richard says, ‘No,’ and the response is ‘come with me’. They go out and they do it.
Richard then goes and buys 800 commercial fluorescent tubes and throws a party. He sticks them in the ground under a 400,000-volt series of transmission lines. There is enough difference in potential between the lines and the zero potential of the earth so that it lights up these things. People come and bring wine, and they bring their dogs, and they sit around and have a party. Then when it’s all done, you pick up the tubes, go away and you are all done. Connecting sky and ground, not heaven and earth, and admitting the fact that we are creating - not creating so much as doing something with power on the planet.
In 2000 Paul Crutzen publishes a paper in which basically he proposes this term ‘Anthropocene’ and says, ‘Look, since James Watt invented the steam engine and we started digging up a lot of fossil fuels in a really massive amount, we have become the most powerful geomorphological force on the planet. It is no longer rain; it’s people.’ There are a lot of people who have since come up with other ways of measuring this. Will Steffen has again been involved with this pretty heavily, in particular what he calls the Great Acceleration, which is from 1950 onwards, where you see here with the kind of hockey stick graph that Al Gore shows in An Inconvenient Truth. There are 12 separate graphs of that hockey stick, different measures, in this one paper that Will Steffen has published; and people like Libby Robin, the environmental historian here on campus, are working with him to tie the humanities and science together in this. I am very interested about the art of the Anthropocene. How do we depict this? How do we actually show this change? This is a really interesting example not just of heaven and earth and lightning - it is not just Thor up there throwing bolts down, or Zeus - no, it’s we who are throwing bolts around and I wanted to see how artists have responded to that.
The Aeriality book starts in North America. It is out west with Michael Light over the Mojave Desert. Then it goes back east over the Hudson River Valley. And then it’s down under with people like Mandy, Kim and so forth. The All Along the Line book takes a reverse course. It starts in Australia and goes to Chile and ends up in North America - maybe on the Alaska pipeline but I am not sure. I might drive that pipeline this summer, your winter. This book, The Art of the Anthropocene, will once again start in North America and end here. It will be me in the field with people like John and Mandy, maybe John Wolseley and artists in Australia to see what they are doing with the environment and how they are handling it. How do they react to the fact that the earth is a single system and it’s understood now as such. What is interesting for me, and take Mandy’s work for example, is that landscape painting isn’t dead - who doesn’t want to have a wonderful landscape hanging around somewhere? - but it’s become something different. So it’s not that land art, pushing things around with bulldozers or planting fluorescent tubes in the ground, has displaced landscape art, it has added to this tradition. And, of course, landscape art itself has changed. John Reid out there with his Fishman performances, where he is proposing that he has discovered this kind of nineteenth century discovery - that kind of model. He ‘discovers’ this creature that is unknown to science and that lives in the environment. It must be the world’s most threatened creature as far as I can tell, because it is so rare that hardly anybody ever sees it. What does that mean? What kind of a project is that? How does that engage what we know about the earth as a science? What does that have to do with conservation and so forth? That is where I am going to be going next year, and I hope to be back. ANU says I will probably be back in about a year to be working on that, so you will have a chance to see me again. But hopefully I won’t be late next time. I do apologise. Let me stop there.
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Date published: 01 January 2018