Wednesday, May 13, 2009

From the Library: Ursula K. Le Guin's "Direction of the Road" considered alongside Paul Shambroom's "Picturing Power"

Direction of the Road, by Ursula K. Le Guin, with original woodcut by Aaron Johnson, Foolscap Press: Santa Cruz, 2007; # 20 / 150, as held in the Special Collections Archive at the Multnomah County Library's Central Wilson Room.

Power is often a matter of perspective. "Powerful" people are usually those who perceive themselves to be such, and accomplish tasks and jobs with the belief that they are who they think they are. "Powerlessness," likewise, can be understood as perceiving oneself to be either in want of what one doesn’t have, or unable to procure that which others are already enjoying. Both situations—powerfulness and powerlessness—are contingent on a certain perspective.

But what if that perspective changes? What happens when people don’t want or don’t perceive themselves capable of handling the power they have been given? Two recent publications present conceptually different examinations of this interplay between authority and viewpoint.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story "Direction of the Road," originally published in the mid-1970s, has been given new life of late by Foolscap Press in a special limited edition book released in 2007. Pressed on linen wrapper paper made by La Papeterie Saint-Armand in Montreal, Foolscap’s edition comes in a portfolio box covered in Japanese cloth, and includes an original anamorphic woodcut by Aaron Johnson. The sum of this fine craftsmanship is a rare and slim volume that is itself an experience in perspective, corporeality, and power.

As the inside cover explains, anamorphic art, whose origins date as far back as Leonardo da Vinci, has enjoyed a long history in which artists have experimented with "perspective and other 'anamorphic projections'," while "challenging the viewer’s usual conventions of looking." The book's introduction suggests that "Aaron Johnson’s woodcut continues this exploration and achieves two things at once: his art casts the viewer into an active role in relation to the art and, more important for this story, it allows the image freedom of movement," which is most certainly true and alluring from the get-go.

The result is a stunning reading experience. Direction of the Road is told from the perspective of a large oak tree that believes its duty is to grow and shrink as people come and go in relation to it. It would be an understatement to say the tree “believes” in the role it serves, since the tree never vacillates in this conviction; it exists simply to grow and shrink as people come closer to it or recede from it. The tree strictly adheres to this place and purpose in the universe, a position it believes is secure.

Enter Johnson’s woodcut. Inside the large rectangular folded portfolio in which the story is bound, there is fastened a cylindrical mirror that the reader is instructed to place on end next to a semicircular, warped-seeming woodcut. Once the mirror is in place, it magically reflects the woodcut image as a crisp illustration of a large tree and a person sitting beneath it, while two birds fly past overhead. But the reflected woodcut also has another important characteristic: the reader can, by moving closer to and farther away from the mirror, experience the tree growing and shrinking in size, just as it behaves in the story.

The narrative doesn’t last long, but in its few pages, decade after decade pass atop a small hill from where the tree watches humanity progress, all the while remaining diligent in its duty of getting bigger as people approach and smaller as they retreat, never failing, as the story’s original 1974 introduction states, “to uphold Relativity with dignity and the skill of long practice.” Though it hardly needs upkeeping or modernization—since the story seems naturally timeless—Le Guin updated the introduction for this release, adding that if the tree that inspired Direction of the Road still stands on its Oregon hillside, “it is coping after the single outburst of anguish [that is recorded in the story] grandly and without complaint.”

That singular eruption to which Le Guin alludes is the crux of the story: one day, a car runs off the road and strikes the tree head-on, killing the driver. After this event, the tree objects to the power with which it has been imbued: to crush people unintentionally. Since the driver only really sees the tree for the first time when looking up at the last moment before striking its trunk—all these years, the tree was there, but was a mere afterthought for the driver, a part of the landscape that went unnoticed—the tree declares that “it is unjust to require me to play the part, not of the killer only, but of death.” Since the driver confuses the tree for death itself, the tree gets even angrier, or at least as angry as an old oak can become, and concludes: “For I am not death. I am life: I am mortal. If they wish to see death visibly in the world, that is their business, not mine. I will not act Eternity for them. Let them not turn to the trees for death. If that is what they want to see, let them look into one another’s eyes and see it there.”

The exhibitions catalogued in Paul Shambroom: Picturing Power (Weisman Art Museum: University of Minnesota, 2008) also explore the idea of who has power, what they do with it, and how they look from a particular perspective.

In a sense, Shambroom’s work, like the lens in Le Guin's book, is anamorphic: it forces the viewer to consider his or her own perspective in regard to the image. In many cases, the pictures Shambroom offers are of things 99% of us would never see, or at least not as they are presented here. Shambroom’s subjects include top secret locations (including military bases, nuclear weapons facilities, and security and defense training procedures) and often capture empty spaces: offices devoid of human presence, meetings before they begin, and the insides of factories.

Picturing Power is a gorgeous collection that is capable of making any reader/viewer wonder about who is actually in charge of our cities, our countries, and our world. In addition to over 40 full-color pages of prints, the book includes several insightful essays by notable art critics on Shambroom’s work, and a fascinating interview of Shambroom himself by Stuart Horodner, curator of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

“The intersection of beauty and horror,” Shambroom says in the interview, “adds a tension that’s important to me and to any of the images I make.” It’s the presence of these opposing sensations that places Shambroom’s work in parallel with many historical conceptions of hegemony, since authority is always simultaneously a glorious and dangerous thing to possess. “They are supposed to present people as being heroic,” Shambroom states of his pictures, “but then there’s a series of questions that you start to [have]: this person is here to protect me, but do I really feel safe—safer—knowing that this person is in this gear doing this job?”

Take the image on the book’s cover, “Level A Hazmat Suit, Yellow (‘Disaster City’ National Emergency Response and Rescue Training Center, Texas Engineering and Extension Service [TEEX]),” as one example. In it, a strangely and menacingly outfitted person wields detection devices for, one guesses, identifying lethal substances in the atmosphere, but he stands amidst a bucolic setting, alone, as if seen through a Viewfinder. The response one has to this image is largely connected with the power one senses this person possesses. It’s as if the photo's subject knows and is equipped for a disastrous situation that the viewer, on this side of the image, is in no way prepared to handle. “I do have respect for these people,” Shambroom adds in the interview, “and that has nothing to do with whether I think the policies that they are carrying out are the best policies for our country and for the world…I’m just not sure these activities address the core of the problems we face in the world.”

Stark, usually sparsely populated, many of the photographs capture places without people, or a single person or lonely group that has been granted power, which gives the images a ghostly, dismal feeling. We wonder, much as we do of Le Guin's tree in Direction of the Road, whether these people actually want the power they have been given. “I really don’t set out to provide answers,” Shambroom says.

How do we determine who should be in power? Is it the person or people who know the most? The people who have the most experience? The people with the best ideas and plans? Our own recent Presidential election centered on many of these very queries. In reference to his having taken these pictures, Shambroom claims, “No one else knows how to do it. And I’m not going to let anything stop me because if I don’t do it, it’s not going to happen.” Echoing what the tree utters in Direction, Shambroom seems to wonder whose job it is to make decisions that impact everyone else. Not without his own sense of personal perspective, however, the artist concludes, “It is necessary to my process to have those delusions of grandeur as long as when I come down I realize that’s what they are and I still have to wash the dishes at home.”

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