On ViewHales Gallery
February 3–March 11, 2023
What can be done about rural voters? As the US election cycle keeps turning toward 2024, we’ll be reading and hearing more of this question in its various permutations. The columns and commentary will sound the same, rehashing what we’ve read before. Andrea Geyer’s exhibition plein-air turns a similar line of questioning inside out, offering facts gathered as part of her research-based practice to delve into the ideological uses of nature by the far right. As the recorded audio track for her installation never yet (2023) asks, “What if the pitting of those living in cities against those living in the countryside has been part of a fascist playbook for the past two hundred years?”
The six-channel video installation—which includes the text prepared with script adviser Alhena Katsof—triangulates a tone that is poetic, didactic, and activist. It focuses our attention on the forest as a figure for understanding both the weaponized lies of white nationalist ideology and possibilities for a queer emancipation from this history. As overlapping video images in the wall projections form a composite view of Germany’s Black Forest, the recorded text—spoken at a calm, carefully measured pace by Nancy Brooks Brody—guides the audience through what seems at first a direct meditation on the images. Each line of the script begins with the interrogative repetition of “What if…” What if the smell of the sun through the trees is where it begins? What if the feel of damp moss remains defiant? What if pine sap sticks to your sleeve? The initial questions evoke sensory experiences of being in nature that go beyond the visual—the richness of smell, the stickiness of touch—and then beyond the bodily.
Geyer, who grew up near the forests she has filmed, brings viewers out of this somatic reverie by veering into the political history of the forest as an ideological construct. “What if there was a man who saw nature as the last stronghold of nobility during the early twentieth century just when a push for democracy was leveling out class differences and hybridizing society?” That man, as we learn in what follows, was Madison Grant, a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History and an advocate for eugenics and anti-immigration policies. Imagining nature as an escape from what he considered the ills of an increasingly democratic society, Grant helped found the country’s national parks to control nature as a resource for white Americans. Geyer’s path through this forest follows this US history of white supremacism as it dovetails with the nationalist ideology of nineteenth century and Nazi Germany. (Hitler was a fan of Grant’s 1916 eugenicist polemic The Passing of the Great Race and modeled some of his strategies on US Western Expansion.) As Geyer’s text inquires, “What if nature as a construct was designed to conjure sentiments about who belongs and who does not?”
The poetry of the installation allows Geyer to imagine other possibilities, to make something new of the forest in her own poetics. The repetitive structure of the text gives the questions an aphoristic tone while smuggling in the destabilizing feeling that it is audience members who are being asked to interrogate their own knowledge: What if this were true? (It is.) What would you think? What would you do? Memory, as Geyer understands it in this work, is most potent and available to responsibility as a daily self-questioning of the past that is both personal and collective. In the forest, among the trees and other beings living collectively, Geyer finds a queer model for memory work based in resistance, care, and resilience, and a counterbalance to the pitfalls of what the work calls “institutionalized memory.”
The exhibition’s second installation, plein-air (2023), occupies a corner of the two walls facing the projections. A silkscreen and digital archive print arranged in 288 parts in a rectangular gridded formation, plein-air presents an image of a forest in silvery ink that is interrupted in the grid with print-outs of articles covering far-right assaults on society, from the anti-abortion movement and gun violence to anti-LGBTQ+ attacks. It is a coda that updates the history remembered in the video installation and ironizes the freedom often associated with the term “plein-air.”
The impetus to continue Geyer’s research and to remember turns up examples of this history that have happened since the work was created. In the weeks before the exhibition opened, Tortuguita, a queer Indigenous Venezuelan who was working as a medic for defenders of the Weelaunee Forest southeast of Atlanta, was killed by police working to clear the land of protestors to build “Cop City.” This construction of an 85-acre militarized police training ground would raze a swath of forest that sits closest to predominantly Black communities.
In some ways, Cop City represents a more straightforward threat than the far right’s weaponization of nature conservation recounted in never yet. The control of nature and memory, however, is also at stake in the confrontation outside Atlanta: a prison farm once sat on the land designated for the police training ground; the forest is known to the Indigenous people who lived on it as the Weelaunee Forest but to the government as South River Forest. The ideological forces behind this kind of destruction hope we’ll miss the forest for the trees. Instead, Geyer goes further in, focusing on the community of trees: “What if the forest is to itself a collaborative, emancipated cycle of death and recreation?”