It is no coincidence that the term "souvenir," an object kept as a reminder of a person, place or event, originates from the French verb souvenir, to remember. Whether snapping a photograph, buying a trinket or sending a postcard, we all try to bring a piece of our journey home. But beyond helping us remember, what do these objects tell us about the places we visit? How do they shape our expectations of a place or our perception of a landscape? How do they communicate our experience to others? And what stories do these objects allow us to tell ourselves about ourselves?
In the second installment of Sun Valley Center for the Arts' “symposium for the curious,” the Center delves into these questions and unpacks our notions of travel. The Center selected the perfect season to display this beautiful exhibition, December 13, 2013 to Febuary 15, 2014, as the holidays mark the height of tourist season with families and vacationers alike making the trip to Sun Valley. “Wish You Were Here” offers the perfect holiday retreat for those looking to get a glimpse of thought-provoking artwork that pushes the viewer to analyze the ways in which tourism, the American landscape and the road trip are deeply tied to our concepts of identity, temporality and place.
Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is greeted with two stunning large-scale photographs of Yosemite’s Inspiration Point from Roger Minick’s Sightseer series (1980). In Woman with Scarf at Inspiration Point, before you can focus in on the name of the place printed on the tourist’s scarf, the site is instantly recognizable. It’s a scene we all know, whether we’ve been to Yosemite and snapped the same picture, or seen reproductions of this image in a friend’s album, or on a keychain. Hillary Elmore, the administrative coordinator at the Center who greets visitors as they enter the gallery space says, “People who come in to see the exhibit say these photos remind them of their childhoods and families and the road trips they took growing up.” There is something about these landscapes that create a sense of nostalgia for viewers.
This photograph, however, is especially attention grabbing because it not only connects our sense of self to place, it also provokes a feeling of awe, or what the Romantics called "the Sublime." Edmund Burke defines the Sublime in nature as a passion akin to Astonishment, in which “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." When looking at this image, the gaze is drawn between the power and grandeur of Yosemite’s Inspiration Point, and the kitschy reproduction of this scene on the souvenir scarf on the tourist’s head, whose own gaze is deeply absorbed in the landscape. We are simultaneously caught up in the beauty of the scene and struck by the futility of the tourist’s attempt to bring that experience home in the form of a scarf or photograph.
The sublime is a sensation that 19th century landscape painters sought to capture and reproduce. Not surprisingly, it is these very same landscape artists who defined the “viewpoint” as we know them today. Elliot Anderson, while photographing national park viewpoints, began to notice that all tourists take the same pictures from the same vantage points. He gathered photographs from tourists’ online photo albums and compiled them to create multilayered images of famous vantage points in his Average Landscape series. The result is luminous images whose fantastical elements, like double rainbows, lend the pictures the textured quality of a painting. Elliot Anderson will lecture at the Center on January 16th at 5:30pm to further address this link between American landscape painting and American tourism.
The interplay between the sublime and the kitsch, between past and present, and between landscape and identity, plays out in the other pieces in this exhibition. Particularly interesting are the ways in which many of the artists track the change the American landscape and environment have witnessed over the past century.
Matt McCormic, for his installation piece, “The Great Northwest," found a scrapbook in a thrift store in Portland that catalogued a road trip two women took in 1958. McCormic re-created their trip, eating where they ate, staying in the same hotels, taking the same pictures, even stopping at the same banks. He documents his journey in a series of photographs and a video installation that traces the ways our experience of the road trip has been altered by the change in landscape over time. By pairing his footage with theirs, not only do we see how the natural environment has been transformed by the addition of dams and interstates, but more surprisingly, we see that while national parks have fundamentally remained the same, small towns have deteriorated and in some places altogether disappeared.
Left: Matt McCormick's "The Great Northwest," photo by Danielle Flam. Right: Union Pacific Railroad Memorabilia, photo by Danielle Flam.
Visitors will have a chance to do their own pairing of past with present with a selection of historic photographs of Sun Valley and of the train that used to bring tourists from LA to Sun Valley, on loan from the Community Library archives.
For more information about SVCA exhibitions, visit here.