"I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a Freedom and Culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society." —Henry David Thoreau ["Walking"]
Upon entering Flanders Gallery, we encounter a strip of living sod, spread along the ledge of the front desk.
It transports us into the immediacy of the natural world, our gaze drifting across emerald mounds of moss, sprouts of clover, spikes of grass, bits of dirt and scattered leaves. And, because the ledge is just about nose-level, we smell the loamy waft of organic life. This is the contemplative setting of Triangle artist Taj Forer's latest installation, Stone by Stone.
The next thing we see is wall text, a passage from Kirsten Rian's essay from Forer's book of the same name (Kehrer, 2011), and a stark white shelf upon which is placed a massive sienna-hued cluster of dried birch fungus. Across the gallery space stands a makeshift teepee made of branches, 8 or 10 feet high, covered in bundles of tall, dried grasses.
It is only at this point that we notice there are also photographs on view. But our belated awareness of Forer's two-dimensional documentation of wild spaces is intentional. Stone by Stone includes six large-scale photographs presented in sets of two and 12 smaller works that contrast and harmonize with the physical objects that are positioned in the space.
Both the objects and the photographs serve as evidence that confirms us as an integral part of the natural world. In one image, a hand extends from outside of the frame and reaches in to pluck an apple from a tree, offset by a matrix of branches, leaves and white sky. Its companion image frames a prodigious density of dark green leaves, irregularly formed, worm bitten, vital—their so-called imperfections celebrated, almost idealized, as are the black slashes and spots on the mottled apples, speckled crimson with flecks of ochre. We look upward into the image of the tree and feel almost sheltered by its leafy bower. Such views are not random in Forer's photographs. He positions us in specific proximity to his sources, providing an almost diagrammatic representation of our spatial and existential relationship to the natural world.
In another pair of images—this one a bona fide diptych—we find ourselves at the center of the flow of a wide river: deep gray and white sky. We face an island that splits the river. A strip of blank wall between the two modular images bisects the island and the river fork. As viewers we are assigned an active, connective role in this piece: It is our own consciousness that allows the world to coalesce and become whole—island, sky and water fusing into one system. Despite its muted tones and luminous calm, a torrential energy rushes in and around this work, fueled at least in part by our experience of being positioned at the center of what some might call "creation," and the sense that we are implicated, co-creators, as it were, in a world-building process. Such implication would suggest that Forer's work cannot be categorized simply as "nature photography."
All of the works in Stone by Stone point to a human-environment interface: handmade wooden snow shoes in a snow bank; two hands, each holding a shimmering silver and blue fish; a wood fire; a loose line of animal vertebrae nestled in the grass. Human presence is inherent in each shot (Who lit that fire? Who placed those bones?), underscoring the other inevitable truth that traditional landscape and nature photography seeks to elide: the image of an unpopulated landscape is never devoid of human presence—someone took the picture. The ethos of Forer's oeuvre seems predicated on the condition and question of human presence on earth.
Stone by Stone establishes a dynamic between human and natural forces in ways that are sometimes so subtle it is not always easy to discern where human intervention begins and living environment ends. Other physical objects on display include three early stone tools acquired by the artist from a shuttered natural history museum—but at a glance they simply look like stones. There's also a luxuriant fox pelt hung on a wall across from a handmade bow with a sewn leather grip. A message begins to crystalize. As with the subatomic realm in which the very questions we ask determine the kinds of answers we get, Forer's project makes a similar claim for the macrocosmic world: Our very presence within it alters outcomes.
I see Forer's project as an entreaty to go outside, to engage with the natural world on its own terms, and to do so with grace and in an interrelationship so seamless as to be barely discernable. But that is only my take on Forer's work, which by design requires each of us to witness and complete its meanings, found as much in the spaces among the objects and images as in the works themselves—a merging of philosophy with twigs, trees and stones.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Wild at heart."