the road not taken

It’s no secret that I’m terrible with directions. It takes me an inordinately long time to orient myself in a new city, particularly one not organized around a numbered grid, à la New York. But it was a surprise even to me that I managed to get lost inside a building on my way to an academic conference last week.

In my own defense, the structure in question – the Centro Cultural Borges – is as labyrinthine as its name would suggest: in addition to its multiple entryways and escalators that only go to certain wings, I happened to stumble in during the festival of Indian culture, the brightly colored fabrics and silvery trinkets of which turned the Center’s halls into a vertigo-inducing kaleidoscope. When I finally did find the main rotunda, the conference had long since begun, so I did what any responsible person would do under the circumstances. I bagged it, and decided to poke my head into a gallery or two.

Next door to what appeared to be the opening reception of a show of U.S. rock photography, a black and white image on the far wall of a starkly lit and virtually empty room caught my eye. Even from a distance, it had a disconcerting, oneiric quality; up close, its complex texture and manipulation of perspective made it hard to believe that I wasn’t looking at a photo-realist painting. In the foreground, the crisp folds of the riders’ clothing and the mottling of the horses’ haunches stand in stark contrast to the blurred movement of the dogs that flank them. Time, as reflected by the camera’s shutter, is fractured somewhere between the two. In the background, the needles of a lone conifer at the center of the frame are at once sharply defined and veiled in haze, while the two horses grazing side by side behind it appear to occupy two entirely different planes; depth of field is, here, a pliable notion.

The image, captured by Emmanuel Ortiz (b.1961, Argentina) after the eruption at Chaiten in 2008, is part of “Sendas” (“Paths”), a show of the photographer’s work from the past ten years. The exhibit is well suited to its name: each of the nearly fifty prints on display invokes the idea of a path carved out either literally or metaphorically by man and nature. There is the layer of ash that settled on one of the main dirt roads outside of Chaiten that, as it mixed with the falling rain, paved its surface in concrete (again, this dance with time: the simulacrum of progress, indistinguishable from the destructive force that produced it). Then there are the more abstract, though nonetheless physical, variations on the theme: surfaces whose texture once – but no longer – presented an obstacle to their crossing. The Japanese town reduced to rubble in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami; the coast of La Coruña looking like a vast expanse of asphalt after a storm, the difference between sand and sea almost imperceptible following the 2002 oil spill in the region.

Finally, there are the works that take up the figure in a more metaphorical sense: these comprise about a third of the selection at the Center and have, as their primary subject, a horse. Horses, it should be noted, are a recurring trope in Ortiz’s oeuvre; over the years, he has amassed hundreds of photos from polo grounds, stables, and – yes – roads around the world. Most of these images speak to the delicate balance of power between animal and rider, the subtle but critical difference between breaking (domar) and taming (amansar) a horse, and to the fortitude and fealty Ortiz views as an essential part of equestrian nature. Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in one of the photographer’s most lyrical pieces, which depicts the complementary forms and vastly different mettle of the muscular yet inviting curve of a horse’s back and the downy lightness of a single cloud floating above it.

More recently, this aesthetic preoccupation has been channeled into a reflection on the place of these animals in contemporary society. Image upon image presents, in what might best be described as a narrative mode, the confrontation between the modern and the pre-industrial: in the photograph below, taken in St. Pierre sur Dives, a horse turns to face a tractor, one of several machines that supplanted it as a motor of local economies. The dense fog that filters through the scene, coupled with the slight staining of the negative, gives the image a melancholy air of other-worldliness, or perhaps other-timeliness, a space in which a before and an after can be examined side by side. Other photographs show the animals engaged in a variety of activities around the town, from shuttling children to and from school, to collecting bottles from a restaurant off a busy town square, to enjoying a moment of rest in the stables beyond the city limits. Through these images, Ortiz is attempting to forge a path for the reintegration of these animals into society, advocating a way forward based on a backward glance.

At the heart of this project, beyond any nostalgia or aesthetic predilection, is the question of environmental sustainability in the face of the overwhelming scale of agri-industrial activity and the increasingly problematic global dependence on fossil fuels (flashes of La Coruña reappear in the mind’s eye). It turns out that St. Pierre is but one of a number of smaller French towns looking to re-incorporate animals in the day-to-day activities of the community. It turns out that a horse-drawn carriage is sometimes precisely what the situation calls for.

Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t know that anyone could honestly advocate a return to the widespread use of beasts of burden, for reasons both practical and ethical. What is interesting, though, about Ortiz’s proposal, which he spells out in a few notes scattered throughout the exhibition, is that the question of sustainability may best be addressed through a combination of innovation and retrospection. While LEED-certified construction employing ‘green’ building materials, which themselves require significant energy to produce and transport, is probably necessary in certain areas, there is no reason that the establishment of sustainable practices – architectural and otherwise – should have to follow a single model. Or that newer is always better. Sometimes it’s a long-forgotten path that presents the enigmatic allure of the road less traveled.