Arriving at the New World

Sometimes a concept forms without your knowledge, or despite your desire to create one entirely different. It reminds me that although I believe art an creation is mainly a force of will, there are other elements at work, and all of them come from within - that much I do believe.
It started a few weeks ago with making "the Myth of Fingerprints" - another in a little series of merging natural elements like tree textures and plants with human form. This one was a little different though, at least for me. This plaintive, lone character in a field seemed to say something more to me, despite the simplicity of the image, despite that lack of other elements in the piece. It was, at least to me, like a snapshot from a dream, or an imagined life just out of reach.
Sorry to be so esoteric, but when you keep mining the psyche for ideas, things bubble up from the deep, and while this is ultimately what I want, those waters are murky and complex, and they take time to sort out.
Let me back up a bit, to the 2005 film "the New World" directed by Terence Malick, one of my all-time favorite films, and an attempt to depict the story of Pocahontas in a realistic, brutal fashion. The film is like a tone poem, a meditative, often hypnotically paced piece that plunges you into the sights, the smells, the earthiness of the seventeenth century. For me, the title is deceptive - it implies the moniker given the Americas by the Europeans, the "new world" they "discovered," but for me, the title refers to the opposite - from the point of view of the "indies" of the Americas, and their time with the colonists and particularly their visit to England at the end of the film. Perhaps it says more about me than the film itself, but the most startling image was a short flash of Pocahontas' brother, in England, sitting in a very english chair, against a finely carved wall, dressed in his full native regalia. That juxtaposition, that contrast, is what stayed with me. Imagine this man, a man of power in his land, a man of honor and rank, who knows only the natural world and the primitive tools and accomplishments of his people, seeing and intermingling with seventeenth century England. After the short clip of him sitting in this British finery, he is seen running out the door into the outside, perhaps desperate to escape this "new world" that seems to manipulate the natural world, but also keeps it at bay.
Alongside this inspiring little film, is a state of frustration I find within myself that at first may seem to have little in common with the plight of the American tribes of "the New World" but is actually not so far removed after all. I shoot most of my images indoors, in a controlled environment, where i control the light, the direction of the light, and the compositions I create from these shoots are all subject to my creativity and desire, for better or worse. I choose the sky, I choose the angle, I choose the light, I choose the components of the piece. So why then do I take such pains to depict the outdoors, the natural world? Why the sky, why the fields, why the lakes and oceans? Why not shoot outdoors then?
There are too many reasons, both personal and mundane, to list here, but the short answer is, because I cannot get what I want out in the real world. Just today I went out to shoot some stock pieces for future imagery: land, fields, flowers, trees, lakes, etc. The weather did not cooperate. The light was obscene and contrasty. The weather is never optimal for my shooting when I have the freedom to actually do it - call it a bad run of luck, but honestly, even when I do find what I want, it is marred by something unfortunate that makes it unusable. An abandoned church, for example, not far from my house, on a lake. Sounds good, right? But the lake is beset by high tension wires and the church's facade is covered in the largest, most garish American flag you've ever seen. I recently obtained permission to shoot in a large church, almost a cathedral. I had hours to myself, and left with nothing usable. Everywhere you look, there is something marring the desired results: a modern speaker on the roman column, exit signs over the elaborate doorways, electric ceiling lights on the scalloped ceilings. Some are able to be corrected in Photoshop, but many are not, and the result I always feel is tremendous frustration at the state of this world, with its safety regulations and restricted parking - it makes capturing what's left of the natural world difficult at best. Even finding a shot of uninterrupted sky in my corner of the world is challenging - there are trees and structures and telephone poles everywhere you look. The connection to the film therefore is the feeling of being lost in the world, of becoming obsolete, of not belonging to the world at large. The world I want, or rather want to depict, is a wild world, a world of limited human alteration, a world that is a stage for a personal drama, a world that is not of the modern age at all. I seek the primal roots, the base psychology, the archetypes of the psyche, not the lurid displays of mass production and crass consumerism.
I search for a simpler time, even though I have no connection to it other than a very primal instinct for it, even though I am not usually comfortable in the outdoors as a person, my mind wanders to the primal landscapes of the collective subconscious for meaning and inspiration. It's hard to be inspired by something that is no longer there, that you cannot see or experience in any real way.
But back to my tree man…
To me he was a relic of the past, a figment of a dream of a time of evolution, or at the bridge of one age to another. Human, but also very much of the natural world - still intrinsic and connected to the other life forms of the world. Despite the simplicity of the image, to me it seemed an introduction to something, a herald of a string of images that may or may not come to pass, all based on this feeling of not belonging to the world around you, or the time period you find yourself in. It gives me a lot to consider, and attempt, and certainly I will have to make my peace and attempt to go out to obtain more elements to construct this idealized version of the world, and give voice to these thoughts. It's a far cry from the surface motivations of even one year ago, but I think this is fertile terrain, and it is my terrain, and I feel very much drawn to seeing it through. Whether or not I see it completed or not, whether I move on from this idea or not, I think it is worth the time to consider. There is a reason I do not depict the modern age or fashion in my shoots, there is a reason I prefer the nude form or at least choose clothing that is so bland and neutral that they are all but nondescript - it's because this age and these modern things do not concern me or interest me whatsoever. I have no desire to be yet another journalist capturing the current trends. I much prefer to dig under the plastic crust of this insane world and find a timelessness, a basic truth that unifies everyone, that pulls from ancient sources both known and unaware. The recurrence of certain objects are there for a reason - they are ancient, they are multi-layered, and they resonate on more than a surface level.
The challenge of this concept is how to depict an abstract feeling of isolation and obsolescence. Certainly the plight of the American tribes at the arrival of the Europeans is a strong connection, that plus the film that resonated with me about the same people. But I do not think you have to be a displaced victim of genocide to understand the feelings themselves. You could be a middle aged man very much surrounded by all the modern comforts, and still feel very isolated and at odds with the world and age around you!
I followed up "the Myth of Fingerprints" with an image that depicted a humanoid alien seeding the world with his DNA("I Will Diminish and Remain"), dispersing himself into the air and land, and then I set out to make a sequel, sort of the same setting but thousands of years later, with another "tree-man" encountering the "evolutionary ladders" depicted in the one with the alien. I have not released that one yet because, by itself, I do not feel that it succeeded in standing on its own, without the context
provided by my writing.
I will share it here, but I do not think I will put it into the Gallery Proper:
Next up I tried to capture the feeling from that scene in the film, where Pocahontas' brother was looking overwhelmed and miserable at what he beheld in the "New World" in an image called "the Wild Heart" that I worked on for days, but again, decided to not release. The intent was to depict the "primitive" in the fashions of this modern world, surrounded by an alien (to him) environment. I tried to blend some markings and feathers to suggest an Indian tribesman, but as I did not shoot the original with this intent, I think the result was sending the message clearly or naturally.
Here is where I left it:
But at last I did get to one I like, and I feel conveys the feelings quite well. "a Sad Arrival at the New World" depicts my primitive, my tree-man, coming to the end of his time, the end of fertile, life-giving land, confronted by a limitless sea, the salt water not able to sustain him, no others of his kind in sight. There are remnants of ladders, the broken fragments of a lineage or maybe simply that there are no ways out, no ways back, no escape from what is coming, and the world that you knew, that you flourish in, is at an end.
Michael Bilotta
June 17, 2013