“Witness Trees,” also known as bearing trees, are used by surveyors to mark boundaries in remote places where placing a stone or post is impossible. Their trunks are inscribed with information about their species, diameter, and survey location. For hundreds of years cartographers and biologists have
collected witness-tree data. And over time, as each tree has grown, the information carved, notched, or blazed into its trunk has become an indelible historical marker of a specific place and time. In the words of one surveyor, reading witness trees is like “a handshake with the past.”
When Minnesota-based photographer Peter Happel Christian was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, his parents planted a redbud tree in their backyard. As Peter grew up so did the tree. Like a witness tree, it was marked, but in this case, with a specific event and a specific person. When his family moved away, Happel Christian and the redbud continued to grow together in blind parallel lives. Last summer, the artist went back to his childhood home to photograph the tree. His photograph, Witness Tree, depicts a rubber-banded stack of photographs of that tree, taken from many different angles. Over hours of shooting, Happel Christian had found it was impossible to see the tree exactly as he imagined. So this picture of the stack of his photographs reveals both the artist’s frustration and the fallibility of the camera.
Happel Christian’s MAEP exhibition, Ground Truth, is about the history of land stewardship and the use of visual technology to chart, measure, and document natural phenomena. Both photography and geographic image systems have developed into hyper-accurate tools that elicit a strong push-pull effect on the viewer. Happel Christian is interested in the aesthetics of photographs and how color, composition, and elusive details hold viewers’ attention. But he also critiques the limits of photography by exploring what the medium cannot do.
Black Holes & Blind Spots address these shifting tensions between what one sees and what the photographs actually capture. This idea drives the artist’s ongoing series, which he works on while taking walks around his neighborhood and on trips to Ohio and Iowa. Each of these photographs is a seemingly indistinct patch of grass or piece of landscape. He adds hazy black circles to the digital files to evoke black holes bored through the photographs, as their titles suggest. Like a micro-version of the astronomical phenomena that swallow light, these black holes represent a force that draws viewers into the image. Conversely, they are also blind spots—the absence of light—that eclipse the centers of the images. This simple but effective photographic manipulation emphasizes viewers’ desire to see the whole image, while creating versions of phenomena that are impossible to see. On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act. This landmark piece of legislation allowed for the creation of the National Park Service, which is dedicated to the maintenance of the United States’ interior, and provides protection for the country’s national parks. Happel Christian’s Organic Action is a pair of eyeglasses with lenses that match President Wilson’s prescription. Wilson was known to have moderate astigmatism and other eye ailments throughout his life. This pair of glasses conflates Wilson’s own impaired vision with his forward-looking vision of land stewardship required by the Organic Act. Happel Christian implies that vision—as in seeing and surveying—is essential to protecting land that will become a national park. After all, land preservation is a selection process by which terrain is set aside for recreation and excluded from development. But even though human impact is significantly diminished, these land parcels become protected Edens: culturally valuable, perhaps essential, landscapes that are kept primeval but maintained through strict laws and borders.
Are natural phenomena “out there” waiting to be discovered? Or can transcendental natural wonders be experienced anywhere? Happel Christian’s Discovery is a five-photograph series depicting a hand lifting up an imitation rock to reveal an empty patch of grass. Like a strip of film, the series builds up a narrative through the succession of images, beginning with the discovery that the plastic rock is hollow. For Happel Christian it’s important that the imposter rock and the cultivated backyard create the illusion of perfect, manicured artificiality that is counter to the wild grandeur of nature. Everything also riffs on the backyard sublime. Here, a pocket mirror reflects sunlight into the camera lens, creating a corona and geometric lens flares. The photograph portrays a clearly manufactured phenomenon. “In my work I make a habit of literally setting my camera aside and reaching into the world to physically interact with my subject matter,” Happel Christian explains. Together, Discovery and Everything are works in which the artist both critiques and experiments with photographs as fabricated images and records of an event. By unhinging the experience of phenomena from the natural landscape he theorizes that transcendence is an affect that can be created as well as found.