One of the most challenging shows you'll see around town right now is John Mahony's photography at the First Street Gallery. As a river kayaker, Mahony is witness to the increasingly evident fact that there are few wild spaces left on the planet that are untouched by humanity. "You rarely go on a river without seeing some evidence that people have been there, no matter how remote," he told me. Abandoned railroad ties and cars, culverts, mines and old mining equipment — those are just some of the things you can find along the riverbanks.
His first reaction was what you might expect — outrage and disgust at finding the pristine landscape defiled. But upon further reflection, he says "I started realizing that these abandoned cars were being sculpted by the river and they were really quite beautiful. That put the question in my mind, 'Why is something beautiful; why is something ugly?'" And so, as part of what he terms "personal research," he began photographing the landscapes of impacted, damaged wild places.
Some of the sites he has photographed include the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the Ukraine, the Hanford Nuclear Preserve in Washington State, the Salton Sea in California, abandoned mining sites, and military aircraft crash sites. Placed in these sites, in choreographed poses, are one or more figures, either costumed or nude.<
When the figures are clothed, Mahony uses bridal dresses or ball gowns for the women, and formal dark pants and white shirts for the men. Sometimes the figures have incomplete "hazmat" suits thrown loosely over the party attire. The photographs are more like movie stills then snap shots, in that they are windows into a story.
So going back to Mahony's question, are these images beautiful? Are they disturbing? If so, why are they disturbing? What are the implications of these badly damaged sites?
The answer to the first question is that some of them most definitely are beautiful. The lighting, the poses and the landscape have all been considered in producing a beautiful image. Some of them are more intriguing and mysterious than beautiful. And all of them are disturbing.
In a picture he took last year called "Burning Field, Salton Sea, California," a dark woman in a white bridal gown walks away from the camera toward an uncontrolled fire. One of the shoulder straps of her dress has slipped down her arm. She carries her veil in her hand and it drags on the parched ground at her side. The text next to the image tells us about this human-made catastrophe and the devastating results that will ensue when the whole thing evaporates. "As the lake shrinks, the dependable desert winds are expected to blow and to drive lake deposits into the atmosphere. This toxic cloud of salt, selenium, pesticides, heavy metals and petroleum based fertilizers will rise into the atmosphere and create... a California Exclusion Zone." Oops.
But there is no clear evidence that all of this damage we're doing is more than a minor nuisance to the planet. Just another upheaval in what's been a pretty dynamic history from the get go. These images, if anything, indicate that the planet will absorb the trash, repair the damage, get on with it. It will take some time, but the planet has time. As I once heard George Carlin say, years ago, in a live performance, "The Earth is fine... the people are fucked."
So if you stand upright on two feet and are holding this paper with unique, opposable thumbs, then these images are pretty disturbing, and John Mahony is not offering much comfort. The female figure — which may be seen, as is common in the visual arts, as a healer, a nurturer, a symbol of fertility — seems all too frail and vulnerable to put things right for our species.
Sound a bit heavy? Want to hear some solutions instead of all doom and gloom? Well, you won't find many at this show, that's not what Mahony sets out to do. From my conversations with him, I'd say he's just as interested in solutions as you or I, but he makes no presumptions about being the guy with the answers. And he seems keenly aware that if Homo sapiens is one of the species knocked off the planet by our own actions, then the world will go on as it always has. One species goes and another one comes.
But I'll offer my own words of wisdom, such as they are. The one comfort we can take is that all of this is fully our responsibility. Therefore, it is within our reach to stop it. It'll take some doing for all of us to get over our denial and accept the fact that you can't burn your house down if you want to live in it; that if you piss in your bed it's going to stink. But since we are the perpetrators in this situation, we have only to change direction.
That can start when we're all willing to take a good honest look at reality. Look carefully at these images and see them for what they are. John and his models have walked far into deserts, traveled down rivers, put themselves at personal risk in badly polluted areas to look deeply into our worst messes. Look at the images and remember — we did that. Do you think it's beautiful?
John Mahony's Exclusion Zone runs through March 9, at the First Street Gallery at 422 First Street, Old Town, Eureka. The gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.