Artificial Paradise, 2020, HD video, 6:26 min.
“The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” (William Cronon, The Trouble With Wilderness, 1995)
Artificial Paradise is a project that traces the development and popularization of the notion of a sublime wilderness and its promise of new frontiers through the digital manipulation of 19th century landscape photographs of western North America.
Pioneering landscape photographers such as Carleton Watson, Charles Weed and Eadweard Muybridge were highly influential in promoting the ideal of the western frontier that encouraged the migration of European settlers to the west coast of North America.
“The removal of Indians to create an ‘uninhabited wilderness’—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is… Indeed, one of the most striking proofs of the cultural invention of wilderness is its thoroughgoing erasure of the history from which it sprang.” (Cronon, p. 10)
Cronan’s essay, which informs this project, is divided into two parts: nature as sublime and the notion of the frontier as an uninhabited place of untold riches, ready for the taking. Artificial Paradise engages both concepts of wilderness by foregrounding and digitally enhancing the constructed nature of early landscape photography, its composition, cropping and framing of “views,” the mirroring of water scenes, and the use of toning, tinting, and montage as in Muybridge’s addition of reflected clouds in the image that appears in the first frames of the video work. All of these effects, including the coloring of black and white images, are heightened to reinforce their derivation from the visual tropes of Romanticism that introduced elements of the sublime into art.
“In virtually all of its manifestations, wilderness represents a flight from history. Seen as the original garden, it is a place outside of time, from which human beings had to be ejected before the fallen world of history could properly begin. Seen as the frontier, it is a savage world at the dawn of civilization, whose transformation represents the very beginning of the national historical epic. Seen as the bold landscape of frontier heroism, it is the place of youth and childhood, into which men escape by abandoning their pasts and entering a world of freedom where the constraints of civilization fade into memory. Seen as the sacred sublime, it is the home of a God who transcends history by standing as the One who remains untouched and unchanged by time’s arrow.” (Cronon, p. 10)