Christina Seely: A humane sublime
Forests are not what they used to be: immutable, independent organisms. They are surprisingly humane, alive, interconnected. We have now proven that trees communicate with each other through intricate systems of fungi and electrical connections, using CO2 emissions underground and interconnected root networks to exchange energy. Trees are interspecific and trans-generational, more altruistic than we ever thought. While we better understand the dynamic development of tree systems, our destructiveness runs exponentially against our growing awareness that they are imperative to our survival. This perspective drives a renewed empathy, offers us a fresh awareness of the idea of nature, and widens our vision of the complexity of our interconnections.
Something about Christina Seely’s new photography of the Panamanian rainforest strikes me as perfectly illustrating this evolving awareness. Seely’s new series opens a way to see into representational systems of nature. Her alternative vision of living forests showcases their fluctuating essences and colors, captures the kinetic and dynamic interplay of light, and portrays trees as vibratory visions, sentient organisms, carriers of illuminating powers.
Seely’s photography taps into our connection to larger natural networks and points to our facility for immersing ourselves in the flow of natural energy that surrounds us. Her work is all about capturing the effusive nature of a changing world that we struggle to keep in focus. Her way of capturing the aura of what she photographs is striking, using photographic media to simultaneously illustrate our inability to fully grasp nature alongside our ability to be fully amazed by it. Her skill at deciphering natural processes and transforming them into art makes her work essential to our times. She treats photography as a transducing science that reveals the realm between the real and the mysterious, fixing our awe on the great enigma of our existence.
To actively consider the arctic’s vast horizon or stand still in a living, breathing rainforest is to recognize our inability to measure ourselves against our planet. To look into the eyes of an extinct species, or gaze at a melting glacial river flowing violently toward the ocean, or stare into the light emanating from a vast city at night, is to witness the aura of civilization battling with nature. This calibrates our senses to nature’s storyline and cycles, a rhythm of life we have outpaced. Seely’s work is so important because it draws out our resistance to consciously merge with or measure ourselves against nature’s immensity.
We have come to a moment when we are starting to look at our experience of nature with deepening despair, frustrated at being unable to capture its elusive present― only its irreversible past. Seely’s work converses with a strand of 19th century landscape art that glorified the beauty and grandeur of nature as separate from humans. This was a sublime full of hope, renewal and otherness. Today, immersed in the Anthropocene, we mistreat nature as never before. Our attitude has become a mixture of false skepticism and a deep cynicism, reflecting the fact that we have recently crossed that critical threshold of what’s called “the 6th extinction.” Our contemporary sublime has reversed. While we still view nature with great awe, we know ourselves as a species intertwined with it. We can’t escape seeing nature’s humanity reflected back at us. This is a new and humane sublime that moves beyond the foundational philosophies separating “it” from “us” and renews our vision of nature as an extension of ourselves.
Seely`s work―her use of this new sublime―is not about the politics of ecology or environmental documentation, nor definitively about memory in a classic sense, but instead centers on our ability to capture immanence and its fugitive moment of change from one state of perception to another. This is about capturing the process of seeing, ultimately about understanding the mystery of our own existence. When I look at these images, I see a new sensibility in the making, a new comprehension of nature, but mostly I see us mutating within the greater system and facing the complexity of what nature now means about us. I see the humane sublime used to reintegrate the viewer into the natural world denying neither human impact nor how its health reflects our own.
Carlos Casas is a filmmaker and visual artist based in Paris. His practice merges documentary, cinema, and contemporary visual and sound arts. www.carloscasas.net/
Christina Seely is a visual artist based in Vermont and completed her Light Work residency in March 2016.