Dangerous Curves: Politics and Poetry in the Work of Blaise Tobia
by Joseph F. Gregory © 2003


<back ..... part eight of eight ..... intro>

__ The hidden diachronic structure discoverable in the Giglio image is openly expressed in the paired landscapes entitled Alpha and Omega (Alpha, 1994; Omega, 1996). The title indicates that the two images can be read as the end points of a temporal process of some kind, but it does not specify what the nature and structure of that process is, and which image signifies its beginning (Alpha) and which its end (Omega). The fact that the image above, representing some of the lush green hills outside of Los Angeles, is starkly opposed to the one below, displaying the ancient, desiccated town of Matera, Italy, immediately suggests to the viewer that the pair might be read in terms of binary oppositions such as nature vs. culture, birth vs. decay, or potentiality vs. actuality: the hills outside of L.A., then, might represent the beginning point of a process of culture-building (Alpha: nature, potentiality) which finds fulfillment in the Old World city of Matera (Omega: culture actualized). But this simple narrative structure is quickly compromised by a more detailed analysis of the two landscapes. For the pale, stony form of the old city can be read in two ways: on the one hand, seen as a whole and in respect to its ancient heritage, it seems to be the very embodiment of durability and dependability, a positive realization of creative striving (culture); but in respect to the plentiful evidence of decay revealed by close inspection (e.g., weeds sprouting from crumbling tile roofs, roofless buildings and broken walls) the image might also be read as a symbol of the penultimate destiny of all things human: the inevitable entropic decay and collapse of culture. And if it is taken in this way, as a symbol of the process of disintegration which folds culture back into nature, then the ancient city becomes the "Alpha," the beginning point of this process of decay, and nature is transformed into the "Omega" or end point. The two images can thus be read in either direction: nature into culture, or culture into nature, and each can therefore be construed as either "Alpha" or "Omega." This narrative ambiguity permits the viewer to plot the temporal structure of the work in two drastically different ways: in terms of the circular time frame of myth in which each component perpetually rises out of and falls back into its opposite, or in terms of linear, geological time in which decay is a final outcome of earthly history.

__ But this is not the only complication awaiting the observant viewer. Further close inspection reveals that the verdant hills of the seemingly Edenic landscape are in fact the imminent victims of that all-American blight, suburban sprawl (spreading from right to left, it has already established a foothold on the crest of the central hill), and this simple realization snaps the juxtaposition of the two images into the same sort of synchronic, cultural perspective examined above: Old World vs. New World, Matera vs. Los Angeles. The contemporary culture-building forces of America are thus implicitly contrasted with those of the Old World: the inexorable, horizontal spread of suburbia swallowing up everything in its path with limited regard, at best, for ecological and social (not to mention aesthetic) consequences is contrasted with the fixed, stable, deeply rooted and endlessly renewed form of the old city. And one is thus reminded, once again, of Smithson's contrast between the phenomenon of the "non-place," a rootless site without meaningful identity, a random product of capitalist forces, and a place that is deeply rooted in its own past, a place whose self-concept is manifested in the very form and concept of the old city wall (although this contrast is itself further complicated by the fact that the Old World phenomenon of the city wall was, in part, a product of economic motivation).

The assembled, fractured form of the two landscapes in this monumental work also plays a subtle role in the viewer's experience in that it accentuates the fact that the images, as constructs, are products of artistic intention, which is to say, cultural artifacts embodying complex contemporary ideas, concepts, concerns, and values. And this realization subtly compromises the seeming objectivity, the sheer givenness (the trace) of the objects depicted. Even the image of "nature," though it seems to simply present itself in the beautiful hills outside of L.A., is a cultural construct, an idea loaded with the cultural baggage of the artist's own time and place. And so, once again, Tobia utilizes the very nature of the medium of photography to position us behind the lens of an intelligence that is at once analytical, poetical, and fully aware of itself as a culturally shaped interpretive force forever engaged in the process of world-making.


<back ..... part eight of eight ..... intro>