Magda Biernat: Ephemeral Monuments
How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in?
How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it?
How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?
― Barry López, Arctic Dreams
There are stories humming below the surface of Magda Biernat’s photographs: stories of migration and discovery, of loss and transformation. And there are stories that emerge from the resonant spaces between the images. A group of elk gather on the edge of a snowy wood, caught in a moment of stillness, here; the taxidermied head of a caribou hangs on a crowded living room wall there. A low-slung hunting shack stands on frozen ground in one frame, and beside it, the planes and angles of an iceberg emerge from Antarctic waters. Seeing these images beside one another, one glimpses fragments of a grand narrative, a complex–often devastating–dance of cause and effect between wilderness and the human world.
The images in Ephemeral Monuments were taken by Biernat over the course of a year, beginning New Year’s day in 2013 and ending just before Christmas. Biernat, who grew up in Poland and moved to the U.S. to pursue photography, is known for her sweeping architectural images–pictures starring structures and spaces, where human beings’ presence is minimal or nonexistent. The journey documented in this exhibition is the stuff of modern legend. It began with a flight from New York to Santiago, Chile, from there via bus to Tierra del Fuego and then by boat to Antarctica. From there, Biernat and her partner, writer and illustrator Ian Webster, traveled directly north, over land through the South, Central and then North American continents. They concluded in Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly known as Barrow), the northernmost town in the United States. Biernat took photographs with a Mamiya 6 medium format film camera throughout the journey, a process which she describes as deeply intentional–each roll of film had only 12 frames, and Biernat was careful to make every frame count. The journey was published as a series of dispatches in the New Yorker photo blog, and is the subject of two books: Adrift (Ink & Bellows, 2015) and The Edge of Knowing (Kehrer, 2019). Ephemeral Monuments includes images from both publications.
The Adrift series pairs two groups of photographs, taken at opposite poles of the Earth a year apart. In the first, Antarctic icebergs, as large as several city blocks, stand solo or in clusters of two or three. They lean toward each other at some angles, tilt back at other angles, their glowing blue-white bodies reflected in a ground of black water as mist rises behind them. Standing in counterpoint to Biernat’s evocative Antarctic iceberg photographs are images of Iñupiat hunting shacks in the polar regions of Alaska. Although they’re color photographs, the grayscale palette of the environment makes these pictures appear to be black-and-white. The buildings themselves seem to float in a white world where the horizon of snow blends into the sky. Both are located in places on Earth not very many people get to see firsthand.
Biernat is an emissary coming back from these places to tell a story; the story that appears in the seams between these images is one of interdependence and precarity. As imposing as the icebergs are, they are also in the process of melting due to rising sea and atmospheric temperatures. The loss of these icebergs–a quiet but enormous subtext for these pictures–is causing ocean levels to rise, affecting life everywhere else on the planet. And rising temperatures are also the cause of diminishing ice in the far north. Traditional Iñupiat hunting of caribou, whales and seals is less and less possible with the loss of sea ice and the changing of ocean currents. As more and more Iñupiat people depart the far north for jobs in urban areas, leaving their traditional lifeways behind, these hunting structures are falling into disuse. Taken together, these images tell the story of a world very much in flux, in a language of elegant humility.
While Biernat’s images from the Adrift series speak of change on a global scale, her pictures of manmade structures give the viewer a window into the strangeness and wonder of human ritual. The images of chullpas–tombs built in the 10th and 11th centuries in the altiplano of Bolivia, from Biernat’s series Towards the Reborn Sun–reveal the personalities of these edifices, which, in their ancient austerity, are incredibly tender. Standing plainly in their arid, rocky world, the chullpas are monuments not only to the lives they entomb, but to the hands that built them thousands of years ago. These hands created detailed patterns on the chullpas’ facades and formed their portal-like entrances. Biernat’s representation of these monuments offers them to the viewer exactly as they are. The chullpa photographs–along with the other images in this exhibition–take their place in a lineage of contemplative minimalist art, from Agnes Martin’s paintings to Tacita Dean’s films and photographs. The directness of Biernat’s eye brings to mind the work of 20th-century American photographers like Edward Weston and Minor White, harnessing a formal rigor that’s met equally with the vulnerability of the handmade, the (im)perfectly time-worn. And the images also present something all Biernat’s own, encoded in the conceptual ambition of her project: a questioning of the imagined borders within what we think of as “America.”
In Biernat’s documenting of the pan-American landscape, she captures the quicksilver spirit of the places she’s passed through–and the cumulative power of this spirit asks us to reevaluate what we think we know about “America.” Along with the chullpas, the buildings depicted in Ephemeral Monuments include a “fisherman’s castle” along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, a spookily campy vestige of “European” opulence. In Petrópolis, Brazil, the abandoned concrete shell of a restaurant looks like it landed from outer space, while in the Texas panhandle, a tipi made of concrete stands out in a field of shrubby chaparral. There is a layering of histories and sensibilities at play in these representations that upends the notion of “borders” as we know it. A tipi is, by definition, a tent, something that can be packed up and carried from place to place, traditionally used by Indigenous Americans of the Plains and Plateau regions. The paradoxical situation of a concrete tipi is an ideal metaphor for the conceptual border-defiance Biernat finds in her work. Categorical distinctions between north and south, fanciful and functional, fixed and ephemeral–these are the distinctions that Biernat skilfully disrupts.
“Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” This is a question posed by Elizabeth Bishop, the Canadian poet who spent much of her life in Brazil, in her poem “Questions of Travel.” She goes on to ask, “Is it right to be watching strangers in a play/ in this strangest of theatres?” The essential questions of travel–of leaving home and occupying the role of visitor/observer–are crucial questions for Biernat. In conversation, she told me of her lifelong fascination with places that are not her home, stemming from her childhood growing up behind the Iron Curtain. Leaving behind a culture that insisted on the sanctity of national borders, traveling became, for Biernat, a means to creative freedom, and being on the move taking photographs became a kind of ever-evolving home.
One of the most emblematically “American” images in Ephemeral Monuments shows a buffalo on Oklahoma’s plain, photographed from the driver’s seat of a truck. The animal’s large, dark eyes reflect the wide-open sky while seeming to look directly at the viewer. The buffalo’s face commands the dropping-away of an entire network of human associations about its species, creating, in its place, total presence. Just to the right of the animal is the truck’s side mirror, where a person’s arm and leg are reflected mid-gesture. The fact of the mirror, the vehicle’s interior, and the glimpse of a human form–the only appearance of a person in this exhibition–remind us that we are, indeed, seeing this scene from a human stance, and from a place of transition, of passing-through. The simultaneity of these elements amounts to longing, to a desire to stay and look deeper, to inhabit the story further, even as one continues to move on. To look into these photographs is to consider, even for a moment, what kind of lives occupy these worlds–to test the limits of knowing from another angle.
Guided by an interest in urbanism and habitation, I've focused my work primarily on the in-between places where architecture, landscape and the built environment intersect. I've always been fascinated by the ways people inhabit space, and how the passage of time affects these spaces. My work often explores the notions of home, belonging, in-betweenness and cultural identity. By questioning the transformative qualities of location and geography, I'm attempting to find my own place in a world with far more porous borders than the one I grew up in.
Ephemeral Monuments is pulled from several series I've created during a year long study of the American continents. While traveling from the Antarctic to the Arctic circle, through seventeen countries in the Americas, I've documented dwellings, how human habitation responds to and reflects harsh landscapes, and the means with which societies adapt to unfamiliar climates, both cultural and physical. One of the themes that emerged during my travels, partly from my background as an architectural photographer, partly from having documented humankind's relentless push against the natural world, was the imposition of ourselves on landscape. In a time of ever increasing ecological pressure, the presence, or absence, of the remnants of civilization became a running theme throughout. Out of the landscape grow dwellings or ceremonial structures that are either in harmony or incongruous to their surroundings. But these additions are ephemeral, the slow push towards entropy being a constant threat of erasure. In these places where we’ve inserted our presence, nature struggles for rebalance, and we watch and picture what will still remain after equilibrium is reestablished.