Haverford

Marion Belanger: Rift/Fault – Landscape Photographs of the North American Continental Plate at Haverford College

Northward light fills the gallery upon entering Marion Belanger’s exhibition Rift/Fault. The exhibition, currently on view at Haverford College, contains roughly two dozen pairings of photographs drawn from Belanger’s decade-long investigation into the geography and geology of an unseen tectonic boundary: the North American Continental Plate. Along the edges of the plate lies the Mid-Atlantic Rift in Iceland, bisecting and pulling the small nation apart, and the San Andreas Fault in California, which has long held a special place in America’s popular imagination.

Marion Belanger. Rift #51 (Geothermal pipes alongside a road at Hengill, Iceland), 2011; Fault #26 (North Shore, Salton Sea, CA), 2012; archival pigment print; 18.5 x 14.8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Atrium Gallery, Haverford College.

Marion Belanger. Rift #51 (Geothermal Pipes Alongside a Road at Hengill, Iceland), 2011; Fault #26 (North Shore, Salton Sea, CA), 2012; archival pigment print; 18.5 x 14.8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Atrium Gallery, Haverford College.

Belanger’s photographs depict bright, spare, and brutally captivating landscapes along the plate’s edges. Initially shot on 4×5 and 6×7 inch film, the negatives were scanned to produce large color prints, which are hung in pairs: an image from the Icelandic Rift above (or next to) an image from the San Andreas Fault. Their arrangement causes the exhibition to be “read” like a book. Each pairing, carefully collated by Belanger, creates a subtle parataxis between what is seen and the implication of deeper geologic movements.

The photographs document domestic architecture and infrastructure, highlighting odd silhouettes where land meets sky. Similarities between the two sites begin to accumulate. The bleached California light mirrors the illuminating, misty white skies of Iceland. The same pale light gives the spare colors their punch. The interplay between the literal subjects of individual photographs, which Belanger aptly describes as raw, empty, mundane, and ordinary, draws sharp contrast to the content of the work. Cues leading the viewer deeper are sometimes subtle (a small crack in a cement wall), and at other times overt (a gaping maw where a house once stood). In other photographs, there is no visible indication of the tectonic movements beneath the earth’s surface. Depicting a sleepy suburb or a hiking trail on a foggy morning, this last subset, when seen in relation to the whole, feels terribly haunted. As Belanger remarks in her statement, “The monotone housing developments built on top of the fault seem to deny the existence of the unstable earth below the surface. The ordered built environment ignores the actuality of the land, a dangerous disconnect.” In these shifting registers, the quiet work finds its edge.

Marion Belanger. Rift #26 (Volcanic excavation site, Heimaey, Iceland), 2007   Fault #10 (Backyard, Daly City, CA), 2008; archival pigment print; 18.5 x 14.8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Atrium Gallery, Haverford College.

Marion Belanger. Rift #26 (Volcanic Excavation Site, Heimaey, Iceland), 2007; Fault #10 (Backyard, Daly City, CA), 2008; archival pigment print; 18.5 x 14.8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Atrium Gallery, Haverford College.

According to Belanger, Rift/Fault developed in conversation with two pieces of writing. The first is a captivating description of tectonic activity by Simon Winchester in A Crack in the Edge of the World. While Winchester’s account of unseen geologic phenomena is compelling, it’s Belanger’s own curiosity, not the book’s prose, that will lead her to spend a decade of her life on this project. The reading serves as an important investigative tool, nurturing her curiosity and directing her fieldwork, as revealed by the exhibition’s organizational format. The pairings of photographs mirror pages in a codex and follow the swerving essay logic of Belanger’s investigation and the invisible structures of a reader’s mind. The second text is Elizabeth Kolbert’s essay “The Annals of Extinction Part II” published in The New Yorker. Kolbert’s essay, among its other topics, lays out the stakes of the Anthropocene, the current geologic epoch defined by human impact on the planet’s ecology. Since the term was coined seven years ago, a cadre of artists have responded to its new conceptual framework, deploying new and familiar creative strategies. Most relevant here are Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures, a collection of 100 images of humanity held in geostationary satellite orbit, and Rachel Sussman’s ongoing photographic catalog of deep time, The Oldest Living Things in the World. Belanger’s rhetorical response to the Anthropocene places her somewhere between Sussman and Paglen, with all three making singular attempts to look past the temporal limitations of our collective imaginations. While Sussman’s cataloging project is in formal conversation with the Becher School of minimal typologies, and Paglen’s galactic time capsule, though brilliant, is a meta-conceptual spectacle, neither compare evenly with Belanger’s project, which is foregrounded in her idiosyncratic role of artist/observer: reading, learning, walking, looking, and photographing.

Marion Belanger. Rift #11 (Pseudocrator remnant, Reykjavik, Iceland), 2006; Fault #37 (Sign, Desert Hot Springs, CA), 2012; archival pigment print; 18.5 x 14.8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Atrium Gallery, Haverford College.

Marion Belanger. Rift #11 (Pseudocrator Remnant, Reykjavik, Iceland), 2006; Fault #37 (Sign, Desert Hot Springs, CA), 2012; archival pigment print; 18.5 x 14.8 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Atrium Gallery, Haverford College.

What all these artists share are delightfully quixotic strategies to draw us into conversation with the monumental. In Belanger’s case, it is the particular folly in using a film camera, a device with decidedly human-scale visual/temporal capabilities, to research a subject that reveals itself in deep time and with unpredictable violent quakes and eruptions. In Belanger’s adept hands, the inherent limitations of her chosen tools model our own human limitations, finding the poetic in the face of the inconceivable. Belanger has a gift for making visible the unseen, particularly what resides within boundaries. With these elegant and precise photographs, she documents our small, everyday relationship to the land, while simultaneously providing a peripheral glimpse of the planetary.

Marion Belanger: Rift/Fault is on view at the Marshall Fine Arts Center at Haverford College through October 4, 2015.

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