Writing on photography

Review – Anima and On The Widest Prairies by Charlotte Dumas at The Photographers Gallery

Sometimes you see an exhibition and initially feel there isn’t much to say about it, but after leaving the gallery the thoughts planted by the work start to grow and intermingle, and you find yourself drawn back to write about it. So it was with Anima and On The Wildest Prairies, the first UK solo show of Dutch artist Charlotte Dumas, which has just opened at the Photographer’s Gallery.

The majority of the gallery space is taken up with photographs from The Widest Prairies, a series made near Dayton, Nevada where Dumas tracked wild horses, the descendants of horses ridden in the territory in nineteenth century. These superficially straightforward photographs show beautiful if rather scraggy horses in a rugged, quintessentially American landscape. Quintessential perhaps but certainly not idealised, the background and sometimes foreground of these images are scattered with human detritus and construction; piles of rubbish, half built houses and mobile homes. Likewise the horses, beautiful as they often are, are not exactly romanticised symbols of freedom. They rather obviously live in close proximity to people and in some cases have more of the the air of urban foxes rather than free roaming mustangs.

Dumas states that she’s interested in exploring the relationship between viewer and subject, person and animal. For me though the real interest in The Widest Prairies are the mixed metaphors and symbolism. Horses are emblematic of the United States, and particularly the American west, ‘living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit’ is how they are described by an act of Congress. This is something of an irony since horses are neither by most measures ‘American’, nor particularly convincing symbols of freedom. They are imports, brought by the first settlers and explorers to help in the pacification of one of the last wild continents, a wildness typified by regions like the one which would become the present day state of Nevada, now adulterated by urban sprawl. Horses were in effect pathfinders for the railway, and then later the freeway, the industrial tendrils which would follow in the hoof prints of those early pioneers, gradually encircling and constricting a continent.

There’s also an obvious symbolic dissonance in the idea of horses as symbols of freedom, in that they are more often potent examples of nature subdued, tamed and bent to man’s will. As if to echo these thoughts several of the images focus on a program at the Northern Nevada Correctional Facility, where inmates are encouraged to tame and train wild horses as part of their rehabilitation. A strange example of man doing unto animal what been done unto man.

Interesting as the photographs were, for me the undoubted highlight of the show is Dumas’s first foray into video, a piece called Anima which for me far better achieves her stated aim of probing the viewer’s emotional connection to an animal. Anima consists of a series of clips of caisson burial horses of Arlington National Cemetery in the United States at night in their stables, gently drifting in and out of sleep and wakefulness. Here in the half dark of the projection space, these enormous animals twitch into and out of waking in a way which is profoundly moving, and encourages association with them as fellow living creatures. In the ambiguous place between sleeping and waking their characteristics are most powerfully heightened, and the contrast of gentle curiosity and raw power is overwhelming.

On The Wildest Prairies is on at The Photographers Gallery from 6th February 2015 to 6th April 2015.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography