Reviewed by Tatiana Vahan
On a hike in Zion National Park, I put my hands behind my head, elbows pointed out, and closed my eyes as I walked, recalling an exercise performance artist, Guillermo Gomez Peña taught in a workshop at CalArts. He designated about twenty feet of open space so that each participant could take a turn running across the room with their eyes closed. The exercise was a lesson in Somatics– a study of internal physical perception. The average run was about fifteen feet after which most bodies came to a halt and eyes opened, surprised at the internal feeling of hitting a wall without actually externally hitting one. In our second round, aware of this felt but invisible barrier, we took turns attempting to move past it. With our eyes still shut, some slowed down and reached their arms out in front of them cautiously, some bellied over before moving forward and a few let out a primal scream as they broke through their walls.
As we took turns forcing our bodies and minds past perceived limitations, it felt as though we were breaking through other internal containers, ones that are projected on to or conditioned in each of us — gender, race, class, social norms, familial and cultural histories, the architecture of the world we inhabit. For me, breaking through these walls felt like breaking through to the primal nature of my body. When my eyes opened, I was in the known world again and all that it held. I was back to being a loaded vessel.
Walking through Zion Canyon with my eyes closed and my hands behind my head, I think of David Benjamin Sherry’s photographic series Earth Changes. His book by the same name provides a catalog of these works that in totality propose an undoing similar to that felt in Gomez Peña’s workshop. Consisting of twenty-nine photographs depicting both sweeping and rigid landscapes, the book references the history of landscape photography, a genre defined in the U.S. by Minor White, Anselm Adams, and Edward Weston. But, while Sherry references the genre and its history, his photographs firmly unhinge themselves from it with a simple but undeniable reassignment of monochromatic, lustrous gem-colors, which in some cases are also incorporated into the photo-plate titles. This reassignment of color and title adds an abstract, sensuous, and poetic layer to the taxonomy of recording these places. Further tethering the photographs to the body is Sherry’s process of using large glass plate negatives, coated in photo emulsion which are imprinted with light waves from these landscapes, much like our bodies’ are imprinted with DNA and lived experiences. Sensitive materials.
The book disregards pagination and instead numerates the photo plates that make up its contents. The binding of Sherry’s book is fittingly spiral. Each page swirls through its track as the reader flips, with the possibility of bringing awareness to their own winding and unwinding.
The intricate details captured by Sherry’s photographic plates call for the viewer to psychically lay down in them and when I do, I find them simultaneously in me.
Walking through Zion National Park, I observe both the objective and subjective landscapes: The park, Sherry’s photographs, the internal feelings of hiking, and the memory of experiences felt in Gomez Peña’s workshop. On my hike I track the change in altitude with the tightness forming in my chest, and the felt restriction of my breath; tracing the incline of the mountain with the angle of each step; noticing a deep blue valley forming in my right calf as a memory pools in my hip.
Somatic practices realign, expand, express, shed the body’s layers of determination and constriction independent of the narrative that is imposed on each of us. While hiking my perimeters soften, sense of self transmorphs into varying forms, colors, scents, and tastes. Shape shifting in Sherry’s colors, from emerald, to vermillion, to sapphire, to plum, or electric crimson, in tongue, through pelvis, over mountains, canyons, through valleys and sternums. Smelling the embodiment of an event in my arms, or tasting the memory of a decision that still echoes in my life.
Similarly, Sherry’s photographs unfix the landscapes they depict, imbuing them with a possibility beyond their two dimensional plane, beyond their history and beyond our standard perception of the actual landscapes they represent. A space that resonates within our bodies, and that represents the potentiality of that Beyond.
David Benjamin Sherry. Earth Changes. Morel Books, 2015.