“What Air Ordered” is a show of photographs by Gabriel Malikian that may put you in mind of journeying. But that is not because it is a set of exotic landscapes with pictures of far-flung places. It’s something else.
To put it one way, Malikian is giving us an invitation in “What Air Ordered.” The show is a collection of photographs inviting us to rethink the things we see every day.
If you have ever walked a street that you usually drive, then you know that the adjustment changes things, transforming a semi-conscious commute into a new experience. It’s not just the speed that changes. Somehow, it’s a different street.
The photographs in this show are not “domestic” images that have been reinvented through a camera lens. This is not a show about commuting – and that is not the point here. What the photographs are doing is capturing street-side, roadside and nature scenes in ways that emphasize geometry and color and manage to intimate meanings pitched just above the co-valence of the parts and their whole.
In a related way, there is an idea in this show that brings home the point that what we see is determined by how we look at the world around us. When we embark on a journey, we begin to look actively at the landscape in ways that we often don’t look at our own neighborhood. In drawing attention to this notion, you might say that “What Air Ordered” becomes a journey of ten images, images that consider both what we see and how we look at things.
As a photographer and writer, Malikian is probably more invested in this what/how relationship than most people. And this interest is certainly part of what you will see when you look at the show on display now at Sagebrush Café in Quartz Hill.
But there is more to it than that. To get at some of the other ideas that animate both the show and the artist, we sat down and asked Malikian a few questions:
-Tell us about your experience taking pictures in Montana. Did the specifics of the region invite a different approach to compared to the places you have spent more time with a camera (like Los Angeles)?
Very much so. I was in Billings for work on a film shoot and I suffered a back injury a week into filming. I had to be replaced at short notice, which is no easy feat so far from LA. The agitation my injury caused around me informed my need to creatively get something out of me, so I made a point of walking around Billings with my camera and focusing on taking photographs. This also served to prove to myself that I wasn’t irreversibly injured (my work demanded a functioning body).
In doing so, I found places in the small city that were novel to me. Uniquely American and discarded. Uniquely hidden or protected. I felt the pioneer mentality play out in the places I visited and felt it move through me. I turned down offers from friendly strangers for a ride to wherever I was going – in favor of seeing what else was hidden from the roadside. I had read about the Terrain Vague movement around that time, so I wanted to find what about the city had been left for nature to reclaim and break down.
In Los Angeles, there is a knowledge I have of its various neighborhoods. They each have an aesthetic and feeling that I know well. I know that a photograph in Echo Park will emote one thing, while in Boyle Heights other feelings can be distilled. Nothing about my time in Billings was predictable.
-Are there any photos in your show that have a surprising story behind them? Any photos that you were able to get that made you feel really lucky?
I can’t say that any if the photographs have any special stories behind them, except perhaps those in Montana. I can’t really say I feel like those captured in LA or in the desert are less special to me either.
As far as luck, I think timing played out in interesting ways in almost all these photographs. I found myself in the right places at the right times. But, that happens when a person puts themselves fully into their work. Many other photographers have captured incredible images, and timing played a huge role. As a photographer, you have to explore and be curious or your lens won’t find those moments.
-In spending some time with the photos in “What Air Ordered” we were struck by the idea that the show seems to pose some questions about how we collectively try to move forward into new territory, mentally anyway, but we do so inside a physical landscape that is littered with yesterday’s artifacts. There is a sense that objects and scenes from mid-century America (and from last year) show us how flawed our ability to move forward may be – or, alternatively, these scenes comprise an ironic commentary on our tendency to get tired of things, set them aside, and let them just sit there rusting while we play with our shinier, newer ideas. Does this observation fit with your own sense of this collection? Is this sort of idea represented in your work more generally?
There is a generally pervasive attitude that abandons the troublesome older thing for whatever is convenient, flashy, and works. People have abandoned Detroit. Because of the ease of access to the next best thing, last year’s model is set aside. Sold back. Put out in the trash. It could be fixed, but why bother? Why even learn how to fix anything?
Psychologically, many people do the same thing. Maybe this will fix my aching heart. Maybe if I just travel the world I will understand. If I just had that, I’d finally be happy. Conversely, to celebrate and repair the broken and forgotten brings a genuine sensation of achievement. I once watched my friend puzzle over a broken camera from the 1920s. She fixed it. The film we found inside was incredible and we marveled for a month over it, wondering what the story must have been. If we just threw the thing away (it was only worth $10) our imaginations and her accomplishments would have been cheapened.
I see yesterday’s artifacts as both beautiful reminders of hardiness, as well as living history. From a material point of view, we don’t make things as long-lasting or as physically heavy as we once did. This makes these items and scenes feel foreign, but one could say the same of our forward progression. Plastics replacing steel sheeting. Engineered obsolescence. The next firmware upgrade.
The weight of these old things informs, emotionally, the tone of my photographs. I feel it stops me in my movement and forces me to reflect on what was, both internally and in a larger sense.
There is indeed an irony in our charging forward to fix yesterday’s problems. I think there is ample opportunity to stop moving and study the past, of what has been. Perhaps in a literal, visual sense, my photographs utilize sparse scenes and older items to provoke a movement inside, and back in time. It may be that the happiness or fulfillment we want is not in a new house or car, it might just be in understanding that which has already happened. To meditate on a certain nothingness (a seemingly barren landscape, actually a space of huge mental potential energy) or the nothingness of the carcass of an old building, can have more impact on our lives and mental wellbeing than keeping abreast of the eternally shifting contemporary.
Every photograph is a piece of history, so it’s fine to get stuck in the past.
Take a look at a few more thoughts on “What Air Ordered” over at Sagebrush Cafe’s blog page.