EDITOR’S NOTE: In the first of two stories from her recent visit to northern New Mexico, Portland photographer and artist Friderike Heuer discovers layers of history, art in abundance, and a cornucopia of vivid images from the streets, museums, and galleries of Santa Fe. The accidental sculpture of walking sticks in the top photo was on display near the Rio Grande Steel Bridge, where a street vendor was selling wares. In addition to the region’s deep history, Heuer found evidence of a futuristic streak: The rest of the photos, except for the book cover, are from “the ultimate Dionysian experience of art meets entertainment at the indescribable Magic Castle known as Meow Wolf.” Coming Monday: Georgia O’Keeffe in the Southwest.
HANS CASTORP, THE YOUNG, ARTISTICALLY INCLINED protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, visits his dying cousin in a sanatorium for people with tuberculosis in the Swiss mountains. Infected himself, he ends up staying there for seven years before joining the military for World War I in 1914, expected to meet his doom. As a patient, he might as well have come to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This place also attracted health-seekers at the beginning of the last century, many of whom never left, given that the dry high-desert air was beneficial to people with lung diseases.
Mann’s novel was begun in 1912, published more than a decade later, and by that time completely revised to incorporate the lessons from the Great War. The trek of “lungers,” as they were called, to Santa Fe also saw significant changes. A few TB patients arrived in the early 1900s. Others followed as word of mouth spread. People suffering from the disease from all over the United States were soon actively pursued by local politicians and administrators, who persuaded them to come to the area by the thousands. The first wave consisted of artists and educated, mostly wealthy people – the kind you would have also met at Mann’s Berghof sanatorium. Next came soldiers and veterans, then all sorts of poor people unable to pay for their stay and yet welcomed with open arms and plenty of sanatorium beds. What was going on? Why the pursuit of a population carrying a dreaded disease?
It was the local elite’s burning desire to achieve statehood and the economic gains that came with it, a goal that could be realized only if enough Anglos became residents to change the local demographics. This was accomplished in 1919, when New Mexico, now deemed sufficiently white with the influx of the patients, joined the United States. By that time the fairy tale that the native population was immune to the disease had been proven wrong; poverty and close-kinship living conditions among the Pueblo Indians who had gotten infected by the Anglos made the disease spread like wildfire. Hospital beds and economic resources grew scarce. During the Great Depression the sick, particularly poor immigrants coming from the tenements of the East Coast, were resolutely turned away. There was no money to restore dilapidated hospitals or provide more beds for either locals or indigent outsiders. Effective medication became available only as late as 1949. A more detailed analysis, by the researcher and writer Nancy Owen Lewis, can be found here:
IT IS DIFFICULT TO RECONCILE THIS HISTORY with the beautiful city that is today’s Santa Fe. The name evokes, rightly, lots of positive associations to the arts. The opera is outstanding, the art market reportedly the third largest in the country after New York City and Los Angeles. Canyon Road is a concentrated strip lined by galleries that have existed, successfully, for decades – an art scene originally founded in some loose conflagration by some of the early residents trying to cure their disease. Carlos Vierra, Gerald R. Cassidy, and Randall Davey were among the first to transform the agricultural area into a tight-knit artist community. Andrew Dasburg, Gustave Baumann, Will Shuster, and Marsden Hartley arrived, as did Olive Rush and Jerry West. By 1962 an official designation as a residential and arts and crafts zone brought the district to prominence. Independently, a museum culture covering diverse areas emerged, dedicated to everything from Indian Arts and Culture to Georgia O’Keeffe, and international crafts to modern and contemporary art.
During this, my first trip to New Mexico, I felt like I was a kid in a candy store. A week was not long enough to cover all that was on offer in the art department. Nature wanted a big chunk of my time as well, providing wondrous views of a landscape so different from the Northwest.
YET REMINDERS OF THE DARK LESSONS of The Magic Mountain kept creeping up.
The novel was Mann’s reckoning with a bourgeois Europe that had invited death and destruction while sleepwalking into the catastrophe of the Great War. It is populated with representatives of the political and cultural forces of that era, often compared to familiar characters of Greek mythology. A naïve Weimar Republic youth meets Dionysian players, humanist scholars, radicals who can’t decide if they want to be Jesuits or Communists, temptresses, and plain folks devoted to the German (and Apollonian) virtues of rationality, obedience and duty – all unaware that clocks are ticking, requiring some action. Time seems to stretch endlessly in the sheltered existence of an exclusive society of sanatorium patients.
Much of this could easily be transferred to our own era, and in this particular case, to the magic high plain of northern New Mexico. I knew nothing more about state politics than what could be gleaned from the news, and yet there was certainly evidence of radical elements. A paramilitary group armed with semi-automatic rifles, calling themselves the United Constitutional Patriots (UCP), claimed to have detained some 5,600 migrants – most of them Central American families seeking asylum – in the past two months, handing them over to Border Patrol.
Further, in terms of Mann’s typology, there were plenty of humanists pursuing research and education to improve the role of museums and to increase knowledge about the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people. I was lucky enough to meet one of the most erudite docents I ever encountered during a tour of the Museum for Indian Art and Culture. I learned more in two hours than from all my previous readings, and it was clear that the transmission of history was a core passion.
What was of most interest to me, though, were the parallels to the quite dominant Dionysian principles described in The Magic Mountain. Santa Fe is a hotbed of unabashed consumerism, with people on holiday having a good time and willing to max out their credit cards (as well as their livers). New casinos sprout by the minute, and the expensive spa culture lures many a tourist before or after they spend hundreds of dollars on designer linen frocks, cowboy boots, or turquoise jewelry.
THE ART MARKET IS NO EXCEPTION. The arts and cultural industries in New Mexico have a $5.6 billion impact on the economy. In addition to the museums and the performing arts there are more than 250 galleries in Santa Fe alone (in a city with 70,000 inhabitants), and an array of markets and festivals including the International Folk Art Market and the Spanish Market in July, and the famous Santa Fe Indian Market and the Objects of Art Show in August.
In fact, Santa Fe ranks second, for medium-sized metropolitan areas, in a national Arts Vibrancy Index. That measure looks at the number of nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, their revenue earnings, their governmental support per capita and, importantly, the diversity across 11 arts and cultural sectors, including arts education, art museums, community, dance, music, opera, performing arts center, symphony orchestra, theater, other museum, and multidisciplinary performing arts.
Galleries are, of course, businesses. At no time was that more obvious to me than when I was told that they need to “move merchandise.” And moving merchandise (e.g. art), selling their wares, has become increasingly difficult with a growing number of competitors and a shrinking collector base. As one gallerist put it during a panel discussion that I attended, “Young people no longer want to acquire art; they do not want to be tied down by objects, or buy real estate to house those objects, but instead they want to spend their money on experiences.” I was too polite to more than mumble that, given a choice between a bronze buffalo and a destination wedding in India, I’d choose the latter as well … but I do get the point.
I do get the point because as a photographer, I am acutely aware of the difficulty of earning money, much less a living, from selling reproducible images. This was why I attended the previously mentioned talk in the first place, which was titled Bridging the Gap – Photography and Contemporary Art. It was put on by the venerable Turner/Carroll Gallery (which had a superb exhibit on display during my visit: Can’t Lock Me Up: Women Resist Silence)
and Center, an organization that supports photography. The discussion unfolded in a Q&A format among a Center representative, a gallery associate, and two photographic artists, the hugely talented Natalie Christensen and the young, thoughtful Fatemeh Baigmoradi, new to me.
“Did they call themselves artists? Did they see their work as art? How did they manage to attract the attention of gallerists?” These were the initial questions starting a conversation that promptly turned to the core issue from the perspective of the gallery: what makes for a desirable commodity. An object that can be dealt by the art dealer in what is, after all, a market. Much throat-clearing around the “democratization” of photography, a way of saying millions of people snap pictures and think they now are an artist, and how the overabundance of imagery might hopefully make us all more “image literate.” BUT: you can only sell if you appeal to the exclusivity so desired by all those who hunger for differentiation. If you buy that rare painting, or that singular sculpture, you invest in one of a kind. That is not the case when you buy a photograph, even if the negative has been destroyed and you have a contractual guarantee by the seller that you are now in possession of the only existing copy. Photographs can be photographed, and camera documentation of a scene can theoretically be replicated by any other person coming along with a camera. The desire for exclusivity used to be somewhat satisfied with limited series; now the option of a “one-off,” as one of the artists called it, is indeed on the table. The principle of artificial scarcity is the response to investment demands.
Baigmoradi told a tale of how the collectors’ attraction to limited availability improved her own standing as an artist. Previously ignored photographs, by her own reports, became desirable objects when she started to burn holes in them, or singe them, or manipulate them in other ways that made them singular. Christensen, on the other hand, was refreshingly honest when she pointed out that her ascent had indeed partially to do with the kind of sources that flood us with imagery: platforms like Instagram. If you have 49,000 followers (no typo), that does not escape notice of the gallerist potentially representing you. Like any branding that has achieved desirability, this kind of attention lavished on an artist will lure collectors. Let me hasten to add that her work deserves the praise it receives. Christiansen’s imagery is astutely honed to the geometry of our environment. Her depictions are quiet and balanced and tease out something mysterious from the mundane. I now also understand that her often oversaturated coloration is by no means a concession to the years of Instagram trends of intense hues, a trend which we finally, happily seem to outgrow. Instead, this is how colors look at the high altitude of Santa Fe (more than 7,000 feet above sea level), where the thin air produces less scatter and all wavelengths are darkened.
Much focus was also given to making a photograph more than a digitally printed piece of paper behind glass. Presentations via traditional chemical processes that require skill and often create unpredictable effects, printing on unusual surfaces, presenting in unexpected ways all contribute to the creation of “objects,” unique, I suppose. The current work was indeed mounted in a (dry) swimming pool with the opening slated for a Friday night, on the first Seder of Passover. New York it ain’t. I could not attend.
JUST AS THOMAS MANN JUXTAPOSED THE RATIONAL, calculating, Apollonian principle with the passionate, unrestrained and chaotic Dionysian character, I wondered if we need to differentiate between the reasoning of the dealer and the compulsions of the artist. The former surely works within a framework of economic constraints, governed by capital and investment. To understand the full implications, we might want to turn to a book written by another Mann – no clue if he’s related to the German family of intellectual writers, but if so he more likely would be connected to Heinrich than Thomas, given his politics.
Geoff Mann’s In the Long Run We’re all Dead: Keynes, Political Economy, and Revolution debates neoliberal markets, capitalist crisis, liberal modernity, the management of poverty, and revolutionary politics after the 2008 financial crisis. It includes much to be learned that is applicable to art as business.
Or we might just go off and take a few more photographs in Santa Fe driven by curiosity rather than market considerations. That would bring us to the ultimate Dionysian experience of art meets entertainment at the indescribable Magic Castle known as Meow Wolf. (All but the first two of the included photographs were taken here. The exhibits have no labels.)
Talk about chaos, abandon, exhilaration – the immersive environment, part haunted house, part contemporary art installation(s), is worth the long lines and steep entrance price, an opinion shared by seemingly half of humanity when I visited. I found myself wandering through a maze of rooms, each decorated with whimsy, clues to a mystery narrative, and impressive art installations, from paintings to displays that allowed visitors to make music (play a xylophone on dinosaur bones!) or to interact with life actors. It guaranteed (over)stimulation.
And Google Maps did not necessarily help with labyrinthine navigation.
Overheard there from an elegant gentleman of a certain age: “This reminds me of the acid trips of old times!” Well, if that’s true, I missed out on something in my youth. Glad to report, though, that I did not miss out on much in Santa Fe. For an art lover, it is a wondrous place to visit.
Visit Friderike Heuer’s web page YDP – Your Daily Picture.