indoor landscapes : Goethe Institute

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I first met Susa Templin on an airplane. After a few hours of conversation she invited me to Washington, D.C. to witness her installation at the Goethe-Institut there. This was a surprise. I had been flipping through a couple of exhibition catalogs giving her my first impressions of her art when suddenly she was offering to take me with her "behind the scenes" of her creation. I hesitated to change my flight at the last minute like that, but in the end I accepted her offer. It felt like my seat had just been upgraded and I wanted to know what my new view would be like.
This spontaneous generosity is typical of Susa Templin’s work. While she makes it clear that her manipulations of urban space are driven by her personal longings as a city dweller, she’s always inviting the viewer to admit to similar longings and thus become her collaborator. In previous exhibitions, people enjoying her carefully composed and printed photographs have also been invited to study what seems to be the preparation for these works – notes, diagrams, sketches, pictures and quotations torn from books -casually pinned to the wall along side of the "finished products." Occasionally, hastily-scrawled phrases make the viewer’s inclusion explicit: New lots for you and me and Let’s build new (blue) homes.
True to form, the title of the installation at the Goethe-Institut suggested that viewers were there to participate in a process rather than contemplate a final product. It was called Landscaping, and it did indeed have the scope and generosity of a public beautification project. She printed her trademark landscapes on large, semi-transparent sheets of acetate and vellum, with which she covered the Goethe-Institut’s ground floor windows. The view from both within the building (a non-descript city street) and without (the clean, ordered workspace of German cultural functionaries) was transformed, and you could argue, improved. At the very least, Susa was giving the many who look through those windows every day a refreshing (and perhaps productivity-improving?) respite from the usual view, with its constant reminder of where you are in the city. In Susa’s hands, the windows became a portal into a lush and seemingly limitless green world. Presented in soft focus, with just enough resolution to suggest a tree here, a bush there, this forest countered the city’s usual restrictions with a vision of expansiveness and depth. Your eye could travel far into the picture, without meeting a wall, a fence, or any other end. Like much of Susa’s work, the Landscaping installation had something friendly and open about it, as if Susa were simply inviting us to "get out of the city" with her.
It’s hard to accept this invitation without wondering where exactly Susa wants to take us. For even as she invites us to lose ourselves in her landscapes, she is up front about the self-deception that doing so might require. We suspect that these landscapes, with a lushness that borders on kitsch, are too good to be true. Susa does little to reassure us. In some shots we encounter her hands or fingers, bluntly reminding us of the actual scale of this seemingly limitless forest. In other shots, the camera tightens its focus to reduce these landscapes to their humble components, notably the small plastic trees that architects use to give scale and human context to their models. Susa appropriates these trees to propose a world free of the limitations architects impose, but she won’t let us forget that we are essentially playing with toys. Is the desire that finds expression in these landscapes merely a childish obsession with the trivial and inessential?
Whatever "escape" Susa seems to be offering us, it is no escape from questions like this. Susa observes us having aesthetic experiences in the usual ways and in the usual proportions (strolling in the park on our office lunch break, or contemplating a painting on the wall for ten minutes) and asks us to consider that we might deserve better. Who among us would argue with that? Why shouldn’t we have an art that gives us our pleasure more efficiently, more thoroughly? But accepting Susa’s generous re-workings of public space means thinking about just what we get from art, beauty, nature, play, etc. in the first place. Susa’s most recent work offers increasing immersion in the dreamlike pastoral images that have become her stock in trade. She takes snapshot-sized prints of her landscape photographs, cuts them into pieces, pastes them on top of her city photographs, rolls them into columns, uses them to line the inside of little boxes. The resulting collages and dioramas – portable and easy to store – form models for environments Susa intends to create in the future. The photographs of these models offer a glimpse of the disorientation and sense of possibility that occupants of the actual environments will someday enjoy. They also are also beautiful as documentation of the models themselves – the simple prototypes of a technology designed to clear some space for us, devices as fragile as our understanding of the longings they serve.
Matt Himes, New York, 2001