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Eyes on a Changing Land

Dust Bowl Lives in Show

Standing in front of the enormous Dust Bowl scene that artist John Gerrard created for his new show, “Directions,— at the Hirshhorn Museum, one might almost get the sense of being inside a video game. A dust storm looms from the floor to the ceiling, moving steadily forward in a billowing, constant rhythm.

The video game sensation was probably at least somewhat intentional, as Gerrard used real-time 3-D, software frequently used in gaming development, to bring his Dust Bowl region photographs to life.

At first glance, the exhibit doesn’t seem like much to write home about. The entire exhibit initially looks like three enlarged photographs of mundane farm equipment. But that impression lasts all of about 30 seconds as the viewer notices that the pieces are moving on the screen and how life-like they have become.

The first room holds two pieces, one of a continuously pumping oil derrick and another of a pig-processing plant. The rhythmic motions of the derrick are hypnotic, and as the image rotates, the piece becomes increasingly real. While the derrick pumps, the earth surrounding it takes on a tangible quality in its shifting tan and brown shades.

The second room of the show is dedicated to Gerrard’s rendering of a dust storm in Texas. Again, the first impression is simply of an enlarged photo, but the piece actually moves to show the enormousness of the approaching wall of dust. At either end of this massive force of nature, the dust is composed of lighter shades of brown, indicating a decreasing power. As the screen moves to show the growing storm, however, the dust becomes darker and more sinister as its core is revealed.

Each of the photographs rotates 360 degrees, engaging the viewer in the image and the changing perspectives throughout the course of a day.

The sense of enhanced reality that comes from Gerrard’s creations calls to mind the strikingly artistic and realistic looks of contemporary video games. The difference, of course, is that most video games follow a fantastical storyline, while Gerrard was attempting to use the technology to send a different kind of message.

“Realtime 3-D is typically devoted to narrative and to the fantastical (the stereotype of violence or beauty), and I have, in some ways, worked out an alternate application,— Gerrard said in a statement.

The show is meant to raise questions about the environmental impact of human consumption, according to the Hirshhorn. However, it would be understandable for someone visiting the exhibit to simply see the creativity of Gerrard’s work without picking up on the underlying theme. Although that interpretation could be taken from the use of the oil derrick, the equipment seems less an environmental hazard than a standard part of the machinery used in the Dust Bowl region. That’s not to say that oil is not sometimes environmentally dangerous, but Gerrard’s message is perhaps too subtly conveyed in this exhibit.

In addition, it is also not immediately clear how images of the pig-processing plant send an environmental message. The dangers of dust storms are fairly obvious, and perhaps a case could be made that as environmental conditions shift, the likelihood of such natural disasters increases. But in this show, the dust storm on display inspires more a sense of awe at Mother Nature than it does ire at the effects of human consumption.

Nonetheless, Gerrard’s show is visually stimulating. And it certainly raises interesting questions about the future of photography and about the way new software will affect artistic possibilities.

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