Fine Art Photography

Christina Seely’s “Terra Systema” Contemplates Earth’s Ecological Systems

November 1, 2017

By Conor Risch

Christina Seely’s interest in the interdependence of the world’s ecological systems led to her latest project, “Terra Systema” which she created at scientific research facilities in Panama and Greenland. “Terra Systema” is a series of photographic works and a two-channel video installation. Both capture the movement of wind through rainforests and the flow of water off the arctic ice sheet and into the ocean. Seely’s goal is to get viewers thinking about the planet as a being that breathes and has a circulatory system. She hopes the works will help people “wrap their heads around climate change” and understand more clearly our “tentative” relationship to the planet. Thanks to the human tendency to anthropomorphize, the images inspire “an empathic suggestion of the planet as the same as your body,” she explains. This fall, the prints and video are on display in San Francisco, at EUQINOMProjects.

The series were made in the Arctic and tropics, two regions where Seely has spent years working. She chose Greenland and Panama as subjects for this new work because the effects of climate change are keenly felt there. By representing as connected two regions that viewers might not naturally associate with one another, Seely wants viewers to “start to interweave the systems in your mind” and think of the whole planet.

© Christina Seely/Courtesy of the Artist

“Terra Systema—Flumen 10,” 2017. Christina Seely explores climate change by pairing images from tropical and Arctic landscapes. © Christina Seely/Courtesy of the Artist

As she looked for a rainforest location, she found the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station on the Island of Barro Colorado in the Panama Canal. Through a connection to a scientist who was researching there, Seely was invited to register her project and was given a three-year window in which she could travel to the station. She began her work there in 2016. Her work in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, which she visited during the summers of 2016 and 2017, was through the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College. Seely teaches at Dartmouth, and the director of the Institute, Ross A. Virginia, invited her to Greenland. Virginia “believes deeply in bridging disciplines and the power of art to translate something that science cannot,” Seely says, and interacting with him and with other scholars has been “one of the biggest gifts of this job.”

Seely knew that she wanted to work with a large-format camera in Panama, where she spent her time in a forest on an island in the middle of the Panama Canal. There, the “wind moves through this island in a really nice way” and it feels like the forest is breathing, she says. “That was the idea that I was trying to translate.” She was less sure of her strategy for Greenland. She switched to a digital camera both for its durability in the harsher climate and because she wanted to be able to preview the images she captured during long excursions out to the ice sheet, which she reached using a four-wheel drive truck. The road she traveled skirted a system of glacial runoff that begins as a trickle and “turns into a raging river” before emptying into a fjord.

In presenting the still photographs, Seely layers two prints—vellum in front with an archival inkjet print behind—which adds both a sense of motion and a feeling of fragility, she says. “Because of the nature of vellum it almost reads like a kind of skin and the beautiful thing is you can’t really tell what information is coming from the front or back print.” With the rainforest images, most of the image is printed on the vellum, and the information from the back image shows through in the places where the top images are “bright or more blown out.” For the water images, the amount of information on the vellum versus the rag print varies. “Some of them have a sharp (short exposure) shot in the back and a slower moving, soft image on the front that overlay and blend a perceptual shift where they get weird in a good way.”

Seely’s method for creating her images is, she says, partly a reaction to the state of photography, and landscape photography in particular. Rainforests and the Arctic are landscapes that “the public already think they understand visually” because of the abundance of available photographs. Rather than making a straight photograph, Seely is “more interested in pointing to experience, so I think more and more my work becomes either experiential or I try to create objects that are more kinetic or have a life of their own. I think that really does have to do with a need to try to jolt the viewer out of being too lazy about viewing in a culture of so many images,” she says. It’s a strategy she’s used previously in her “Next of Kin Portraits” and “Species Impact Daguerreotypes” series. Those series use reflective materials and lighting effects to allow viewers to see their own reflections in the faces of endangered or extinct animals. When she can create more of an experience for the viewer with an object or installation, the work elicits a different response, she explains. Her goal is to use the tools of photography and video to engage viewers emotionally. If she can do that, she feels, people will think about the science underlying the images.

“Maybe it’s because the political climate is so difficult right now and I’m having a really hard time with it,” she says, “but I want to be a force that’s helping [create] a space that’s a little softer, [where we] remember we’re tender, living things and so is the planet. While that can sound a bit cheesy, I think it’s actually so important.”

Seely’s prints are showing through Nov. 4, 2017 at EUQINOMProjects, 1599 Tennessee Street, San Francisco, CA, and her video installation shows Nov. 4–25, 2017 at EUQINOMProjects at the Media Room at Minnesota Street Project, 1275 Minnesota St., San Francisco, CA.

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