The Big Country

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An Essay for The Big Country

Spinning the Compass By Rod Mengham

In Borges’s short fiction “On Exactitude in Science’, a time and a place are imagined in which maps become as large as the territories they represent. This cartographic ambition is approached, realised and then abandoned by imperial mapmakers in a centralised state. Their enormous charts, unsurpassed in accuracy and easily surpassed in utility, are dumped and allowed to fall to pieces in the remotest spots: deserts, wildernesses; places at the furthest remove from science and civic life, from the culture that requires the making of maps in the first place. Borges’s fiction is itself a microscopic fable, barely a paragraph long, and its text takes the form of a footnote, quoting an abstruse, probably forgotten, scholarly work in multiple volumes, the print equivalent of 1:1 cartography.

Stephen Chambers’s enormous tableau is a kind of visual topography recording multiple, successive, perhaps simultaneous, encounters between science and the unknown, culture and the uncultivated; its place is on the edges of the map, and its time is mythical. Chambers does not equal the ambitions of imperial cartography, but his work has grown to its present dimensions partly out of a concern to evoke the scale of effort involved in coming to terms with unknown environments, unmeasured distances, unpredictable behaviours. Its remarkable cohesiveness owes something to the intensity of his own response to the American mid-west, experienced without technology, off-road, riding on horseback, floating down rivers. In his first encounter with this trackless wilderness, Chambers was accompanied by the journals of Lewis and Clark, the original pioneers who mapped the river junctions leading west from Louisiana as far as the Pacific coast. Their journey of 1804-1806 took much longer than expected, reaching higher altitudes, uncovering more species, and stumbling across far more evidence of continuous human presence in the landscape, than their planning could ever have bargained for. The space-time of the American continent was revealed as unimaginable to the Enlightenment culture of the eastern seaboard.

The unwieldy size of the wilderness experience has since been reduced in various ways, but never abolished. The land’s ultimate resistance to a human scale of operations has been rehearsed time and time again in the last two hundred years. Some way from the centre of Chambers’s pictorial scheme is a fist-fight inspired by a scene in William Wyler’s film The Big Country; the two characters played by Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck slug it out in an empty landscape extending as far as the eye can see without any visible sign of human management or interference. The almost complete insignificance of the tiny human figures actually works against the film’s ethical scheme which revolves around the Gregory Peck character’s ability to navigate and orientate himself—physically and morally—in a seemingly boundless expanse beyond the reach of conventional law and order. A ship’s captain, he has both a literal compass to take his bearings with, and a moral compass to guide his conduct. Like Crusoe on his island, he is ever-ready to rebuild the world in the image of what he has left behind. He makes sense of the untravelled world, brings it within range of his imagination and unifies it with the exactitude of a science he carries around with him as easily as a compass in a kitbag.

Chambers’s letterbox panorama invites comparison with the sweep of Hollywood cinematography in the big screen era, but it neither contains nor unifies its various fragments of implied narrative derived ultimately from frontier history. These belong in the same conceptual space while appearing to occupy separate picture planes. Although bound together stylistically, they suggest a process of serial composition, recording a chain of events subsequently seen as turning points in the movement from historical circumstance to the afterlife of myth, an aggregation of details making sense to the viewer only in the repetition or inversion of rhythms and gestures. Pressing against the frontier—an ever-yielding margin for several decades in the nineteenth century—is what unified the territory now known as the United States; but Chambers positions the viewer within the experience that pre-dates that moment of consolidation, maintaining a constant tension between knowing and not knowing what connects up different tracts of country and different episodes of historical time.

The most common gesture in this visual chronicle is the pointing finger. It performs an action, worn smooth by time, which we take to be confident, decisive and assertive. But from one end of the drawing to the other, there are fingers pointing in every direction. The sum effect is of a counter-balancing, an offsetting of the drive towards the frontier and the opening-up of territory with an implicit need to return to origins—to the source of frontiersmanship—and review the reasons for setting out in the first place. Of necessity, most of the words towards which fingers point are the names of departure-points, since all those places that lie ahead in the path of various expeditions are not named in advance. The myth of the frontier has settled on all these itineraries, absorbing them impartially into its own substance. But for Chambers, the story is one of indeterminate episodes, unrelated and unresolved, each one glimpsed in the process of construction, each one a return to inexperience, to innocence, even, to the realm of possibilities that pre-dates the narrative of citizenship, the building of the nation. There are many stories not one; stories that do not yet know their place; stories where the compass is spinning in every direction. Their images are magic lantern images without sequence; where the drum of the magic lantern has been unrolled and laid out flat, divided up, and spliced incongruously with images from other sequences. If Chambers’s subject matter glances at a cinema of origins, his silhouetting technique is also a reminder of the origins of cinema.

The systematic variation in size of the images reflects a standard medieval and renaissance method of separating different narrative strands; most often used when the same space is portrayed as encompassing different incidents separated by time. In fact, both the scale of Chambers’s composition and its pictorial scheme bring to mind a specific genre of renaissance painting, that of the spalliera, a large panel painting in landscape format, set at shoulder height in a public room and often linked in series with other spalliere. A well-known example is Piero di Cosimo’s A Forest Fire, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which may be part of a series with other panels now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Piero’s letterbox-shaped paintings all feature several groups of figures engaged in separate activities. According to Vasari, Piero’s common practice with such works was to provide scenes of “different stories with little figures’. In A Forest Fire, the majority of figures in the foreground are animals, while in the background there are small groups of silhouetted human figures, some of whom are seen gesticulating and pointing towards the distance. The subject matter of these panels is suggestive in relation to the overall themes of Chambers’s drawing: coming to terms with nature, understanding the landscape, and harnessing its resources. The popularity of late fifteenth century artistic renderings of the transition from savagery to civilization, from a state of conflict with nature to one of cooperation with it, has been linked to growing interest in Lucretius’s philosophical poem De Rerum Natura. Various aspects of this tradition seem to be borne out in Chambers’s work: Lucretius’s thinking about the evolution of human societies, about the translation of history and natural history into myth, and about the development of language from gesture.

But while Piero di Cosimo and other quattrocento artists (such as Uccello in his Battle of San Romano panels) reserve the use of silhouetting for the depiction of figures in the background, Chambers’s dramatic innovation is to use silhouettes of all sizes throughout the entire picture plane. The universality of the black figure in Chambers’s drawing is irresistibly reminiscent of Athenian black figure vase-painting, and in fact there are many stylistic parallels with fifth century BC depictions of costume, hair-styling, poses and gestures. The conical female hair-dos and travelling caps and outerwear of several male figures suggest classical Athens rather than nineteenth century America, and yet there is a clear rationale behind the parallel, as improbable as this may seem. Unlike the later red figure painting, which introduced the means of portraying anatomy with greater accuracy, the older tradition of black figure painting emphasized figures in relation to landscape, preferring outdoor to indoor scenes. It was also less likely than red figure painting to refer to contemporary historical events, more likely to engage with political ideas through representations of myth. Most importantly, the ideological focus of black figure painting, evident in its repertoire of myths, rituals and customs, can be summed up as the artistic exploration of what it meant to be an Athenian. Chambers’s rendition of twenty first century black figure painting lacks the mythic potential of vase-painting, where the inevitability of the continuous frieze generates a series of narrative loops cut off from the stream of history, but it still alludes constantly to myths of the frontier regarded as ineradicable from the experience and understanding of what it means to be American. It is an updating not just of the techniques but of the cultural agenda of black figure painting.

The stencil-like simplicity of Chambers’s outlines suggest a home-made art practice, a homestead aesthetic, and an improvisational skill reflecting the make-do-and-mend technology of the pioneering phase in American cultural history. It engages with the myth of self-reliance, resourcefulness and self-definition that is still dominant in the American conception of identity and value. It invites us to question the radical innocence attributed to the American encounter with wilderness. This version of the primal encounter continues to surface in American cultural productions such as the recent Wes Anderson film Moonrise Kingdom. Here, the exploits of Lewis and Clark are gently parodied in the compass-using skills of an adolescent pioneer scout and his girlfriend, who separate themselves from the disillusioned and over-sophisticated adults in their lives, make their way around a small island off the coast of New England, and settle (for one night only) as an Edenic couple on the shores of a bay which they name, eponymously, Moonrise Kingdom. The audience is updated on their progress from time to time by means of a full screen map that tracks their movements. The film-text is larded with references to Noah’s flood and its aftermath, and offers a counterpoint to Chambers’s own rehearsal of the American foundation myth, although it lacks the depth and breadth of his allusiveness, as well as his studious avoidance of sentimentalism and the powerfully estranging effects of his technique. Chambers revives the innocence of early discovery in full awareness of the opportunism and cynicism that replaced it, grasping the nature of its adaptation and perpetuation in the form of myth.