Taking In The Last Of “High Summer”
A farmer tends to his flock of sheep. A man walks across a dim field. A wide lake shimmers under a smooth sky that seems to go on forever. But the scene is obscured: gray clouds race across the sky, and an eyesore of a tortured, twisted oak fills the frame.
The photograph, titled “Eco Warriors,” is part of the exhibition Art in Focus: John Goto’s “High Summer,” running at the Yale Center for British Art through Aug. 19. A collection of eight photographs pulled from the British artist’s High Summer portfolio (2000-2001), the exhibition is curated by a team of Yale students, who have also written a brochure to accompany the works on display.
With each of his photographs—the works on display mash photo collage, cheeky humor, and traditional conventions of British landscape painting—it’s clear that Goto has a message to convey. The student curators write that “Goto’s integration of contemporary characters into historic landscape gardens encourages the viewer to think critically about nature and culture both past and present, and the politics of these gardens then and now.”
But each photograph evokes a different tone—satirical, dark and alluring, pseudo-historic, environmentally charged.
At first glance, for instance, “Eco Warriors” (pictured at top) appears to be a serene image with a peaceful landscape and sunset stretching out into the distance, where palatial houses dot the countryside. But that unravels on closer inspection—you’ll start to notice the sneer on the farmer’s face, the dark and light contrast that splits the preservationists or “eco warriors” from the people in white in the background. This is a pastoral scene gone horribly wrong, Goto seems to say—not all is well in paradise, where outside forces have been taking their toll on the landscape. A growing sense of gloom hangs over the photograph: two giant trees wither and die in the foreground, dwarfing everything around them.
It’s quite a stark contrast to the nearby photograph “Pasturelands,” which gives off a euphoric feel at first. At eye level, a mini waterfall cascades over a rock-studded hill, a large and beautiful bush at its base. Its flowers are a vibrant shade of red; its sides are surrounded by animals from all walks of life, some of whom look the viewer straight in the eye. But to the viewer’s right, doom grabs the viewer: a scientist stands in a white biohazard suit, hands in his pocket, masked face scanning the ground below. Two baby goats prance before him. Closer to the middle, a farmer or walker looks onto the whole scene with wonder.
As the image’s text explains, the man in white is a stand-in for a larger nefarious population—those who advocate for Genetically Modified Organics, which help grow crops but also destroy nature in the process.
Just as with “Eco Warriors” and “Pasturelands,” Goto’s “Farmer” also gives of a calming look at first glance, with the rolling fields and stacks of hay. But when one looks closer, the scene is chilling: the farmer in question dangles from a tree with a noose around his neck. There’s a cautionary tone here: that farming and labor specifically is not an easy task to do and it is something that should not be romanticized in any way. As didactics that accompany the show explain, bales of hay in the background also represent the back-breaking work that many laborers have to do.
In photographs like these, Goto seems to talk directly to the viewer about nature and how it is currently being destroyed by human intervention. But in others, he engages culture—that is, the idea of high culture and British sophistication—and how it operates in society. They’re cheeky and acerbic, as if they’ve learned directly from Martha Rosler’s Bringing the War Home: members of the British aristocracy are placed in the middle of landscapes where it’s abundantly clear they don’t belong.
In his photo “Society,” a large group of people in lavish clothing gather in a field, heels and hats out of place in an otherwise classical scene. It’s The Grand Tour interrupted by the Royal Wedding: a neoclassical scene rudely interrupted by yapping dogs, competing hats, and idle chatter. Some people are simply walking along the grass, others look around as if they’ve misplaced something, others still are bent over picking something up or looking at dogs.
There’s chaos here, where there should be quiet and serenity, a reflection soaked in the past.
In this sense, Goto’s photographs both speak to important issues in British culture, and have a message that is universal. No matter where you’re from, you can learn a lesson from it. All you have to do is look.