VOLCANO TIME, essay by Eduardo Cadava for As if it should have been a quarry

Toward the end of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, the protagonist Geryon—a red-winged monster who has learned during the course of his life to express himself by taking photographs, what he calls “memory burns”—is told about a village called Jucu in the volcanic region in the mountains north of Huarez. He is told that, in ancient times, the inhabitants of this village worshipped the volcano as a god and even threw people into it, not as a form of sacrifice but as a test to see who could go, see, and come back as an eyewitness of the inside of the volcano, an eyewitness to a catastrophe survived. He is told that the ones who returned would return as red people with wings, “with their weaknesses burned away—and their mortality.” The book closes with a series of sections that appear as “photographs” in verse, with the last one describing a photograph that was nev- er taken, but which remains as the last photograph presented: a photograph in which Geryon takes flight toward the crater of Icchantikas and, once over it, peers down into the volcano’s “earth heart” from the “icy possibles” of its cold exterior and sees it “dumping all its photons out her ancient eye.” At that moment, he smiles for the camera and remembers “The Only Secret People Keep,” a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem in which the secret people keep is revealed to be “immortality.” That Geryon recalls Dickinson’s line without its reference to immortality makes it unclear if he survives the volcano’s shot, an ambiguity that already had appeared in the story he had been told, since it is not clear if the ones who return to bear witness to their survival return with “their mortality” or if this mortality is itself “burned away.” Identifying the aperture of a camera with that of a volcano, mortality with immortality, and destruction with survival, Geryon here associates photography with geology. The shutter clicks and, freezing time, captures Geryon onto a kind of film negative that brings Geryon to recognize himself in the image and leads to the final chapter of the book, which is entitled “The Flashes in Which A Man Possesses Himself.” If Geryon possesses himself in this flash of red light, it is because he comes to view himself as a photographic being, as a being that exists between life and death, memory and forgetting, and presence and absence. The red-winged monster’s photographic existence is confirmed by the fact that it shares the color of the darkroom light under which the photograph emerges from its chemical bath to be printed on paper, and the color of a volca- no’s fiery lava, the “earthly liquid glow emanating from below
the solid black fragments of rock” which break apart in the force of the volcano’s eruption. In Geryon’s world, volcanic eruptions are associated with the eruption of the image onto photo-sensi- tized paper, or even onto the pages of Carson’s book.

I wanted to begin with this story, and with this identification between photography and volcanoes, because the details that enable them are at the heart of Sabine Mirlesse’s beautiful pro- ject, As if it should have been a quarry. Juxtaposing scenes of Ice- land’s remarkable and heterogeneous landscape with portraits of Icelanders, many of whom bear the traces of the earth on their faces, Mirlesse’s camera returns to Heimaey (whose name literally means “home-island”), the only inhabited isle in the Vestmannaeyar volcanic archipelago and the site of one of the most destructive volcanic eruptions in the history of Iceland on the morning of January 23, 1973. If Mirlesse takes her title from Robert Frost’s late, lyrical poem “Directive,” it is because, for her, this poem touches on the loss and transformation effect- ed on the Icelandic landscape by this violent volcanic eruption. The poem tells us about the erosion that results from time and the weather, about the glacier’s force of writing, as it chisels and writes its way to the southeast and northwest, leaving its traces on the landscape as a kind of archive of its movement, a move- ment that later might be mined as if it were a quarry in which we could read the history sealed within the landscape. It suggests that we have to experience loss, and even the loss of ourselves, if we are ever to find ourselves—as the ones who learn that living means living with loss and ruin. And, finally, it tells us about the relation between persons and nature, the most legible rela- tion explored in Mirlesse’s photographs, and one that is already confirmed by the play between the poet’s first and last names.

Indeed, in returning to Heimaey, Mirlesse seeks to capture the traces of the volcano’s devastation but also the acknowledgment among the inhabitants of the area—many of whom lost their homes and, most poignantly, their photographs—of the essen- tial relation between the wildness of Iceland’s climate and seismic activities and their capacity to endure, to exist in relation to this always-possible destruction. What these photographs record, then, is the desire to preserve but also to survive, and even in the face of the most life-threatening circumstances. The strength these photographs capture—the strength and force of nature as well as that of the Icelanders who live on after this catastrophe—gives them their moving beauty.

Mirlesse’s photographs show us steam emerging from the earth in Iceland’s Rekyjanes region, abandoned homes near Ísafjörður whose now skeletal frames reveal windows that in turn offer a kind of framed photograph of the landscape sur- rounding them (as if the ruined house were able to become a lens through which we might view the ruin inscribed inside the landscape itself), geysers and bubbling earth in seismic regions, obscured by clouds of steam that seem to remind us of our incapacity to see things clearly, or to see what is not visible to the eye, whether it be the history that is sealed in the ground, or the almost illegible movement in the interior of the earth that can rise to the surface at any moment, waterfalls falling from glaciers that touch against volcanoes, lava fields covered in moss, aban- doned excavation sites, images of the sunken holes that punctuate the ground in the Snæfellsnes peninsula (the legendary site of the volcano on which Jules Verne based his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth), most likely a consequence of the in- teraction between lava and sea water, the shifting traces of the weather as it mediates what we can see or not see, glacier formations and lagoons, often alongside the volcanic mountains, and the more than thirty facial imprints that, formed by pressing clay-covered faces on canvas, look like so many aerial shots of geothermal, seismic areas. This visual echolalia between visages and the many faces of Iceland’s geography confirms the ines- capable interplay between the landscape and the people who live in it that motivates Mirlesse’s project. She and her camera understand that there is something strange and uncanny about landscape, and perhaps because, among so many other things, landscape is always a space in which disappearance takes place. Indeed, Iceland’s landscapes perhaps tell us what is true of all landscapes: that they are never the same from one moment to the next, that there is nothing fixed about them except for their constant transformation. This is perhaps particularly the case in a landscape that experiences all sorts of natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, the slow movement and dissolution of glacier formations, and rapid changes in meteorological and climatic phenomena.

Mirlesse’s photographs seek to respond to the history that is commemorated, displaced, and ciphered in this landscape—a history that includes not only the history of the destruction and preservation of Heimaey but also, as a kind of secret, the his- tory of photography itself. In a perversion of temporality made possible by these photographs, the history of Heimaey, and in- deed the history of Iceland, tells us something about the es- sence and history of photography. This series of photographs begins to cast an interpretive light on these questions and, in doing so, tells us that the geological and seismic phenomena that define Iceland’s landscapes are themselves photographic
apparatuses. We need only recall the most significant details of a story that became a common reference for the eruption at Heimaey, the story of Pompeii—a story whose details resonate with the volcanic eruption around which Mirlesse’s project is organized, and that led Heimaey to be called the “Pompeii of the North.” Built on the shores of the Bay of Naples—on an area of prehistoric lava flow called the “burnt fields”—Pompeii was raised on the site of the fabled battle between the Giants and the Gods, in which the Giants were cast down and destroyed by Zeus’s thunderbolts. A site whose history is entangled with that of fire and light—and of a light that, cast down from the heavens, left its flashing and burning signature in the land as a kind of memorial—Pompeii could be said to have been born on the soil of photography: or, perhaps more precisely, to have been one of the several birthplaces of photography.The photographic dimension of Pompeii’s history—a history traversed by the play of light and darkness that defines the photographic space—be- comes even more palpable as we remember that, when Vesuvius erupted in August 79 A.D., the city was buried in volcanic debris and ash. The ash and fire that burst forth during the violent eruption of Vesuvius was said to have overshadowed the air and, like an eclipse, to have hidden the sun. Contemporary accounts tell us that the day turned into night and light was transformed into darkness. “Clouds of fearful blackness overtook the skies, pierced through and through with flashes of lightning,” writes Pliny the Younger (our chief sources of information on this event are the two letters that he wrote to Tacitus), and “it became dark, not as on a cloudy night when there is no moon, but as in a room which has been completely closed.” Transforming the en- tire landscape into a gigantic dark room, the cinders that came forth from the eruption of Vesuvius worked to both destroy and preserve this city that, becoming in its own cataclysmic turn a kind of museum, to this day still bears the traces of this massive photographic event. Like the photograph that is so often said to be a force of destruction and preservation, the ashes of Vesuvius became a means of forgetting and remembering the death and ruin that took place within Pompeii’s walls. This story of the fire and light that made Pompeii what it is, the Vesuvian fire and ash that destroyed and preserved the buried city, erases as much as it shows, blinds as much as it enlightens, separates as much as it gathers.This delirious history tells us that photography involves the burning of its contents, even as it seeks to preserve them, a fact that Mirlesse sees inscribed everywhere in Iceland.

The landscape of Iceland is fabulously heterogeneous, wild, and, as its name suggests, irreducibly linked to ice, and to the glaciers that punctuate, and often form, its terrain. If Mirlesse evokes Iceland’s glaciers throughout her project, though, it also is to suggest another form that photography has taken, and one that even preceded photography itself, since the glaciers— themselves staging the relation between ruin and survival, be- tween the frozen layers of compacted soil and the decaying and living vegetation around them—appear as a kind of allegory for the relation between the interruptive force of the climate, on the one hand, and that of photography, on the other. Indeed, the glaciers are structured by a play of freezing and unfreezing that evokes the immobilization and displacement that characterize the photographic act. The glacier also reminds us that the most important work occurs in what we do not see and cannot be seen, that, like the photograph, the traces and vestiges of a glob- al ecological history carries life beyond present life or actual
being-there not toward death but toward a living-on, a trace in which life and death come together. The glacier is, like the vol- cano, a kind of templum for the photographematic project that Mirlesse has so beautifully created and realized, for this glimpse into what Carson calls “volcano time.”

Bringing together the past and the present, the history of Pompeii with that of Heimaey, and, like Carson, photography with geology, Mirlesse’s Iceland tells us that “now” does not name a present, just as “then” cannot be reduced to the past. Every effort to read the image therefore must expose it there where the image does not exist. It must displace it, and this because the truth of the image is, in the wording of Walter Benjamin, “loaded to the bursting point with time.” It is because the traces carried by the image include reference to the past, the present, and the future, and in such a way that none of these can be isolated from the other, that the image cannot present the traces of the explosion it recalls—without at the same time exploding, or bursting, its capacity to (be) present. Mirlesse’s photographs tell us that history is something to which we can never be present because it is sealed and encrypted in the plural faces of persons and geographies as if they were a kind of quarry. With her and her photographs, however, we are at least given the glorious chance of mining them.

© sabine mirlesse  all rights reserved