Consuming Prospects: The Work of Robin Lasser

by Christine Laffer

Consuming Landscapes and Other Eating Disorders, billboard, Fairfield, CA, 1996-97 by Robin Lasser.

When we think of landscape, we like to picture wide vistas of natural scenery spread out before our eyes. In our daily lives, however, we rarely have such a view. We have modified the land around us in order to support our existence. Everywhere we go, the ground carries marks that we have placed upon it: a broad history of continuous social and technological change anchored in the dirt that includes everything from fences to highways. It seems we have made so many of these marks that we must go hours out of our way to see a landscape. At the same time, other marks of our existence, such as might be made at the site of someones death, disappear too quickly and we find a way to remember through attempts of re-marking the event onto the site. Places in the land thus carry a blend of what we see and what we do not, or can no longer, see.

Robin Lasser examines this continually changing surface where humans meet the land in order to build references to what we cannot see. Finding a place ripe for juxtaposition, she plants her own temporary constructions in order to complete a performance of examination, interjection, and erasure. Through photography she captures the accumulated marks (including her own), and re-places the document into the landscape tradition.

Think for a moment about the motion of viewing a landscape. It usually involves a panoramic scan as eyes move across a space searching for elements of sky, hills, trees, water, buildings, and inhabitants. Silently, our minds shift back and forth between viewing and assessing. What kind of place is it? Does it contain valuable resources? Is it benign or treacherous, plentiful or barren, known or unknown, beautiful or ugly? Do we look because we wish to stay or because we wish we could stay? Perhaps we stop to look because we are on our way to some other place. If we dont stop, then it fades away altogether.

With her latest piece, a collaboration with Mark Eanes to be installed in the fall of 1999, the word PRECARIOUS will appear in densely growing wildflowers on a hillside in Fairfield, California, between the Waterman/Travis AFB exit and the North Texas exit off of I-80. Beginning with tilling the soil precisely in the fall so that the words read in dark brown, the flowers will blossom in Spring 2000, giving motorists along the highway a changing visual commentary on our system of valuation. The word precious through a visual play becomes precarious (or is it the other way around?) as if asking the question of what (in this place) is both precious and precarious. Perhaps the word refers to the hill itself, or to the flowers, or to something that the hill and flowers together represent: remnants of nature framed in our rush-hour windshield.

In art, the depicted landscape appeals to us as if we were nomads, passers-by, or tourists. It transforms each of us into someone-who-will-never-pass-by because we often never can go to the place and the time that is portrayed. In a sense, the view that we see in a photograph, painting, or sculpture also converts us into someone-who-will-never-stay: a phantom or a ghost. We become sort of permanently ephemeral; being gone is always written into the position of viewing the land no matter how long we stay. We know we will be absent at the moment we stand there, enjoying what we behold. As we look, we find ourselves desiring our own existence because we see our absence as imminent. It is as if desire mixes with narcissism to project us into a sensual and emotional moment of poignant self-recognition.

The grassy hillside in Fairfield will bear a temporary mark, mimicking the form of an urban advertisement, of its own uncertain condition. As developments encroach on the open space of rural areas such as this one in Solano County, the hill shifts from a passively assessed object to a landscape that attempts to speak for itself.

There are other landscapes, those usually not found in art, which we do not see, ground that has already been mined and exhausted. In particular, utilitarian places, such as frontage-road shopping strips and truck stops, disappear unless needed by the passing driver. Industrial yards, billboards and flowering weeds barely exist to us tired commuters. These things we overlook as easily as the dust and grime on the window we do not see them. Perhaps we have learned to not see them.

In one piece of her series called Consuming Landscapes (1990-95), Lasser uses a view off Santa Barbara of the coastal rocks, usually associated with curling waves and crying seagulls, and turns it into a place setting literally with a huge fork, knife and spoon for off-coast oil derricks, the not-seen constructions that feed our immense appetite for fossil fuels. In a performative commentary, she sets the six-foot fork, knife and spoon on fire so that in the photograph we literally see this place as a site of consumption.

Then in another work, as she begins to develop images for billboards, she re-uses this Santa Barbara image. In Consuming Landscapes and Other Eating Disorders (1996-97), we see the burning fork, knife and spoon next to an image of a fire burning in a backyard barbecue grill, the charcoal flaming hot and fast. If left untended, then the fire will burn on for hours until only ashes remain.

Putting together these images the coast and the backyard Lasser then adds a pair of artificially distorted nude females (one extremely wide the other painfully thin). The billboard that results speaks of our consumption of resources and, through a lateral movement, places us in a condition of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder whereby people (not all women, by the way) die from imagining themselves too fat: in effect, from consuming themselves.

It is possible that we will end up consuming ourselves in the process of consuming the land, as we continue to burn fossil fuels and build suburban homes. If, as Lasser suggests, we can denote the land as threatened and precious, and in so doing re-see the connections between the ground and ourselves, then we might find a way to avoid consuming both. If the artist can help us see what we have learned to not-see, perhaps we might make a different set of marks. "

Christine Laffer is an artist who weaves bas-relief tapestry and writes articles and reviews.
She has an MFA degree from San José State University.

Artists in Relation to the Landscape

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