Aesthetic Weather: On Cole Swensen’s “Art in Time”

By John JamesOctober 1, 2021

Aesthetic Weather: On Cole Swensen’s “Art in Time”

Art in Time by Cole Swensen

COLE SWENSEN’S Art in Time is not a poetry collection, nor is it a book of criticism, though it could be read as either. Each essay-poem considers a piece of landscape art, probing its aesthetic composition. But while artworks make up the ostensible subject of each piece, Swensen’s approach not only investigates the material nature of art but the act of viewing itself. As she writes in her introduction, “An Argument Against Timeless Art,” “All the works referenced can easily be found on the Internet.” What seems a blunt but otherwise informative statement (there are no images in the collection) becomes a rather clever exhortation: a careful reading of Art in Time includes viewing the work yourself. Swensen’s collection subverts the hierarchical dynamic in conventional art criticism, democratizing the relationship between artist, critic, and viewer.

Equally important to the book’s title is the concept of time. In Swensen’s usage, “time” recalls its Latinate cousin, as in the French temps: weather, or mood. Time becomes the milieu — the aesthetic weather — in which artworks occur and through which we experience them. This broadened sense of time challenges the primacy of the eye, recalling history and biography. In so doing, Swensen distances artworks from their status as “timeless,” inert entities, revealing them as unstable and contingent — subject to the conditions of the viewer. Yet as Swensen states, “These artists have all found ways through landscape to become an active element in the view and its viewing, with viewer and view mutually constructing each other.” “Time” makes the viewer as much as it makes the view, facilitating an experience grounded in affective exchange.

Swensen’s entry on Agnès Varda, “Here There & Then Now,” models this dynamic. The piece begins in verse, which narrates a viewing of Varda’s 1955 film, La Pointe Courte:

Landscape of rain
            raining down a street.
                        People move more slowly in the rain
because suddenly they’re anonymous
                                    which gives them more time.

The language is ekphrastic: the staggered lines combine with Swensen’s repetitions to reproduce the sensation they describe. The essay soon pivots to commentary, interrogating the work’s composition from various angles. At their simplest, these moments position the artwork within the context of its making, drawing attention to biographical elements impinging on the film’s creation. Elsewhere, they explore what Swensen describes as Varda’s “signature gestures,” among them a tendency for “people” — herself included — to “look directly into the camera.” As Swensen puts it, “We see / Agnès V.” The effect is one of “pure rupture,” revealing the film’s status as a made thing whose creator intentionally organizes her viewers’ perceptions.

For Swensen, Varda’s ruptural signature gives way to increasingly artifactual landscapes:

Landscape of trees
planted equidistant
a forest organized
into mind
into pieces of time.

What begins as curated vegetation transmutes into a highly organized, if segmented, perception of time. This is even more true of Varda’s late-career installations, which utilize strips of film from her own productions to construct a “cage filled with sunflowers” or, in the case of La Pointe Courte, “a small boat.” Installation disrupts the temporality of film. As Swensen states, “[Y]ou must give film its time; there’s no way to rush it.” Rendered as installation, these haptic — but still filmic — presentations shatter cinema’s rigid temporality, splicing scenes into luminescent stills. The accumulated images surround the viewer and, as light penetrates the stills, cast images onto the walls and floor. Combining reproducible images with the locality of installation, these productions collide aesthetic times, forging a sense of “tension” and “contradiction.”

Similar tensions motivate “Untitled Ground,” Swensen’s study of Sally Mann’s “Deep South” series, which highlights history’s role in shaping aesthetic experience. Mann’s photographs of Civil War battlefields each retain what Swensen describes as a crucial “blind spot” — smudges or blurs in the print, which aestheticize the social and intellectual myopia Mann aims to explore. As Swensen puts it, “[S]omething we can’t see about history is burning up from the back of the gelatin silver print.” Swensen underscores these absences by comparing Mann’s images to Alexander Gardner’s 1862 photographs of the same landscapes, then littered with corpses. The shared geography produces less of an absence than a spectral presence, “a depth of time ringing in the eye.” The photos exude a “supersaturated history”: “The first enslaved people to arrive on the North American continent landed in 1619 at Point Comfort, Virginia, only one year after ‘the Great Charter’ had given the evolving Virginia Company the beginnings of representative government.” Historical knowledge permeates aesthetic experience.

As Swensen observes, Mann experienced “a moment of shock and recoil when, as a teenager, she saw her various worlds suddenly from a larger social perspective,” a realization that imbues her work with an unrelenting sense of “responsibility and complicity.” Mann’s moral commitments manifest in 2001’s Battlefields, Antietam (Black Sun), whose gradual opening prompts “an element of witness.” As Swensen argues, such “witness” forms a “contract inherent in all photography […] a declaration of its and our participation in the polity.” To view a photograph is to participate in a history rife with tensions beyond the self, but in which the self is implicated. Yet as Swensen exclaims, “[P]hotographs actually rob us of the past by subtly, insidiously, replacing our memories with themselves.” Mann utilizes what Swensen calls “obsolete processes” to subvert this effacement: “[S]he worked the wet plate until it lived with the dead living from within, the process taking force, taking the form rising from the ground unseen.” Employing this outmoded technique, Mann alters the temporality of traditional photography, disrupting the erasure inherent in that medium.

Perhaps the most radical example of landscape art appears in “The Centrality of the Park,” which explores Frederick Law Olmsted’s shaping of natural spaces into an aesthetic experience. Olmsted’s parks strive to create what Swensen describes as “egalitarian democracy.” Visiting Liverpool’s Birkenhead Park, “He was struck by the fact that an entire city had seen the value, among all pastures, of the gamut of classes walking slowly with time to look only at a bird or a stream.” Olmsted recreates this “value” in New York’s Central Park, whose ice rink gathers members of various social strata into a space of porous interaction: “There, on the slipperiest of surfaces, all classes literally slid in and out of each other.” Such spaces signal contradiction, for while the ideal represented by these seemingly natural spaces strives for equality, the spaces themselves necessitate manipulation of natural resources. Not only must Olmsted disrupt the ecology of this space to create an aesthetic experience, but the sheer accumulation of plants, seeds, and stone, not to mention human labor, represents an extraction of vast proportions. In other words, Olmsted forges an experience of egalitarianism by indulging the capitalist extraction of the people and natural entities his work purports to empower.

Nevertheless, his parks manifest what Swensen identifies as “innate aspects of urbanity”: the “open meadows” and “sculpted forests” of public parks make possible the “alterity” and “errancy” we associate with cities. Their lasting effect continues to be a democratizing one, despite the almost feudal circumstances surrounding their creation. But even if the aesthetic principle undergirding Olmsted’s parks is egalitarian, the materials comprising that aesthetic facilitate its ruin. As Swensen states, “[L]andscape architecture is the only form of art that necessarily destroys itself.” Over time, the bushes and trees that configure Olmsted’s vision inevitably outgrow their manicured bounds. Even the streams cutting through the parks slowly erode the surrounding hills. Over time, these art-objects adopt a life of their own, extending well beyond the form imagined by their maker. As Swensen observes, “A park is a single organism, and everyone in it, walking through it or stopping for an hour for a picnic is one of its organs, part of its circulatory system.” Like their participants, such works constantly evolve, shaping others as they newly shape themselves.

Because of this mutual dynamic, many reviewers have framed Art in Time as explicitly ecological. Indeed, the book exhibits the influence of Bruno Latour, Timothy Morton, Jane Bennett, and others. But Swensen’s thinking is more complicated: while she aims to destabilize power structures — racial, colonial, and economic — she does so less by underscoring systems of dependence than by reconstituting what she calls the “flow” of the view. Swensen suggests that the act of looking — of thinking, and feeling — is not unidirectional, nor is it centered in the subject. Rather, “viewing” consists of rigorous exchange, whereby subjects form and are formed by the objects they encounter. Swensen’s approach might be described as “environmental,” but more in its etymological sense as “turn” or “veer” than in its colloquial usage. Perhaps more significantly, Art in Time positions the reader as an active participant in this process. While Swensen illustrates “viewing” as multimodal, our “reading” presents the opportunity to challenge even this novel conception of a “view.” In so doing, Art in Time forges textual ruptures — “blind spots” — not unlike the material ones it so rigorously explores, opening Swensen’s thought to continuous evaluation, even as it refigures the act of looking.


John James is the author of The Milk Hours (Milkweed, 2019), selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize.

LARB Contributor

John James is the author of The Milk Hours (Milkweed, 2019), selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. His poems appear in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, PEN America, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He is completing a PhD in English literature at the University of California, Berkeley.


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