Afghanistan in Time: Simon Norfolk at Benrubi
Simon Norfolk: Stratographs at Benrubi Gallery
February 5 to March 21, 2015
521 West 26th Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 888 6007
“Stratographs” is Benrubi Gallery’s inaugural exhibition in its Chelsea space. Here, Simon Norfolk presents two bodies of work recording the passage of time. In one, he photographed certain places in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley for over a year between 2013 and 2014. In an adjacent gallery are photographs taken at Kenya’s Lewis Glacier. Norfolk marked the boundary of the glacier, according to maps and GPS, from various years (including 1934, 1963, 1987, 2004) by walking the border with a burning torch. He captured his progression using a long-exposure. Norfolk is hidden behind his action — he is a flickering, twisting line of fire. While, the Lewis glacier is an ever-present monolith in the background. In addition to the photographs, there are two films of Norfolk in Afghanistan and Kenya, and a wall text written by him.
Norfolk’s photographs are saturated with people, though their bodies are largely absent. There are a handful of photographs where the human form is seen directly. In the background of Time Taken 6, Mid-Winter (2013-14) two blackened, bent figures, their postures paralleled like quotation marks, barely jut up from the ground. They are seen through thin bars of trees. Two people pose for a photograph taken by a third on the back of an abandoned Russian tank in Time Taken 11, Early-Autumn (2013-14). These five figures — their individuality uncaptured — are slight and insignificant. Instead, in Norfolk’s photographs, human presence is not in portrait form, but in people’s actions and remnants from drifts of detritus, tilled fields, dwellings, destruction from war, and climate change.
Norfolk’s photographs insist on close looking. The images from Afghanistan are installed in different-sized groups by location. This installation is the revelation. Making use of the opportunity for open movement within the gallery, Norfolk’s photographs are a non-linear narrative, and through the comparison of subtle details and the accumulation of information a more complex image is seen. Time Taken 1, Mid-Winter (2013-14) is an image of a snow-covered village, framed again by trees, with a cliff face in the distance. It is difficult to see through the gray and obscuring winter air, but square, black caves cover the cliff face. Mid-Winter is paired with Time Taken 1, Late-Winter (2013-14). There is no cloaking snow in the latter image — the cliff is bathed in light. A long oblong arch, almost half the height of the cliff, is underneath the mountain’s peak. Small manmade caves constellate out. The arch sheltered a statue of Buddha with another statue nearby. The Taliban dynamited both in 2001. A hint of the body remains. Opposite this pair, a lone image, Time Taken 10, Early Winter (2013-14), behind the front desk, seems an outlier. A curving, tree-lined road cuts through cultivated fields. A small village leans up against the cliff. Square, irregularly placed caves bore out of a domed rock like a beacon. It is disorienting to be placed between these three photographs. What is their relationship to each other?
Norfolk writes about his difficulty in defining his “fascination.” The correct word eludes him. “Timeliness” is too much associated with punctuality, while “time-ishness… a word crime.” Norfolk’s language roots time into the earth. His fascination is in the: “timey thickness of stuff — in the layery ‘slabness’ of time lain down upon time. And just as a rockslide exposes fossil beds, I want to seek out the landscape’s ‘slippages’ that expose those time slices.” Robert Smithson defines a dialectical landscape: nature is not a “thing-in-itself,” but “a way of seeing things in a manifold of relations, not as isolated objects.” A dialectical landscape is not “one-sided;” it allows for the interplay between man and nature, “the sylvan and the industrial.” For Smithson, it is an authentic expression and forms the crux of his earth works. The content of Norfolk’s photographs of land made fertile through human agriculture or an earthmover partially covered in tarp exemplifies the dialectic. Grouping the photographs adds to this sense of exchange. Much like Smithson’s artworks, Norfolk describes Afghans’ relationship to their land: “Don’t look to Afghan culture and say ‘where are the visual arts, why is there not Afghan opera or sculpture?’ The main creation of Afghan culture is the landscape itself. It is all around, but one has to stop, sit quietly and take Time, to see it at work.”
There is a constant — both for man and nature — in the dialectical landscape: entropy. Despite this saturation by people, Norfolk’s photographs show this all-encompassing force acting. It seems sinister in its indifference.
 Robert Smithson, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape.”