American-Pacific Spaces

 Java's volcanoes have shaped global climate for millennia, but this year it's the island's extreme fire season that portends drastic effects, a new geopolitical era.

In Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson coins the term "Pacific man" to express the American push to the West. Olson talks of American space, or SPACE as he writes it, and all the economic and social tensions it entails, as encapsulated in Herman Melville's whaling ship. Some "ride" this space, he notes, while others "dig in".

Meridel Rubenstein, a photographer based in Santa Fe, who teaches in Singapore while working to reclaim marshes in Iraq, is one who rides. Her photos of Indonesian volcanoes link global conditions to an American tradition of landscape documentation that extends back to nineteenth-century geological surveys, incorporating along the way the "local" as envisioned by  Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. O'Keeffe and Stieglitz, like Olson himself, seem to both "ride" and "dig in."

Like them, Rubenstein endows her photo documentation with an urgent sense of mission. She engages physically with her subjects, from printing on aluminum or on paper made from tree bark,  to managing water resources on the Euphrates. Rubenstein wrestles with the ideological energy of American space - aiming to harness its expansive impulse to a global vision of spirituality. There's both white and black magic in the mirror-like surfaces of her prints.

Stieglitz inspired artists to define America and themselves by immersion in the "local", appealing to an innocent embrace of the New World and its promise of fresh vision through the new medium of photography. But the "local", which Rubenstein extends to her work in Iraq, demands a grounding in the troubled history of the land, as writers like Olson and William Carlos Williams understood.

Olson observes that, for Melville, the root of our ambitions lies not in democracy but in the will to overwhelm nature. For him, the White Whale is more accurate than Whitman's Leaves of Grass -  "Because it is America, all her space, the malice, the root."

 Meridel Rubenstein,  Mt. Toba Volcanic Ash, 74,000 years old, found in Malaysia,  2010, archival pigment on aluminum

Meridel Rubenstein, Mt. Toba Volcanic Ash, 74,000 years old, found in Malaysia, 2010, archival pigment on aluminum