In Land Matters, a collection of essays that examine the ways in which photographers engage with land and its representation, Liz Wells observes that ‘from its inception photography has been involved in investigating and detailing environments, helping culture to appropriate nature’. Wells notes that like painting, photography has contributed to the cultural concept of landscape, which ‘reflects both perception (how we have come to ‘see’ and relate to our surroundings) and practical interventions in terms of land usage (agrarian, industrial, architectural, and so on)’. Particularly our human impact on the environment has shaped landscape photography which, according to Wells, has ‘re-emerged with renewed socio-political orientation’ as a result of growing environmental concerns. However, while photography can record the short-term effects industry and technology have on the environment, such as the impact of littering on wildlife, how might it explore processes occurring beneath the surface, over prolonged periods of time?
In Notes on Hydraulic Fracturing, the artist Louise Oates uses photography to investigate a technique more commonly known as fracking; a process by which liquid is injected into deep-rock formations at high pressure, creating cracks through which oil or gas can be extracted. The size and sober design of the book are reminiscent of an instruction manual or pamphlet, in which Oates’ research is presented in a seemingly methodical manner. Notes on Hydraulic Fracturing contains three inserts; the Chemical Classification insert lists approximately forty chemicals, their unique numerical identifiers, or CAS Registry Numbers, their chemical purpose and function. The list is partially obscured by black and white photographs of fracking sites and images documenting Oates’ artistic practice and processes. The Landslide Video insert shows stills from a performance in which a woman, whose face is cropped out of the frame, approaches a canvas on which Oates has recreated an aerial photograph of a fracking landscape, using soil from exploratory wells. The woman squats beside the canvas before lifting one side, instantly destroying the constructed image, or sculpture. Finally, the Index insert contains additional information, descriptions and captions of individual photographs in the book.
Notes on Hydraulic Fracturing highlights Oates’ interest in the relationship between photography and sculpture; in her exploration of concepts such as agency and process she continuously moves between the two. By working with materials that are physically linked to her subject matter, be it the objects she photographs or the images themselves, Oates manages to convey what is essentially invisible. One photograph that stands out is Concrete Casing, which depicts two open concrete cylinders, one of which has (been) split down the middle. While one half rests on the intact cylinder the other has fallen off, balancing precariously on its rounded edge. Oates’ simple, yet powerful gesture illustrates one of the many environmental risks of fracking; we learn that when compromised, the concrete used to line well casings can result in groundwater contamination. Further, Concrete Casing invokes dualities of construction and destruction, of agency and impotence. The images Oates treated with Sodium Hydroxide, a chemical used in the fracking process, function in a similar manner. Aside from spraying the solution onto the surface of the photographs Oates had no power over these images, on which the Sodium Hydroxide has crystallized over a period of three years. These abstractions show what is beyond the sphere of the visible, the intelligible; ultimately, they symbolize what is beyond our control. In Landslide Videos, the process is reversed: here, Oates has carefully (re-)constructed three aerial photographs taken in Pennsylvania, where fracking has been carried out for over a decade. After using the camera to eternalize her Soil Images, which are included in the book, Oates destroys them with one simple gesture. It is no longer the artist, but the viewer who is powerless. However, this seemingly pointless destruction is rendered systematic in the book, where it is presented in the form of stills.
While sections of Notes on Hydraulic Fracturing mirror the way in which controversial techniques such as fracking are promoted to the public—typically under the guise of science—Oates’ strategic layering of text and images suggests we never know the full story. Overlapping photographs of sand and gravel at a fracking site and the physical remains of a destroyed Soil Image simulate the different colours and textures of sedimentary rock. Oates’ close-ups of cracks, tyre marks and crystal patterns invite comparisons with the fractures created in these invisible strata. In his essay A Handful of Dust, the writer and curator David Campany remarks that ‘photography renounces its own surface the better to record the surfaces of the world’. On the surface, fracking landscapes appear orderly, and systematic; no photograph can record the full extent of damage caused to the invisible layers of rock below, much less the potential environmental risks such as ground and surface water contamination, air and noise pollution and the triggering of earthquakes. Still, photographs such as Oates’, that allow us to think about what we cannot know, and that over which we have no control, are a good start.
-review by Lisa Stein
Sodium Hydroxide 1, by Louise Oates, 2017
A Handful of Dust: Photography after Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp curated by David Campany continues at Whitechapel Gallery until 3rd September, 2017.
Notes on Hydraulic Fracturing by Louise Oates is available from stockists and from the artist’s website