D.the alarm goes off at half past three. Get up, get dressed, brush your teeth. After a quick breakfast, Michael Sherwin grabs his photo equipment and steps out the door. With the rental car he creeps down a lonely street in northeast Wyoming: “I feel like the only person left in the world.” Sherwin leaves the plain. The road meanders up a mountain, after two hours the destination is in sight: the parking lot at the Big Horn Medicine Wheel. In order to reach the stone formation built by the indigenous people from there, a long walk has to be mastered.
Sherwin wonders, “What am I doing here? Why am I looking for such experiences? Is it okay to depict sacred symbols from other cultures? What will people say about my work? ”His insecurity reminds him that he is on the land of indigenous groups. Conversely, this means that if the Bighorn National Forest were a forest that was first entered by humans in the seventeenth century, Sherwin’s considerations would have a different shape. He would not worry about being accused of engaging in some kind of illegitimate appropriation, but rather reflecting on the sublime and the beauty of nature. But the place of worship is at least five thousand, possibly even seven thousand years old. That changes the perception. Here the visitor enters a state of devotion and awe.
Art and morality
Anyone who has ever been to such a place will be able to understand this feeling. It has, if you will, a certain naturalness. For his band “Vanishing Points”, the multimedia artist Sherwin made the pilgrimage to places that are important for the Native Americans not only for spiritual reasons – he also went to them to photograph them. He complements the landscape photographs with small still lifes of objects – such as a plastic spoon or a Matchbox car – that were found in these places. The question is which aesthetic facets the pictures allowed to appear without the knowledge of Sherwin’s long-term project. As works of art, can they be adequately recorded without the background information at all?
Sherwin reminds of this problem anew with every photograph. In the Bighorn National Forest, is the eagle feather tucked into a fence post more meaningful than a feather of the same animal lying around on a sidewalk in Cheyenne? Probably because, among many Native Americans, eagles were considered the bravest of birds. But what does that mean for the close-up of the feathered pole? How does the artistic approach relate to reality, which here always has a moral dimension due to the history of the United States?
A mysterious double edge
Footage of Monument Valley has become icons of the Wild West and the expansion towards the Pacific since the John Ford films. However, it is precisely this patch of land that is part of the Navajo Nation Reservation. With his photo of the place, Sherwin adds an additional layer of meaning because he photographs a man and a woman on the viewing platform that is already culturally coded because of their name, “John Wayne Point”. The two of them have their backs to us and let their gaze wander over the plain – just as a military commander would. The viewer looks at the two figures while looking at them, and his slight discomfort is not least due to the fact that the imagery bears the signature of the advertisement and would fit into a travel magazine.
After Sherwin settled in northern West Virginia, he found that a mall he frequented was built on an eight hundred year old burial site of the Monongahela culture. He photographed the shopping mall and saw the result as a “mysterious double-edged aspect”. While the image is “rooted in the present moment, it can still connect to the past and allude to what happened,” it is both a mirror and a kind of memory. In this respect, the name of the book hits the mark, as the places Sherwin photographed show concrete and metaphorical vanishing points in which not only lines but also cultures converge.
Michael Sherwin: “Vanishing Points”. With essays by Josh Garrett-Davis, Kirsten Rian and Michael Sherwin. Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2021. 172 pp., Ill., Hardcover, 45, – €.