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A Closer Look -- Objects in Mirror

Objects in Mirror -- Edited by Hans Gremmen

Objects in Mirror is a collection of essays and a few fragments from larger written pieces assembled by designer Hans Gremmen "to give insight into his daily practice." With the idea of the American landscape high on his mind in 2011, Objects in Mirror came to be as part of the annual 'Looking over the shoulder of…' program from Utrecht's FOTODOK. Images make up the framework of the dialogue, but the book is fundamentally about perceptions of the United States as understood through prevailing relationships to its landscape -- most often, that of National Parks. Through discussions of early souvenir photographs of the Grand Canyon, the massively reproduced (though, unfortunately, infrequently archived) Federal Arts Project commissioned posters for the National Park system, road movies and how our experience of America's natural landmarks is influenced by photography, we are taken on a tour of iconic America. The sporadic illustrations throughout the book show Yellowstone and Delicate Arch, bison and McDonald's, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper on motorcycles and Marilyn Monroe in front of Niagara Falls. The weight of America as symbol is heavy, particularly as it is a book written by (and seemingly for) non-Americans. Personally, as an American, this makes it all the more interesting to read.

Objects in Mirror -- Edited by Hans Gremmen
The essays are often equal parts critical analysis and history. Harmen Liemburg's 'Bison bison' tracks the nation's complicated relationship to the animal from a landscape nearly overwrought with the creatures to their indiscriminant slaughter as entertainment for rail passengers, to the bison's symbolic presence on the seal of the Department of the Interior, various sports logos and finally, as a filling for burgers. Raymond Frenken's 'Pictures from the Brink of Love and Death' pulls together a number of stories and a variety of information to give a complex view of Niagara Falls that includes love, suicide, visual perfection of natural elements and the movies. I learned from Frenken's essay that in 1969 American Falls was diverted down Horseshoe Falls and cleaned of debris and reinforced, Goat Island enlarged and elements sculpted to make for a more aesthetically pleasing view. Next time I'm near Niagara I plan to find out when the hydroelectric plants up river reroute water back over the falls for the day-time visitors; I'd like to see the falls be 'switched on.'

Objects in Mirror -- Edited by Hans Gremmen
The partial reprint of the 1976 catalogue 'Signs of Life: Symbols in the American City' from the architectural firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates endeavors to decode the symbolic nature of the 20th century American architectural landscape in order to plan for a better future. It's a forward thinking essay heavily illustrated with photographs by Stephen Shore and is fascinating, something I would love to read in full. Same for the Jean Baudrillard classic America, only excerpts of which I've encountered in the past, as is printed here. It is beautifully effusive in its descriptions of the American highway and its culture, with an excited reverence that could only be felt by an accomplished and fully formed mind who happens upon this asphalt landscape suddenly, ready for open exploration.

Objects in Mirror -- Edited by Hans Gremmen
Objects in Mirror is a small paperback wrapped in a delicate glassine cover. Inside the cover's flaps are printed state slogans and mottos, a good opening for a book largely concerned with the identity America has made for itself through its landscape. A few parts of the book look elsewhere. Caroline von Courten's 'En Route' on the omnipresence of Google Street View does not relate back to America directly. While its themes are aligned, its subject discusses the act of travel more generally, though it is still an entirely interesting read. The inclusion of the whimsical sculptures of Helmut Smits felt like a stretch to me. Though referential to landscape and American symbols and assuredly delightful in another context, here they felt, well, very European.

This book is so engaging that it's challenging not to simply write a response to it. While the place of my birth causes me to culturally identify with the United States, America as a symbol is so profound that even as an American, it can be difficult to connect with. The idea of America spills outside its physical boundary, and just as I always feel more American when my feet are on foreign soil, so too that semeiotic presence is more tenable from afar. Objects in Mirror provides a fascinating outside perspective on just how culturally pervasive the American landscape is. -- Sarah Bradley

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