Barbara Kyne’s exhibition at Oakland’s Krowswork Gallery, A Crack in the World, peeks into a world that most people would assume is impossible: the lived experience of plants. At least, it's a glimpse at the possibility of a plant's lived experience, visualized by Kyne through photographs that play with this unexpected notion to a startling, gorgeous effect.
The artist wonders “what the consciousness of plants might be,” and uses digital photography (though not digital alterations) to explore that question, according to exhibition materials. Though this query might seem wildly abstract or even too unimaginable to attempt (after all, plants don't have eyes), the photo series manipulates lens-based vision to create multiple, slightly distorted vantage points that feel non-human. It's oddly convincing.
Through playful exploration of depth of field, the photographs in A Crack in the World shift human vision into an extraordinary terrain, one where Kyne and her camera revel. Kyne perceives her relationship with the camera as one that interlocks, forming a “camera-being” -- a hybrid experience to which many photographers can likely relate. But it’s not only Kyne’s connection to her camera that comes through the work: it’s a connection to plants as other living things. By putting my gaze (her own gaze) into a plant’s shoes -- or rather, roots -- Kyne's work transported me into a deeper visual empathy for the greenery underfoot.
If trees had eyes, the leaves in A Crack in the World #28 are like hair falling across one’s face, and the branches appear the same way a human might ignore the limbs of her own body while concentrating elsewhere: appendages that are visible, yet not in focus.
An image that clearly resulted from the photographer laying in a field gives the impression that, instead, the view point is from one of the flowers gazing upwards and around at its compatriots. Again, a play on depth of field differentiates between subject and surroundings. In this case, a flower's community simply cohabitates nearby, like a loved one on the couch next to you while you’re both mentally engaged elsewhere.
Kyne’s role reversal of perspective into flora is unexpected. We are used to gazing at plants. We are used to analyzing, dissecting and labeling plants -- getting to know them through science. We are used to nature photography and landscapes, but I hesitate to include Kyne’s work in either genre. My visceral pleasure in looking fell on the uncanny side. Something else is happening here.
For the theory buffs out there, Kyne’s photographs effectively engage recent academic trends, such as UC Berkeley theorist Mel Chen’s study of animacy and the language that regularly differentiates between the sentient and the inanimate. Kyne's work even conjures up the heavy-hitting late-twentieth-century French philosophers, Deleuze and Guattari, who used plants’ root structures -- the networked, tangled rhizomes -- as a way to emphasize social multiplicities (rather than promote individualism). But Kyne’s art doesn’t need (nor, I’d say, expect) to be contextualized within theory: the work just does it.
And if there’s a political message here, it’s just as easily philosophical, even spiritual.
Kyne’s work proves something extremely important, though easily missed: Plants' names do not matter. Perhaps some viewers might readily identify such-and-such plant and find meaning in this act; however, I would argue that Kyne’s photographs -- like the plants themselves -- do not care about language.
To paraphrase Walt Whitman, whose 1855 poem "Song of Myself" rang clear in my mind as I studied Kyne's works, the plants exist as they are, and that is enough.
Kyne’s photographs remind us that systems of language keep us, at times, from realizing our commonality in coexistence with others. Rather than promoting empathy, words have a way of dividing us. Instead, we might focus more intently on the undeniable fact that we are each different from one another and yet we remain connected. We could all use more reminders like that right now.
A Crack in the World is on view at Krowswork in Oakland through Dec. 3. For more information visit krowswork.com.