The Menengiyn Tal, Eastern Mongolia   

Pursuing Openness

Open Space. These two words describe for me both an idea and a particular juxtaposition of earth and sky. They describe a state of mind and a state of being. And they lie at the heart of my curiosity for understanding the distance between the external, physical landscape of earth and the internal, intricate landscape of the human mind.

What makes a landscape truly open? Is it the complete and total absence of trees, buildings, and people? Or is it the range and depth of our experience within it? Where lies the human threshold that can cause one person to experience complete and utter disorientation in a place while another may enjoy a sense of absolute freedom in the same location? Where lies the tipping point between ease and unease, known and unknown, familiar or foreign, placed or displaced?

These questions can be applied to a multitude of situations and conditions, but for me, they begin with actual experience in the real and tangible element of the earth’s open landscapes. By open landscape I mean vast stretches of land that are largely unencumbered by obvious landmarks, are home to few numbers of people, and whose primary experience can best be defined by the overwhelming presence of earth and sky that is encircled by a vast and open horizon line. In the United States, we do not encounter truly open landscapes until driving west of the Mississippi. The first such stretch belongs to the Great Plains, the second to the deserts found in the West and Southwest past the Rocky Mountains. Beyond, examples of these particular landscapes can be found in the Arctic and the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska, in the plains of Argentina, the outback of Australia, the steppe of central Asia.

Within these specific types of terrain I ask how do we extract a particular place from seemingly homogeneous stretches of earth, or, how do we separate seemingly homogeneous stretches of experience into distinct and varied remembrances? Perhaps these are one and the same question. For these places that I explore carry few traces, few landmarks have been built upon them and fewer have remained. Those that do exist are often subtle and difficult to detect. And once these tracts of openness have been marked and divided, in place or in memory, how does that which divided it fold back into a continuous whole? How does it return from marked place to open space?

My fascination and work begins with the quest to understand how we comprehend and interact with open space, but it does not end there. My desire is to translate both the state of mind and the state of being that is to be found in openness into visual creative work so that others can experience the wonder that I find in it. This generates a difficult problem. For how do I express in visual form understandings that are for me tied to specific instances of space and time, place and scale? How do I extend beyond myself understandings that begin with personal memory and experience? My desire to visualize and recreate my relationship to openness generates more questions. It causes me to continually circle back to pursuing a greater understanding of open space.


This text is the introduction to, "The Distance of Horizon," you can access the full text through Deep Blue, the University of Michigan thesis database.