Michael Kenna

Dwelling on the Earth

The human presence is visible in Kenna’s photographs only through traces and material achievements: architecture, buildings, bridges, statues, artificial arrangements of plants and elements. From an obvious, massive presence in urban photographs, it dwindles to a faint trace in Eastern landscapes. Fences, posts and palisades structure snowy landscapes and seem to have been put there in a naïve attempt to construct something—a line crossing the image, four stakes just poking out of the water and the human space is revealed. They betray the will to build, no matter how flimsy and fleeting the object. A human presence can be detected everywhere, laboring on the earth, trying to dwell in the world not only by buildings and cultivation but “by all the works made by man’s hands and through his arrangements.” The real dwelling place of mortal beings can only be poetic. “When the poetic appropriately comes to life, then man dwells humanly on this earth, and then — as Hölderin says in his last poem — ‘the life of man’ is a ‘dwelling life.... Then heaven’s radiant height crowns man, as blossoms crown the trees, with light.’ ” (Martin Heidegger)

In Kenna’s work, dwelling on this earth is not reduced to the active presence of man the builder, to his movements in space, his relationship with nature or the traces he leaves on it. Dwelling on the earth commits man aesthetically. Photography can become the instrument of a theory of the future of the world or a document illustrating a geographical entity, but here photography, itself understood as a space, constructs a world that it shows from many different angles, gives it substance and makes tangible the spatial condition of homo viator. In the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, a person seen from the back hides the landscape that he is gazing at. We see no one in Kenna’s photographs: it is the viewer who dwells in them.

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