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Brooks Dierdorff’s The Soft Wreckage of Paradise

Landscapes have emotive power; moreover, they reflect and reverberate economic and cultural difference. Brooks Dierdorff examines the complexity of landscape in his series, The Soft Wreckage of Paradise. He deconstructs imagery and material culture associated with the outdoors, from sunsets and leafy paradises to Styrofoam coolers and the eclectic office spaces of public park employees. Moreover, Dierdorff’s use of stock photography reinforces his interest in the ubiquitous subject matter of the often romanticized natural environment. The works belonging to The Soft Wreckage of Paradise raise questions about how and why we represent nature in this age of Anthropocene. In his artist statement, Dierdorff writes, “The human impacts of this [Anthropocene] on the environment, and new relationships with the environment, are evident everywhere yet in many of our available models for visualizing and understanding them are very abstract.”[1]  While his work resonates with a multitude of meanings, the artist interrogates notions of respect and admiration for the natural world. As tangible organism and ubiquitous representation, nature is a part of our everyday lives and as a result we must ask: why don’t we treat it better?

In The Jungle, 2017, Dierdorff presents leafy environs that align with preconceived notions of a tropical paradise. In selecting this type of imagery, he travels territory previously explored by varied artists such as Thomas Struth (German, b. 1954) and Henri Rousseau (French, 1844-1910). Contemporary photographer Thomas Struth began his highly regarded New Pictures from Paradise series in 1998 producing evocative depictions of dense vegetation in China and Australia, and later Latin America. This extensive project resulted from thorough investigation of jungles and rainforests. In 2007, Struth worked nearby, producing images of New Smyrna Beach. The painter Henri Rousseau, working at the turn of the century, also produced images of “paradise.” Rousseau’s Jungle was inspired by the Paris Botanical Garden and the knowledge he gleaned working as a tax collector. Indeed, Rousseau’s constructed paradise, is just the type of paradise that might intrigue Dierdorff. After all, while Dierdorff produces his own images, he is also drawn to the vernacular around depicting nature. He manipulates both found imagery and his own. In The Junglethe sourced photographic image is printed on vinyl mesh—the type of material one might locate at a construction site. Dierdorff states, “The contexts for images of nature have become detached from the image itself. Most images of nature have become empty signifiers, yet nonetheless are ever-present in daily life.”[2]In Jungle, the wood backing references faux façades and staged background imagery. As our natural surroundings are continually threatened, perhaps empty signifiers will be the only tangible remains.

In W. J. T. Mitchell’s “Theses on Landscape,” the fourth declaration reads “Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside the package.”[3]The diverse media, from found objects to video and photography, utilized by Dierdorff in his The Soft Wreckage of Paradise series relate to Mitchell’s recognition of the way in which culture shapes both physical landscapes and material representations of the natural environment. In this particular moment, Dierdorff’s approach resonates as we must urgently consider how we are affecting nature and our ability to ignore this calamitous intervention while simultaneously surrounding ourselves with ubiquitous representations of the “great outdoors.” Dierdorff’s work deconstructs lofty notions of the physical environment and leads viewers to confront their experiences of its mimetic forms.  

-Amy Galpin, Ph.D., Chief Curator, Frost Art Museum

[1]Artist Statement.

[2]Artist Statement

[3]W.J.T. Mitchell, “Imperial Landscape” Landscape and Power, edited by W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 5.

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