Unity and Desire in Pato Hebert’s Landscape Photography

 Pato Hebert,  The Oscillator in Tualatin Hills Nature Park  (2014), Archival pigment print, Edition of 5, 26.3 x 39.5 inches

Pato Hebert, The Oscillator in Tualatin Hills Nature Park (2014), Archival pigment print, Edition of 5, 26.3 x 39.5 inches

by Lisa Volpe

In Pato Hebert’s series of photographs titled “In, If Not Always Of,” the costumed figure of the artist inhabits various landscapes. Wearing a head-to-toe suit of reflective paillettes, the figure is captured in environmental performances in a variety of locations around the globe. This intriguing and complex series engages in theories of language, ecology, and psychology. It exposes the division inherent between man and nature, destabilizes this binary, and ultimately mirrors our human desire for unity.

In Oscillator in Tualatin Hills Nature Park, the reflective figure, which Hebert names “The Oscillator,” appears amid the dense growth of trees. Despite its prominent foreground position, the Oscillator is almost unnoticed in the composition. The figure blends into the moss-covered forest, its hunched posture echoing the gently curved branches around it. The light reflected on the paillettes of its suit matches the intensity of the light bouncing off the leaves and ferns native to the Beaverton, Oregon location. In contrast, the Oscillator’s appearance in The Oscillator in Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon is more visibly obvious, yet no less intermingled with the French landscape. The figure lays on the surface of a rock in the center of the composition. Here, the paillettes of the figure’s costume reflect the bright blue of the sky and the blinding white of the environmental light. In this way, the bodily form of the Oscillator seems to disappear, creating an area that is neither positive nor negative, flickering between mass and void.  This trompe l'oeil is in perfect harmony with the environment, emphasizing the juxtaposition of heavy boulders and sharp, empty expanses. In each of the images in the series, the Oscillator is both present and absent, both separate from and part of the environment.

 Pato Hebert,  The Oscillator in Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon,   Archival pigment print, Edition of 5, 39.5 x 26.3 inches

Pato Hebert, The Oscillator in Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon, Archival pigment print, Edition of 5, 39.5 x 26.3 inches

The titular character of Hebert’s photographs provides entrée into an analysis of the work. Visually, the Oscillator is composed of thousands of reflections of its environment. It is both a physical presence and apparitional reflection of its context. Though strongly figurative, the form breaks down. It oscillates. It looks like what it is and what it is not. Notably, the figure of the Oscillator speaks directly to the nature of photography. The paillettes of the figure’s suit emulate the indexicality of photography, with light acting on the blank surfaces to form an image. Yet, the iconicity of the medium is denied; the Oscillator does not always resemble what it is, but comes to resemble its environment. The icon and the index are at odds. In this way, the Oscillator echoes ontological theories of photography itself. As Roland Barthes notes in his famous text, Camera Lucida, “The Photograph [sic] belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both.”[1] In Barthes’s formulation, the image cannot be separated from the photo—paper and emulsion—on which it is printed. The tools of indexicality cannot be separated or peeled away from the image without mutual destruction. The Oscillator performs a similar function. Light and reflections grant it visibility and simultaneously conceal its iconicity. This unified nature—two leaves that cannot be separated—is a leitmotif of the work.

The Oscillator’s name further emphasizes this notion of a duality. To oscillate means to fluctuate between differing beliefs, opinions, conditions, etc. It is a word that connotes a duality or division, but also mediates this divide. In Hebert’s series, the name begins each of the titles: Oscillator in Parco Naturale del Marguareis, Oscillator in Parque Natural Sierra de Huetor, Oscillator in Nationaal Park Zuid-Kennermerland, etc. The artist emphasizes the name again and again in the titles of his photographs, thus hinting at the importance of the figure’s name to his larger concept. In this way, ‘Oscillator’ recalls the importance of naming and its relationship to duality as first articulated by Walter Benjamin.

In the essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” Benjamin persuasively argues that names are critical linguistic signs.[2] Unlike Swiss linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Sassure, who emphasized the arbitrary nature between the sign and the signified, Benjamin posits that naming is always preceded by an act of reception. While language is generally understood as a mere tool of communication, Benjamin insists that naming brings something into our personal sphere of existence by making it identifiable. The ‘mental life’ or ‘meaning’ of something becomes real only once we can name it. However, Benjamin cautions that just as naming can create, it can also divide. He writes, “Within all linguistic formation a conflict is waged between what is expressed and expressible and what is inexpressible and unexpressed.”[3] In short, language creates a frame. The named object is defined by what is inside the frame, in opposition to what exists outside. Benjamin continues his essay by outlining the relationship between man and nature within his theoretical framework. He argues that naming nature has brought about man’s alienation from it. By recognizing it as a separate entity, nature is suffering from “muteness.”[4] It is too defined, too framed. It is not articulated as a foundation from which all things spring, but rather as something set apart. No longer immediately connected to man, it is recognized as something other. Through language, a principle binary—man/nature—is developed and reified.

Ninety-one years after Benjamin’s essay, Timothy Morton similarly discusses the limits of language in understanding nature in Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics.[5] “Nature writing itself has accounted for the way nature gives us the slip,” he notes in his ecological study.[6] Morton argues that the ways in which we have conceptualized and represented nature causes a divide. “The idea of nature,” he notes, “is getting in the way of properly ecological forms of culture, philosophy, politics, and art.”[7]  Through his rigorous text, which draws on poetry, music, art, and popular culture, Morton examines how “environment…is hamstrung by certain formal properties of language.”[8] In the text, Morton examines the concept of ecomimesis, which attempts to blur the boundaries between the human subject and nature through a variety of techniques.

Indeed, Morton’s text was one of the seeds for Hebert’s series.[9]  “In, If Not Always Of” advanced many ideas with which the artist had previously been engaged. Pato Hebert’s oeuvre demonstrates his talents in a variety of artistic media and his thoughtful investigations of issues of space and place, spirituality, geography, collaboration and interconnectedness. His artistic practice is mirrored in his community-based advocacy: leading local HIV prevention programs and organizations dedicating to improving health and human rights for the LGBT community. The twin spirits of unity and collaboration permeate his social and artistic work. 

Though various threads of similarity connect “In, If Not Always Of” to Hebert’s previous bodies of work, this photographic series advances the artist’s investigations of unity by interrogating dissonance. Meditating on the relationship between the figure of the Oscillator and specific physical sites, the artist pursued the idea of ecomimesis articulated by Morton. What would it mean to let go of a given entity of self? What would collaboration between man and nature be? Would it result in a particular type of unity?

Following Morton’s theory of embracing the truth of nature—that it is not a sublime ideal of landscape but an often darker or gritty reality—Hebert seeks specific environments for the Oscillator. The parks or nature reserves in the images are spaces defined and dictated by man. These environments are framed both through physical borders and through language: inside of these spaces is ‘nature’; outside is ‘culture.’ As Morton and Benjamin both note, our understanding of nature is mediated through the closed frames of language or imagery. The presence of the Oscillator calls this framing or division into question.

 Pato Hebert , Oscillator in Nationaal Park Zuid-Kennermerland,   Archival pigment print, Edition of 5, 39.5 x 26.3 inches

Pato Hebert, Oscillator in Nationaal Park Zuid-Kennermerland, Archival pigment print, Edition of 5, 39.5 x 26.3 inches

Within these spaces, the Oscillator destabilizes. As Benjamin would argue, by bestowing a formal name on the figure, the artist forces the viewer to recognize the Oscillator as a subject, to acknowledge its ‘mental life.’ Yet, here is the twist. ‘Oscillator’ connotes fluctuation. It does not fully separate, as Benjamin would theorize, instead it oscillates. Visually, the figure is both what it is and what it is not. It is part of the environment and not. It belongs and is alien. It is man and nature. The Oscillator is evident amid the cottony plants in Oscillator in Parc Naturel Regional des Grands Causses but is nearly indistinguishable from the trees in Oscillator in Nationaal Park Zuid-Kennermerland. It does not ‘emerge from’ the landscape, just as the environment does not ‘consume’ the figure. Just as a photograph cannot be separated from an image, the Oscillator is part of its environment. In its name, in the titles of the photographs, and in the images themselves, the dichotomy man/nature is destabilized.

In testing Morton’s concept of ecomemisis through the creation of the Oscillator, Hebert’s photographic series also advances that theory by making visible its links to psychoanalysis. When aligned with French theorist Jacques Lacan’s ‘mirror stage,’ it is clear that Hebert’s artistic destabilization of the divide between the self and nature and his use of reflective paillettes introduces human desire into the work. Through this lens, “In, If Not Always Of” is not only an attempt to examine the rift between man and nature but also to mediate it.

The emerging notion of a self—separate from the environment—was articulated by Jacques Lacan in his theory called the ‘mirror stage.’[10] According to Lacan, infants have no conception of where their physical body ends; children only know that different body parts produce different sensations. In the quintessential Lacanian moment, the infant sees itself in a mirror and begins to understand its bodily boundaries. In its original German, Lacan uses the words Umwelt (environment) and Innenwelt (inner world) to emphasize the division between the physical world and the self. In the mirror stage, the self only comes into being through an association with an image that is ‘other’ than the self. Simply stated, it understands itself by understanding what it is not. The umwelt and innenwelt become dialectical. It is notable that in Lacan’s original language, he specifies the ‘other’ as environment.

Lacan further developed his theory of the mirror stage by establishing two different modes of looking: the eye and the gaze. The eye represents the rational, conscious way of looking. The gaze, however, is the term Lacan uses for the strange sense that the world is looking back at us. It is not literal, but rather “imagined…in the field of the other.”[11] He notes, “It is a disturbance in the visual field, an unconscious reminder that our position is only partial and that there is always something beyond our control.”[12] For Lacan, we always feel a sense of lack and our desire is always to recover what is missing. The gaze is a visual symptom of this feeling.

Within a Lacanian framework, the aim of art is to regain the unity that was lost in the mirror. Certainly, the images in “In, If Not Always Of” align with this notion. By covering his destabilizing figure in paillettes, Hebert emphasizes the gaze and attempts to reverse the mirror stage. When we look at the Oscillator, it is ‘the other’ looking back. The gaze of the environment is reflected in the suit, reminding the viewer of the divide between man and nature. Through those same reflections, the figure grows indistinct, visibly melding with the environment; thus, the umwelt and innenwelt merge. Psychoanalytic theory suggests that this primary desire for unity and completeness with nature is revealed in Hebert’s work.

Clear in composition and straight-forward in approach, Pato Hebert’s photographs from the series “In, If Not Always Of” are deeply thoughtful and intellectually stimulating. Though engaged in the tricky terrain of language, ecology, and psychology, the photographs effortlessly articulate the primary conceit of the series: man’s separation from nature and our endless quest to bridge that divide.

Learn more about Pato on his Artist Profile.

[1] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, Second Edition (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1982), 6.

[2] Walter Benjamin et al., Selected Writings: 1913-1926 (Harvard University Press, 1996).

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 72.

[5] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Harvard University Press, 2007).

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Ibid., 1.

[8] Ibid., 3.

[9] Pato Hebert, interview with the author, August 23, 2016.

[10] Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” in Écrits, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977), 1-7.

[11] Jacques Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London: Penguin, 1979), 84.

[12] Ibid., 189.