Google Earth as muse for aerial art

Centefire Feedyard, Ulysses, Kansas, a work by Mishka Henner (above).
Centefire Feedyard, Ulysses, Kansas, a work by Mishka Henner (above).PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
Centefire Feedyard, Ulysses, Kansas (above), a work by Mishka Henner.
Centefire Feedyard, Ulysses, Kansas (above), a work by Mishka Henner.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • "There's an absurdity to living in an age when everything is photographed," Mishka Henner, a Belgian-born artist, said recently from his home in Manchester, England, emphasising, in particular, that every square inch of the earth seems to have been photographed and all of it is accessible online - including some of the world's most secret places.

Henner embraces that very absurdity for his own image-making. He is one of a growing number of artists making savvy use of the surveillance capabilities of satellite imaging and Google Street View in work that reflects the way the Internet age has altered people's visual experience.

He takes a lofty view of what he sees as the multifarious activities of man across the planet, swooping down on the tracks of government or industry - United States military sites, say, or feedlots or pump jacks on oil wells.

Seen in wall-sized photographs, these mile-wide parcels of earth become specimens of the human imprint on the global landscape, presented with forensic clarity.

While his subject matter may have resonances of what Cornell Capa considered "concerned photography" - a reference to documentary photographers who use their cameras to inform and change the world - Henner, 39, underscores the way viewers are increasingly conditioned to see the world at a surveillance camera's remove.

"My work is not just about surveillance," he said. "It's also about aesthetics, it's about surrealism."

The projects he pursues, and the patterns of behaviour he identifies, seem consistent with the Dada poet Hugo Ball's definition of art as "an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in". Take, for example, one series that will be shown in Semi-Automatic, Henner's first solo show in New York, which opens on Sept 10 at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in Manhattan.

Called 51 U.S. Military Outposts, it catalogues US military installations throughout the world. Henner was struck by the perversity of so-called secure bases being so visibly exposed. He includes the location of each base by city and country as evidence of its accessibility. His images and artist's books exemplify a challenge faced by museums, galleries and auction houses: How to categorise Internet- based art-making?

His work is "at the crossroads of many different genres or practices", said Mr Quentin Bajac, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who considers it "part of a strategy of neo- appropriation that you find in contemporary photography today with the Internet". He added that Google Street View/Google Earth has been a muse for other artists, including Michael Wolf and Jon Rafman.

The New York Public Library recently obtained an edition of 51 U.S. Military Outposts.

Henner's work has also been acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

He has won an International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Art (2013) and he will be included in Ocean Of Images: New Photography 2015 at MoMA in November, which Mr Bajac is organising.

With the computer screen as his studio, Henner, using Google Earth, pinpoints a site on the map, zeroes in and adjusts the viewing height according to the swath of land he wants to include in the image.

To obtain optimal description, he makes hundreds of screen shots and laboriously stitches them together to make a final image. The photographs appear like drawings on a map, the meticulous detail taking on cartographic precision.

"It was a playful gesture at first," Henner said of 51 U.S. Military Outposts, explaining that he had based the idea initially on Ed Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) or his Thirtyfour Parking Lots (1967), deadpan inventories of suburban banality.

While documenting phenomena is not his sole intent, his work continues a tradition of aerial photography that includes Nadar's balloon images in the 19th century and William Garnett's airplane views of US states in the 20th century.

Satellite and drone photography now provide new visual input to decipher. Think of the recent Pluto drive-by as a wave of the future.

Astronomical, perhaps Henner's most ambitious work, is a 12- volume scale simulation of the solar system in book form that will be included at MoMA.

Though Henner uses the applications of the Internet, his work resides in the real world. Less Americains, one of his on-demand editioned artist's books, tweaks Robert Frank's The Americans, among the most influential photography books of the 20th century.

Here, Frank's pictures are mostly erased, with just enough fragments remaining to identify the iconic images. This Duchampian gesture raises another question about photography in the Internet age: With every inch of the earth seemingly photographed and moments of people's lives endlessly posted on social media, will the photographic canon endure?

"Today the camera is connected to a complex network of software, protocols and online platforms," said Ms Katrina Sluis, curator of digital art at the Photographers' Gallery in London. "When computers are taking photographs for other computers to view and interpret en masse, the role and significance of the individual image has shifted."

Artists such as Henner who rely more and more on the robotic gaze of the Google Street View camera draw people's attention to questions of privacy and surveillance.

Ms Sluis refers to them as "Web archaeologists" navigating an "increasingly computational culture" to find the element of human experience within it. NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline 'Google Earth as muse for aerial art'. Print Edition | Subscribe