The Natural Order
Originally published in Paper Journal, 2014
The systems we use to organise knowledge are fundamental human achievements, but they are also one of the factors that make possible the development of advanced societies, insofar as they enable the sharing of information; within these systems the act of observation becomes a valuable tool, simply because the observations have been ordered purposefully. But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that this impulse took on the character a full-blown mania, driven by a sense of optimism grown out of the intense technological expansion that then appeared to be remaking the world; it instilled a sense of mastery seeming to promise that nature itself would soon be rendered transparent to the orderly (and winnowing) gaze of the sciences. At the heart of this tendency was the belief that the world around us can be defined purely on the level of representation. These points are worth making with regard to Mårten Lange’s series Another Language, not because his work has any real connection to the otherwise simplistic forms of taxonomy, but rather to highlight the way in which our ideas about nature are necessarily accessed through a cultural frame, which in many ways actually creates what we think of as being natural – a basic duality shaping how we experience both. Lange’s pictures are, in fact, poetically compressed vignettes of the natural world, making use of an astringent clarity and a purposefully neutral style to bring out the essential ambiguities of photographic description – indeed, this has been a consistent and rewarding strategy in Lange’s work over the last few years.
His subjects here remain perfectly legible, while the structure that orders such knowledge is being called into question; it is precisely this tension that animates the series as a whole, illustrating an often decisive break between what can be seen and what can be known. Our collective anxiety about the overwhelming potency of nature, which Lange encounters across a range of scales from the crystalline to the monumental, leads us to construct it as a dimension unavoidably opposed to the realm of human culture, challenging our capacity to even represent it in any but the most systematic (and illusory) ways. We are reminded of just how much negotiation this conceptual territory requires in order to maintain a sense of coherence and also the extent to which our own need for these structures actually creates what is ‘natural’ as an artefact of the process. It is something that cannot be fully contained by representation alone. Yet, it might well be the case that such a reading appears at odds with the pictures themselves, which are formally restrained and almost delicate, with a subtle palette of greys and appearing to not make any great claim for the significance of whatever they can (or cannot) show. This very openness is no doubt part of their appeal. But, at the same time, it must also be understood as a conceptual tactic and not just a style, making a point about what can be understood of nature and what must be left absent. The pictures become a way of speaking across that distance, to bridge the gap between these different orders of knowledge. However, this does not happen in a straightforward way: there is a considerable work of translation taking place here. That much is clear, of course, with regard to the pictures themselves, describing these subjects not as they are, but strictly in photographic terms. The fundamental sense of ambiguity at the core of Lange’s work suggests that the language of nature and any we might recognise (or, in truth, impose) will not be compatible. These elements of the natural world appear as the product of an impenetrable logic, one we can only pass around or through, but never fully understand.