TERRARIA GIGANTICA: The World Under Glass
Photographs by Dana Fritz
Essay by Carrie Robbins
Introduction by William L. Fox
Epilogue by Rebecca Reider
University of New Mexico Press, 2017
Review by Lauren Greenwald
Vivarium (pl. Vivaria) – an enclosure, container, or structure adapted or prepared for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation or study or as pets; an aquarium or terrarium.
In her new monograph, Terraria Gigantica: The World Under Glass, photographer Dana Fritz presents a world as fantastic as the title implies - the exotic world of giant vivaria or terraria. But unlike the modest sounding spaces the definition above suggests, these worlds under glass exist on a mammoth scale. In her series of the same name, photographed from 2007–2011, Fritz explores three man-made ecosystems, the largest enclosed landscapes in the world. The Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Nebraska, houses the Lied Jungle, the largest indoor rain forest in the United States, and the Desert Dome, the largest indoor desert under the largest geodesic dome in the world. Biosphere 2, in southern Arizona, contains a variety of ecosystems within a 3-acre enclosure, including a tropical rainforest, mangrove wetlands, a fog desert, a savannah grassland, and an ocean habitat. And the Eden Project, in Cornwall, England, is the world’s largest indoor rain forest (and the world’s largest enclosed landscape), built in a former China-clay pit as a model of land reclamation and sustainability. All of these environments were created as a way for people to experience landscapes from elsewhere, and they all serve the three ideals of research, education, and conservation. In her preface, Fritz writes about her early inspiration for the project, “My focus was on the curious original landscape design of the biomes, especially where illusions from the natural world had been incorporated into what was essentially a research facility.” Millions of people experience these constructed landscapes every year, and these sites draw from a complicated history, from the 19th century mania for collection and exhibition, including the spectacles of the World’s Fairs of the 19th and early 20th centuries with the colonial legacy these suggest, and the development of the zoo from an institution meant to catalogue and display to one dedicated to creating “hyperreal, immersive environments.” She also writes, “These architectural and engineering marvels stand as working symbols of our current and complex relationship with the nonhuman world.”
In this book, a selection of 44 photographs introduces the viewer to a new kind of environmental photography, interior views of exterior spaces, images that at first seem straightforwardly documentary but slowly reveal a probing, investigative, and questioning nature. In a recent conversation with Ms. Fritz, we discussed, among other things, how she originally envisioned this book. She told me that she wanted this book to be “all about the pictures and ideas.” And it is that. This is a beautiful picture book; oversized, 12.5 x 10.5 inches, and the layout is simple – one large image per page, allowing the viewer to focus on each individual photograph as they turn the pages. The printing, the quality of the color reproduction, is excellent. So much so many of the colors seem too bright, hyperreal, and it is difficult to determine which elements are painted sets and which are live vegetation; what is real, and what is true. This tension between the real and the fabricated is palpable, and the physical construction juxtaposed with the natural elements in the images heightens this effect.
The disorientation is further enhanced by the image sequence; it moves from one location to another, with no titles accompanying the images to identify which space we’re viewing at any time. But there is a motion to it, a wave almost, as it seems to flow from the moist and green jungle and forest to spare and thorny desert, then back again to the rain forest. The level of artifice depicted in the photographs ebbs and flows, back and forth, as well. As we bounce from Biosphere to the Desert Dome to Eden, it’s like being in a game of Where’s Waldo; find the background, pick the place, reveal the wizard behind the curtain. Fritz was often photographing these environments from public access points. She observed that these environments are really designed illusions, and the visitor sees this fabricated view as long as they follow the designated path. Fritz, on the other hand, went against the flow, moving backwards, taking the reverse path to find different views.
In many of the photographs, there is an unsettling illusion of deep space, and in looking at them I try to reconcile what I know – this is an enclosed space, with a wall, a painted background on the other side of those vines – with what I see – an ominous passage through the mist and hanging vines. Real forests and jungles have a density to them, and in them an overwhelming sense of time, of age. It takes time for plants to grow, and for layers of detritus, dead leaves, moss, mold, to accumulate. The images in this series where we see the living organisms taking over the artificial environment are striking – moss invades painted surfaces, condensation drips from glass, rust creeps across metal. There most compelling images, for me, are the ones in which these small details pop up, quirky juxtapositions happen, and the line between real and artificial is increasingly difficult to comprehend, in either direction – a huge exhaust pipe coated in green slime almost becomes part of its surrounding jungle-scape, a rainforest seen through a plate glass window becomes elaborate wallpaper when glimpsed on the other side of a turquoise Formica table set with eye-catching red ketchup and yellow mustard bottles. An innocuous scene of a shovel in gravel leaning against the concrete wall of a building is invaded by a bright green tendril of ivy snaking underneath a tightly closed door. I’m reminded of that quote from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”
Silly movie references aside, as noted earlier, this is a book about ideas as well as pictures. In addition to her prologue, Fritz enlisted not one but three writers to contribute texts. I think having an essay or introduction by someone other than the artist is important and can provide critical insight into the work. The art critic Dave Hickey was fond of telling his students that we, as artists, are the worst people to write about our own art. There’s some truth in that. And while Fritz’s insightful prologue is proof that some artists do write beautifully about their own work, she also produces a wonderful complement to her imagery with three excellent pieces of writing, each offering a slightly different take on the work.
William L. Fox’s Introduction places us in the human era, the Anthropocene. He charts a brief history of landscape photography and its evolution in response to the different stages of this era, as our use of and relationship to landscape and artmaking have changed. Landscape, and nature, have become increasingly constrained and controlled. He writes, “In photographing these artificial and enclosed systems, Fritz is imagining how we have brought the outside inside at a massive scale enabled by late twentieth-century technology. She keeps us aware, through careful juxtapositions of the architecture and infrastructure–with their enclosed plants and animals–that we are operating in a scripted theater.” But these systems are flawed, and for all of our accomplishments in constructing these behemoths, they trick us into thinking we can preserve the natural world. Fox provides another, cultural take on this, reminding us that “sealed environmental replications” are a popular setting in science fiction. “These fictional displacements of terrestrial ecosystems into outer space propose that we can engineer arks that survive … As a result, we have difficulty separating the engineering realities from a widespread cultural trope that presents the domes as devices of salvation for humankind as Earth’s biosphere is threatened by global carnage.”
Carrie Robbins’ essay, titled The World Under Glass: Dana Fritz and the Photography of Terraria, focuses on the development of this project, and how the ideas of nature and culture return again and again in the work. In an earlier project, Fritz “attends to human efforts to train, repair, or otherwise control the growth of plants. At this point in her thinking, insofar as she understands human beings or culture to operate on nature, we can see the ways in which the terms “nature” and “culture” are somewhat dichotomously fixed in opposition to one another.” She later describes Frtitz’s motivation to seek out the various vivaria photographed for Terraria Gigantica as “…in search of a clear line between nature and non-nature...”
Robbins analyzes in detail several images from the series, particularly focusing on seams, divisions, horizons both real and imagined, marks, and the ambiguity of the illusion perpetuated within these spaces and the photographs. One particularly fantastic passage explains, “One layer of illusion vibrates against another. Rather than insisting that these layers of illusion be readily discernable from one another, Fritz allows them to oscillate back and forth for us, demonstrating the entanglement of nature and culture within these types of environments.”
Finally, with the Epilogue, Rebecca Reider returns to the concept of the garden as manifestation of the state of society and humankind’s place in the natural world, or at least the way we perceive it to be. She writes, “But these megagardens are not just depictions of nature itself. More quietly, they are also mirrors of a society–windows for viewing our place (or lack of place) in that natural world.” The creators of Biosphere 2 were supposedly fond of saying, “We are all biospherians.” The residents of that ecosystem, having existed in a moment of the compressed space and time, are the echo, or the reminder, of the burden on all of us biospherians (those of Biosphere 1–Earth) to survive together, dependent on “a world of plants, water, and soil.”
These essays make me, as reader, question how I see these images, and how I view these issues. William Fox writes, “Fritz makes it possible for us to understand how necessary it is to constantly consider the zones between what we think is wild and what is domesticated, between natural and cultural.”
Considering the many ways in which we view and categorize our environments, I find it compelling and a little disturbing that the final spread of the book focuses on the cage-like superstructure of two of the sites – one is from the Lied Jungle, the other from Biosphere 2. An image of a gridded ceiling reflected in a body of water, perhaps a mere puddle or maybe something more substantial, is paired with an enormous barrel-vault expanse of an empty, apparently unfinished structure. Through its glass walls, we see a succession of other domes stretching off into the distance. While they remind us of our technological prowess, they suggest a complicated and uncertain future. In the conclusion of her preface, Fritz writes, “The visual richness of these small details leads to big questions about what it means to create and contain landscapes. They ask us to think about our interactions with and attitudes about the nonhuman world. They ask us to consider whether these spaces supplement or replace experiences outside. They ask us to reflect on the distinction between the natural and the artificial and to contemplate nature’s future.”
This book, and the images and essays within, creates a wonderful point of entry into the contemplation of these ideas. It’s worth stepping into this world and staying a while.
All images © 2018 Dana Fritz
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, South Carolina.