Black Box: Gerco de Ruijter At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to Nov. 12 Irrigation: surprisingly transfixing

Gerco de Ruijter, Crops (2012)

In D.C., first-rate exhibitions of landscape photography have been surprisingly common in recent years. But transformative landscape photography? That’s been a whole lot rarer.

In just one four-minute video, though, Gerco de Ruijter offers one.

De Ruijter, a Dutch artist, last year produced CROPS, a video now being looped in the Hirshhorn’s unadorned “Black Box” space (and viewable online at gercoderuijter.com). In it, the artist strings together a seemingly endless succession of still images of pivot-agriculture plots—those perfect irrigation circles you sometimes see while flying over the western United States. The plots are created by a mechanical arm that slowly pivots around a fixed, central point.

De Ruijter is not the first to pick up on the artistic potential of pivot agriculture. About a decade ago, Emmet Gowin gainfully documented a number of such plots using aerial photography, capturing odd, evanescent surface textures that looked as though they’d been spit out from fax machine.

But de Ruijter seized upon this concept, multiplying it a thousandfold. Previously, de Ruijter had sent cameras aloft by attaching them to kites or an elongated fishing rod; now he’s gone tech-forward, scanning Google Earth for pivot plots from around the globe and using video to present them in blazing succession.

The mesmerizing video, set to a crackling, minimalist score by Michel Banabila, surges forward to a slightly nerve-wracking climax. (It’s like a combination of Stan Brakhage’s nonlinear experimental films and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi—cranked up on amphetamines.) The pivot plots, always shown at the same size, seem to stack on top of each other, accelerating incrementally in ways that create unexpected pairings and transitions, always circumscribed by the elegant, inescapable, round outline.

What stands out changes every time you watch. I initially missed a period in which the mechanical arm gently moves as if it were a second hand on a clock, something easy to overlook when you consider the sheer amount of information the video emanates.

Using Google Earth as source material may be a technique on photography’s cutting edge, but one of the most unexpected things about the video is the way in which de Ruijter hat-tips earlier artistic methods. For him, the more archaic, the better.

Sometimes the irrigation arm seems to move in a way that suggests the countdown mechanism that preceded the start of old-fashioned celluloid movies; sometimes the pivot circles suggest an LP, right down to its discernible, grooved tracks. One early segment of CROPS emulates the jittery motion of Steamboat Willie–era cartoons. At the video’s close, the crop circles fade out through the use of the antiquated, shrinking-circle device known as an iris wipe. (Cheekily, the video ends with this small “iris” turning into a copyright symbol.)

One can make the conjecture that the clock imagery comments on the passage of time—or dread. (The shape conjures up iconic nuclear-age artifacts like a watch destroyed at the moment of the Hiroshima explosion and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock.) But de Ruijter would likely say that’s an overinterpretation of his work.

In the past, he’s said, “What is similar in my work and that of abstract geometrical painters is foremost that we do not dish up a story or a deeper meaning. The viewer sees nothing but the image itself.” If that’s true—and his visuals come in such a whirlwind that it’s easy to invent hints that aren’t really there—CROPS still offers a powerful statement. The work’s combination of imagery and sound offers a fulfilling package far beyond its four-minute run time, launching that old medium, landscape photography, into a genuinely new dimension.

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