“River Says” is an installation of seven large pigment prints including a poem written in the voice of the river. The pictures are presented on structures that rise up from the floor, hang on the walls, and float overhead, suspended from the ceiling. The text of the poem, “River Says,” is embedded in a photographic image of the surface of the water and printed in the shape of the curving river. It is resting on a support that slants from 24 inches to 16 inches off the floor.
I live 350 yards from the Cannon River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, and have photographed the changes I’ve observed along its banks for 35 years. In the spring of 2019, I photographed on the river’s flood plains, in the backwaters, and along the creeks that flow into it. I took pictures of the river’s edges and surfaces, the flooding that occurred, and the patterns and tracks left in the river’s sand and mud as the water receded. I wrote the poem and made the prints from this body of images in the summer of 2019 in response to an invitation to create an installation for the Northfield Arts Guild’s juried show, We Are Water: Watershed.
The viewers of this work experience a shift in the way they perceive the river. The ambiguous spatial illusions and unusual, disorienting points of view in the photographs rouse the viewer to ask questions. Am I looking up through the surface of the water at overhanging trees above the river or down at a reflection of trees on the surface? What does the river see?
How would it change us and our behavior if we were to empathize with the river as a sentient being? I would like the viewer to form a deep connection to the river and its tributaries, and to take responsibility for the catastrophic damage we have done to our waters. To that end, I portray the river as a living entity with agency. What does the river say? “You make me sick.” What can humans know of its intentions or of its consciousness? Paradoxically, I speak in the voice of a river that is enraged by human projections: “You envy me my unselfconsciousness!/You use me for your transformations. Revelations.”
The voice of the river oscillates between being impassive and impassioned, darkly humorous and grim, sarcastic and finally tender. “If I loved/I would be loving/my otter sliding and plunging./ Deer dipping, spooning, little pink tonguing.” I invite viewers to imagine the unknowable. What is the river sensing? What does the river know? What will the river remember?