Christine Atkinson documents a
changing landscape in Southern California
By Kate Mothes
It is at night when the world disappears, at least to human eyes, when blackness blankets the landscape and the visible world comes closer and closer before vanishing altogether. Multidisciplinary artist Christine Atkinson brings momentary glimpses back to visible life in a practice focused on documenting the rapidly transitioning landscape of the American West.
In Southern California, where the climate would usually be described as Mediterranean with rainy winters and dry summers, a range of Mediterranean, tropical, and desert plants thrive. Atkinson was once paging through a gardening guide for the region, which listed plants from all over the world, with only one native to the state: Palmer’s Mallow. Its five-petalled orange blossoms seem to emit sunshine itself, surrounded by round, green foliage with lightly serrated edges. “From that moment I fell into a rabbit hole of trying to understand where I was living, why it looked the way that it does and what the aesthetics of that landscape meant,” she says.
Famous for its enormous, congested highways and sprawling suburban neighborhoods, Los Angeles is remarkably close to expansive wilderness—one that constantly encroaches on residents’ sense of comfort and control in the city, despite gated driveways and fenced lawns. “We live close to Griffith park and have had bobcats and mountain lions in our neighborhood,” Atkinson says. “About twenty minutes away, in Glendale, they have had black bears wandering around, not to mention the normal packs of coyotes that live in many neighborhoods.”
Atkinson is interested in the intersection of city and the wild; the lengths that humans have gone to in an attempt to control natural forces, such as the paved Los Angeles River. “The Glendale narrows are a section of the L.A. River where the river bed was unable to be paved. So you see the edges which are paved and in the center is a remnant of a real river.”
I fell into a rabbit hole of trying to understand where I was living, why it looked the way that it does and what the aesthetics of that landscape meant.
Los Angeles is equated with urban sprawl and cars and everything terrible about cities, and it’s true. The other side is that the L.A. Basin was a paradise. In fact, it was billed at the beginning of the previous century as the city where you could come and live close to nature.
Atkinson takes a dual approach to documentation, influenced by the aesthetics of objects and materials such as a palm frond or birds of paradise that have been regularly incorporated in interior decoration and art for centuries. A palm frond can exist as a simple aesthetic element; a dried, inert piece of material in any environment is still a dried, inert piece of material. “The other side of this conversation, the one about the functioning ecosystem, was much more complicated for me,” Atkinson explains. “I didn’t want to bring any of these materials into the studio; they always felt too precious and too important. They belonged to other things and not just to me. Photography became the perfect way to have this conversation.”
Photography’s inherent use of light to capture fleeting moments, and the fragile chemical interactions necessary to produce tangible documentation, became central to the artist’s approach—a way to record plants and environments that themselves are fleeting. “The fragility of the subject is built into the medium. The way that the plants are photographed at night (or an implied night) lit with a single flash creates a language of something being documented and recorded because it is disappearing,” she says.
The way that the plants are photographed at night (or an implied night) lit with a single flash creates a language of something being documented and recorded because it is disappearing.
As climate change continues to impact seasonal shifts and weather patterns around the world, California has seen an increased number of wildfires over the past few years. Thousands of fires occur in the state every year, on average sweeping over one million acres annually. In fact, the ten years with the most acreage burned have all occurred since 2004, and increased temperatures will continue to increase the intensity of fires and threaten vulnerable ecosystems. A series of 5 x 5-inch cubes called “Fragmentation” is redolent of mineral blocks carved from the earth, made of salt and burnt debris from wildfires, as if the ash is being cured.
Atkinson’s works highlight a certain way of looking at the climate crisis: an up-close encounter and an unknown beyond. Scientific study and statistics present one way of looking; the artist’s images and sculptures present another way of perceiving, crystalizing moments in a transforming environment. It is impossible to see beyond the present; the future is a metaphorical kind of darkness. As her research has continued, she often reflects on the nature of our impact on the natural environment and our attempts to contain, corral, or even eliminate it. “It’s hard not to look at the river and think, ‘What the fuck have we been doing?'”
You can see more of Atkinson’s work on her website and on Instagram.
All images © Christine Atkinson, shared with permission.