A while ago I mentioned that are ways to extend the meaning of a picture beyond its obvious content. In providing certain clues, which I called “trigger information”, the artist hopes that the viewers mind will do the rest of the work by unfolding new layers of meaning to the picture. Symbols are one of the better known types of such trigger information. Some of them are so strong that we quite automatically expand their underlying meaning in our mind. In the Western world, at least, the cross as symbol for Christianity has such an effect. While, therefore, symbols can be incredibly powerful, there are problems, too.
The first problem I see with symbols is that most of them are bound to a cultural context. The pine tree, as in the picture at the top, has played a big role in Japanese culture as symbol for longevity, endurance, but also for longing. But in order to have this symbolic function, the viewer would have to be aware of these meanings. In addition, a straight stem doesn’t really show these qualities of a pine. In order to really work, the tree would have to show signs of great age, deformed branches and a weathered look.
Symbols, therefore, can be said to limit the audience as they only speak to some and not to everyone. But for me there is an even stronger argument against the use of symbols. If there is any “core agenda” or intention to my work, it is to show nature in a way where we humans are not at the centre of the universe. In this agenda, symbols are part of the problem, not of the solution. Too often already we seem to filter our look at nature by human concerns. Such human concerns can be possible economic and other uses of nature. In using symbols we even more overlay the picture of nature with narratives from the human sphere. If we see the pine merely as a symbol we are talking about these human concerns (like longing), not about the pine.
The picture on the top is part of an ongoing longterm project I call “cloud trees”. Trees strongly interact with the sun and the air. But they are also very exposed to weather and wind, which can threaten their lives at any time. In showing trees against the vast sky, the pictures in the series aim at a representation for a problem all living things have. We (living things) are all small and perishable in a vast universe. This difference between “representation” and “symbol” seems important to me. While the latter superimposes our human concerns on nature, the former shows an example for a common concern for all life. If we can look at the pine with empathy and feel that the tree and we ourselves have something existential in common, I think that would be psychologically a small first step towards a different understanding of the world. This doesn’t mean, though, that the viewer has to “get the story” of the trees as I described. For the picture to “work” it would be sufficient that the viewer can feel vastness and exposure.
Making a picture work in that sense is the task of the artist. In the photo above I play with the sinister and baroque diagonal. But maybe you think the pine should be smaller in order to work with the described intent. Or the slant of the pine just irritates you. Or you just couldn’t care less about trees or clouds. Maybe the photo would be more “accessible” if it would use a cute kitten, instead of a quite ordinary tree. But then I would like us to care about trees more in the way we care about kittens. Ouch, that’s a step hill to climb.