The first thing to know about "Catherine Jansen: 1008," a current exhibition at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art, is what that numeral means. A sacred number in Hinduism, it corresponds to the 1,008 names for Lord Shiva. And it happens to be the number of photographs that Jansen included in her artist book, titled simply 1008, which in turn inspired and informed this exhibit.
You needn't know any of Shiva's monikers — or, really, anything about Hinduism — to engage with the exhibition "1008." But you will most certainly leave it in wonderment. Mystery abounds here. Jansen calls it an "experiential, nonlinear journey."
The photographs of "1008," as you might guess, were taken in India. Call it deep India — almost timeless — with not an iota of modernity in sight. To a viewer who has never visited that vast subcontinent, the content of Jansen's images is almost unfathomably exotic. In a city (Varanasi, perhaps?) plaza, a circle of offerings placed around the trunks of two ancient trees dominates the foreground; stone steps lead precipitously up to a building that dissolves into a blur. A naked holy man with dreadlocked hair and ash-powdered skin drapes his penis around a long rod as a snake curls around his body. Cows roam freely in streets. A young elephant trainer shares a sweetly affectionate moment with his beast. Children cavort in packs, faces brightly painted for the spring festival of Holi. More offerings. More holy men. More time-worn, crumbling infrastructure.
With "1008," Jansen creates a montage in which humans and animals share a backdrop of dusty landscape and vivid color, profound spirituality and abject poverty. And she does so without passing judgment.
The Pennsylvania-based artist spends several months in India each year and has been there more than 25 times. Her beautifully packaged book opens vertically and presents seven horizontal photos per spread, top to bottom, with no captions. Similarly, the typical museum wall text for images is absent in the Fleming exhibit.
It appears that Jansen wants us to experience these scenes much as she did initially: happening upon them in her early morning walks, being open to whatever presented itself. For her it was a spiritual practice in this land where nearly everything is considered sacred. This, at least, is how Jansen describes her MO in one of several videos prepared for "1008" by the museum's Chris Dissinger. Ensconced at stations around the gallery, the three- to five-minute videos facilitate a greater immersion into the exhibit's content and Jansen's methods.
But she doesn't spell everything out; "1008" is not meant as a National Geographic-style documentary. Instead, Jansen has found a most extraordinary and intimate way to pull viewers into the images — that is, to make you "[feel] the energy of the place and the experience, rather than just how it looks," as she puts it. Looking at her photos can be disorienting. In one video, the photographer pulls back the curtain on how she achieves this effect.
First, Jansen says, she approaches her subjects cinematically by taking many pictures from every possible angle. (And always, she notes, she asks permission first.) After she uploads the images to her computer, the digital magic begins. Using Photoshop, Jansen "pieces the images together to make the edges go in or out." The effect is akin to a panorama — particularly because her prints are long horizontals. But they lack the logic of a single scan.
In many of the photos, the edges blur, as if from dreams; some seem to juxtapose contents that the mind believes do not belong together. For instance, in an interior scene a young man sits on what might be a bed with an old woman — his grandmother? — while to their left, a calf peers curiously around a curtain. The tiled room beyond it might be for cooking or washing.
What rivets attention in this and many other images are eyes — of human or creature. And that speaks to another technique that Jansen consciously employs. Women, she says in a video, tend to take more close-up images, while men are more inclined toward the broader view of landscape. She surmises it's a vestige of gender-specific hunter and gatherer roles from thousands of years past. But Jansen brings the near and far together in many of her works, producing what she calls "intimate immensities." One example of this is a shot of a holy man she encountered sitting cross-legged in the Himalayas: Bedecked with turban and necklaces, he looks out with an arresting gaze while a sweeping valley falls away behind him.
In what may be Jansen's most astonishing landscape photo, an enormous round boulder — considered sacred, of course — perches at the edge of a sand-colored cliff. Children play beneath it as a goat reclines in its shade. Again, the perfect composition of the shot was happenstance, the photographer says. So was the gorgeous setting she came across one night: a simple offering of natural objects and colorful dyes arranged on stone alongside the Ganges. Overhead, a cloud-mottled full moon bathes the scene in silvery light.
The culminating feature of "Catherine Jansen: 1008" is a veritable offering for viewers: In a gallery room closed off with a curtain, all 1,008 photographs are projected, each for a few seconds at a time, in a continuous loop. Ambient sounds that Jansen recorded in her journeys — men singing, children at play, marketplace chatter — emanate gently from a speaker. It's worth taking your time to sit and absorb this; to meditate, as Jansen has done for so many years, in this strange, sensual and wondrous place.
The original print version of this article was headlined "India Imprinted"