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Core Samples

"Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial

Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while "

–Bob Dylan

First off, it should be admitted, at least from this end, that time spent among the various collections and exhibitions at the Utah Museum of Natural History has always been time spent gaining a sense of place. Collectively, these hallways have become pathways along a quite personal journey toward, hopefully, some form of organic enlightenment.

It’s an excursion that, as a whole, has proved to be as muddy as it has transcendental — boots get scuffed and spirits soar. But, every so often, the wanderer needs to come in from the warm and wallow in the wonder of scientific interpretation. Academics need love, too.

Recently, an exhibit of note sang its siren’s call and lured the hungry heart off the beaten path and into that repository of reverence nestled among the granite outcroppings down at the University of Utah. It must be said that these museum folk "package" well one eloquently staged microcosm after another.

On this particular day, the main attraction, the museum’s "hook," as it were, was a large-format aerial photography exhibition entitled "From Above: Images of a Storied Land." Assembled by the Center for Desert Archeology in Tucson in collaboration with the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History, the quite breathtaking exhibition will remain on display hereabouts through May 20.

What makes Adriel Heisey’s photographs so riveting is not so much the majesty of his endeavor — the attempt to convey the historical human footprint upon the Southwestern landscape from a more intimate perspective than has been done previously — but, rather, the tenderness with which his subjects are treated.

In his hands, these are family portraits a recognition of the ancestry of place. Heisey’s overhead shots of ancient and modern imprints left by man upon the earth’s surface have a softness not available in, say, your average covert CIA satellite fly-by printout. There is a sense of linger, of love, of lollygag.

The camera station, the perspective at the moment the shutter is opened, has a lot to do with the unique aspect of his art, of course. And, although each image evokes a story that goes well beyond the aesthetic, these are fine art prints, to be sure. The overriding sense is that these photographs were art before they ever hit the darkroom the stuff of abstraction included in the cellular memory of the finger hovering above the camera in question.

This brings us to his homebuilt, open-cockpit, one-man experimental Kolb TwinStar airplane from which Heisey records his masterworks. Specifically designed for aerial photography, the 450-pound ultralight features an engine and propeller configuration mounted behind the wing so as to allow Heisey unobstructed vistas from which to compose.

Literally "hanging out" the front with feet dangling, Heisey steers the aircraft with a control stick strapped to his leg. This allows both his hands free to manipulate the camera and, when needed, massage frozen body parts. When light and shadow are part of the mix, so, also, are the temperatures of dawn and dusk.

Being able to fly at low altitude at speeds as slow as 35 miles per hour he’s been known to actually "stall" the plane for additional effect — is also an obvious advantage when documenting the actual "flavor" of a site. And that is what these large-scale, full-color aerial photographic images allow the viewer. You are there, invisible, but in place. You can taste and smell and hear and feel the exterior and interior context.

A glance across the large room at, say, the instantly recognizable mesas, ancient roads, and "great houses" of Chaco Canyon are a perfect case in point. Although familiar to the senses, the perspective is totally unique. Step-by-step, additional details of the ancient ancestral-pueblan ritual center become apparent.

You revisit the loop-trek around the excavated and yet-to-be-excavated sites of Alto Mesa as your eyes skirt the undisturbed mounds in a fashion somewhat similar to that performed by your feet during an earlier walkabout. From the height afforded, not to mention the artist’s use of light and shadow, the long, arrow-straight, imprints of ancient Chacoan roads also become evident.

Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl and other, lesser, ceremonial complexes loom as thrust-out chests from the base of the massive cliff-face. These were built to impress, not to house. Space expands and contracts in ritual solemnity. Time follows suit. The absence of sound is deafening. The moment is!

In the sense that a bird might laze upon a thermal until the magic of the instant is well in hand, well, then, you could call these birds-eye views. For there is magic and mystery a-plenty in these overviews of ancient culture that range across New Mexico and Arizona and down below the border.

One particular shot of Pueblo room-blocks in shadow and snow resonates in a fashion similar to those quite sought-after pottery styles made famous on the very same Santa Clara Reservation. Another of a now-overgrown large indentation upon the land maintains echoes of an ancient gaming site where stakes were similar to those of war.

An image of a contemporary graveyard awash in both color and icon and taken from directly overhead subtly hints that the indigenous traditional vocabulary is in good stead. That is not to say that many ancient rituals do not remain cloaked beneath a veil of time.

The visual experience is both shamanistic and, in ways that the revolutionary perspective borrowed from the primitive, cubist. Even in the absence of intent, what goes around, comes around. Visions from above continue to spin yarns played out in ancient, non-linear plot lines.

It’s about Adriel Heisey, his body shivering and buffeted by wind, dangling from his almost stalled ultra-light, while, in the alchemy of insight, he captures an essence that fills his mind with wonder and the space below him with evolving form. He sees them as "images snatched from a dream." The moment and he arrive together. Each breath is nuanced. The cellular memory in a hovering finger begins, almost imperceptibly, to stir.


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