No Man’s Land
Bonnell Robinson and Dana Mueller are photographers working on related independent projects that combine personal motives with European and American landscapes linked to the two World Wars. The exhibition includes Robinson’s black and white photographs of WWI sites, and Mueller’s color images of German Prisoner-of-War sites in the United States during WWII. At first glance, the images appear peaceful and bucolic, objective landscapes of quiet rural corners. Once the viewer has the opportunity to take in the details, other layers begin to emerge.
T.L. Robinson, Bonnell Robinson’s grandfather, served in the Red Cross from 1917-1919 during the Great War (1914-1918). Inspired by the discovery of her grandfather’s journal, Robinson set out to vicariously experience a point in history that remains largely overshadowed by WWII. Following his journal, she traveled sites along the Western Front in France and Belgium, the Southern Front in Italy, Austria and Slovenia, and was overwhelmed by the expanse of land and visible remnants of battle. She found fields thinly layered with new growth but scarred and rippled from filled trenches. She encountered undetonated shells piled in corners of fields by farmers for disposal, and even an excavation of a British soldier, bringing to life the reality of the war and how it still exists in many people’s lives. Through these quiet images, Robinson reflects on the vastness of a war that claimed a total of 9.7 million people. She hopes these images will encourage dialogue into “why nations engage in war, tolerate it, endure it, and fail to commit to other solutions.”
As an East German immigrant, Dana Mueller addresses German history and the relationship between the landscape and the shaping of national identity. By looking at the WWII German Prisoner-of-War experience in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, she investigates the irony of German foot soldiers and high-ranking Nazi officers nurturing American soil versus the destruction they caused in Eastern Europe led by Hitler. Mueller’s images of fields and pastures relate to the period of Romanticism in literature and the arts in the mid 19th Century, and earlier, that illustrated a longing to return to a pristine, beautiful experience of nature, as an expression of the divine. This ideal was later appropriated by the Nazis and German Fascists, tied to German identity and used as propaganda, relating to the German military policy of Lebensraum.
While the centenary of the First World War is half a decade away and World War II has become an event in the popular imagination mined for inspiration, our current era is also being defined by the horrors of war. Robinson and Mueller’s photographs, far removed from the living action that occurred at the sites, are poignant reminders of what is left after the fighting is done. Far more than the spirit photographs of the 19th Century, their images record the ghosts that continue to haunt, to roam the fields of collective memories and humanity.
Bonnell Robinson is Professor of Photography and Art History at the Art Institute of Boston where she is also the Director of Exhibitions. After having taken a long hiatus from photography to pursue teaching and curatorial work, she began to photograph again in Russia (2003) and Eastern Europe (2004) concentrating on sites associated with critical moments in history. Her current project on the Great War has covered the Western and Southern Fronts (2006-2009) and beginning in 2011, she intends to continue documenting sites in Gallipoli (Turkey) and the Middle East. Her past photographic work has been exhibited at the Fogg Art Museum, Addison Gallery of American Art, George Eastman House, Smithsonian Institution, and the Houston Center for Photography among others. After graduate studies with Minor White at M.I.T. and receiving her MFA at Rhode Island School of Design, she became Assistant to the Curator of Photographs at the Fogg Art Museum and, later, Historical Consultant in Photography to the Peabody Museum and the Widener Library at Harvard University. Her expertise is in Middle Eastern and East Asian 19th Century photography with emphasis on the Beato Brothers and Japanese photographers of the Meiji period. Beginning her teaching career in 1980, Robinson has taught on the faculties of MassArt, RISD, Boston University, and Brandeis University as well as the Art Institute of Boston.
Dana Mueller was born and raised in Thueringia, East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall. She is an Adjunct Professor in photography and art history at the Art Institute of Boston. She received her MFA in Photography from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her work has consistently addressed German identity, memory, history and landscape, inspired by Caspar David Friedrich, Anselm Kiefer and W.G. Sebald. As part of her current project, Devil’s Den, Mueller has photographed sites related to the WWII German Prisoner-of-War experience in the US. Having already photographed in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and parts of the American South, Mueller intends to extend into Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico. Mueller is the recipient of 2009 + 2008 Faculty Development Grants, the Art Institute of Boston, the 2008 Next Perspective 2nd Place – HotShoe International, UK, the 2007 St. Botolph Club Foundation Grant and her work has been exhibited at Rick Wester Fine Art, NY, the Photographic Resource Center, Boston, MA, the Massachusetts College of Art + Design, Boston, MA, the Art Institute of Boston, MA, Bridge ARTFair, Miami, FL, North East Space, New Haven, CT, among others. website.