Military and Spiritual Practice in the Work of Andrew Jarman and Carol Isaak
The two Drawers photographers whose work is on display this week, Portland natives Andrew Jarman and Carol Isaak, explore different types of ritual: Jarman photographs members of the Oregon National Guard aviation unit performing exercises during training in his 2014 series Hurry Up and Wait, while Isaak documents two distinct religious groups engaged in prayer. Both photographers, although examining disparate settings, question the ways in which verbal and unspoken cues affect ritual movements, investigating harmony and dissonance in transitory spaces.
In Hurry Up and Wait, Andrew Jarman documents the daily lives of the Oregon National Guard. The photographs show visually familiar practices, referencing the tropes of war photography: guardsmen fly planes, crouch behind guns, and scramble over treacherous terrain. However, the lonely background of the stark Eastern Oregon and Washington landscapes, and the complete absence of any enemy, marks the images as clearly not part of the expected narrative of war journalism: no blood stains the guardsmen’s hands, and their expressions often seem more reflective (see “Returning to Biak, Blackhawk Helicopter”) than aggressive. Jarman notes the setting’s transitory nature in the title, stating: “‘Hurry up and wait’ is an expression that was used throughout training when joking about punctuality and preparedness for exercises and courses. Many of the moments I capture fluctuate between two ends of this motto, while sometimes getting stuck in-between.” The images largely exist in this intermediary state, as Jarman also articulates the importance of verbal cues in the military and their omission in these images: “while the physical actions of the guardsmen are distinct, the commands being given and the narrative surrounding their actions are undefined.” Because of this disconnect between the orders being verbalized and the images presented to the viewer, the photographs become more suggestive, gesturing at underlying meanings rather than asserting any singular message.
This is particularly apparent when considered in light of the history of gender relations in US military history. One image, “Firing Weapon, Yakima, Washington,” shows a guardsman aiming a gun into the empty, dry abyss. Bullet casings can be seen shattering in the air in front of him. The phallic symbol of the gun exploding, and the viewer’s position behind and below the figure, imply themes of masculinity and individualism, reflecting the historically hyper-masculine culture of the military and the limitations for women within it. A second image, “Morning Workout,” pictures two guardsmen, one female and one male, together on the empty quad with arms outstretched towards a blank sky. The two figures don’t look to be exerting any effort, and the motion in this moment looks less like a jumping jack and more like a pause between yoga poses; they seem to be involved in some sort of joint ritual. Unlike the first image, this photograph suggests both unity and tension through synchronized, awkward movements, gesturing ambiguously towards the military’s gender politics, but provoking more questions than answers.
This theme of ritual and repose also marks the work of Carol Isaak, who takes portraits of people performing spiritual exercises in a series from 2014. Her work focuses on the religious practices of two different groups: first, Muslims worshipping in Istanbul, and second, Christians during Ethiopian Orthodox Lent in Addis Ababa. Though Isaak notes the differences between the actions of the two groups, the consistent visual vocabulary that she uses seems to collapse the boundaries between them: her fascination with light shapes created by stained glass windows, as well as the layers of texture and pattern in different tapestries, give the visual narrative a cohesion that suggests an even larger practice of spiritual coordination across borders and barriers. “Private Supplication” shows a man crouched on a patterned carpet, with a square of light cast beside him from an unseen window. The light imprint serves as a metaphor for a spiritual presence, especially when both the window casting the shadow and the sun are absent from the image, literally elevated above the figure in prayer. Though the man is alone in his practice, the collection of images of prayer within Isaak’s body of work, and the ways in which the poses of the figures echo one another, suggests harmonious unity. A second image, “Inspired by the Light,” shows two men facing a window, in a richly colored and decorated room with layers of intricate patterns. Electric lights hang from the ceiling, some glowing and some dark, becoming part of the ritual in their arrangement of pattern and repetition. Isaak’s work shows a fascination with what goes unspoken, with the spiritual implications of a series of movements; this dovetails with Jarman’s work, which fixates on what is spoken but remains silent in the photographic image. Both series examine the intricacies of ritual movements, through military or spiritual exercises, exploring the transient spaces between words.