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Courtesy of Jöel Tettamanti
Qaqortoq, Greenland, 2004. In Local Studies, Tettamanti writes “They almost fight the nature and climate … I was impressed by the obsession of people staying in a place that is so clearly not made for humans.”
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Joël Tettamanti: Compass Points

Kurtz Gallery for Photography, MIT Museum

Through August 31, 2013

Free with MIT ID

For those of you whose wanderlust is currently constrained by the demands of the academic calendar, Joël Tettamanti: Compass Points is not to be missed. After all, this newest exhibition at the MIT Museum — and the first solo exhibition in the United States for Switzerland-based Tettamanti — is all about travel. Compass Points includes more than 70 works by Tettamanti, shot in locations ranging from the built-up city of Seoul to more isolated communities in Greenland.

The photographs in Compass Points are not grouped together by region, but by other connecting skeins, which adds a layer of complexity to Tettamanti’s work. One wall contains a photograph taken in Nepal, with buildings gathered around a mountainous drop-off; hung next to it are photographs of similarly isolated locations in Greenland, Switzerland, and Vietnam. On another wall, smaller photographs are grouped together in a grid-like format, creating an imagined city made up of buildings from different continents — Chalom, Israel; Vardø, Norway; Necaxa, Mexico; Ayome, Togo.

Despite the National Geographic-type location jumping, however, Compass Points focuses less on the people than it does on the land that they inhabit. When people do appear in the landscape, they are little more than accessories. In a 2005 photo of demolished buildings and crumbling concrete in China, the people sitting in the rubble blend in with the dingy grays, browns, and blues of the concrete. The people in a 34-minute video by Tettamanti are often standing completely still, as if they themselves are part of the landscapes.

Even without a noticeable presence of animate objects in his photographs, the results are far from tame. As villages and cities begin to take shape, so too does the push-and-pull relationship between architectural and natural landscapes. A 2011 photograph of Seoul, South Korea, depicts clusters of city buildings and trees receding into hazy mountains. Two-thirds of a photograph of Tramelan, Switzerland (2008) is white with snow, with houses and other buildings inhabiting a small strip in the middle ground and behind that, snow-blurred forests fading into the weather.

Tettamanti’s smaller scale photographs are just as striking and, at times, unexpected. The shimmering ball of light in a scene of Ilulissat, Greenland (2009) at dusk is not a particularly bright star, but rather a street lamp. A photograph of Zagaya, Niger (2005) has the same eerie stillness of a de Chirico painting, with box-like Adobe buildings sitting in a landscape of blue sky and red dust.

In his book Local Studies, Tettamanti said, “I have no religion, but somehow I think spirit is an important part of my images. Every place has its own spirit.” What is this spirit, exactly? Compass Points invites you to decide.