Pratt MFA Photographers Turn Landscapes into Critiques of Power

In his landmark book Landscape and Power, W.J.T. Mitchell defined landscapes as the “dreamwork of imperialism.” Every landscape bears the fingerprints of the hegemonic forces that shape and control it. At Pratt, several MFA students are pushing the envelope of landscape photography — working with this insight, accentuating rather than denying the embedded power dynamics. 

When Ethan Li saw a cringe-inducing billboard in New York’s Chinatown in 2023, he knew he had to respond. The Montreal-based retailer SSENSE placed a billboard that read “You can’t pronounce it, but you know what it looks like” above a Chinese Buddhist temple. Li hired another photographer to take the picture to make a point about commercialism in Chinatown. “My work is about capitalism. I wanted to pay someone to do it,” he explained to Hyperallergic. In the era of #StopAsianHate, the photograph sums up the toxic cocktail of racism, gentrification, and capitalism that perpetuates harm and marginalization. 

Li’s “Private Wasteland” (2024), depicts a far different landscape. Thick mist obscures the ground in the town of Huangkou (黄口镇), Anhui Province, in Northern China, where his family has been buried for the past two centuries. The exact dates are unknown because Japanese soldiers burned the family’s genealogy book during World War II. The artist wanted the title to echo the sense of loss in T.S. Eliot’s book-length poem The Waste Land (1922). In some Indigenous Chinese spiritual traditions, ancestors can be petitioned with prayer. In this way, this graveyard combines the sanctity of a temple with the grief resulting from war and imperialism.

Ethan Li, “Chinatown New York” (2023) (photo Daniel Larkin/Hyperallergic)

Erin O’Flynn illuminates how nuclear waste scars the landscape in upstate New York. Their photograph “Siren’s Shadow (Croton-on-Hudson)” (2023) depicts the shadow of a siren across a patch of grass near the Indian Point Energy Center in Westchester County, about 36 miles north of Midtown Manhattan. This nuclear facility once produced 25% of New York City’s power. Although that site stopped generating power in 2021, its waste remains and requires ongoing precautions, like maintaining 175 sirens in a 10-mile radius.

The siren’s ominous shadow is emphasized by the starkness of the black-and-white image. “I wouldn’t want to frolic there,” O’Flynn deadpanned. For years, National Security experts have been quietly gaming out worst-case scenarios: What would happen if a current or former plant was attacked with bombs? Could a bomb hitting the waste cause a catastrophic chain reaction?

Erin O’Flynn, “Siren’s Shadow (Croton-on-Hudson, NY)” (2023) (photo Daniel Larkin/Hyperallergic)

In Kunwar Prithvi Singh Rathore’s “That’s My Dad, Brooklyn, NY” (2023), the body of an anonymous hookup becomes a kind of landscape. The twist is that the artist covers the anus with a picture of his father from the 1970s. This speaks to how many queer men bring baggage from their relationships with their fathers into their romantic and sexual encounters. “For me, toxic masculinity is about how my father used to tell me this is not what a real man does” the artist told Hyperallergic

His father’s presence is keenly felt on this queer landscape, while a small photo of an unknown person from a family archive covers his own nipple in a close-up photo of his chest, “Close to my heart, Brooklyn, NY” (2023). This latter work plays with notions of anonymity in gay culture. Is it healthy to let people we barely know into our most intimate landscapes?

With this show, Pratt’s MFA photographers reveal the fingerprints on the landscape to coax out questions of race, power, sexuality, and sustainability. 

Erin O’Flynn, “Current Siren No. 101, 102, 103, 104 (Emergency Planning Zone, Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, Buchanan, New York)” (2024) (photo Daniel Larkin/Hyperallergic)
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Kunwar Prithvi Singh Rathore, “Close to my heart, Brooklyn, NY” (2023) (courtesy the artist)

Pratt MFA in Photography Thesis Exhibition: Erin O’Flynn, Ethan Li, Kunwar Prithvi Singh Rathore continues at the ARC Building Photography Gallery at Pratt (395 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklynthrough May 10. The exhibition was curated by Jody Graf.

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