Michael Lundgren on Deserts

1. What was your first experience of the desert? Were you immediately drawn to it or did it take time to appreciate?

When I was 19 I drove across the United States with my brother and a friend. Although I had spent time in the West I had never been to the desert. I recall driving across miles of farmland and then seeing in the distance these formations of red sandstone. They began popping up out of the sagebrush and soon we were in the midst of what we call here the Canyonlands. We made camp that night at the edge of this immense wilderness of red spires and sandy arroyos. It held a wall of heat. I remember we didn't have any vices with us, barely any food either. But we had a couple pots and pans and a harmonica and we began to make some music, sitting there watching the sun burn its way into the sand. I can still recall the rhythm we found and the quiet curl of the mouth harp as the stars came out.

So yes, I was immediately and irrevocably drawn to it.

2. What's the most memorable time you've had in the desert?

There are so many. The most memorable are often the quiet and uneventful trips - the slow soaking in of the place. And then there are the strange things that can happen. I recall a night a number of years ago. I was camped in the Arizona desert beneath a jet-black volcanic mountain. I awoke at midnight to the sound of rain, yet I raised my hand to a dry moonlit sky. As I lay on my cot the sound intensified, transforming into a metallic thrashing. In the darkness I could see a shape moving across the base of the mountain a quarter mile away. I reckoned it to be about 10 meters long and was utterly convinced it was some mythical creature - a giant centipede with metal legs, gnashing its way north across the desert. Absolutely terrified I waited for it to pass by and then fell asleep.

At dawn, coffee in hand, I walked across the valley floor. With just a little disappointment I chuckled at the dozen or so bicycle tracks and human footprints woven through the creosote. There was no mythical monster but it was a surprise indeed to find that migrants from Mexico were now riding bicycles into the United States.

What lingers in my mind is that both of these experiences - my nighttime vision (belonging to the terrain of ecstasy) and the morning's facts (belonging to the domain of history) - are equally valid.

3. Do you enjoy the feeling of being small and powerless in such a huge landscape? Does the desert make you feel like that?

In a way it does make you feel small. I need that. I need to taste that immensity and the resulting humility - the mystery of it. Otherwise I become too focused on my self. And yes, what power you have can quickly be lost. It's pretty easy to die out there, but you'd be amazed how many stories I hear. Like a friend of mine whose car broke down deep in Mexico - he and his wife, both in their late 70s walked out across 30 km of lava. The thing to remember is that people have been living in these landscapes for 10s of thousands of years. You just have to keep your wits about you.

What we're talking about is one of my themes as an artist - to pursue experiences that contain both beauty and terror and to reflect that back at my viewers. The Sublime.

4. Many people think of the desert as harsh, desolate and lifeless - is that how you think of it?

I remember thinking on that first drive across the country that I was traveling to a place of sand and heat and nothing else. But the truth is, there are as many plant species in the Sonoran Desert as there are in the verdant Eastern United States, maybe even more if you include the desert rivers. The desert is remarkably full of life. There is harshness and desolation but only because it is unfamiliar to us.

5. I heard in another interview that you have a collection of objects you've found in the desert. What are some of the less predictable items?

One of the objects was found walking up a steep hillside. In the dust there was this small hole in the ground, maybe 5mm across. I knelt down and blew the dust away revealing an effigy of a raven with a hole drilled through it. I don't know how old it is or exactly which culture made it. Carved out of black stone, it's about 2 centimeters tall. I normally don't take these kinds of artifacts from their home. Their history is really important to keep intact but I was in a difficult transitional place in my life and for some reason this object called to me. I'll return it to its home soon.

Another is a modern artifact - a medicine bottle with a memory card inside it. At some point there was a fire in the area and it fused the bottle and the memory card together. I find it to be symbolic of the way photography replaces our own memory, our own stories. The visual narrative of the photo album becomes our history. It also speaks to the notion that the photograph fuses the past and the present into a strange contradictory state.

The objects I'm drawn to collect are much like the photographs I'm drawn to make. They should have vastly different stories and multiple layers of meaning. One of the amazing things about the arid desert is that it preserves these complex stories so perfectly.

6. That first object that you mentioned makes me wonder: has your time and interaction with the desert changed how you understand Native American history and people?

Yes and no. The desert itself is full of archaeological signs, from wall art to artifacts, but to me they're largely mute. I'm unable to really understand them and I find that most interpretations are speculative. That's one of the themes of my new work. There's this plethora of signs out there that are unreadable. Makes me wonder what are we going to leave behind?

At the same time there's this other thing that can happen. I recall walking a large stretch of desert in the heat. I sat down under an Ironwood tree to get some rest in the shade. There at my feet were a few fragments of pottery. Whoever left it there a few hundred or more years ago followed the same path. We were both in need of shade and this tree was a thousand years old. So I suppose you learn what it is to be human. You discover these common threads through this large stretch of time, which ends up collapsing the difference between then and now, you and them.

7. When you're out in the desert what's going through your head? What are you thinking about or feeling?

When I'm out there I try to be as receptive as possible. I'm not out there to just make art, but rather to continue a journey. I hope to be in a meditative state, to really make myself available to see and feel the space and its energy. Although I'm in the desert to sort of let go of everything, that's actually not possible. There's culture everywhere, if not just the culture bouncing around in my own head. So it's really a contradiction.

At the same time I'm usually working on a growing body of work and as an intuitive artist I like to maintain a sense of what that body of work has evolved to. What is it about? What does it need? Where are the holes, the unasked questions? How can I expand it visually, intellectually and emotionally? Think of it like a really good album - not one where you only like a couple of the songs, but one where they're all necessary. Where it only feels right to listen from start to finish. The songs are all different in a way but they support the whole. I think the process of making a book of photographs might be quite similar to making an album of music.

8. Is part of the meditative state you're trying to enter reliant on an absence of people? Can you get there with others?

It's difficult to get there with others unless you're all trying for this quiet together. You all have to want to engage the present and then it's easier to get there because there's this collective energy in it. That's why Zen monks practice Zazen together and Gurdjieff students sit and dance together. It's why people go to church, to be a part of something and benefit from that combined intention.

My partner Shauna and I go all of the time. I love having her around. She has a really amazing eye and she's very tuned in to what I'm searching for. My brother Erick as well who is a biologist. We end up sharing our research and helping each other find what we're looking for. There are many traveling companions. We share our places, our new discoveries. But I sometimes have to go alone. Or if I'm out there with others, I have to separate myself for a time. Take a different trail. Drive a different road for a while. I think I make the best work with no immediate on-lookers but it's nice to end up at camp with a few friends.

9. What about that type of music you mentioned? What albums, for you, are ones that must be played from start to finish?

For starters, I'd take Bill Callahan's Woke on a Whaleheart and then I'd follow that with Father John Misty's Fear Fun. And then I'd have to go backwards and listen to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan followed by Billy Bragg & Wilco's Mermaid Avenue and of course Wilco's The Whole Love. And then maybe top it with Tom Waits' Bone Machine.

10. Which arid areas would you most like to visit? Why?

I really want to spend time in Peru, Mongolia, Australia, the Arctic, the Antarctic. And so on. I could go anywhere though and make art. I have become less attached to the desert and have started working in the forest, the mountains and the seaside. I'm interested in landscapes that offer up a collision of histories, both natural and cultural, if you care to separate the two. At this point that's my primary focus.

11. Does anyone's art in other areas - writing, painting, sculpture, etc. - resonate with your desert experiences?

I seem to find more inspiration with influences that are extraneous to my own field, such as the late artist Robert Smithson, the magical realist authors Juan Rulfo or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I also think of the writings of Carlos Castaneda - in particular his book Journey to Ixtlan. It's a remarkable meaningful tale that provided a surreal backdrop for my own desert experiences.

Lately I've also been drawn to histories that delve into the mythologies of pre-Columbian people in the Americas, such as Mayan Cosmos, by Freidel, Shele and Parker, or 1491 by Charles Mann, which chronicles the expanding understanding of these cultures before Columbus. Even better is Frederick Turner's Beyond Geography, a poetic, epic and little known book about the conquest of North America. Or you could read any book by the late Charles Bowden.