Heavenly places are hard to reach—but how would heaven feel if we ever got there? Boring, maybe, or haunted. A place where the lights were always on, where there was no longer a distinction between inside and outside, between stone and human flesh. And that awful realization would come too: that a coveted place is just a place, and always was.
The American project has always been a paradise-seeking mission: We’re flush with failed utopias, Ponzi schemes, void lottery tickets, and wildly hopeless dreams. And while America in 2022 seems to want little to do with the uncertain and profane aspects of art and literature, these two endeavors—the endeavor to make something called America and to make something called art—share a set of concerns. What is sacred? And where is heaven? Can we get there? And would we even want to? Maybe art and America can’t be friends because they’re too similar; because they step on each other’s toes; because they finish each other’s sentences, and in a bad way.
Shane McCrae’s “Nowhere Is Local” ends with three haunting lines:
Of life it can be is a joy to want
To be dead somewhere is a joy to rest the heart
Let me die here where I don’t want to die
And I thought of that idea often when studying Jenna Garrett’s collection of photographs, This Holy Hill. McCrae’s poem begins in a city, and it’s true that New York is a heaven to some, a place many long to die within, but most Edens are wilder, untamed, an idealized experience of nature (though one could make the argument that a city, too, is an idealized experience of nature).
The predicament of being both separated from nature and bound to it emerges as a subject in Garrett’s world. Repeatedly, the human form is depicted as if it were the same as nature, no better or worse, simply another organic growth. Where does the hand end and the clutched fish begin? One face blooms in the light, dewy as a blossom at dawn, while another face sits like a strange stone on an ancient pile of stones.
Branson, Missouri—a tourist town in the Ozark Mountains—is Garrett’s stage, a place she grew up near and visited often. In Garrett’s eyes, Branson is a place that believes itself to be uniquely blessed by God, an American mecca. The sense of being an outsider on the inside is palpable in the images; then again, everyone’s an outsider in a tourist town. Contradiction pushes against contradiction: even the light—a sense of the interior within the exterior and the exterior in the interior—permeates the series. Landscapes happen across a mattress and the wilderness has been tamed, tidied, turned into a golf course. But whose blood is that? And is that just a burning torch, or is the arm aflame too? Which form is living and which is eating the other?
The Christian concept of heaven has its roots in our banishment from paradise—heaven was on Earth before we betrayed it, or before it betrayed us, or both—so a return to the land, in whatever form that return takes, is a rightful redemption. (Do we dare admit that the trees and grass and creeks could take us or leave us? They don’t even notice we’re here.)
At times it seems we’ve found it—the way, the place, the practice, the person we’ve been looking for, our own heaven, a sense of order, our own kind of afterlife. Heaven is the stuff of myth and mirage, of deep past and far future, but it’s only when you know you’re not in it that you can see how unreachable it is.
The American project is one of many audacities, not least of which is the belief in being regenerate and divinely chosen. And here we are again (still) in that conflict between the sacred and the profane, between the earthly and the spiritual, between America and not-America. (It is a joy to want to be dead somewhere.)
This Holy Hill depicts a few, but not many, human figures. Pilgrims, it seems; devotees of a divine place. Their eyes are almost too difficult to bear. They don’t live with us anymore. They’re not here.