The scariest thing about Mishka Henner’s “Feedlots” photographs is that they are so beautiful. In one photograph from the series, a pool of bright red swirls interrupts a field of greyish boxes. The closer you look, the more you begin to realize that Henner has seamlessly cobbled together screenshots from Google Earth, and that they’re all satellite images of places where the beef industry farms cows for slaughter. As Henner told me of this photograph, you’re basically looking at “piss and shit.”
“That feedlot image is so fucking outrageous and awful that it made me laugh the first time I saw it,” Henner said as we sat with his friend, the artist Jonathan Lewis, at a picnic table at MoMA PS1.
Henner had raised his voice. He was competing with the sound of a DJ and visitors drinking beer that night because the NY Art Book Fair’s opening was in full swing. He continued, “The first time I saw it, I pissed myself in the studio because I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ It’s so horrible, and yet, it nails the meat industry.”
Henner is based in Manchester, England, but New Yorkers will be seeing quite a bit of his work this season. His work will be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s “New Photography” show this November, and he has a solo show at Bruce Silverstein Gallery, in New York, titled “Semi-Automatic,” which is open through Saturday, October 24.
For the MoMA exhibition, he’ll be showing Astronomical (2011), a mathematically accurate depiction of the solar system that comes in the form of a book. Each page represents 1,000,000 kilometers; there are 6,000 pages. Henner calls it his masterpiece. It sounds like it must have taken a lot of work, but he told me all it involved was some math, Google satellite images, and a PDF. “I think the hardest things to do are the most simple,” he said.
When he made these works, Henner said, he didn’t intend to make any grand political statements, just as it wasn’t his goal to call attention to surveillance technology when he made the “Dutch Landscapes,” which also use aerial shots found on Google Earth, in that case to spoof Dutch Old Master landscape painting. These were simple gestures that took on lives of their own.
“I’m not an activist,” Henner said. “If I was an activist, I don’t think I would be putting art on a gallery wall. I would be doing something else…I think there’s a way to open up the doors of perception and reveal things. When art does that, it does it brilliantly…But I think that, in a way, you believe in art because of ambiguity as well.”
In college, Henner studied sociology, which, he said, “makes you look at things a little differently.” He’d never want to give viewers easy images. That’s why parts of the “Dutch Landscapes” are blurred and abstracted. As he explained, “I think the most offensive thing you can do now is show things exactly as they are.”
Images, he believes, have become more readily available than ever, and less meaningful as a result. At times, this has led to humorous work. In 2011, he made a series called “Bliss,” in which he paused newscasters as they spoke about the recession and disasters, took screenshots of moments when their eyes were closed, and printed them, exhibiting the screenshots with backlighting to make them look like screens. “They were talking and saying nothing,” Henner said. “And I thought, ‘Fuck it. I’ll send them to sleep. Give them a break.'”
Henner has also made more straight-faced work. For his “Richtered” series, he overlaid images by Ed Ruscha and Gerhard Richter. Here, Henner is working with previously made images to create something absolutely meaningless. “It’s Douglas Huebler,” he said. “Why put new objects on the wall when there are so many already?”
He continued, “We live in an age when the image is completely unmoored from its original intent and context, constant, always. So you can take two giants of postwar, Cold War artistry from America and Germany and effortlessly combine them… That series is about how we’re fed these images so much, they exist in our minds differently than their original intent might have hoped for.”
The dry, retro humor of works like those in the “Richtered” series no doubt comes from Henner’s love of Conceptual artists. The way Henner mechanically, even obsessively goes about his work begins to feel like how Ruscha photographed every building on the Sunset Strip, or how Huebler took a photograph any time he heard a bird calling.
In particular, Henner loves Chris Burden’s 1973 performance 747, which involved firing a gun at an airplane. All that is left of it is one photograph. “You know the bullet will never reach the plane, but in the picture, it looks like he’s just shot down a 747,” Henner said. “The audacity of fear, man against machine, the individual against the corporate. For me, Chris Burden’s piece is about that—the individual, fucking nobody artist, who no one cares about, who no one’s interested in, really, bringing down an entire corporate system. Imagine that.”