And when we came down from the mountain

Kara Springer, Judith Mae, part one, 2023. Because I come from the earth’s inside, 1 Dec 2023 – 24 Feb 2024. Cuchifritos Gallery, New York. Photo: Brad Farwell.

What is perhaps one of the longest running jokes in Lebanon is that you could go swimming and skiing on the same day. The mountain range’s proximity to the Mediterranean sea has always been something of a selling point—especially in the wake of the ending of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), when the Lebanese government all but capitalized on the sea’s closeness to the mountains to invigorate the local economy and boost the tourism industry. But for those of us who lived in Lebanon, the mountains had a far greater significance. It’s where we sought refuge from the country’s intermittent armed conflicts—which almost always struck the capital, Beirut—and where we hoped to find some semblance of stability. In July 2006, during the Lebanon-Israel war, my family headed to our mountain home to seek shelter from the heavy bombardment on Beirut, which would claim the lives of over a thousand people. It was a small apartment, just under 90 square meters, which we shared with family friends that month, and the nine of us would gather and watch the violence unfold on our television with great dread and crushing relief (we were alive, after all)—in a way that is eerily reminiscent to the devastating violence we are all bearing witness to in Gaza today.

Mountains, Kara Springer reminds us, form where two continental plates collide—they crumple and fold until rocks are forced up to form ranges of mountains. Mountains emerge from the earth—the very earth that holds and protects us; the earth we bleed and sweat and shed our skin into; the earth that holds our bodies when we die. The earth we walk on and build on and rejoice in and commit atrocities on is the same earth that embraces our ancestors and our histories. The earth is sacred because of those whose remains and memories it preserves, one might say—and not because of the living. Springer’s recent body of work reflects on this very earth— the ways in which we are connected to it, and the ways in which it connects us to those around us[1] . We are made to confront this earth through close-up scans of ceramic slabs and fired clay, which are presented on their own in some instances, and paired with archival family photographs in others.

That Springer chooses to work with clay, here, is no accident. Clay comes from the earth, usually in areas where streams or rivers once flowed. It’s made from minerals, plant life, and animals—all the ingredients of soil, and all of which give clay its rich and unique texture, which allows us to mold and shape it—the same way our family molds and shapes us, and we mold and shape them.

Working with clay is no easy feat. You need just enough water to give it the right amount of plasticity to work with—but too much water can make it collapse onto itself. If your hands are warm enough, you’ll be able to work through it beautifully, and just like kneading bread dough, it’s a labor of patience and love. Different conditions will yield different results, and every part of the process matters. Once clay is fired, it solidifies; it hardens, and you can no longer mold it. But this seemingly robust state is coupled with immense fragility, and it is this very solid state that also makes fired clay easy to break. You have to pay a great deal of attention to it and handle it gently, even affectionately—it will not last long otherwise. The care that goes into working with earthenware is not unlike the care that goes into looking after our own.

But something else is going on when Springer pairs images of fired clay with archival photographs of her mother. She references our intrinsic connection to the earth through this very clay, yes—but she also underscores the lineage of women in her family through her connection to her mother and her daughter, both of whom feature in this exhibition, though in different works.

In Judith Mae, part one (2023) Springer superimposes scans of fired clay onto an old photograph of her mother, covering parts of her face. The work consists of seven identical images, each placed in a lightbox, all of which are connected and synchronized in real-time to a sensor worn by Springer. The lightboxes brighten when she inhales, and dim when she exhales, with the artist literally breathing life into the work—into the same woman who brought her to life. Breathing does keep us alive, and for most of us, it happens organically, effortlessly. But here, Springer is also asking us to consider the criticality of our breath; the ways in which it can be a chore, and those instances when we are acutely aware of the air’s presence (and absence)—during the labor of childbirth, in instances of illness and fatigue, but also those instances when our bodies are subjected to violence and brutality.

The self is admittedly present in Springer’s more recent body of work, in which images of her, her mother, and her daughter all come into view. Though Springer’s photographs feature the women in her family, we see fragments of ourselves in them, too. I see myself, and my mother, and my mother’s best friend, and the neighbor across the street whose name I can never quite recall. Here lies a central provocation of Springer’s work—what are the ways in which we are all connected, both to the earth and to one another?

Even in instances where the self is seemingly removed, Springer manages to beautifully interweave resilience and vulnerability. In The Shape of Mountains (2023), she reflects on the legacies of colonial struggles by looking at mountains as sites of refuge and resistance. Here, too, the artist employs close-up scans of fired clay, evoking the very earth from which mountains emerge, but also the ways in which familial and colonial histories are inherently connected. But unlike Judith Mae, part one’s intimately-scaled photographic prints, The Shape of Mountains looms large, with the delicate rice paper prints hanging from a wood structure, draping gracefully and impossibly close to the ground, though not quite touching it.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Jamaican Maroons, communities of escaped enslaved Africans, ran away from their Spanish-owned plantations when the British took the Caribbean island of Jamaica from Spain. Relying on their knowledge of Jamaica’s mountainous terrain, they made a home out of the mountains, where they lived as free men and women. That these communities used their intimate knowledge of the land to free themselves from the same captors who were trying to claim this very land is nothing short of poetic justice. Springer’s exhibition title, Because I come from the earth’s inside, is here to remind us of that. These words are taken from a poem by Audre Lorde, titled “Coal” (1968), which meditates on land, the metaphorical potentials of blackness and malleability of form.

And just as the earth holds the dead, it also protects the living. But more than anything, it bears witness to the violence, both visible and immaterial, that unfolds on its surface and which is inevitably inscribed into its core, reminding us that the personal and historical scars that we carry are all but reflections of the scars we have etched onto the earth.

Written by Beirutbased writer Muriel N. Kahwagi on the occasion of Kara Springer’s solo exhibition Because I come from the earth’s inside at Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space.