Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group)


By Lisa Tamaris Becker


“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.


It is geography at bottom, a hell of wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story (Parkman’s): exploration.


Something else than a stretch of earth – seas on both sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man was becoming in Colombus’ day. That made Melville’s story (part of it).


PLUS harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquackes but big tornadoes and hurrikans, a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood. “ 1



The sublime space of animate and inanimate material presence¾the dominion where science, art, nature and culture intersect¾this is the locus in which John Roloff constructs his finely tuned visual investigations. It is the same sublime space referenced by the influential American poet and literary critic Charles Olsen in the passage above, where SPACE is characterized as the engine that drives American identity.2 Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group), Roloff’s installation in the exhibition, JOHN ROLOFF: DISPLACEMENTS, seeks to extend the ongoing discourses of spatiality, minimalism and conceptualism beyond their previous limits, reinvigorating investigations of the sublime. Consisting of arrangements of three seemingly disparate displaced elements, Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group) probes at the boundaries between the scientific and alchemical, industrial and natural, digital and analog, transmuting conventional spatial and material relationships. At the core of this poetic examination of both nature and science lies a vast photograph of an indigenous Floridian tree, spanning more than 40 feet, which Roloff has transported via digital and conventional photographic processes to Wisconsin. Both altered and stretched before printing and inverted by placement, the photographic construct begins on a tilted plane emanating from the gallery wall. From this plane it flows out gracefully like a river delta into the space of the gallery to create an encompassing yet fluid field. The immense central trunk of the tree branches into a system of limbs and arteries, while the silvery tree canopy spills out across the floor as if it were a pool of liquid matter capturing a reflected image. Unlike the more conventional art-viewing experience in which the photograph is seen frontally, here the viewer is invited to walk around the periphery of the photograph, and is drawn into a very different relationship with the primeval tree image.


Flanking this huge arboreal expanse are two stacked conglomerates. One stack is comprised of glass vitrines containing striated cubes of living moss gathered from Massachusetts and California.  The other is stacked slag and sprues, discards from the iron-casting process of Wisconsin industry.  Both the moss, which is one of the oldest plant forms on earth, and the iron, with its reference to the earth's molten central core, evoke the primeval and address Roloff’s interest in transforming the gallery into an experimental space hovering between the worlds of the scientific laboratory and the forest.


For more than 20 years, Roloff has been deeply engaged with a broad metaphysical and macrocosmic perspective in which the alterations of nature by human culture through industrial processes, agriculture, architecture, and urbanization are not readily distinguished from natural cycles if seen with more geologic distance. Throughout his works, Roloff investigates the poetics of geologic awareness through site-specific installations, performative kiln-firing projects, photographic manipulations, and more recently conglomerate installations which address geologic and evolutionary memory. Jennifer Crohn writes of Roloff's work, "Instead of anthropomorphizing nature, Roloff allows it some distance from human importance, placing human industry, life, and death in the same category as the evolution of species of flora or bodies of water and land." 3



Also crucial to understanding the methods and meanings of Roloff’s work is the notion of “the nomadic.” Theorized in the seminal text A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by French Psychoanalytic philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “the deterritorialized nomadic” has come to the fore of linguistic, anthropological and ecological theory  to challenge  linear and even circular concepts used to describe systems of change, influence and movement.4 Roloff’s installations embody this notion of “the nomadic” as they join site-specific elements with components collected and used in several locations. Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group) includes moss collected in both Massachusetts and California and previously incorporated Holocene Terrace installed in New York City. The moss in Holocene Terrace was presented as a living surface covering an 18 x 6’ plane contained within a huge vitrine. After its dismantling, this moss was carefully cut, stacked and packed into boxes and stored for a future purpose.


For Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group) the moss was presented in a cube configuration, layered much-like geologic strata accumulated over thousand’s of years.  The cubes were placed in a stack of three aquarium tanks previously used for a Florida project titled The Rising Sea.  For Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group), Roloff insisted that they remain uncleansed, leaving the residue of their previous contents as nomadic/aesthetic memories of another time and place.  Thus, Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group) references the continual movement of ideas, people, industrial products, and minerals across great expanses and also fuses the image of a “Floridian tree,” with industrial iron remnants from Wisconsin.. 


In an interview with the artist about his interest in geologic dislocation, Roloff described the truism that any point A on the surface of the earth can be linked with any point B if seen with enough geologic distance.5  For example, plate tectonics, continental drift, and sea-floor spreading represent forms of nomadism on a global and geologic scale, paralleling the movement of materials associated with industry.  The horizontal structure of the tree photograph and slag unit in Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group) echo the idea of horizontal geologic movement, as these units resemble “terranes” (separate units of land formed elsewhere and brought together by plate tectonics and the process of accretion).



The Deterritorialized Moss

Roloff’s juxtaposition of “the tree image” with that of moss, is in itself profound in its multiple meanings. While “the tree” is classically linked with the Kabbalistic “Tree of Life,” the moss conveys a “deterritorialized” alternatively generative system, able to exist dormant under great periods of stress and reproduce through both branching and fragmentation. Mosses reproduce by regeneration from tiny pieces of leaves or stems, and by the production of spores. The spore, under favorable conditions, germinates and grows into a branching, green thread (protonema). [i] Like the orchid or the “rhizome” also theorized by Deleuze and Guatarri as an archetype of the nomadic, the moss symbolizes an indestructible, persistent, nomadic identity which can endure rupture, fragmentation, and dislocation by utilizing a system of reproduction far more ancient than even that of a tree, in fact, moss is known to have been in existence since the Permian period (286 to 245 million years ago). It is often thougt to be co-dependant upon a tree, appearing in shady wooded areas, its survival strategies, which include periods of dormancy, make it a persistent and indestructible species despite its seemingly small size. The cubes of moss on view in, Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group)  though still largely an emerald green color, were stored in boxes for many months, without moisture or light, before being exposed for viewing.


The Digital and Analog Presence of the Tree

Unlike Deleuze and Guatarri, Roloff does not position the image of the tree in opposition with the image of moss. In Fact, Roloff’s tree also becomes linked with ideas of the Nomadic as its is transported via digital and analogic photographic processes across space and time from its original site in Florida to the white-walled liminal space of galleries across the North America. In fact, the centrality of the tree image within his recent body of photographic works links Roloff’s project to the lineage of “The American Sublime Landscape” of the 18th and 19th century, including the luminist paintings of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Martin Johnson Heade. In these paintings “the tree” took on a religious “father figure” presence and the implied destruction of the virginal forest and its trees became a symbol of patricide. In contrast with these depictions of patricide Roloff chooses to focus on the persistence of the tree as a geologic reality and as a symbol of enduring presence in the human psyche which connects humanity to its ancient past. Roloff does not position technology as a destructive threat to the tree, but rather capitalizes on the power of both analog and digital processes to amplify what he describes as “the geologic” presence of the tree. Using traditional or analogic photography including wide angle lenses, to transfer an image of the tree first to a transparency, he then scans his tree image to magnify, amplify, stretch and exaggerate, “the hidden strata” within the tree bark and branches.  The branches are morphed just enough to resemble systems of sedimentary flow, implying both liquid and solid movement.  Its exaggerated bark also takes on a resemblance to the drooping and wrinkled surface of ancient skins, such as those of an elephant or rhinoceros, linking us to our evolutionary memory of ancient mammals.


In a series of related works, known as “Landscape Projection for an unknown window #1 - #5 (see page ?) Roloff digitally manipulates images of palm trees and redwoods even further to construct baroque frame-like compositions that surround white voids. These elegant photographic compositions address the classical dialectic of presence/absence and liken the baroque presence of the trees with that of the architecture in which the framed voids are positioned.


The Holocene Epoch

The title of the project Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group) points to several other references of crucial importance within Roloff’s complex visual lexicon. Not only does the title link his project with previous projects in New York and Florida, such as Holocene Terrace ( see page ?) and The Rising Sea, but “Holocene,” a term from geology refers to “the recent epoch” or “the younger of the two epochs that comprise the Quaternary Period, and the latest interval of the Earth's geologic history. The Holocene Epoch follows the Pleistocene Epoch, and it constitutes the last 10,000 years to the present.” [ii] Evoking the present as embedded within a vast expanse of time, Roloff’s installation focuses the viewer on a much vaster time frame than that of the day-to-day. The incremental flow and movement of time across the huge expanse of “the Holocene” focuses the viewer on the fact that all of life as we currently know it, is part of a much larger, 10,000 year post-glacial stage, characterized by relatively warm climatic conditions.


All That is Solid Melts into Air

Though the above quote “all that is solid melts into air” is among the most famous lines from Carl Marx’s great manifesto, it is derived from a language of the alchemical, long used in both Western and Non-Western paradigms to explain forces of change and flow. Written at the cusp of the Industrial Age, Marx used the term to describe the great processes of historical and cultural transformation which he both witnessed and facilitated in his description of a Feudal agrarian society transforming into an urban/industrial society. Roloff similarly uses metaphors of the alchemical to address both geologic and cultural transformation. Alchemical images abound in both Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group)  and in Roloff’s previous body of works, which have included a long series of ship images and projects centered around material transformation. The slag and cast-iron sprues of Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group) with their references to the great crucibles/blast-furnaces of the iron factory embody the very concept of alchemy in which minerals are transformed through forces such as heat into new materials with distinctly different attributes. Some of the slag used in Holocene Fragments  (Black Water Group) appear like immense chunks of black diamond, created alchemically from mere iron, reflecting dark light and emanating a jewel-like iridescence across their surface. Other softer lava-like chunks of slag take on a resemblance to volcanic flow evoking the great forces within the earth’s surface. The notion of the alchemical is also ever-present in the photographic processes which Roloff harnesses, where “salts” are literally bathed in light and alchemically altered to reveal a previously non-existent image.


Roloff’s fascination with alchemy runs throughout the thirty year history of his artworks and is perhaps most evident in his preceding and related body of kiln sculptures which harnessed the forces of great heat and vitrification as an alchemical process that could be witnessed by an audience.


Having spent his early childhood on the coast of Oregon and his later teenage years in the Great Sacramento Central Valley of California, through which flow the Sacramento and American rivers, Roloff was influenced early on by the presence of oceans and waterways and the industries they support.  He began his college education at The University of California, Davis with the intent of pursuing a degree in Marine biology. Realizing, however, that his interest in the sea, and the immensity of geologic time, went beyond the merely scientific and that through explorations in the field of art, he could pursue both an emotional, alchemical and scientific interests in Oceanic and geologic phenomena, he pursued an education in the arts. At UC Davis, Roloff found that working with ceramics allowed him to bring together his Romantic visions of earth and ships with scientific investigations into the nature of materials and their transformations, manipulating minerals such as kaolin, dolomite, feldspar that are used to make clay and glazes. The kiln used to fire ceramic wares also became a metaphor for both the alchemical crucible and for geologic processes such as volcanic activity. The omnipresence of agriculture as an immense earth-altering industry central to the economy of California and to the curriculum of UC Davis, also asserted itself early as a lasting influence on Roloff’s vision. The ceramic works for which Roloff gained early notoriety focused on ship images made of wave and lava-like molten minerals, allowing the potential of the 2000 degrees Fahrenheit forces within the kiln to reveal “transcendentalist” images of the sea, the earth.


In the 1980’s and early 1990’s Roloff’s work shifted and he became widely known for his visionary kiln and greenhouse sculptures. The kiln projects including Untitled (Earth Orchid), Humboldt Ship, and Metabolism and Mortality/O2 (seepage) fused images of sinking ships, greenhouses, and volcanic waves with process and spectacle. These projects consisted of immense kiln structures filled with refractory cement that Roloff would fire up on-site before an audience. The twelve to 30 feet sculptures, ignited with combustible gas, would reach great temperatures and would transform the sculptures into huge glowing forms emanating with white heat and light. Vent structures such as the plumes of Humboldt Ship and the orifices of Metabolism and Mortality/O2, would function not only scientifically to allow the right mixture of gas and oxygen to enter and exit the kiln system but would also achieve formal/aesthetic elegance.  Once cooled, the steel structure of each kiln would be dismantled to reveal a vitrified cement core, geologically transformed by the heat into rock-like solidity to remain as public sculpture on its site.


Green house projects such as Vanishing Ship (Greenhouse for Lake Lahonton), installed at the Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, combined Roloff’s obsession with the mythic ship image with his probing of the mysterious interconnection between biological and geological processes. This project incorporated sediment collected from Pyramid Lake, Nevada into a ship form made of steel and glass. As a self-contained greenhouse system, in which water would condense on the walls of the greenhouse and run down its sides, Vanishing Ship (Greenhouse for Lake Lahonton), supported the micro-flora and fauna abundant within the sediment sample indefinitely. The sample, collected from Pyramid Lake, Nevada, a shrinking remain of the once immense Lake Lahonton that once covered more than 8,000 square miles of what is now Nevada, assumed the potential for indefinite growth, for evolutionary transformation, for alchemical change, yielding biologic activity as tragic or heroic as the great ship out on the waves.


Black Water

Roloff’s interest in the link between industry, geology, and waterways also remains central in Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group) . The title  “Black Water” references a particular in-land fresh water system comprised of humic and tannic acids, ecologically linked with trees such as the Ficus and Banyon (the type of tree revealed in Roloff’s photograph). But Black Water Group also reverberates with references to a Wisconsin river system, “ The Black River” which flows across the state through Black River Falls, Wisconsin, the site of the infamous Wisconsin Death Trip. Roloff’s embedded reference to The Wisconsin Death Trip ¾an episode of unprecedented greed, violence, and primal maliciousness in the early years of the towns settlement¾exemplifies two geo-cultural concepts that Roloff terms Anthroturbation (human alteration at a geologic level to the landscape through warfare and/or industrial processes) and Hyper-materiality (the radical transformation and psychology of industrial processes or warfare seen as an extension of our metabolic/fuel-based and entropic condition). For Roloff’s complex investigations of geologic transformation, link the influence of human activity to unseen geologic forces.


The subject matter of Holocene Fragments (Black Water Group) spans across social, cultural, geologic, and material concerns, not only linking the ancient tree image with issues of the digital, the photographic, the displaced, and the geologic, but addressing ideas of cultural transformation and the interconnections between industry and geology. Above all, Roloff’s highly cerebral yet poignantly visceral projects challenge viewers with charged visual experiences which like the excerpt sited at the beginning of this essay, are highly “American” in their vast poetics of movement and flow across horizontal expanses of space and history. Providing the investigative viewer a poetic realm for research and reflection, Roloff’s displacements also pull awareness away from ordinary quotidian time, reorienting viewers within the  sublime world of the meta-geological.


1 Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael: a Study of Melville (New York: Grove Press Inc, 1974), p. 11.

2 Ibid, p. 11

3 Jennifer R. Crohn, exhibition review, “John Roloff,” Arts Magazine, April 1992, p. 79

4 Diles Deluze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans, Brian Massumi (Minneapolis University of Minnesota Press, 1988).

5 Interview between Lisa Tamaris Becker and John Roloff, May 2000.

6 Encyclopedia Britannica, on-line edition (, Nov 2000).

7 Deluze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, p. 3-25

8 Letter from John Roloff to Lisa Tamiris Becker, October 2000.

9 Barbara Novak, “On Diverse Themes from Nature in Natural Paradise: Painting in America 1800-1950 (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976) p. 89-90.

10 Encyclopedia Britannica, on-line edition (, Nov 2000).

11 Interview between Lisa Tamiris Becker and John Roloff, August 2000.













[ii] Encyclopedia Britannica On-line,5716,41718+1+40822,00.html?query=Holocene