Nadine Byrne: Dark Tourism

The dry heat and seemingly inhospitable topography of the Californian landscape makes me long for the lush abundance of the coast, bursting with life and initiative. At the same time, the emptiness of the desert landscape attracts like a strong magnet. There is a stillness there, an immediate peace, a desolation which allows me to relax.

In paradox, the absence of human life means both an euphoric sense of of freedom as well as a concern. If something were to go wrong here, can one even survive? What happens if you, against all odds, encounter another human being? And if this human is not amicable?

These are simple questions I seek answers to when I watch Nadine Byrne’s film Dark Tourism. My eyes search for human life in the apparent emptiness but it’s nowhere to be found. It’s alarming. Just like a beautifully shot surface of an ocean can arouse a sense of beauty in one viewer and a strong fear of drowning in another, Byrne’s desert film is both ambiguously universal and distinctly personal.

The areas she has filmed in Topanga Canyon outside of Los Angeles, and in Death Valley (a basin in the Mojave desert), once housed Charles Manson and his young companions. They hiked around the areas, were present in the topography during excursions from the Spahn and Barker Ranches where they lived and developed their philosophy.

They were going to hide in the desert and the caves when the great race war would eventually erupt in the United States. The war they themselves wanted to trigger trough their orgies of violence and brutal murders of prominent Hollywood personalities, and through the reactions these murders would arouse.

Does nature contain marks of these troubled spirits and their self-imposed alienation?

Nature in itself is always a force more powerful than its parts (including the human ones). But as long as we as humans search, find and write history, selected events are kept alive, for better or worse. Places of pilgrimage, sacrificial endeavours and sacred sites are a vital part of our history. It’s almost like the more we try to hide something, the more someone will want to find and appreciate it. The phenomenon of Dark Tourism, in which one visits places that have experienced events or people that defied normality and accepted behaviors, is an example of how we can never escape our own shadow, no matter how dark and scary the process seems.

“I think a lot about time. And how, in some places, there was no time.” (Nadine Byrne)

Byrne’s film is primarily a beautiful vision depicting an austere and dry landscape. If you, with the help of some noir knowledge, dig deeper, you understand that the outer landscapes she (often) portrays are in equal parts an inner, spiritual topography.

A consideration where the traces of those once present and your personal relationship to them confront us with essential questions. Not necessarily those simplified ones you might imagine: “How was this possible?” But rather the significantly more complex ones: “What resonance do I feel with these people, and, more importantly, why do I feel it?”

The films thus work as a bouquet which in the distance attracts in its unadorned naturalness. These flowers are then scrutinized and will entice us to closer study. Nadine Byrne’s own dark tourism is a search that culminates in a relentless spiritual purification. It is through the darkness we will proceed into the light. From inside the Manson Family’s cave in Topanga Canyon we are brought into the sunshine, and beyond.

 

Carl Abrahamsson, Stockholm 2015