The old art building at the base of Science Hill is rumored to be marked for demolition this year. With it goes a gym, now filled with partitions, where you can still hear cleats squeaking on polished floorboards. In each cell a stooped figure cuts wood or twists metal. Hovering over them, the ceiling is a white-washed canoe turned on its belly. Below them, the basement is a tangle of exposed pipes, a maze of red and blue tubes dead-ending. Even the walls are art. Over the decades, when a sculpture got too heavy to pick up and no artist claimed it, they just moved it against a wall and painted over it. Mounds of almost-familiar shapes: a fish, a volcano, a bust of a woman.
Tonight I’m inside the Wolfsuit Gallery, a one-night installation that has invaded half a studio. People here have that nearsighted stare. They shift and move around the room with the attitude of shell-shocked civilians, trying to navigate through these pictures, embarrassed, as if the act of looking is so intimate that no one else should be in the room.
I move through the rote commands of stop, stare and shuffle. The photographs are clustered in threes. I examine a family of turkey vultures, lined up on the longest branch of a tree in a landlocked swamp. Thin giants of light weave through the back of the flooded field. Dead trees poke their necks out of the water, and the branches they have saved still shake, with or without the help of birds. The photographer, Kora Manheimer, must have stood where I am now, surveying her swamp that had married into the woods.
Kora comes out from the wall separating gallery and studio. Despite the law, she is smoking, and her hair, parted to the side, shows her disdain for symmetry. Eyeliner has migrated to the corners of her eyelids. It gathers in the crevice pools on either side of her nose, in the grooves of her early crow’s feet. She wears a white skirt and irreverent knee socks, a pattern of stars climbing up her legs. Fumbling for questions, I can only think to ask: “So … are you a grad student here?”
“No,” she answers, amused but mildly annoyed. “I’m already a master.” She pulls this off with a joking thrust in her voice, knocking on all the universities in the world. I gesture towards the exhibit and she begins: “I’ve been known to say things like ‘they’re just pictures.’” Kora speaks like she’s spitting out small, deliberate pebbles. After graduating from Cooper Union, she took a job as an Internet project manager. “Then I realized that I don’t want money; I don’t want a house. You get into this routine of 9-5 with weekends off, but on Saturdays I couldn’t even get off the couch.” She went to grad school for her MFA and later moved to Brooklyn. Now she works for majorleaguebaseball.com. “So last year when the season ended, I took a plane to Asheville, North Carolina.” Tonight’s pictures are from that trip.
“Asheville’s my hometown. I moved there when I was 15: I was a teenage punk and it took me a while to get over the ‘I’m too cool for this place’ mentality. But then I discovered old-time gospel music and I realized: This is where history is really alive. I think the South has one of the only authentic American cultures left. People behave in a way that lets you know where they’re from. When I go home, my sister drags me to these Christmas parties: all these people from three generations. When you go to put your coat there’s a gun rack staring you in the face.
“I had planned this trip months in advance: six weeks in the South. But a month before my trip, Hurricane Katrina hit and I thought: I don’t want my pictures to be novelty, the kind they feature in National Geographic. I went anyway and borrowed my mom’s red pickup truck. I took the Appalachian Highway to Chattanooga, then Route 11 the rest of the way to Mississippi. That’s the trick: to always stay on the small roads. I would go around to places like Waffle House, see something and take a picture. It was pretty simple. After that I headed to New Orleans. The plan was to go down into the delta, the swampland, but the infrastructure wasn’t in place. So I went to the outskirts of the city instead. It was really quiet: there was no one around, a picture can’t describe it. What’s weird was driving through the neighborhoods and seeing the signs spray-painted on the houses where they had found live animals after the floods. No people, just cats.
“That got me thinking: I’m really into animals and human-animal interactions. It’s a major part of my work. When I was little I could never understand how people ate animals. I always thought: whatever, they just don’t speak English.”
My own interactions with animals have been limited to road kill back in Georgia. Muskrats with entrails that spelled out no recognizable fortunes. Small winged creatures, pigeons whose flying gear had failed. But I never met an alligator.
So when I leave the picture of the swamp and move on to the dead alligator, I realize that the range of road kill runs a wider spectrum than I thought. This one’s guts cascade out of its belly like a watermelon someone dropped at a picnic. Straightened by a tire, a limb extends towards you with a paw as perfect as a newborn’s. Its jaw hinges open, and if it had stayed on the side of the road some mouse would have found a good cave and some shade.
“The alligator: I had to shoot it in broad daylight and you can’t see that it was alive with maggots. I think it came from a nature preserve. Because of the hurricane, it probably got confused and wandered across a road inside the city limits. I also saw a dead baby calf, and I know they normally don’t stand on the side of the highway.”
She shows me a list of all the dead animals she saw that day: muskrat, armadillo, raccoon, opossum, cat, dog, chicken, wild pig, fox, turtle, rabbit and egret.
There are pictures of other roadkill, too. Snakes coiled in on themselves, mimicking snails. They looked shy dead. Birds with various body parts missing. You could almost make the phantom limbs reappear. All the animals lie against the same flat background: pavement embedded with flakes of metal, fool’s gold with no one there to mine.
“From New Orleans I took the small highways to the Florida Everglades. I bought these rubber boots with me and started wading through the water when I saw something good. You have to look hard: the whole of the Everglades is not that photogenic. At the end of the Everglades road there’s this turn-around town called Flamingo, but because of the hurricane it was closed down. Me and these three fishermen were the only ones there. They showed me a dead shark in the water and I got a picture of that too.”
Kora confronts what many avoid out of propriety or fear. In one picture, giant spiders dangle from a power line. “I went up to the part of Florida where the swamps become sugar cane fields. On one of those side roads I was driving along when I saw these spiders with my naked eye — I dashed out of the car and stole two or three snapshots, thinking all the while that one of them was going to drop on my skull — they must have been the size of plums, I tell you. Then I ran back to my car and drove away.”
We move to another photograph: a house burning in the woods, two orange eyes where windows should be. “I had reached Asheville again when I saw the smoke through the trees. Turns out it was a training fire, and the house had been donated by a couple who moved away. I told the firemen I was living in New York but I was from Asheville and they let me get really close. I think it’s because I’m a girl. I like to joke and I almost titled the picture: ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s firemen.’”
Kora has the right blood to see the grace and malice of these places and make them known. “I talk to everybody I photograph — and I don’t photograph as judgment: ‘Look at you and your quaint southern self.’ You can see it: a lot of photographers come in from the outside and their subjects are staring at them through the lens with this look, like they know they’re being taxonomied. Everything to me is on the same level: the guy in the Waffle House and the spiders on the power line. I’m not passionless. I’m egalitarian.”
Pinned to the wall at eye level, we stop to examine a last picture: a patch of sky, a roadside motel squatting on the bottom corner. “This was taken when I had just pulled into Orlando. I remember driving on the highway: first there was nothing but trees on either side, then 15 miles of more and more strip malls. By the time I reached Orlando the only thing beautiful was straight up in the sky. But I also like the motel peeking through; it grounded me.”
In the picture a vacant sign blinks on. It must be 5:00, and they’re already beckoning drivers in the night ahead to pull off the highway and slide between chlorine sheets. From the looks of it, the clouds have staked out all day, and so has she. Now she has got them right, but what they resemble is harder to pinpoint. Their shapes never really fit my estimations, so even when I lean up close and look for a flag or a canoe, the next moment the ground rotates a hundred miles around its axis, the global wind picks up and they emerge in the shape of turkey vultures, or burning houses, or a giant alligator, scooped up from the side of the road and finally crucified way up in the sky.