September, 2021

I recently moved to New Mexico, a kind of familial mother country (my family history here presumably dates back thousands of years, before colonization and before “the border crossed us” as they say). I had never lived here but have known it intimately. New Mexico is the site of so many historical traumas: colonization, repeated displacement, and the resulting social, sexual, and psychological violence that have all been brought to bear on my now-fractured family history. My grandmother, an Indigenous woman, was raped and impregnated by the Mestizo man who is technically my grandfather; someone I never met but for whom I feel a mixture of contempt and empathy. My grandmother didn’t have many options. She was married to him. Painfully and paradoxically, trauma can sometimes beget intimacy. It also begets more trauma. My grandfather was soul-sick, a product and perpetrator of the violence he experienced. He struggled with substance abuse and his place in society, two not-uncommon results of said violence to which I can relate. I’ve been sober for nearly a decade. Though we never met, I understand my grandfather and his alcoholism intimately, too. In 1944, driving under the influence, he accidentally killed a woman. In order to avoid charges, he compensated her family with his farm and fled from New Mexico to Los Angeles, his own family in tow, before anyone could change their mind. That’s how my mother (and therefore, I) would be torn from our history in New Mexico and become products of LA. More violence.

In the months before my recent move to New Mexico, I thought repeatedly of my family’s history. I also thought about the meaning of “home.” I returned to a location in the high desert in Southern California, not far from where I grew up, among rolling hills on the periphery of Los Angeles proper. When I was younger, this little enclave was a place in which to take respite. It has been a place where I have intermittently made photographs over the last five years. It was the site and subject of my first monograph. Upon this return in the months preceding my move, the landscape had changed. In the absence of the beauty I had become accustomed to was an even more austere scene: gone was the tall, desert grass I had come to expect. Instead, everything was barren, save for a family of skeletons: one goat, several sheep. I immediately felt sadness. Later, I wondered about the sequence of events. Had the animals consumed the grass and then died of starvation? Had they been left there intentionally to clear the grass and pre-emptively avoid damage from wildfires that have become all too common in the face of climate change? Perhaps they had been there all along, hidden among dry foliage and thus invisible to my eye? I thought about the histories we can’t see and also about photography. I still don’t know what happened. What I do know is that I felt compelled: at first to take photographs, and later, to take these skeletons “home”, whatever that meant. Choiceless. I had inherited in them, like so many other things. They had become my bones. In the days leading up to my departure I thought of my mother and my grandparents as I began to wash, scrape, and clean them. It stopped mattering how or why they got there, only that I had become their custodian. No longer a subject of curiosity, the bones, and my care-taking, became an act of meaning-making. It’s not unlike the experience of making pictures, which often begins with discovery, and if I’m lucky, ends with metaphor.

The smell of the bones was unimaginable. I moved them from place to place: at first to my partners home and later my parents. These people love me, and in turn, I love these decaying objects to whom I feel similarly beholden. In the process, the bones accrued more psychic baggage and subsequently more meaning. The whole thing felt like a strange dream. I, who spent most of the pandemic without a home, found myself dragging these bones from place to place trying to find one for them.

Several weeks ago I finally left LA. I drove the bones 14 hours straight. At some point along the way, they stopped being objects and started to become family. I returned again to thoughts of my grandparents and my mother, the uncles who died of their addictions, and the aunts who loved them. Thoughts not just of violence but also love and redemption. Suddenly the trip from one “home” to another had become more about these things and less about me. My car smelled like decay. It made me think of the Silver Gelatin paper I print on, itself a product of animal-fat and precious metal. It made me think about the way in which, almost alchemically, it transforms light into latent image. I thought about the images we carry with us but can’t see. I thought about the limitations of the medium and the poetic potential therein. “Photography is only ever surface”. But it’s not.

I arrived late at night. First thing in the morning, I moved the bones out of the darkness of their respective bins and into the light. I placed them on the roof of the small casita I’m renting in rural Northern New Mexico. I resumed my task of cleaning while I watched the sunrise. It has been several weeks and they’re finally clean. Cared for. Most days my bones sit in the sun on the roof atop my small home facing the sky which is constantly changing here. My cousin says that’s why we’re so moody, that the sky is in our DNA. When it rains, I bring the bones inside. I think that means they’re home now. I feel lighter. I think that so am I.

Mark McKnight is an artist whose work has been exhibited internationally. His work has been written about in the Los Angeles Times, Interview, The New Yorker, GQ Magazine, Aperture, Art in America, Frieze, ArtForum, Brooklyn Rail, Mousse and BOMB Magazine, among others. Mark is the recipient of the 2019 Aperture Portfolio Prize, The 2020 Light Work Photo Book Award, and a 2020 Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Grant. His work is in the collection of The Henry Art Gallery, Seattle and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. His first monograph Heaven is a Prison, was published by Loose Joints in September 2020. In 2021, his work was the subject of two concurrent solo exhibitions at Klaus von Nichtssagend (NY) and Park View / Paul Soto (LA) as well as a commission at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson. Mark currently splits his time between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, where he is an Assistant Professor at The University of New Mexico.