Kate Joyce, Metaphysics

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Hat & Beard Press (here). Clothbound hardcover with foil stamped title, 7 x 9.5 inches, 102 pages, with 35 color photographs and numerous illustrations. Includes an essay by Lawrence Weschler. Designed by Feature Studio. In an edition of 300 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The experience of jet travel is so normalized that we tend to overlook its disruptive nature. Of course, there are the minor inconveniences of removing shoes and emptying bottles, but also deeper strains. I still remember the gut-churning acceleration of childhood plane rides in the 1970s, back when flying was a once-a-year special occasion. Liftoffs launched my nerves into orbit along with the great aluminum tube. Would we ever come down? Yes, with time zone and bearings scrambled.

Nowadays flying is routine. Most passengers barely glance up during takeoff, shrugging off the extra Gs like background chatter. Once airborne, window blinds typically slide shut, ignoring the towering views. Ho-hum, just another day at 30,000 feet. Attention hovers around the immediate, seatback reading perhaps, or a lapbound personal device. Travel is a task to be completed like changing the oil or dental work. Necessary? Yes. Enjoyable? Not so much.

But hidden beauty lurks everywhere, even aloft. If air travelers ever pause to study their surroundings, they might notice the elements captured by Kate Joyce. Her pictures of airplane interiors—shot over the course of some fifty trips flown between 2012 and 2019—are collected in the recent monograph Metaphysics. The book expands on an early iteration entitled Planes published in Harper’s Magazine. It was released last spring in conjunction with a large exhibition at SITE in Santa Fe (where Joyce lives). Taking its queue from that show, it is multifaceted, housing several sub-projects in one monograph.

Adorned with gold lettering and esoteric cover icon, Metaphysics‘ modest clothbound exterior resembles a philosophy treatise more than a book of photos, if judging just by the cover. Truth be told, there is some philosophizing here, contained mostly in a lengthy essay by out-of-the-box sage Lawrence Weschler. It’s entitled “Embodied Light”, and wanders frequently in and out of metaphysical topics. But photographers needn’t fret. There are plenty of great photos too. 

Joyce’s project began back in 2011, when she found herself flying regularly for photo assignments. Trapped in one place for hours, her photographic instincts were starving. Joyce’s gaze explored the cabin, settling here and there on quiet scenes. “In the beginning,” she writes, “I photographed the aerial view out the window—a cold, detached, and mesmerizing blueprint. Over time I discovered a more intimate view within the aircraft—bodies, sunlight, hands, and drapery.” 

It’s this latter material which opens Metaphysics, with a series of cropped body parts showing fellow passengers glimpsed through forward seat gaps. Like actors on a dark stage, each one is centered and spotlit by sunshine from a nearby window (Joyce actively sought window seating) while their outer realms sink into darkened tones and outright blackness. Most are so tightly cropped it’s hard to identify the subject matter at first, or if it’s even human. Gradually the eyes decode clips of fabric, knuckles, and hair, set amidst implacable seating. They appear hushed in these photos, and it’s easy to forget that everything is moving at 500 mph. Collectively they’re a still life study surveilling alternate realities, and a reminder of unlikely treasures to be found even in the most limited environments, immobile and belted in, elbows tucked. With sensory input restricted, eyes hunt for significance. Minds too.

After these interior shots, the book shifts outside the cabin to show plane parts. We see wing engines viewed through window portals, spiced with swaths of cloud and blue sky. These are common enough sights for the jet set, and they serve to anchor Joyce’s metaphysical introspections in the familiar, at least for a moment, before the photos quickly give way to more voyeuristic passenger studies. This time the focus is on earbuds and hands, among the most personal of bodily realms. Snippets of fingers and book parts are the photographic equivalent of conversational eavesdropping. Joyce seems to be prying, albeit gently. What are her fellow passengers thinking or feeling? Of course there’s no telling, but it’s fun to speculate, with metaphysical implications. “The arm I am looking at in front of or behind me,” she explains to Weschler, “could be seen the same way by that very same person sitting in front of or behind me, were they to train their gaze upon me.” 

If this seems like the sort of thought arrived at after many hours trapped in a plane cabin, or perhaps a 2 AM dorm gathering, the “Metaphysical Mechanism” chapter to follow is even more so. In a series of panel grids entitled Art History & The Airline Safety Information Card, Joyce juxtaposes illustrations from safety manuals with art from antiquity. It’s the type of idea which is so wacky it could never work. Or could it? The comparisons are improbably deft, organized into the same rough categories as Joyce’s photos: Drapery, The Hand, Window Light View, Bodies In Space. All are annotated with historical references. Art historians will no doubt recognize many panels, as will frequent flyers. Who knew that a safety card could house such riches?

By this point, we are firmly in metaphysical territory with an absurdist edge. The stage is set for Weschler. Although he’s devoted the occasional past essay to photographers, his interests are wide ranging. He attacks all subjects with a renaissance nose for disparate joinings and unlikely themes. The perfect candidate, in other words, to frame Joyce’s photos in a metaphysical context. Beginning with train travel and JMW Turner, Weschler dances through Einstein, Vermeer, and Walker Percy. He compares the plane’s fuselage to a sarcophagus and a chrysalis. Is jet travel like death or rebirth? Hmm. For what it’s worth, Joyce barely missed boarding UA Flight 93 on September 11th.

Weschler weaves through this and other intellectual excursions before cordoning Joyce’s pictures into four metaphysical realms, “an exceptional layered seizing” in his words: LIMINAL, CORNEAL, CORPOREAL, and IDEATIONAL. Normally I have short patience for such theoretical abstractions, which I find sloggable as an airport security line. But Weschler’s concepts are well articulated and illustrated, a joy to engage with. There’s no bullshit with him, no academic fat. Better yet, his headings circle back to the book’s title, capitalized to match: METAPHYSICS.

“For some people,” writes Weschler,” the experience of flying from one place to another can be one continuous nerve-addling jangle, from packing through baggage claim. Others, and I am one, drift into an alpha-wave stupor—time slows to a crawl and experience to a null point. The entire excursion transpires in a state of suspension, a sort of attentional hibernation.” For me this gets at the root of both jet travel and photography. Whether in a plane or daily life, there’s a risk of becoming inured to surroundings. To awaken from “attentional hibernation” and become alert to the visual world is a tall order, and this is where photography comes in. If practiced skillfully, it can penetrate the haze of familiarity and cast reality in a new form. When one’s eye is really clicking, the visual world unlocks. Even a plane cabin can be revelatory.

Metaphysics is spiced with other small delights. The index of captions is a blunt listing of three-letter airport codes describing Joyce’s flights. Pln45 MDW-RDU, for example, or Pln62 BOS-ABQ. They’re at once cryptic and informative. Chapter breaks are marked by pull quotes from literary sources, ruminating on travel, speed, flight. “Life is an experimental journey taken involuntarily,” reads one, a 1932 translation from Fernando Pessoa. “It is a journey of the spirit taken through the material world and, since it is the spirit that travels, it is in the spirit that it is experienced.”

Metaphysics does achieve spiritual liftoff, while the photos remain grounded in reality. The pace is varied and entertaining, an unlikely blend of art history and aircraft studies. If there’s a long plane ride in your immediate future, you could do worse for reading material.

Collector’s POV: Kate Joyce does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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