• Stephanie Burke
  • Heaven

The Divine Comedy is an epic exploration of faith and devotion, a pilgrimage from the depths of hell to the hallowed grace of god. But for the nonbeliever, the agnostics and atheists among us, there’s plenty of secular symbolism to ponder. Take the poem’s first verse: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark woods, the right road lost.” The biblical life expectancy is 70, which means that Dante Alighieri, age 35, is standing on the 50-yard line of life. His opening stanza is perhaps the most beautiful metaphor for a midlife crisis ever conceived.

I found myself lost in my own dark woods recently while reading something entitled “This 4×6 index card has all the financial advice you’ll ever need.” I’m sure the article’s intent was to allay any fears one may have over the perceived complexities of financial planning. But for me it had the opposite, terror-inducing effect. Not only was I not following any of that advice, I could not with any degree of confidence define more than half of the words contained therein. Suddenly every decision I’d made in life hung dark and heavy overhead. I was swallowed by a shadowy forest of rent checks, benefitless jobs, and minimum payments on student loans. How, through this thicket of wanton fiscal disregard, could the light of a 401(k) or well-diversified mutual fund ever shine? What, in the name of all that’s holy, is a fucking mutual fund?

Like Dante, I am 35, midway on our life’s journey—the time when we’re generally expected to be settling into the acquisition of stuff: a home, a car, a second car, an investment portfolio, golf clubs. Those things seem about as far away to me as empyrean must have seemed to Dante as he prepared to pass through the gates of hell. I don’t always feel this way, but there are moments—like being confronted by that index card—when I fear I may have taken a wrong turn in life, the right road forever lost.

In artist Stephanie Burke’s reimagining of the Divine Comedy, however, I might be doing just fine. In a series of photographs entitled “Canto,” Burke explores the divinity and transgression found in the everyday world. Burke locates the three stages of Dante’s journey—Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise—in the landscape of the American west. Her Inferno is, fittingly, the desert, where sun-scorched swathes of land seem to caution “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Of course, all warnings possess the hint of a dare, and mankind has flung itself headlong onto this inhospitable terrain, attempting to bend the desert to human will. Burke juxtaposes images of the desert’s menacing beauty with a shot of Las Vegas—that mortal shrine to excess, where sin exists less in neat, concentric circles than a churning 24-hour vortex.

It’s in the next leg of the journey, Purgatory, that we see the results of human imposition on the land. Burke captures a series of decaying structures, places that people have either abandoned or been driven off by the elements. We see the earth overrunning these structures, growing through and around them, gradually reclaiming itself. But we also see structures that mankind has gone to great trouble to preserve. Burke shows us the grand homes of oil barons and capitalist conquerors, people who came to the American west and extracted from it enough wealth to build a personal heaven. These earthly paradises now serve as tourist attractions, paeans to greed.

And finally, Burke shows us her version of heaven, the waterfalls and crowning peaks of Yosemite. In the foreground of each image, Burke holds a color swatch—the multihued strip of paint samples that you can grab by the fistful at Home Depot while planning to update your home. A shade called Clear Skies blocks your view of the clear sky. One called Misty Memories keeps you from committing to the pockets of memory the ethereal plume of mist created when a waterfall meets the rocks. And White Dove masks a piece of sky where we can only hope a dove was soaring. These are pale imitations of divine form, held against the backdrop of mountains that are unmoved, oblivious to our brief and furious earthly existence.

Burke, who is nonreligious, is struck by our inability to recognize paradise in the natural world. I suspect that we have trouble locating ourselves in nature because we can’t conceive of ourselves as elements of the eternal, the infinite. We are achingly temporal. And perhaps that’s why we devote so much effort to constructing our own little heavens in neighborhoods behind the gates. I once came across time described as having no vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an end. Time is eternal, space is infinite, and we are mere blips in both. That’s terrifying. So we turn to constructs, both literal and figurative, and box ourselves in.

I did manage to save some money earlier this summer. I sinned against that index card and used it to drive across the country to Yosemite, where I climbed to the top of rocks and threw my arms open to the sky. And the winding road that lead me there felt more right than anything had in a long, long time.

“Canto” runs at rational-park.com through October 5.