A Helix of Memory and Meaning

Nicole Rudick on the spiraling comics of Aidan Koch.

An excerpt from Aidan Koch's Spiral and Other Stories, 2024.

Courtesy of the artist

In 1984, Time magazine photographed the science fiction writer Octavia Butler atop an outcropping at Joshua Tree National Park, in southeastern California. Dwarfed by boulders and rocks rounded by weathering, she stands below a small gibbous moon visible in the daytime sky. It is a striking landscape, an apt setting for a writer whose subject is our world made uncanny. The area is home to hundreds of plant species, including desert lavender, silver cholla, beavertail cactus, and the King Clone creosote, which may be more than eleven thousand years old. Humans have inhabited the High Desert region for thousands of years—the Cahuilla, Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Mojave people are indigenous to the area—and their pictographs, petroglyphs, and artifacts endure in canyons, caves, and rock.

Today, it’s a stimulating landscape for an artist who is thinking about humanity’s relationship to natural history on both a grand and an intimate scale. Aidan Koch has lived in the region for five years. She finished “Spiral,” the first story in this collection, from her then-new home in Landers, California, on the outskirts of Joshua Tree.

It was winter and I had almost no furniture in my house yet, except a work table made of two-by-fours and a disintegrating Craigslist couch. The table was set up against one of the large east-facing windows comprising one side of my cabin. These windows looked out onto a few plantings I’d managed to get in the ground: two mesquite, a palo verde, a desert willow and a couple cactuses. My dove, fully indoors at the time, no doubt scattered the pages flying by countless times.

The scene she describes is economical—a minimal interior enlivened by the beating wings of a dove; outside, wispy bipinnate mesquites and palo verde trees and squat, armored cacti. These modest details could easily appear in her comics, which rely visually on truncated views of the physical world to impart a metonymic sense of environment. A full picture, literally and metaphorically, is never provided, but Koch gives enough information to allow the reader a sensory impression of setting, action, and character. In “Spiral,” the blue-dotted pattern of a woman’s socks is set into an ascending sequence in a grid to represent her movement up a staircase. A handful of straight, perpendicular lines represent a building-in-progress, a human-made structure set against brushy green parcels of nature. And a young woman’s face, partially obscured by the reflection in a car window, comes fully into view in the next panel as she discovers a sense of purpose.

An excerpt from Aidan Koch's Spiral and Other Stories, 2024.Courtesy of the artist
An excerpt from Aidan Koch's Spiral and Other Stories, 2024.Courtesy of the artist

“Spiral” is about a friendship strained by distance and difference, a desire for independence and stability, and the search for meaning and direction in life, which, like the shape of a spiral, links the world to the innermost part of ourselves. Into these threads, Koch weaves multiple timescales. Lise’s partner, Yann, takes the story’s nameless young woman to see the Old Man, one of a series of possibly prehistoric menhirs that long preceded his family’s claim on the land, a claim that seems frivolous within the grand scale of human history that the Old Man represents. In alternating chapters, sylphlike rivers make their own journey across time and the land. They splash and play like children, move in tandem and alone, and curl through much-older spans of mountains on the way to the ocean, where they “meet great depths,” Koch writes. Some, diverted by human intervention, come to less eventful ends.

The rivers also possess power, carving through stone, wetting the ground, and pushing rocks and wood. Their thoughts and feelings could be those of a human—yearnings and struggles, naivete and experience, melancholy and exhilaration. “The water never thought about what would happen,” Koch writes. “How it would transform… How it would lose the shape of its body.” Her watercolors embody this mutability: she applies watercolor over a thin layer of water so that colors pool and bloom within one another. The effect is somewhat unpredictable and allowed the rivers a certain agency in their own formation on the page, prefiguring their play and surprise in the story itself. In the penultimate chapter, the rivers appear in simplified human forms, like petroglyphs, the earliest form of written communication, such as those made by the indigenous Cahuilla people who made their home in the area that is now Joshua Tree.

Koch made the three other stories in this collection later, in her studio, “when walls were built and heating/cooling added,” she told me.

I got another bird, then dogs, more plants went in the ground (half of which were eaten by rabbits and antelope squirrels). Days of red sun and smoke-filled skies came and went and will certainly come again. Extreme temperatures rising and falling, prompting amnesia to seasons past.

Here, she is marking time, recalling smaller, individual moments (new pets, garden invaders) alongside the great spans of the natural world. We look to the cyclicity of the environment for timekeeping—knowing where we are in the course of a day or a year. But in Koch’s recollection, the vastness of those cycles throws into confusion the intimate progression of time delineated by her activities. The ambient qualities of the outside world reveal nothing of the changing seasons; the view is formless, red and smoky, and the climate is a memory-obscuring repetition. The scale of nature can be obliterating, too.

It is a striking landscape, an apt setting for a writer whose subject is our world made uncanny.

A window in Koch’s studio runs horizontally near the top of the wall. Sloping hills with a thin procession of trees fill the bottom third of the view, and the rest is given over to sky. In an email to me, Koch likened the window to one of James Turrell’s Skyspaces, installations of “specifically proportioned” chambers that include an aperture in the ceiling open to the sky. Turrell has made more than eighty Skyspaces all over the world. The apertures frame the movement of clouds and celestial bodies, while the chambers are flooded with intense colors to heighten the modulation of light that occurs at dusk and dawn. In Notes & Other Writings, published in 2014 to accompany an exhibition of her ceramics, drawings, and paintings, Koch, too, studies the many varieties of light:

Outdoors: natural-morning, natural-midday, natural-cloudy, natural-full sun, natural-evening, natural-dusk, natural moonlight.
Indoors: lamp-light, fluorescent-light, spot-light, overhead light, ambient-light, color-light.

Like Turrell’s environments, Koch’s comics are immersive, meditative spaces where the world outside the window is brought into a space for observation and consideration—made integral, in other words, not just used as a backdrop for human lives.

Can rivers remember? Do insects have souls? Did we once have a closer connection to the natural world—so close that we weren’t just in it but of it? These are some of the questions Koch pursues in this collection, which was created as she turned her attention to making comics with an environmental focus, folding in elements of “eco-criticism, land-based art practices, folk memory, fairy tales, post-humanism, and intersectional environmentalism,” as she has written. The stories take place in a shared world, Koch says, in nonspecific settings that are pregnant with possibility. In “The Forest,” a figure’s enthralled attention to the sky, trees, and water makes the landscape the central protagonist of the story, one whose narrative potential exists beyond the story’s ability to capture and hold it. In “New Year,” a forest is a site of communal memory and, together with the creatures who inhabit it, part of an anima mundi. The story warns, too, about the ways in which human-made environmental degradation threatens not only ecological balance but our own heritage and culture.

An excerpt from Aidan Koch's Spiral and Other Stories, 2024.Courtesy of the artist
An excerpt from Aidan Koch's Spiral and Other Stories, 2024.Courtesy of the artist

In the spring of 2022, in the midst of my correspondence with Koch about her stories, I saw an exhibition of photographs by Emmet Gowin, whose body of work focuses on the relationship between humans and the natural world. The show displayed his aerial photographs of center-pivot irrigation circles in the American West and Midwest, made over a decade, beginning in 1987: images, for instance, of a crop circle deformed by harvesting, the resulting squiggles and twisting lines echoing the undulating tracks of a snail; and of vast tracts of circles incised into acres of farmland, their radii measured by lengths of wheeled sprinklers, like great watch faces telling time across the landscape.

I thought instantly of Koch’s comics—patterns found in the natural world that are abstracted into pure forms. “I like how knowing they’re a documentation of real sites opens a door for intrigue and curiosity about the history without laying it out,” she wrote back. “The repetition, too, does so much.” In the opening sequence in “Man-Made Lake,” Koch adapts nature’s patterns to human bodies, filling silhouettes of people with rivers, sky, earth, forest, and the blush and stippling of a fish’s scales. The boy in the story once lived an aquatic existence, as some other kind of creature, but he can’t remember his time in that other body. He can only convey that he was a part of his environment and that it was a part of him.

In an essay for Bomb in 2022, Koch wrote of having felt conflicted about engaging with environmental concerns through art instead of taking a more activist approach. But comics has proved an ideal form for her for thinking about the complexities of climate and environment. Comics is a time-bound medium and a unique experience among forms of literature that involves both reading and looking—arguably the most fluid form for describing a conflux of change, perspective, and temporal movement. The reader’s participation is essential; she must make connections within panels and among them, drawing tight the threads of images and words. This seems especially true of Koch’s elliptical style, where the reader must also interpret sparingly rendered sequences to make meaning. “Man-Made Lake” contains Koch’s first foray into collage. She cut bits of photographic imagery from vintage wildlife books and set them alongside her drawings: cormorants nesting in bare branches, a fish’s caudal fin amid green-black water, a vertical strip of blue sky. Most often, these collaged pieces convey texture and mood over explicit information. Her comics are a lesson in how revelatory economy can be.

Can rivers remember? Do insects have souls? Did we once have a closer connection to the natural world—so close that we weren’t just in it but of it?

A pencil drawing in Notes & Other Writings depicts a conch composed on lined paper. At the bottom of the page, she has written, “Sincerely, Aidan,” as though everything that needed to be said is expressed entirely in the drawing of the shell. Language and image are interchangeable. In another entry, she writes, “Driving up the road at night, a pair of hares. One running, then the other.” These sentences read like descriptions of her drawings, offering just enough to envision the scene, or to feel it, but not much more. The reader’s imagination fills in the rest.

Koch’s minimal approach is striking for the way it concentrates the reader’s field of vision. In her essay for Bomb, she cites Nancy Holt’s 1972 Land Art work Views Through a Sand Dune. Holt inserted a circular pipe through a dune on the Narragansett Beach in Rhode Island, creating a portal through which passersby could glimpse the ocean from the far side of the dune. In the poem “The World Through a Circle,” written some two years earlier, Holt narrates the experience of directing the viewer’s attention to an unexpected subject: “Drawing in a glance / And then a second look / And more. / The world focuses / And spins out again, seen.” Holt’s lines describe Koch’s ability to focus attention and slow time, creating space for the reader to linger—and, in doing so, to make the larger world come thrillingly into view.

An excerpt from Aidan Koch's Spiral and Other Stories, 2024.Courtesy of the artist
An excerpt from Aidan Koch's Spiral and Other Stories, 2024.Courtesy of the artist

The poem also illustrates Koch’s method of zeroing in on the unexpected details—a pair of feet shuffling awkwardly, repeating panels of empty road, an undifferentiated mass of greenery—that make up the primary visual language of her storytelling. From these small scenes emerge worlds of potential. Koch’s inspiration for these stories also came to her like light through a window, a distillation of time and individual moments, as she recalled to me:

Some stories feel distant now, memories integrated into my life like the travels and people that inspired them. Being picked up at the train station and driven to the farm, watching the stars on New Year’s in a remote village in the mountains, touching the river I’d dreamed about since childhood—small ideas taking shape on the page, blurring realities. The recalling of these rearranging my memories into the landscape of my home in the Mojave and the act of drawing. ♦

Excerpted from Spiral and Other Stories by Aidan Koch. Published in the United States by New York Review Comics, April 2024. Copyright © 2024 by Aidan Koch. All rights reserved.

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