CAMBRIDGE — In a wired, globalized age does the concept of “exoticism” make any sense? Looking at the 27 photographs in Chloe Dewe Mathews’s “Caspian: The Elements” leads to an inescapable answer: oh, yes. The show runs through Feb. 17 at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
“Caspian,” which was curated by the Peabody’s Ilisa Barbash, consists of photographs taken in the vicinity of the world’s largest inland body of water. Is it inland sea or lake? Already confusion sets in. Consider confusion a form of intellectual exoticism.
Five countries bound the Caspian Sea: Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. Those are familiar-enough names, two of them highly familiar geopolitically. So where does exoticism come in? Let’s answer that question with another: What mental images of the Caspian Sea do you have? Some places on the planet are more dark side of the moon than others. Even the one association a person is likely to have, sturgeon and caviar, isn’t visual. An actual fish and its actual eggs are more familiar as an abstraction than physical reality.
As it happens, Dewe Mathews includes a photograph of a sturgeon. It’s a photograph that underscores another aspect of exoticism. This kind might be described as reality upended; and an abundant, deadpan incongruity defines her work here.
This is an unsettling and marvelous show, marvelous as in full of marvels. So many of these images could be illustrations for slightly alarming fairy tales. “Caspian” (shades of C.S. Lewis) is unlikely to make you want to go over there. It does make you glad that she did. Dewe Mathews is English, and this is her first US exhibition. It shouldn’t be her last.
The photos vary in size, some as small as about 8 inches by 9½ inches, others as large as 31 inches by 39 inches. They’re unmatted, with white frames. The whiteness is unattractive but useful. It helps the pictures stand out against the background.
Each wall has a mural-size photographic detail on it: an ice floe breaking up for the section called “Water”; an oil-slicked liquid surface for “Oil, Gas, Fire”; an outcropping of stone for “Salt, Rock, Uranium.” This is an imaginative idea. Unfortunately, it’s also a bad one. The background image detracts and distracts from Dewe Mathews’s photographs, making it harder for them to stand out.
But back to that sturgeon. Instead of swimming deep beneath the waves, it lies inert in a pond. OK that’s odd. The pond is on the grounds of a museum and botanical garden. That’s even odder. Because of the way Dewe Mathews has set up the photograph, it initially appears that the sturgeon lies on a tiled floor out of the water. That’s oddest of all. Not quite as odd, but in the running, is another fish photo. Dozens of goldfish fill an aquarium. So far so normal. They’re in the background, though. The foreground offers four goldfish bowls, water within each, but none with fish. The upending of expectations can be even more exotic than the upending of reality.
The sense of the exotic may owe as much to illumination as to content. There can’t be many places where desert light meets seaside light. The harshness of one combines with the softness of the other for a distinct unusualness.
Such light means that Dewe Mathews’s colors are soft and rarely assertive. Even fire seems at least a little constrained. The flames peeking out of a desert crater in “Door to Hell” appear almost polite. The unusualness dials down the palette. Some of these photographs have as much in common with pastels as photography.
In contrast, the quality of light dials up the sense of peculiarity. Dewe Matthews went to the Caspian region in 2014 as a Gardner Photography Fellow. The fellowship is named after the legendary documentary filmmaker and longtime Harvard professor Robert Gardner. Gardner’s best-known film is called “Dead Birds” (1963). Looking at many of the images in “Caspian,” a different though similar title comes to mind, Gogol’s “Dead Souls.” It’s the consistent sense of human affectlessness: of people who are clearly present without seeming quite there.
It’s confounding that what appears to be a black decollete dress worn by a woman in a bathtub isn’t actually a dress — it’s “miracle oil” which covers much of her body. Bathing in this goo for 10 minutes at an Azerbaijani sanatorium is supposed to have “medicinal benefits.” What’s truly confounding, though, is the otherworldiness of the woman’s expression.
Otherworldiness is the ultimate exoticism. Even more confounding — perhaps, perhaps — is the sight of three migrant workers in Kazakhstan building a mausoleum. It’s easy enough to describe what’s visible: the men, an empty sky, slabs of white stone, oil-barrel sawhorses. It’s much harder to describe what’s evoked: stasis, depredation, mystery — or yesterday, today, and let’s hope not tomorrow.
CASPIAN: THE ELEMENTS
At Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, through Feb. 17. 617-496-1027, www.peabody.harvard.edu
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.