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A future for landscape? - Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Brian Ashbee

Art Review, Oct 1999


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  Whither the noble genre of Turner and Constable? Brian Ashbee continues his investigation of landscape.

Once a form has been learned and a mental schema or template acquired, there will be a tendency to find that form in the environment and with it, a tendency to adjust irregular forms in the environment to fit existing mental templates. The circle as a mental idea is a Platonic abstraction, to which roundish forms, like fruit, campfires and waterholes (rarely in fact quite circular) can be made to fit. The circle as a perfect form, incidentally, runs through our own cultural history as much as the Aborigines, from prehistoric stone circles, the rose windows of gothic cathedrals, the maps of the medieval world (even when the world was supposed flat) to the mud and stone circles of Richard Long.

I believe that extrapolating from this can tell us much about the way art develops. Styles in art are also forms of regularity, or simplification, just as a circle is a form of regularity in the geometric sense. Once a style of art is learnt, we tend to find corresponding forms in 'nature'. That is to say, the environment furnishes us with complex data onto which virtually any style of painting can be imposed; or, more precisely, art furnishes us with perceptual templates by which the complexity of the environment can be simplified, allowing us to perceive, and represent, 'landscape'. When Mitchell and Berque insist that landscape is a medium, they are pointing out that such processes are inevitable, built into our very act of seeing.

Paint or photograph the sea on a calm day. A flat horizon dividing the picture plane suggests formal abstraction. Photograph the sea in a storm, with a slow shutter speed, and you have an image suggestive of Abstract Expressionism. The 20th century painter, well-versed in a vast range of styles, looks at the natural environment and finds there confirmation of whatever vision he brings. The post-modernist painter may look rather at the degraded or second-hand images of nature circulating in our culture. But neither has direct, unproblematic access to the objective reality of the world. Even when we look at the landscape seeking the Other, we can see only what the templates of style allow us to see - and that is more a reflection of ourselves and our culture than it is a vision of Otherness.

When Andreas Gursky photographs a featureless patch of dirt, he is seeing it as a minimalist painting. When Bill Brandt photographs the female nude as if her forms were those of rounded rocks in a landscape, or when Georgia O'Keeffe paints the rocks of new Mexico as if they were the sexual organs of female nude, both are performing the act of 'seeing as' - seeing one thing as if it were another.

In much the same way the 18th century traveller, well-educated in Arcadian landscapes, looked at the landscape of Tuscany or even Warwickshire, and saw them as the pastoral visions of Claude; and if he needed a little help, he could raise a 'Claude glass' to his eye and give any landscape lacking in charm the golden glow of a much varnished canvas. This act of 'seeing as' has come to be known as intertextuality. And the transformation of the English landscape into parks was the result of not one, but two acts of 'seeing as': firstly, Poussin, Claude and Salvator Rosa seeing the Italian landscape as if it were that of Greek and Latin pastoral poetry. Then the English nobility of the 18th century seeing the English landscape as if it were paintings by those same French and Italian painters. A remarkable form of intertextuality embracing two thousand years of European history.

Berque's analysis of Modernism has profound implications for the future practice of landscape art.

Modernism, for Berque, is a cultural phenomenon that goes far beyond the narrow confines of art. The classical paradigm of Western Modernism was constructed in the 17th century. Its crucial architects were Bacon (experimental method); Galileo (decentring the cosmos); Descartes (subject/object dualism); and Newton (absolute space, homogenous and isotropic.) At its heart was the discovery of the physical world as such and in itself, uncoupled from human subjectivity. This approach has since been validated by the unprecedented progress in science and technology; but it also provoked an unprecedented fracture in human history: from now on, the objects of the physical world are posited independently and separately from the phenomenal world, in which those things are perceived by men. A simple example of the difference: in the physical world, the earth rotates around the sun. In the phenomenal world, the sun rises in the East. It is in this latter world that landscape exists. It is in this latter world that we exist.

The spirit of objective investigation that characterised Modernism (in Berque's wider sense) expressed itself in art in two closely related ways: the 'birth' of landscape and the discovery of perspective. Linear perspective constituted the 'symbolic form of the emergence of the modern subject', in Panofsky's words; it depicted a world reduced to a collection of objects all describable, measurable and manipulable - and emptied of all subjectivity. The subject has now vanished from the space objectified in the picture; the spectator is confined to a single, unmoving viewpoint outside the space; the subject and the object are confined to two incompatible worlds. In the same way, science now studies an objective world, from which human consciousness has been excluded.

Cartesian dualism lies at the heart of the Modernist paradigm: thought divided from the world, mind from matter, subject from object. The subject, enthroned at the centre of absolute, homogenous space, expresses itself by means of symbols inscribed onto the physical world, over which his technology has given him a new mastery. He reorganises the physical world in the light of perspectival representations such as the linear perspectives of the baroque palace or city, such as Versailles and St. Petersburg. In 18th century America, the grid pattern favoured by city planners inscribed the squared format of their graph paper over a continent.

With the 20th century, glass, steel and the elevator made possible the extension of the grid upwards, into vertical space. Absolute space, thanks to the International Style in architecture, has asserted itself all over the planet, neutralising the individuality of real places, imposing identical forms everywhere in the name of modernity. Everywhere the same thing all over the earth, symbolising the self-creating invariability of the modern subject. The space thus imposed on the world is hostile to tradition, destructive of all architectural vernaculars; it is utopian space (where 'topos' means a 'non-place.')

It has been clear since the 1960s that the Modernist paradigm has outlived its usefulness. We can only represent the world at the cost of a reduction in its complexity. (It is only in a story by Borges that a representation - a map - can be of the same size as the terrain it represents.) All other representations simplify, falsify. That is their power, their beauty and their danger. The templates of perception are useful because they simplify, but they lose their usefulness when, as tends to happen in time, the aspects of the world they leave out become too glaringly obvious. This is why styles in art outlive their usefulness. The modernist impulse has today lost its authority. What role can the landcape artist have in constructing an alternative?

Berque has envisaged a recoupling of the physical and phenomenological worlds that the Modernist vision had separated. A re-symbolisation or re-enchantment of the world. Not based on a return to older forms, such as superstition or religion, but based rather on what he calls eco-symbolism. This means a re-engagement with the world in all its complexity, co-opting all the tools of knowledge we have at our disposal, including those available to the physical and natural sciences.

The question is how to preserve, without being overcome by, the complexity of the world; to compensate for the destruction of natural eco-systems, at risk as never before from massive economic and political pressures. The Third World is desperate to Modernise, at whatever cost to its natural environment. Wilderness areas, of which few remain, will be under increasing pressure, shrinking constantly, as the wealth of species within them is steadily reduced. Remorseless human population growth, and continued flight of people from the country to the cities will lead to the continued expansion of these cities, in particular the shanty towns that surround the high-rise business districts: islands of affluence in a sea of squalor.

As the majority of mankind come to live in predominantly man-made environments, severing their links with the rural and semi-rural environments which evolved over millennia, the question poses ever more urgently of how we are to construct the landscapes in which we will live. But the fact is, we no longer live in landscapes, but cityscapes, or even midscapes, soundscapes ... new virtual realities created by information technology and image manipulation. How do these effect the communal sense of place which past societies evolved, and through which they developed a sense of identity, of belonging to a particular place?

It seems likely that the effect of these new technologies will be to anaesthetise the sense of place essential for landscape sensibility. Increasingly, we are a society which has before its eye images from elsewhere, but these elsewheres increasingly seem to resemble one another, as the homogenising effects of modernisation effect more and more parts of the globe, just as the holiday destinations to which we dream of escaping increasingly resemble one another, and the 'natural' landscapes we dream of resemble theme parks, whose theme is 'nature' - like the Centre Parcs now opening in the UK

Of course it's no use trying to freeze landscape in heritage areas. Living societies evolve by transforming their environments. But the opposite extreme from mummification, that of decomposition into incoherence is equally alarming. The post, modern aesthetic of do anything, anywhere, risks being just as damaging to a sense of place as the modernist aesthetic which it replaces. The end of the grand designs of modernism, especially those of the modern movement in architecture, have left the landscape directionless. No one knows quite what to do with it. And so much the better. There is a need to abandon grand designs and attempt to understand how each individual landscape is made, how it evolves and how it functions. Working thus, we will be better equipped to create worlds which are worth living in. And it is here that the role of the landscape artist may be crucial to the construction of a new sense of belonging to the planet.

Landscape, as should by now be clear, is more than just a representation of the surfaces of things: it is the medium through which we construct our common sense of the world. Artists working in landscape need not feel marginalised, or 'provincial', to return to the quote from Harrison with which I began. And what in fact does 'provincial' mean? It means rooted in a specific place, both historically and geographically. This is clearly at odds with Modernism, which has detached artistic practice from its roots in particular societies to claim autonomy for art, but which has ended in a global phenomenon of 'everywhere, everything the same.' The same abstract paintings adorning the boardrooms of identical office blocks in New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong. Provincial may mean art that has reengaged with life as it is lived in a particular place; art such as that of Terry Setch, for example, studying his patch of Welsh beach, a natural environment of sand and rock, continually reshaped by the tides and the intrusive pollution of man - a laboratory in which destructive global forces can be seen at work. These works, as Paul Moorehouse has pointed out, 'celebrate a new dissonant order forged from a marriage of the natural and synthetic, and simultaneously they warn us of the threat that man poses to his environment.'

Equally rooted in particular rural locations are Michael Porter in Derbyshire, lan McKeever in Devon, and John Virtue in Exeter: all of them reworking the language of modernism in the light of their personal sense of place. Perhaps, as Keith Patrick has suggested, provincial means no more than art before the processes of international marketing have got hold of it.

These artists all have established reputations, and a proper analysis of their work and its relationship to place might well redefine 'provincial' in more positive terms. I'd like to end, however, by considering the work of two less well-known artists, a painter and photographer, whose work brings these issues into particularly sharp relief.

Landscape, in the photographs of Charlie Meecham, is raw material shaped by powerful economic and political forces, and the human presence - a figure at the corner of a street, a face glimpsed in a passing car, or an allotment surrounded by industrial wasteland - seem barely of account. Nevertheless, this landscape of the industrial North does bear witness to work-dominated lives, in the ruined industrial buildings, dilapidated housing and eroded tombstones which coexist uneasily, as if accidentally, with the electrical transmission and road networks which strike across this ravaged landscape with sovereign unconcern for the small lives lived in their shadow. Many of the photographs are scenes of such ordinariness as to seem like casual snaps. Empty car parks, crowded traffic junctions, a traffic island in the middle of nowhere, its street furniture an eerily modernist statement of formal purpose in a landscape drained of meaning. Meecham avoids aestheticizing his subjects, declines to frame and crop them in such a way as to bring to the foreground their formal characteristics, preferring rather what he sees as an openness to interpretation, an invitation to the spectator to engage with the implications of what the image often leaves unsaid. And that, to me at least, is the question of how we have allowed this extraordinary world to seem so ordinary, so 'given', as though it were quite 'natural.'

The effect on the landscape of road and motorway building programmes has intrigued Meecham, who has followed the contractors over many months, documenting the processes of construction and destruction in what he describes as a non-judgmental way. His most recent, on-going work also involves a road, whose existence may come as news to many in these islands: the E20.

This is a road concept, much as a walk by Richard Long is an art concept: it only exists in the minds of Brussels road planners. It links Limerick to Dublin, Liverpool to Hull, Esbjerg to Copenhagen, Malmo to Stockholm and Tallinn to St. Petersburg.

The geographically challenged may not have noticed that this route involves no less than seven sea crossings, many of them not served by ferries. Clearly this is a route of the mind, rather than reality. Meecham, perversely perhaps, has been documenting its English stretch, more familiar to you and I as the M62. He has made two sets of pictures, one of the landscape seen from moving lorries, the other set taken from fixed positions and 'responding to the questions raised by the travelling glance, the idea being to set up a dialogue by pairing the pictures and possibly forming a sort of visual echo.' Meecham is intrigued enough by the project to want to extend it across its whole European length, following a narrative thread linking different cultures and landscapes, inspired by histories of salt ways and silk roads from pre-industrial epochs.

What is palpable in Meecham's work is the sense of landscape as a medium constantly evolving, expressive of our political and social relationships, and often expressive in ways that are brutal or functional or indifferent to human or aesthetic values - except that these, too, are 'human' in their raw purposefulness. The 'natural' is squeezed into corners, or glimpsed as a blurred outline through a vehicle window - a background murmur whose voice is easily drowned by the louder statements of roads.

The industrial North also figures significantly in the work of the painter Alan Rankle, who grew up on the edge of Oldham, surrounded by the relics of the industrial revolution, whose presence is hidden and transformed with references to the Arcadian landscape tradition. This willingness to address tradition, running from Claude and Poussin through Turner to our day, makes Rankle almost unique among contemporary landscape painters, and it is perhaps in part a consequence of his period working on the restoration of 18th and 19th century landscape paintings. Rankle's aim, however, is not pastiche or parody but rather a reappraisal of tradition through its disruption. There is a strong sense in Rankle's work of landscape as a site of conflictual readings, in which various styles of representation vie for primacy - not as a mere exercise in style but grounded in the struggle to convey in paint the direct experience of landscape forms. Rankle has studied Chinese brush painting techniques, as well as the mental and physical discipline of T'ai Chi, (of which he is now a teacher,) which have strengthened his belief in the unique capacity of painting and drawing as a vehicle for psychological inquiry. Long study of natural forms, acute concentration and practice of manual skills permit the artist to convey, in gestures of great economy and directness, a form of knowledge which no other medium can convey.

Rankle's work enacts a confrontation between the direct experience of nature and the mediating styles of art, and the violence of this confrontation can he quite shocking on first viewing. This initial emotional charge is gradually refined, on prolonged attention, as the expressive gesture (so evocative of the painter's presence and his attempt to seize the reality of his subject) gradually dissolves into the scene represented, recalling as it does so, the landscape conventions of Claude or Ruysdael. Rankle is a skilled performer of the act of 'seeing as', and the paintings offer us the pleasures of complex perceptual games: see this blob of opaque golden paint as a gesture, replete with the urgency of the painter's hand, but see it also as the late sun's rays catching the trunk of a tree, magically reminiscent of Claude. Dribbling glazes, abrupt marks made by large brushes suggest the vocabulary of expressionism, but - combining unexpectedly with delicately painted foliage reminiscent of Ruysdael, suddenly transmute into representational marks conveying atmosphere, light and shadow. The intertextuality of which I wrote above, that links Latin pastoral poetry to Claude and Poussin, down to Turner in the 19th century, is here extended to embrace Chinese brush painting and abstract expressionism.

These paintings confront the reality of landscape today as an unstable theatre of conflicting signs, a site in which observation, gesture, description and abstraction seem to co-exist and in his best work, to fuse into a momentary vision uniting two thousand years of landscape tradition. If Meecham's photographs raise questions about landscape's future, Rankle's paintings assure us of the vitality of its past, and its continuing vital role in our culture. As he has written: "for all of society's opposition to the natural environment, we and all our works are nature ... the medium is our collective psyche, our link with Nature."

Essential to our post-modern situation is a painful awareness that we create the landscape with our gaze. But also, increasingly, with our bulldozers. And therein lie the problems of tomorrow. Landscape can no longer be a means of escape from history, from society, from ideology, into a world of unmediated, unproblematic experience.

Nature no longer seems the Divine Other, as it did to the Romantics. The Sublime is barely an option, except with a heavy coating of irony, sugaring the bitter pill of loss. Nature today is so enmeshed with Culture, and the planet so contaminated with our presence that neither the upper surfaces of the atmosphere nor the deepest parts of the ocean are free from our toxic wastes. Nature is no longer wilderness, but rather our spoiled, soiled back yard. Our Second Nature. Human Nature.

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