OUT THERE

It is actually quite strange that there is still no alternative for the word ‘landscape’. After all, the word refers to a pictorial tradition in painting, drawing and analogue photography that can hardly be considered adequate to refer to what we consider ‘landscape’ to mean in this day and age – or the way in which the landscape is pictured. In its classical sense landscape is the perceived space before us (‘over there’, ‘yonder’ or ‘out there’), having a natural or ‘cultural’ appearance and more or less ordered by the gaze. However, the term also refers to any rendition of the aforementioned. Hence, the landscape does not exist solely in its own right, but due to perception, as Ton Lemaire too claims in his canonical Filosofie van het landschap (Philosophy of the Landscape) (1970).

 

Inescapably, perception is ideologically determined. That given enables us to write a history of the landscape that is much wider than the scope of geography, topography or botany of the third dimension. It further enables us to read and interpret the landscape as a metaphor, including its material depiction and the corresponding pictorial tradition. In other words, as the representation of a mental condition that qualifies the way in which society positions itself consciously and unconsciously as cultural vis-à-vis what it experiences as ‘natural’. The latter is emphatically expressed as something subjective, to underline the significant distinction between nature as man sees and knows it and nature that is entirely independent of man, his perception and knowledge. The first type of nature belongs to the sphere of the sciences and arts (‘culture’ then in its broadest sense, to which individual experience can be added). To the second type of nature we are merely connected biologically and evolutionary. To this we can only relate in a moral way.

Bearing this in mind, Lemaire’s mentioned disappointment in the development of contemporary rendering of the landscape is easy to understand. The fast-spreading urbanization of the countryside has made the horizon disappear from the Dutch landscape, which Lemaire reads as a process in which the mind gradually cuts itself off: only the wide gaze enlarges the thought process. He is disappointed in the fact that contemporary photography continues to embroider on the interests and imagery of the New Topographics ‘movement’, principal hatch of the pictorial tradition that is mainly interested in the built-up field of vision. The photographers involved in the ‘movement’ strive for a realistic rendering of the ordinary environment, away from romantic traditions and ‘beautification’. By confronting the viewers with the banality of our day-to-day environment, they become more conscious of their environment and consequently may be more likely to act. Perhaps the latter formulation is somewhat one-sided: most of the photographers or visual artists are no preachers, in fact in their work they are looking for new ways of gazing and representing. At the most it is their aim to make us realize that indeed we are perceiving in characteristic and received ways and that there are possible alternatives. They do so by representing things differently, alienating us from the ‘normal’ world and the way we observe it in accordance with custom. The very alienation forces us to reorient and reposition ourselves mentally. It creates a thinking space where ethical issues can be equally dealt with. Yet, Lemaire writes, next to holding up a mirror to man, it is art’s task to show the other or Other too. Lemaire does not argue in favor of a postmodern removal of the binary opposition between culture and nature; rather, he wishes art would emphasize that contrast. ‘Every era and society has to discover that nature never is of a piece with how it has been crafted, thought of dreamt of by society.’ Lemaire penned this down on the threshold of the Internet revolution and the digitalization of lens-based media. At the time, not only the Dutch (and European) landscapes were swiftly changing, so did the media that used to record and picture the landscape. More importantly, the perception of that image changed and how we would henceforth consider images; i.e. in more instances, more fleetingly, with many more associations and more suspicion. The consequences of the digitalization of lens-based media have mainly come down to the loss of the referent of reality and the removal of the (technical) borders between the media. The computer has become the central tool for recording, editing, saving, showing and spreading images. What’s more, thanks to computer technique the visible world is no longer needed to make credible images. The image consumers we have become can no longer make up whether an image is rooted in reality or was partly or entirely constructed in the digital sphere. Added to the unreliability of images is their enormous increase in numbers. At the root of this too lies the computer. The production of images, their direct and sheer unlimited availability and high-speed circulation generate a permanent supply of images that we can daily observe in a huge diversity of places and screens. As a result, we consume the images more fleetingly, which, in a way, devalues the image. Combined with digital networks, the computer generates new kinds of images, such as the ‘landscape-related’ images provided by webcams, Google Earth and Google Streetview.

The work of artists (more specifically: visual artists, video artists, filmmakers, photographers – as far as these categories still make sense) shows an increasingly weaker impulse to document. Instead, the focus (taking the form of play, experiment, spectacle) lies on the perception and experience of images and correspondence and interplay between images, doing away with the classical hierarchy of images, e.g. historical, topical, art, amateur, applied, scientific, authored, found, etcetera. The mix of motion and still pictures, changes in speed of film projections, split-screen and multiple-screen presentations and spatial installations in general are manifestations of that. In these cases, the viewer is not positioned before a work but ‘inside’ of it to the highest possible degree. Deceleration and acceleration, fragmentation, intentional pixilation, non-narrative editing techniques and interactivity make the viewer depart from the logic of the here and now and offer visual and auditory associations that are emphatically subjective and drive at an alienating experience.

When we interpret physical space as the reflection of mental space, that is aware of its limits, the step to digital space is a small one to take. Recent research has shown that on average Dutch people gaze at a computer screen four hours a day – leaving the television screen out of the reckoning. The landscape of the screen, the online world, has become one of the fixed abodes of the mind. There has been ample debate about the effects of online life on the social life as we have traditionally known it, on the psyche and our sense of identity. Through social media we have established new social networks while former ones have become obsolete. The computer whisks us away from the here and now and provides us with inexhaustible opportunities to communicate with others 24/7 – ‘radically’ heedless of time and space. Thanks to our digital ‘I’s’ (avatars) we can exist on the Internet by means of various invented identities. In the digital world the unity of time, place and action – the principle that has ruled our world, including that of the arts, ever since the Renaissance – is no longer self-evident. Will man find his rightful place in this labyrinthine, continuously changing landscape of his own making? After all, only through finding himself will he find the necessary Other.

Frits Gierstberg, Rotterdam, December 2014

Frits Gierstberg studied art history at the University of Leiden. From 2004 through 2014 he was head of exhibitions at The Nederlands Fotomuseum. Currently, he is curator at the same institute. From 2006 through 2010 he was professor of Photography at the Erasmus University Rotterdam. In 2012 he became visiting tutor at The Piet Zwart Institute. As curator he has realized many exhibitions in the Netherlands and abroad, including a number on the landscape in photography.