THINKING LANDSCAPES

Landscape is a verb. A landscape, after all, is not a static given, but springs from various processes. We construct the landscape whilst observing but simultaneously we compare it, consciously or unconsciously, with countless landscapes (real or virtual, natural or artistic) that we are already familiar with. The landscape, then, manifests itself both in our mind’s eye and before our eyes, it is as much conjured up as seen. Which is why every landscape is layered. It appeals to both our sense of perception and to our memory, it contains traces of growth and history. Interestingly, the word ‘landscape’ is derived from the term used to refer to the painted landscape. In every respect, the landscape is thus selected and framed nature.

 

Nature? Nature too is a seemingly simple concept. Invented within the city walls, the term represents precisely that what culture is not and what culture constructed as its exact opposite. The distance between rural and urban environment required some terminology to explain that gap: ‘culture’ versus ‘nature’. In that sense ‘nature’ can perhaps be best understood as ‘meta culture’: an amalgam of images designed by culture to obtain a better understanding of itself. Fine art provided the means of representation that made this process visible. The best-known examples of this ‘self-representation of culture’ (Ton Lemaire) are the garden and the landscape.

The garden is indeed a prime example of our tendency to domesticate ‘nature’ (the label given by culture to ‘non-culture’). Conceived as ideal nature the garden depicts how we image paradise. It is clean and constructed nature. That is why the history of the garden aptly reflects the opinions about art and nature that circulated through the ages. At times the one was hardly to be distinguished from the other. In the course of the 18th century, for instance, ‘landscape gardens’ were created in England that looked ‘natural’ but were in fact constructed in the tiniest detail on the basis of Arcadian, classicist landscape paintings dating from the 17th century. These gardens were literally ‘spectacular’: they were meant to be admiringly gazed upon rather than leisurely walked in.

The landscape genre in painting shows how man since the Renaissance has made strong attempts to frame nature. The role of the landscape gradually evolved from background to religious scenes to a genre in its own right in which the traditional indoor practice came to be replaced by modern outdoor painting. Landscape paintings adorned the interiors of city folk and as such evoked a view of an idyllic, non-urban environment. The landscape painting is nature frozen into image. What is not set within the frame is not ‘landscape worthy’. Framing always implies choosing: nature passed through the filter of censure. Here too the criteria for making the right choice are embedded in the prevailing views regarding beauty, art and nature.

To this day both garden and landscape determine our dealings with nature and with art. As environment avant-la-lettre the fanciful and often bizarre 16th-century garden architecture foretells present-day installation art, while various motifs and compositions of the traditional landscape painting live on in photography, video art and painting. It may seem that of late the landscape has not been particularly fashionable in the art world, however, on closer inspection it has always been widely present. In that sense it is a matter of interesting continuity, although the impression created seemed to indicate otherwise: for the avant-gardes of the early 20th century the landscape epitomized the bourgeois longing for ideality and idyll. ‘Let’s kill the moonlight!’ the futurists declaimed.

Whereas in post-WWII art the landscape loses importance as motif, it more and more arises as metaphor. Informal, abstract paintings from the 1950s no longer represent landscapes but bear with their layered, sedimented or encrusted skin of paint many similarities with the traces of growth and erosion in nature. The organic-looking abstract painting reflects the existential ideas that are en vogue after WWII. When asked about the role of nature in his abstract paintings American action painter Jackson Pollock’s reply is brief and to the point: ‘I am nature.’

Classical lovely landscape paintings are passé and trigger associations with kitsch and the bourgeoisie. Andy Warhol makes a caricature of the naïve depiction of nature in his do-it-yourself landscapes and his garish flower paintings. But right when progress seemed to have become unstoppable, sometime in the mid-1960s, and artists who were associated with pop art and minimal art discarded nature for good, land artists such as Robert Smithson and Richard Long rediscovered the artistic potential of the landscape. Whereas Smithson was especially interested in entropy, erosion and the impurities of the post-urban wastelands, Long through his rendering of pristine landscapes launched a current approach to the sublime.

Sculptural interventions and documented hikes in nature make that photography instead of painting became the principal landscape medium in the 1960s and 70s. Processes like experiencing time, perceiving the environment and the interaction between artist and his surroundings are gaining importance. The landscape becomes site. In 1969 Gerry Schum set up the by now legendary ‘television exhibition’ Land Art, composed of short experimental films that artists created in and around the landscape. Around the same time it dawns on the world that the ecosystem is not inexhaustible and in fact very vulnerable. The Limits to Growth, the shocking report by the Club of Rome, published at the beginning of the 1970s irrefutably shows that for the first time in the history of man, mankind does not have to be protected against nature, but quite the reverse, nature needs to be protected against mankind.

The frictions between aesthetic and economic nature result in an ecological reading of the landscape. Besides political actions, radically committed artists like Joseph Beuys and Hans Haacke also integrate ecological actions into their work. Haacke’s projects with contaminated water and waste and Beuys’ commitment to the green cause fill the gap between ecological reflection and artistic practice. In these cases too mainly photos and videos document the projects of the artists involved.  The shift from the aesthetical to the ecological signifies a fundamental revolution. At the end of the 20th century the landscape has lost its innocence for good. The naive depicting of pristine, idyllic nature has become definitely impossible when it turns out that this type of nature is not only under serious threat, but in a way even a form of fiction.

The landscape as artistic practice seems to be doomed to die unless it is presented as a bundle of tacky clichés or as a cynical reflection on the banality of contemporary, post-industrial society. The post-modern landscape is at the same time the posthumous landscape. The representation of nature reflects the end of it as meaningful concept. Groundbreaking in this respect was the exhibition New Topographics. Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (1975) that introduced in the mid-1970s an ‘alternative’ landscape photography in which erosion, pollution, exhaustion and the built environment were no longer taboo, but the subject of contrary, post-modern iconography. By the end of the 20th century the titles of thematic group exhibitions like Post-human (1993) and Post-nature (2001) suggest the uncertain survival of man and nature in an artificial, ‘enhanced’ form.

In a different vein, shows like Fragile Ecologies. Contemporary Artist’s Interpretations and Solutions (1992) and Natural Reality (1999) present an overview of the criticism and alternatives that are brought about by artistic practice. In these the ‘landscape’ takes up a supporting part only next to various forms of (re)presentation, scientific research and ecological activism. What’s more, the landscape has lost its one-on-one relationship with nature. The urban landscape that is rancid and frayed at the edges has since the 1990s been a popular motif in contemporary photography and video. The exhibitions Wasteland. Landscape from now on (1992), Paysage. Lieux et non-lieux (1995) and SubUrban Options. SubUrban Options. Photography Commissions and the Urbanization of the Landscape)  (1998) (Commissioned Photography and the urbanizing landscape) documented this tendency.

And all the while the clichés of the traditional landscape iconography seem to doggedly persist in the advertising and entertainment industries. Thanks to virtual reality and the latest information technology for most people the static landscape of old has historical value at best.  The omnipresence of cameras (ranging from smart phones to security camera’s, to street views and satellite images of Google Earth) produces a hyperkinetic, exponentially growing archive of images that offers the illusion of comprehensiveness and yet, frustratingly, seems to actually generate less insight. This tension between information and disinformation is what contemporary artists get to work with.

The myriad pixilated and fragmented images we are confronted with today makes us long for the inertia that can be found in the landscape photo or painting. A still image indeed implies a vantage point and hence a choice. As such the old-fashioned landscape makes our minds work again. This explains the fascination of many contemporary photographers with unconventional, stilled landscape images. Conversely, the fluidity, dynamics and immersive possibilities of the latest digital media result in a variety of alternative landscape interpretations that stretch and fully open up the conventions of the genre. Aspects of evolution, transformation and metamorphosis, specific to the genesis of the landscape can be visualized more adequately by means of the latest image tools. As a consequence, not only the rural or urban landscape is put into question, so is our gaze.  Landscape, after all, is a verb.

Johan Pas, Ekeren, Augustus 2014

Johan Pas (°1963) is kunsthistoricus en auteur van ondermeer ‘Nature Morte? Kunst, natuur & biotoop’ (1995) en ‘Buiten & Binnen. Visies op en door het actuele landschap’ (1998) In de jaren negentig stelde hij diverse tentoonstellingen samen over de representaties van de natuur, het landelijke en het stedelijke landschap. Hij doceert aan de Koninklijke Academie voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen en doet onderzoek naar de presentatie- en publicatiepraktijken van de neo-avant-gardes.