Preoccupations and contexts ‘after landscape’
lain Biggs and Judith Tucker
LAN2D was established in 2002 as a network of artist/lecturers and research students associated with universities throughout Britain. Membership is by invitation. Its concerns are focused by two sets of interests: the complex space of contemporary landscape’ and printmaking, photography, painting and, increasingly, video, as they relate to it.This reflects a desire to maintain contact with processes that have provided exemplary articulation of ‘subjective inwardness, referential depth, historical time and coherent human expression’, the core components of an ethical imagination.1 LAN2D meets for presentations of work in progress, maintains a web site, undertakes occasional projects and organises exhibitions and conferences. If we focus more particularly here on the work of some members than others, this simply reflects the fact that we are more familiar with their work.
Landscape remains a contested term, meaning very different things to different people. Griselda Pollock has argued, for example, that landscape is:’a poetic means to imagine our place in the world’; that the ambiguity or ‘paradox of landscape is that it is both what is other to the human subject: land, place, nature; and yet, it is also the space for projection, and can become, therefore, a sublimated self-portrait’. Given that we now suffer what she calls ‘an epidemic of uprootedness’, landscape has become a privileged site for reflection on a number of levels. Writing of the work of the painter Lydia Bauman, Pollock notes that: landscape is the pictorial representation of a space that is neither geographical nor Physical. Its absent centre is always the spectator the human consciousness reflected in this brilliant exercise of formal invention coupled with a ‘field of dreams’ 2 That space, seen as a ‘field of dreams”, is both literally and metaphorically charged, saturated with conflicting vaues, memories, histories and desires. Consequently, ‘landscape’ can become that type of place where the ‘field of dreams’ out of which we narrate a sense of who we have been, are, or might be, flows together with the concrete particularities of our physical world (understood in terms of economics, ecology, history, psychology, etc.).
The majority of LAN2D artists make work that involves some synthesis of ‘testimonial’, ‘poetic’ and ’empathetic’ imagination as a basis for engaging with the complexities of the environment ‘after landscape’. (This phrase has been chosen for its deliberate ambiguity, implying both the notion of a ‘post’ landscape context and, as in the traditional painter’s terminology,’in the style of). Some adopt strategies that echo aspects of the architectural critic Kenneth Frampton‘s conception of Critical Regionalism, consciously and critically distancing their work from the dominant cosmopolitan preoccupations of our culture3. David Walker Barker‘s engagement with once mineral rich locations – reflecting the traditional skills of field workers in geology, metallurgy and archaeology – parallels in some respects the work of a ‘critical regionalist’ like Will Maclean, which draws heavily on the skills and practices of a now decimated Highland fishing industry. (Dan Shipsides‘ use of the shared language of climbing is an interesting and highly distinctive variation on this use of a particular set of skills as a metaphor). Others, for example Paul Gough and Amanda Wood, work within the discipline of drawing to interrogate and uncover fields of dreams – whether reveries or nightmares – inherent in our perception of landscape. Others, for example Paul Blatchford, come closer to the traditions of psycho-geography.
Since the Nighteen Eighties there has been a growing sense that the traditional distinction between nature and culture is flawed, if not redundant. We live in a culture with instruments of mass destruction that dwarf the destructive power even of natural forces like tidal waves, hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanos. Once a bulwark against nature, culture now looks increasingly to ‘nature’ and the ‘natural’ to provide some cure for its excesses. However arguably there is no longer anything that could be called ‘natural’, cultural manipulation of the natural world having reached a level that rendered distinction between the two terms all but meaningless.This can only reinforce a growing sense of anxiety about the ‘natural’ itself, a view confirmed by AIDs and other epidemics. (This ambivalent attitude to the relative value of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ is present in Sarah Bodman‘s artist’s books, which deal with such topics as the use of poisonous plants and the inhumanity involved in the early treatment of contagious disease).
This complex and intertwined relation of nature and culture is interrogated by Kate Soper through her essay Nature/’nature’.4 She provides extremely clear, useful summaries of the two major critiques of modernity’s views of nature namely; ecology and ‘postmodernist’ cultural theory and criticism. She questions the acceptability of both ecological and postmodernist views suggesting that each has to take some account of the other’s position. In her discussion of the cultural production of’nature’, Soper reflects on artistic mediations of nature and the relationship between them and the aesthetic experience of landscape, and suggests that considerations of landscape and its mediated forms are mutually determining. Soper summarises the two views as follows:
Yet while the ecologists tend to invoke ‘nature’ as an independent domain of intrinsic’value, truth or authenticity, postmodernist cultural theory and criticism emphasises its discursive status, inviting us to view the order of nature’ as existing only in the chain of the signifier…this deconstructivist perspective has prompted numerous cultural readings which emphasise the instability of the concept of’nature’ and its lack of any fixed reference.5
The work of LAN2D members would seem largely to concur with, and sometimes even further qualify, her materialist/realist position. Implicit in this position is the notion of something ‘concrete’ out there to be ‘seen’, something to trigger any interpretation through acts of perception. Without exception the artists here seem to attempt to connect with/ relate to something other, the materiality of the land that is ‘out there’.This may be evidenced in the way in which none focus primarily on the deconstruction of already mediated images of landscape in their practice. Indeed, many of these artists’ practices are predicated upon a re/consideration of that very encounter in the landscape’, while relating to this ‘landscape”out there’ through a culturally formed being and in relation to cultural discourses and representations.
Initially employing black and white photography, Michael Porter engages with particular locations, whether he is in Cornwall or the Derbyshire Peak district. He reconsiders these in the studio, and through selection and his distinctive painterly processes develops a painted relation with both photography and place. His notion of himself as an artist engaged with description brings to mind the title of Svetlana Alpers influential writing on Dutch art6 Consequently Porter’s practice invites us to reconsider what this activity might have to offer us now, at the beginning of the twenty first century, lain Biggs‘ relation with the borderlands of Scotland and England may result in a graceful exploration of a compound imaginative space between landscape and ballad’ through the complexities of paint, print, photography and a curious form of writing that lies itself on the border between fact and fiction, yet, it emerges in the poetic form that it does precisely because of the conversation that develops between his particular experience of (or rambling though) ‘Carterhaugh’ and his scholarly and aesthetic concerns. In a similar way it is largely through the very act of walking in North Wensleydale, revisiting some of the sites from which Turner made works, that informs the spatiotemporal conversation inherent in Amanda Wood‘s drawn images. Such conversation also informs the practice of Niamh O’Malley. At first glance she might seem to be one of the LAN2D artists most explicitly concerned with modes of representation, yet her recent piece dene Vignette’, 2004, made whilst in residence at PSI, New York, demonstrates a clear response to being in a particular place. She uses her contemporary experiences in, and observations of. Central Park in dialogue with some of the original 1857 designers’ notions of creating a pastoral landscape in the English romantic tradition and considerations of the picturesque, to create a striking image combining video with paint.
Although by no means unaware of the politics of landscape, most of the LAN2D network members do not engage literally or explicitly in direct interactions and negotiations that ‘politically engaged’ champions of site specific work would claim to be the very stuff of art’s social relations. However both Sian Bonnell and Mick McGraw engage with the politics of the contemporary countryside: Bonnell via images that deal with land use, the irradiation of crops and modification of food sources; McGraw with deforestation and the profligacy of multinational industry and government. (Similar concerns, approached more obliquely, are also implicit in some of Jane Millar‘s work).
None the less, a degree of social critique is often implicit in the work.The best contemporary ‘landscape art’ almost always demonstrates some level of critical engagement with older landscape traditions (justifying the second use of’after landscape’ referred to above), often by putting an emphasis on the power of ‘testimonial imagination’.7 (Gillian Robertson‘s engagement with issues of loss and renewal via metaphors based in archaeological retrieval is typical in this respect). By doing so contemporary art has helped unpick the reductive claim that Western ‘landscape’ art is inevitably bound up with and compromised by a particular masculine vision generated by traditions of aesthetes, antiquarians and the landed gentry, thus somehow inseparable from its origins in the social conditions of the emerging capitalist world and the product of a particular class and gender While the sociological readings informing this reductive understanding of landscape’ are in no sense simply ‘wrong’, they do make presumptions about landscape ‘that seriously underestimate the complex signalling of value in its visual representations.
For example, it is clear that landscape imagery inherently contains notions of space and location.Thus travel has been frequently used in addition to or as an extension of the geographic metaphor Implicit in notions of travel and of displacement are, of course, the opposite notions that there must be a relationship between the landscape and ideas of home.
Here, Caren Kaplan usefully considers how various different contemporary metaphors of displacement relate to ideas of location, suggesting that each metaphor is imbued with a sense of distance from a concept of position, placement or dwelling:
Thus exile is always already a mode of dwelling at a distance from a point of origin .Tourism is travel between points of origins and destinations. Diaspora disperses the locations of dwelling into a interstitial habitus 8
These issues inflect the concerns of AndreaThoma, Lily Markiewicz and Judith Tucker “An old shadowed land” of childhood memory inflects lain Biggs‘ recent project. Few of us now have families that have lived in the same place for generations; many of us feel the exoticism and strangeness of the fixed community.9 Arnold Berleant considers how the places of our childhood contribute to our sense of self:
We see ourselves in the houses of our childhood; they contribute to the selves that we are; we become ourselves in and through those places.10
Yet among LAN2D artists it is possible to discover some contemporary ‘exotics’: Chris Rawson Tetley‘s explorations of the changing relation of industry to the landscape of the Don valley do emerge out of a certain rootedness, His origins in a mining community are surely relevant to David Walker Barker‘s lifelong interest in collecting minerals from underground locations, an activity that informs his way of both seeing and imaging the landscape as if from ‘inside’ and ‘underneath’.
All of which suggests that a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of ‘landscape’ as the relationship between place, memory, loss, recuperation, identity, etc. is now critical, suggesting the need for an ‘after landscape’.
The awareness of the need to rethink landscape informs paintings by Judith Tucker, based on drawings made at coastal sites that develop insights into the paradoxical nature of ‘perceptual painting’ in relation to the issues of memory, belonging and loss involved in metaphors rooted in ‘landscape’. Rather than simply assume the loss of ‘the natural’, as many’post-modernist’ artists do,Tucker builds into her working process a premeditated distance from her source material, thus acknowledging the complexity of ‘the metropolitan/urban relationship with a construct of “nature” as a locus for desire11; one that situates the work as distanced from nature, but without denying the visual externality from which it in part derives. She notes that:’this paradox of distancing and then attempting to connect across that distance opens up the opportunity to consider the work in terms of belonging, longing, sensuality and desire, that of a radical playing with archaic identifications between land and the feminine and, in doing so, creates a tension that becomes the subject of the work’.12
Maps, vital for travel, have never lost their potency to inspire; indeed, it might be said that maps and mapping have become a ubiquitous symbol of land and displacement in contemporary art practice. Inherent in a map is the conjunction of notions of the temporal as well as spatial, there is the possibility of re/living of all journeys through them; whether those journeys/adventures are projected or past, invented or’real’. In the following passage Lucy Lippard considers maps;
Even at their most abstract, maps (especially topographical maps) are catalysts, as much a titillating foretaste of future physical experience as they are records of others’ (or our own) past experiences. For the map lover, maps are about visualising the places you’ve never been and recalling the ones you’ve been to. A map can be memory or anticipation in graphic code. 13
While some artists in LAN2D might literally incorporate maps into their work: lain Biggs includes maps as a delicate skein-like layer; a thin line holding his images in its web, Carrina Parraman‘s Work Path deals precisely with the relationship of the land with its diagrammatic representation. Others either make maps/diagrams or collect and consult them along the way: (Chris Rawson Tetley, Mick McGraw, David Walker Barker, Amanda Wood, Paul Gough). Interestingly, other artists’ work might be considered in a way analogous to maps, as material representations of time and space and it is this that is the most intriguing. Lippard’s notion of the paradox of the simultaneous combination of memory and anticipation calls to mind the temporal concerns of Lily Markiewicz, her piece, a diptych Chasing after the ghost of its own grace, two poetic evocations of a pool, one peopled and active, the other empty, corroded by algae, hinting of the feral, which while appearing to offer impermanence as their premise also proffer the possibility of enduring cycles. Tania Kovats, currently Henry Moore Fellow in Drawing at UWE, Bristol, considers landscape in terms of such a continuing process, becoming rather than being:
Landscape is a series of incidents coming into being. Landscapes are managed aesthetically, economically, and environmentally. They are processed. They make themselves. The verbs of geology: eroding, shifting erupting, receding, compressing, solidifying, slipping, subsiding and recovering.14
One might add, with Paul Gough‘s work in mind, that they are also managed and processed by war and its memorialisation. Many of the LAN2D artists explore the possibilities available in the parallels in the underlying mutability of the materiality of land and the processes involved in their various making strategies. Through its physicality, the very materiality of its strata and geology, landscape might be considered to contain narratives: evidence and traces of actions, whether of the waves, wind or land shifts, and there are those analogous resonances and echoes of mutable pasts which might be evidenced through the very materiality of paint, photography, print or video.The following notes by Per Kirkeby demonstrates this parallel:
The abstract shifts and disturbances in the structure of the works seem to reflect the cracks and discordance found within the earth’s organic crust 15
A strikingly evident, indeed almost obsessional concern with surface characterises the work of David Walker Barker, Michael Porter and Gill Robertson, their choice of medium predicates the way in which they image the land, and the process is integral to the creation of the final image.Their surfaces are heavily worked, what was once liquid is now solid paint: repeatedly built up, poured, layered and then perhaps excavated, scraped and worn back. Although strikingly visually different, there are paradoxically similar thoughts concerning the representation of rock surfaces implicit in Dan Shipside‘s ‘climbing acts’ and accompanying documentation, lain Biggs‘ composite images, whether painted or made in print, not only depict the landscape using a plethora of means of representation but, in so doing, also produce fractured and layered surfaces. In contrast the fragile glittering surfaces of Jane Millar‘s beaded and stitched images act as an ironic counterfoil to the event of the violence of the tornados they depict.
In this context it may be worth reflecting that, if the ideal traditional ‘landscape’ was designed to appeal to the financially independent man of taste, then the mundane, literal, everyday landscape might still, it was acknowledged, appeal to “women and the vulgar”. Sian Bonnell, AndreaThoma and Brenda Riley each approach the contemporary landscape’from a perspective which enables them to explore and re-evaluate this second, traditionally ‘inferior’, sense of ‘landscape’. Their understanding is ultimately closer to a much earlier, and largely forgotten, Anglo-Saxon use of the word related to the German term ‘Landschaft’ – meaning a sheaf, a patch of ground, something small-scale that corresponded to a peasant’s perception, a mere fragment of a feudal estate, an inset in a Breughel landscape’16 This is a’close-up’, ‘domestic’, ‘small-scale’ view of environment derived from the working or playing body; one experientially closer to our relationship to a family back garden, a vegetable plot or allotment, even the favoured corner of the local park, rather than the modern equivalents to the seventeenth century ideal – the national park or ‘area of outstanding beauty’.This second, ‘inferior’ sense of’landscape’ relates closely to issues of place as they appear; for example, in the work of Lily Markiewicz and Sally James, albeit in very different ways. Place here is the crucible where everyday,’natural’ activities interact with cultural spaces in which the self is endlessly re-membered, reconfigured. As Markiewicz writes:‘Sooner or later the past catches up and then one place becomes another: one space circumscribing many others’.17
Here, where ‘landscape’ blends into entrances and exits and other transitional places that contain and release the body, it may be useful to remember Stephanie Ross‘s argument that ‘landscape’-based environmental art be seen as an avant-garde form of gardening, one of the most traditional forms of mediation between nature and culture.18 Ross argues that environmental art rearticulates strategies which can be related to traditions of landscape gardening which, at least in eighteenth-century England, was itself considered as a fine art on a par with painting and poetry.To link contemporary landscape’ work to such an argument may seem to contradict our claim that many contemporary artists tend to prioritise concerns that belong to a mundane, rather than a ‘high’ or ‘ideal’, tradition of landscape. However, as Ross reminds us, eighteenth-century landscape had more than one model, and there remain at least two prototypes for our current understanding of the garden which may be useful here.
The ideal Western European garden (and through it the ideal ‘landscape’), has its roots in ‘sacred groves and Nymphaeum dedicated to the pagan deities’ – ultimately sites of reflection and rituals of propitiation, libation, memory and obligation that have something in common with Markiewicz’s use of locations – while the mundane garden is rooted in ‘utilitarian kitchen and medical gardens’ created to serve the practical concerns of human welfare. What an artist like Sian Bonnell has in common with the first,’high art’, tradition of gardening – with its artful arrangements of statues, grottoes, obelisks, fountains, hermitages, follies, hidden ditches, bridges – is the organisation of meanings in and through the structuring of the landscape; in her case via the placing of objects to create systems of analogy, (a characteristic she shares with Niamh O’Malley).That these objects are deliberately drawn from among mundane cultural artefacts at the opposite end of the cultural spectrum to those of’high art’ can be seen as both a continuation and a critique of that tradition.
The work Bonnell has made in Holland, with its ‘sculptural’ arrangement of food and flowers, perfectly illustrates this play between the two traditions, although it is a form of play that remains ultimately subversive. Her most recent work, with its exotic colour play on popular science fiction, perfectly balances an appeal to longing for the numinous in landscape against our contemporary culture’s ingrained scepticism with regard to any kind of pantheistic resonance in art. What Bonnell develops in terms of the second, mundane, tradition of the garden is a critical concern with the interplay between the everyday world of mundane work, including nurture, child care and the work of cultivation, and the processes of the organic world. She redeploys some of the rhetorical strategies which were used to generate what Ross calls ‘the symbolic powers of eighteenth-century English gardens’, but while working in ways which emphasis the mundane landscape as ‘plot of land’ or worked fragment, in the tradition of a perception of land oriented by taken-for-granted, routinely utilitarian, bodily work traditionally associated with women or the labouring classes’, a position that also appears very clearly in some of Andrea Thoma‘s work.
When contemporary artists with the orientations discussed here engage with ‘landscape’, they are aware of that sense of wonder and reconciliation that, through art (among a range of human activities), can permeate and temporally’redeem’ what comes to us through day to day attention, both to the mundane and the extraordinary in landscape, which we also experience as a space in which to dream. Consequently, they still aspire to make art that serves our ‘becoming other’, offering us radical metaphors that invite us to imagine ourselves and landscape ‘otherwise’. For a number of LAN2D members, this involves producing images that offer intimations of the sublime while, simultaneously, firmly ground us in the stuff of the mundane world in ways we have related to Soper’s position -that is between nature and ‘nature’.This understanding acknowledges our being tied to an endless crossing and re-crossing of the uncertain borderlines between the particular’here’ of a reality inseparable from our own bodily experience and the finally ungraspable ‘there’ of the natural world. It takes on all the ambiguous, intertwining of times and materialities with their reconfigurations and confluences of memories, powers and promises of identity, of temporary and provisional ‘comings home’, none of which can finally concluded this side of death. Is this, perhaps, the task of’landscape’ art that seeks to engage with the ambiguities of the world ‘after landscape’?
lain Biggs is Reader in Visual Arts Practice at the Bristol School of Art, Media and Design in University of the West of England, Bristol.
Judith Tucker is AHRB Research fellow in the Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Leeds
- See Richard Kearney The Woke of Imagination (1994) London: Routledge and Poetics of Imagining: from Husserl to Lyotard (1993) London: Routledge.
- In ‘Lydia Bauman:The Poetic Image in the Field of the Uncanny’ in Lydia Bauman, Landscapes (1997) Warsaw: Zacheta Gallery.
- For a discussion of this linkage see lain Biggs ‘Educating “Local Cosmopolitans”: the case for a critical regionalism in art education?’ in Journal of Visual Art Practice vol I no I, (2001).
- Kate Sopen Nature/’nature’ in FutureNaturaf nature/sa’ence/cu/ture edited George Robertson et al (1996) London: Routledge.
- Ibid. p. 23
- Svetlana Alpers The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1983) Chicago, University of Chicago Press
- ‘…that is, the power to bear witness to “exemplary” narratives legacied by our cultural memories and traditions’. Richard Kearney Poetics of Imagining: from Husserl to Lyotard op.cit p.220
- Caren Kaplan. Questions of Travel. Postmodern Discourses of Displacement. London and Durham: Duke University Press 1996 p. 143.
- We would like to acknowledge Janette Turner Hospital’s insights into the notion of the exoticism of the rooted community in August 2001 in ‘Strangers in a strange land’ BBC Radio 4. No commercial transcript of the programme is available and for copyright and contractual reasons the BBC was unable to provide us with a one-off copy
- Arnold Berleant. Living in the Landscape. Toward an Aesthetics of Environment. Kansas: University Press fo Kansas 1997p. 123
- Judith Tucker Caesura (2002) Leeds: University of Leeds pp.2-3
- Ibid p. 4
- Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local Senses of Place in a Mufticentered Society (1997) New York The New Press, p. 77.
- Tania Kovats, Lost, (2000) Birmingham: Ikon Gallery p. 12.
- From the exhibition sheet for an exhibition of Per Kirkeby’s work at the Michael Hue Williams Gallery 2000.
- Barbara Bender Landscape.’Politics and Perspectives (1993) Providence & Oxford, Berg Publishers Ltd. p.2
- Lily Markiewicz The Price of Words: Places to Remember 1-26 (1992) London: Book Works section H.
- See Stephanie Ross’ Gardens, Earthworks, and Environmental Art’ in Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts