Beyond Landscape?

David Hill

To be honest, I don’t much like the sound of going ‘Beyond Landscape’. It implies that landscape is a term that needs to be discarded, a concept in need of revision, and a practice worn-out and in need of replacement. Five years ago this was probably the majority view. Landscape was so unfashionable that any serious artist or academic would have been embarrassed to admit any interest in it at all, let alone any devotion to it. As a practice, it was mostly the domain of the middle-class in Gortex. The ‘big issues’ were all political, psychoanalytical and psychosocial, and the serious kind of practice, ironic, critical, metropolitan. Landscape was definitely not cool.

Five years ago the majority of the general public to whom the term meant anything at all would have associated it with old paintings of fields and scenery. But something has changed recently. We can now think of landscape expanded as a term to include the representation of the whole world in which we exist. It is environment and habitat, physical and mental, real and imagined, natural and cultural, experienced and vicarious, and from it we construct the sense of who, what and where we are.There could hardly be a more important and all-embracing subject or practice in art Suddenly the Government in the shape of the Arts and Humanities Research Board makes it a cause of national pride and priority for research.1 It becomes hard to imagine that a place beyond landscape is at all required any more, still less actually to be encouraged.

Even if progression is to be preferred to secession, there are perhaps numerous aspects of landscape that can be found wanting, and beyond which we might usefully endeavour to progress. In order to consider landscape’s potential future, however; it might be useful to consider what came before. It is an impossible task to say when exactly landscape began, but it is clear that there is a time, in fact the majority of time, when it didn’t exist, or at least it wasn’t at all common.Thus it may be said to be an historically specific phenomenon, constructed by historical circumstances, serving historical ends, and perhaps, as the title of this volume would propose, now transcended. In the specific sense of landscape denoting images of the scenery of the world this does seem to be true.There are almost no visual representations of specific places in the world before the seventeenth century. So the question arises, what new condition was entered into sometime around or before the seventeenth century, of which landscape was the expression, mediation and negotiation?

The broad theoretical consensus has been that this condition is one of alienation constructed in whole or in part by one or more of a number of factors: post-Renaissance retreat from belief in the supernatural; increasingly urban lifestyles; capitalist modes of land ownership; abstracted or alienated modes of working; increasing colonisation, exploration and exploitation of the world; improved communication and accelerating geographical and social mobility; increasing awareness and informedness of things on the local, regional, national international and even global and universal scales; consciousness of regional, national and perhaps latterly international or even global political identity. Such issues have occupied commentators and artists for the past thirty or more years, and all, clearly, are more-or-less important and determining factors. It does, however; appear that such thinking, and the critical artistic practice that has gone along with it, has been more concerned to be deconstructive rather than constructive. That is, its principal objective has been to discover the forces that might be said to have been insufficiently acknowledged in the construction of landscape imagery, and so, through the act of revealing these forces, explain away their potential to influence, construct, or worse, manipulate our consciousness and behaviour. This is perhaps to neglect somewhat the needs and purposes of landscape. What does it enable is to do that we could not do without it? What good does it do, rather than what damage?

Some time between the Renaissance and the seventeenth century the world became available for viewing in a uniquely new way.This occurred in the Christian west, but was in a paradoxical way antithetical to its own religious tenets. Somehow it became apparent that people could look upon the world and indeed the universe, for themselves.The meaning, nature, significance, cause and effect of things was not any longer given and (albeit imperfectly) received, but to be established, discovered anew and from first principles. Almost everything that had been said or received was up for review, probably wrong, and at best a mere pointer to a better view or understanding. The world was a new place, almost as if we had just arrived, and never seen anything before:

“The world was all before them, where to chose Their place of rest, and providence their guide: They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667, XII, 646-9

After Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, God’s personal event-management service was suspended.They were on their own and needed to figure out and cope with the world for themselves. By the time Paradise Lost was written such concepts had been gestating for some time. They were connected to the rise of empiricism from late mediaeval times, and expressed the problems of scientific method in relation to religious doctrine. Milton’s Adam and Eve are made to stand far humankind acknowledging and embracing this new condition, and they stand before their new world with optimism. Even in their solitary condition they have each other (‘hand in hand’) and by implication humankind its collective endeavour, to manage their destiny, to choose their place of rest.

So landscape is both the record of and the material by which this new world condition is explored, mapped, assimilated, and transmitted. It is hardly surprising that the landscape of the post-Renaissance is dominated by the idea of journeys. Mary and Joseph are sent off ten thousand times on a Flight Into Egypt, each by a different route, just to make sure that they visit every conceivable landscape, witness every kind of endeavour; have experience of every plant and animal and environment, camp out under the sun, stars and moon, in every weather and in every kind of structure, and end up each time in an ever more exotic and distant land, to the very furthest limit of the known globe. Landscape opens out in image to disclose the proposition that there are spaces to be explored, experiences to be assimilated, phenomena to be considered and understood. Increasingly it is the specific and the particular that comes to exercise the attention, continually modifying the prefiguration with some new impression of the real. Soon it is artists that make the journeys as well as their subjects.The significant trend from the Dutch seventeenth century through the English eighteenth is from the general to the particular, towards the real places and stuff of the world. This mission, mirrored through all the natural sciences, to compile an inventory of the whole world and its contents. By the end of the eighteenth century an artist such as Turner was dedicated to travel and exploration almost for its own sake as much as for the purpose of making art.The cumulative result is a cornucopia of places and possibilities, of choice. Milton’s Adam and Eve can choose where to settle themselves, and they can look to landscape to inform their decisions.This is a remarkable situation. How many ever in the history of the world had been presented with any such choice? How many in the world now, for that matter? In fact one might say that landscape only exists in the (few) places where there can be any possibility of choice. So when Wordsworth acts out his own Miltonic essaying forth at the beginning of The Prelude, he walks forth from the urban milieu of work, or at least the indoor life that bourgeois professional life would have channelled him towards, into the framework of the most worthwhile modes of being that landscape art and writing had established for him:

“… from yon City’s walls set free,
A prison where he hath been long immured.
Now I am free, enfranchis’d and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? In what Vale
Shall be my harbour? Underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home, and what sweet stream
Shall with its murmurs lull me to my rest?
The earth is all before me: with a heart
joyous, nor scar’d at its own liberty,
I look about, and should the guide I chuse
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way.”

William Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1805, 7-19

Reading The Prelude more extensively it is hard not to be irritated by Wordsworth’s constant concern to secure for himself the best quality of experience, the most conducive situation for his spirit, the best possible circumstances and surroundings for his genius. At best one might consider this wearyingly self-obsessed, and at worse pathologically narcissistic. Just who does he think he is? What right does he have to assume any right to choice in the world? Even in his time only a few could entertain any such hope. It may be that Wordsworth was gifted his opportunity by an inheritance, and so he was privileged, but the fact is – irritating or not – that his poetic matter is of particular interest because of the process that informs it, that is of his having asserted and enacted that opportunity of choice. In so doing he represented something exceptional and rare, and demonstrated that others might be able to seize the opportunity for themselves. He was by no means the only one to essay forth into the world of self-determination. Most ended up disappointed, defeated or simply poor, but the greatest artistic success, and perhaps the most voracious consumer of the widest range of experience was J.M.W. Turner.

Turner was dedicated to travel ad during his lifetime managed to visit every corner of mainland Britain and much of Europe besides. It is an interesting question, I think, whether he travelled in order to make art, or made art in order to travel.2 One point repeated endlessly (especially by myself) is that he was born into humble circumstances being the son of a hairdresser of Maiden Lane Covent Garden.The significance of this, however, is that the life that he fashioned for himself- he became the intimate and honoured guest of the wealthiest families, a major figure in an elite national institution, the Royal Academy, Royal dinner-guest, regular traveller to distant places – was one quite outside the conceivable ambit of expectation for someone born in his situation.The majority, especially of the tradesman classes, still moved within very limited circles, stayed probably within a few miles of their birthplace and in much the same material situation. Change was beginning: emigration to the New World and the colonies, migration from country to city, industrialisation and mechanisation, improved trade and communications, tourism – at least for the wealthy. But Turner’s mobility was truly extraordinary; the ultimate in the exercise of self-determination and choice. Furthermore, the whole exercise was undertaken for the purpose of his entering into as wide a range of as vivid and vital experience as possible. It would have been apt had he visited Egypt at least once. It is another platitude that he liked to get as deeply immersed and bemired in the experience as possible; his skin was as red as that of a boiled lobster; he got himself ‘Bogged, most completely horse and its rider’, and most typically, if apocryphally, had himself lashed to a steamboat’s mast in a snowstorm ‘just to see what it was like’. It is not surprising then, that it now seems that the Romantics’ greatest artistic achievements are not so much in their finished productions, but in the record of their process -their sketchbooks and notebooks. It is in Turner’s tens of thousands of sketches that his real significance as an artist lies, and much less in his productions for the walls of the Royal Academy and it is in Wordsworth’s manuscripts and Dorothy’s Journals, rather than in the published volumes. For it is the way in which such things record and testify to the artists’ attainment of being in the world, that they are significant; for the way in which these and others entered into that being through landscape.

The trap is that the product might too easily come to stand in for the process; that we might become more satisfied with the representation that with the thing represented. In some way Wordsworth seems to have been seduced by the trap, but Turner always resisted it. It is another platitude of Turner that his work loosens’ as he gets older, resists finish, and of Wordsworth that he spent his later years polishing the freshness out of his youthful work. I have often wondered quite what the likes of the Earl of Harewood and his son ever saw in Turner; and what his work, hanging in their drawing rooms and saloons meant to them. It clearly stood for a contact with the world that they would never be allowed themselves. On the other hand the totality of reference that their images represented, represented their awareness of the range of possibility open to them, and as brokers and financiers of the future, they represented the limitless possibilities of change. Landscape represents simultaneously the possibilities of escape from determination, and the salve for surrendering to it. Either way it seems an eminently valuable activity, and one that has perhaps attained its most frenzied and overwhelming expression in the present day. We are overwhelmed with information and possibilities of choice, yet simultaneously the economy seeks to ensnare us ever deeper into functional roles, and manage us ever more efficiently in the prosecution of our duties.

So an important and enduring feature of landscape is that it expresses choice and self-determination, and provides a framework of material to inform and mediate that process of choice. Landscape artists furthermore might be seen as explorers in the vanguard of the development of choice, and their world the testimony of what has been encountered.The problem, equally enduring, is that the products can constitute for their users a world of experience in themselves, a vicarious state that can easily stand in for and replace the genuine attainment of being in the world. This last is perhaps pre-eminently an aspect of landscape that we might endeavour to move beyond. Landscape art is not a satisfactory substitute for the real. One major; almost self-evident, issue for landscape imagery is that it is just that, imagery. It reduces the world of sensation and experience – the world of the five senses – to that of sight alone. It contains that sight within borders, presents it in another place, that of the consumer – and also removes or generally scrambles the temporal. It makes the experience disembodied.3

These issues might best be illustrated with one recent and one contemporary example. The first is Christo and Jeanne-Claude‘s Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Miami, Florida, 1980-3. I am looking at a photograph taken from an aeroplane (or perhaps a helicopter) by Wolfgang Voltz in May 1983.The photo is well known but can be seen at the artists’ website,4 together with the artists’ own account of the project, fully describing the process of making and the technical specifications and statistics.They also tell us:’For two weeks Surrounded Islands spreading over I 1.3 kilometres (7 miles) was seen, approached and enjoyed by the public, from the causeways, the land, the water and the air.The luminous pink colour of the shiny fabric was in harmony with the tropical vegetation of the uninhabited verdant island, the light of the Miami sky and the colours of the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay‘.

Furthermore: ‘Surrounded Islands was tended day and night by 120 monitors in inflatable boats’. The photograph is an impressive image:The pink of the polypropylene skirts jumps out against the green of the islands and the blue of the sea. In the distance we can just make out the towers of Miami in the mist. But my questions are; what sort of representation of the event can this be, and moreover what could the actual experience of the event have been like? There may be as many answers to the last question as there were witnesses or participants, but for none of them can the experience have been much like that offered by the photograph. Even for the photographer there was the sheer fact that he was flying, the roar of the engine, the preoccupation of getting his shots, the fact that the plane was moving and probably vibrating, the thrill of being in such an extraordinary situation, and (well, for me at least) the fear of getting down again safely. On the ground, or at least on the water, there would have been hardly any sense of the whole, but perhaps quite dramatically immediate engagement with the parts. One could sail up to the edge of the sheet, and around the perimeter; and one might have been a participant in the handling and unfurling of the material. But my point is that the photograph establishes a view and experience of the event at a very great remove. It is a privileged position, lifting the sight out of the clutter and confusion of the real, and freezing and cropping it for optimum effect both in terms of accessing the whole picture, and in designed impact within is space of presentation.The effect is indisputably impactful as a result, even sublime, but problematic to almost the same degree. How prepossessing an experience could possibly have been offered by 6.4m square feet of pink polypropylene in Biscayne Bay in 1983? Quite dramatic, I suppose, if one was trying to keep it under control in a wind, but for most I suspect that it hardly filled their field of view from any vantage point that one could ordinarily obtain. Any real overview of the concept and structure of the work could only have been obtained from the air From this perspective, the work begins to seem staged almost for the sole purpose of being photographed in this way, and Christo‘s proposal drawing actually conceives it in this way.5

The fact is that the presentation situates the viewpoint in the most technologically sophisticated area possible – that of flight, photography and the reproductive technology through which we ultimately de facto access the work The one image has come to traduce the real to its opposite, the representation, to situate us in that representation, to make the disembodied lens of technology our window upon the world. Strange paradox, when so much activity and labour has gone into the making of the thing. But the result ultimately points to the labour and the material quality, the strangeness of the place from which we view all this. It takes a lot of industry, after all, to make 6.5 m square feet of pink polypropylene. One really has to wonder just what would have been done with it otherwise, and – still more – just why the world geared up to produce it in the first place…?

Finally, consider a work by the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.6 In his own words he photographs ‘residual landscapes’ and ‘nature transformed through industry, recycling yards, mine tailings quarries and refineries’7, and recently Before the Flood, a series recording the building of the Three Gorges dam project in China in 2002-3.8 These images’, he says of his work in general, ‘are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear:’9 I am looking at one of his works, Nickel Tailings No.34, taken at Sudbury Ontario in 1996. In the exhibition it is a dye coupler print, 102 x 152 cm, but for me at this time it is presented on the screen of my computer and on the cover of a book.10

Notwithstanding that, it is still a striking image. A vermilion river winds towards us through a black plain. In the slightly cropped version on the book jacket the landscape could be lunar, and the river Amazonian in scale, reflecting the glare of a sunset worthy of the American nineteenth century sublime of Thomas Moran or Frederic Edwin Church. In the whole print, however we can see that there are some trees in the background, possibly birches, which allows the scale to be deflated and the perception of the image to start shuttling between the apocalyptic and the mundane. As Burtynsky is well aware the attractiveness of the image is almost wholly located in the photograph, and not at all in the subject. A weight of associated imagery, in no small degree begun by Turner, renders it sublime, but we nevertheless sit uneasily on the edge of this feeling, finding the subject diminished in both scale and substance. We can see that the sky is in fact a flat grey.The colour of the water; then, is materially vermilion, now rendered what it truly is, a stain of pollution etching way against a dead, and probably toxic, terrain. On this evidence I have no great desire to visit Sudbury, Ontario (or at least this particular bit of it) but it is not hard to imagine that the experience of so doing would be rather different from that offered by the photograph. Burtynsky’s photograph only remains attractive so long as one remains disembodied in it. But the image pricks that bubble and makes us think of what the place really must be like, and what we might more appropriately feel. One would be bound to feel uncomfortable, probably contaminated, even threatened, and certainly wonder about what has been done here and all over the world for the sake of the manufacture of the goods and services that pander to our exercise of choice. It might be possible to comfort ourselves that the end of the world will at least be spectacular; but only if we don’t imagine ourselves actually being involved.

Burtynsky’s works asks difficult questions and provokes us into consciousness of the true state of parts of the world in spite of the heritage of imagery in which we might reside. His subjects exist as a consequence of manufacture and industry that has been developed to provide us with some of the material conditions of choice and self-determination. Here there are obviously some fairly urgent questions for landscape to address. Can that benefit of choice and self-determination be extended to those (still the vast majority in the world) who do not enjoy it? Must we urgently strive to re-embody our information about the world, so that we do not lose sight of the true state that it is in, or indeed of any meaningful realisation of being in the world? Can we realise some decent kind(s) of being in the world for all without utterly consuming that world in the process? Is all this choice business just a licence and a manipulation for consumption and hence consumerism, that is ipso facto unsustainable and unattainable? These are big question, perhaps among the most serious that face culture today. Perhaps landscape is the cause of these problems. Perhaps only landscape can enable us to imagine a way forward that will be worthwhile. If not, ‘Beyond Landscape’ could turn out to be a very desolate place indeed.

David Hill
Harewood Professor of Fine Art at the University of Leeds.


  1. (13/02/04)
  2. Cf. D.Hill ‘J M WTurner: From the world to art and back again:The Kut Panzter Memorial Lecture for 2003’ in Turner Society News, No.95, December 2003, pp.8-16.
  3. The following account describes physiological disembodiment, but provides interesting food-for-thought in relation to the landscape issues being discussed here: Disembodiment: Proprioceptive deficiency can lead to devastating problems for the victim. It results in the inability to unconsciously and automatically move and control the function of the limbs. The loss of proprioception separates the physical from the mental (i.e. the Cartesian claim), because without the constant feedback it provides for posture and movement, a fully functionable [sic] mind is trapped within a lifeless body, unable to interact and respond with each other This feeling of isolation from our own bodies can be called ‘disembodiment’ and can have devastating psychological effects. However some victims of such an affliction have managed to overcome it through months of hard work and mental agony. It is possible to gain a degree of control over the body after disembodiment by the eventual replacement of it by Visual automatism’. Feedback by the visual sensors allows a disembodied person to control the limbs and results in every single movement being an immediate conscious experience.’.
  5. Ibid
  6. A major retrospective of Burtynsky’s works has been shown at the National Gallery of Canada in 2003, the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2004, and will be seen at the Brooklyn Museum in the fall of 2005.The book to accompany the exhibition is Manufactured Landscapes: Photographs of Edward Burtynsky, published by Yale UR2003.
  7. Cf.
  8. ibid. Burtynsky’s own site is by no means the only good web resource for his work, as a quick search on his name will reveal.
  9. ibid
  10. ibid and Manufactured Landscapes