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Contested terms - rethinking 'landscape' and 'nature'

lain Biggs

One reason for taking 'landscape' art seriously, regardless of whether or not we are professionally engaged with it, is that it almost inevitably leads us to reconsider our experience and understanding of the term 'nature'. If you speak to an artist engaged with the representation of 'landscape', the chances are that he or she will at some point refer to one or more of the following texts - Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, Bachelard's Poetics of Space, Lippard's The Lure of the Local : Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, perhaps Rogoff's Terra In firma: Geography's Visual Culture, Casey's Getting Back into Place: Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place World, Tilley's A Phenomenology of Landscape or Schama's Landscape and Memory - but, if you press them as to what informs their work, such texts usually turn out to take second place to their experience of particular art works and, more importantly, their direct experience of what we still call the 'natural' world. For many it is the activity of engaging with the world through both looking and simple physical activities - drawing and taking photographs while gardening, rock climbing, walking, cycling and other forms of domestic or foreign travel - that provides some of the central points of reference for their work.

To put this in more theoretical terms, while these artists often have an explicit interest in various types of theory, and in how signifiers function in relation to ever-changing notions of the signified, these interests can rarely be reduced to a purely professional or intellectual set of concerns. This is important because, in the argument between those who insist, with Derrida, that 'there is no outside-text', and those 'deep' environmentalists for whom Nature is prior to all texts, the work of the artists I have in mind continues to testify that there is at least a visible, tactile, 'natural' externality with which to engage - however complex, difficult and generally problematic all the issues of interpretation which follow this statement turn out to be. This claim, based on simple a.,d not so simple lived experience as much as on theoretical understanding, really is particularly important because its implications reach far beyond the polemics of academic theory. It is now no exaggeration to suggest that our survival, in an already profoundly troubled twenty-first century, may finally depend on our collective ability to affirm our common interdependence within that shared, and increasingly fragile, externality called the 'natural' world. This means that we must also resist those who speak from the sectarianism of exclusive, and increasingly violent, traditional monotheisms on the one hand, or from the merging of fashionable 'deconstructive' intellectual theories with the equally 'deconstructive' social processes at the heart of corporate global capitalism on the other. In this context a continual vigilance as to how we understand and respond to 'nature' and the 'natural' may, as I have said, become a condition of our species' survival. Given that this vigilance is an extension of one of the tasks the Western artist has traditionally been educated to undertake, contemporary artists engaging with 'landscape' should be ideally placed to contribute to this necessary awareness.

Among the champions of 'cutting-edge art', 'landscape' is sometimes assumed to be an anachronistic genre, part of a old, privileged tradition 'overthrown' by Modernism and now of little or no relevance in our overwhelmingly urban, more or less progressive, global culture. However, if we see the representation of 'landscape' as the means by which artists engage with issues of place, with questions about our location in the world - a location which is always, as Merleau-Ponty made clear, originally grounded in our immediate bodily location -its contemporary relevance is at once considerably clearer. In his book Situatedness, or Why we Keep Saying Where We're Coming From, David Simpson has made clear the extent to which 'being placed 'has now become an all-consuming obsession 1'. He explores in great detail the currently ubiquitous concern with situating ourselves, with mapping our personal 'positions' in terms of an ever-expanding matrix of reference points; references which now include anything from our place of birth, ethnicity, political loyalties, gender and spiritual orientation to the minutia of our particular 'life-style choices' - our holiday destinations, preferred sexual practices, diet regimes and, if we are academics, the particular theoretical sub-sects with which we identify ourselves within this or that ongoing discursive polemic. All of which, as he makes clear, suggests a profound anxiety as to our sense of our place in the world.

Developing alongside this social phenomena has been the shift in thinking by which the term 'landscape' has become increasingly blended into that of 'environment', a result of an ever more pressing need to concern ourselves with the degradation of the natural environment. To understand that blending or metamorphosis we need some sense of the ways in which an ever-expanding number of disciplines - including the environmental sciences, a variety of geographies, sociology, psychology and the arts and humanities - engage with that need. If we do so one consequence will be to discover that the assumption that 'landscape' as a genre is of little or no concern will tell us more about the 'hastiness' of those who make it than about 'landscape' as an index of concerns central to the wider culture. None the less, I believe that to engage with the issues and aesthetics of contemporary landscape' art does require that we also return critically to traditional issues of landscape - if only because we may not really be able to know 'where we are' unless we have some real sense of 'where we have come from'.

Any 'critical reading' of the British - indeed Western European - landscape tradition must take into account that the term 'landscape' is, and is likely to remain, problematic. It is often claimed, for example, that 'landscape' as a term should be abandoned - that it is inextricably bound up with a particular masculine vision generated by aesthetes, antiquarians and the landed gentry, within the historical context of the emerging capitalist world of Western Europe and that, as a result, it is the product of a particular class and gender. While this 'condemnatory' understanding of the term 'landscape' is in no sense 'wrong', I would suggest that it may need to be balanced by an understanding of the way in which, for example, eighteenth-century English garden designers themselves understood what they were doing - including, for example, the ways in which a more natural and irregular arrangement of gardens represented for them English tolerance and liberty in deliberate contrast to the formal gardens of French autocracy. (Such a 'balancing' of viewpoints can help us avoid denigrating others by enabling us to avoid merely reading onto their lives and aspirations our own current prejudices or preoccupations).

Whatever our particular perspective on the sociological and historical contexts informing the term, this 'condemnatory 'view of landscape' is, strictly speaking, appropriate only when applied to those panoramic, idealised landscapes which served a particular, and ultimately political, definition of taste within a specific historical context. There remained (and, more importantly, there remain) other, more everyday, traditions and understandings of landscape images as 'actual portraits of views, often representations of enclosed, occluded landscapes, with no great depth of field'. The majority of landscapes, which can be seen as mundane representations of "mere places", in that they exhibited not the ideal but the accidental forms of nature, were seen as an inferior sort of environment that was of no interest to men of taste. None the less, these remained landscape in the wider sense. It is often this second, 'overlooked' sense of landscape as "mere place", along with all that is lost, repressed or marginalized by that designation, that is of particular interest to contemporary artists.

One response to the 'negative' view of the seventeenth century revival of the term 'landscape' is to ask that we keep in mind that there were, even then, broadly speaking two categories of landscape: firstly, the ideal landscape designed to appeal to the financially independent man of taste and, secondly, the mundane, literal, everyday landscape which, it was acknowledged, might appeal to 'women and the vulgar'. Typically, a contemporary artist like Sian Bonnell approaches the landscape from a perspective which enables her to understand her environment in terms that deliberately cultivate an exploration of this second, traditionally 'inferior', sense of landscape. As a result, her understanding of what constitutes landscape is closer to a much earlier, and largely forgotten, Anglo-Saxon use of the word.

Barbara Bender reminds us that this earlier usage is 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 2. This is a 'domestic', 'small-scale' view of the land as immediate environment; one experientially closer, perhaps, to our contemporary relationship to a family back garden, a vegetable plot or an allotment, the favoured corner of the local park. If artists like Bonnell are to be seen as dealing with 'contemporary landscape', then it is important that we understand the word 'landscape' here as closer to that archaic sense of an intimate relationship to a particular 'patch of land', rather than to the seventeenth century ideal or, indeed, its modern equivalents.

At this point I must declare a bias: much of my own work since 1998 has in part been involved in exploring the relevance of the tension occurring in our understanding of the relationship of memory and place to identity; a relevance given focus by awareness of the problematic, shifting nature of terms denoting aspects of the 'landscape'. The complex relationship between 'landscape', memory, loss and identity that results is clearly one that also preoccupies younger artists. This is made very clear by the work of Judith Tucker, who continues in her painting to develop important insights into the relationship between painting and issues of memory, belonging and loss involved in psychological projections into images of 'landscape' which may be central to our self-understanding, issues which have been set out in theoretical terms by Griselda Pollock 3.

Other Points of Reference When thinking about contemporary 'landscape' art it may be useful - if somewhat provocative - to consider Stephanie Ross's argument that 'landscape'-based environmental art be seen as an avant-garde form of gardening. Ross argues that environmental art re-articulates 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 4. To link contemporary 'landscape' work to such an argument may seem to contradict my earlier 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 is still more than one prototype for our current understanding of the garden.

The ideal Western European garden (and through it the ideal landscape), ultimately has its roots in 'sacred groves and Nymphaeum dedicated to the pagan deities'; while the mundane garden has always been rooted in 'utilitarian kitchen and medical gardens' - gardens, that is, created primarily to serve practical concerns of human welfare. (These utilitarian gardens are part of a tradition that is, at least in part, rooted in the practicalities of Christian monastic life). What an artist like 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. That these objects are deliberately drawn from 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 recent work Sian 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.

What Bonnell develops in terms of the second, mundane, tradition of the garden is a commitment to the interplay between the everyday world of mundane work, including nurture, child care and the work of cultivation, and the organic world 5. Consequently, the underlying strength of her work is, as I understand it, her ability to re-deploy some of the rhetorical strategies which were used to generate what Ross calls 'the symbolic powers of eighteenth-century English gardens'; but to do so while working in ways which emphasis the mundane landscape as 'plot of land' or worked fragment, in the tradition of a perception of the land which is oriented by the taken-for-granted, routinely utilitarian , bodily work traditionally associated with either women or the 'labouring classes'. One way in which to locate work like Bonnell's more fully, as an example of the richness of certain forms of contemporary art practice (drawing on Ross's original and provocative argument), is to examine the ways in which such practice both relates to, and radically departs from, that of an established 'land artist' like Richard Long.

After 'landscape', after Romanticism? The critic Robert Rosenblum has described Richard Long as a rare type of contemporary artist; rare in that he is a particular type of Romantic, working without irony, and concerned with continuing 'those endless magical communions with nature by walking it, touching, feeling and accumulating'. Long appears to Rosenblum, together with artists like Wolfgang Laib, as part of an 'ecological last gasp of communion with the pure and beautiful stuff of nature 6. While Bonnell also works without irony, she differs from Long in using a gentle sense of humour or incongruity to create a distance from any directly Romantic reading of her work - as when a magnificent detail of spiral fossil is paired with a cheap, metal dinosaur-shaped cookie cutter. Rather than taking sides in the 'either I or' stand off between Romanticism and irony assumed by Rosenblum, she deploys a 'both I and' approach in which the childlike sense of wonder so prized by Romanticism is held in check by the deployment of a sense of incongruity or humour. If her subjects often preserve something of the sense of 'communications with nature by walking it, touching, feeling and accumulating', this is as much the result of an almost loving attention to small scale elements within the landscape, and by the use of objects which have to do with the 'naturalness' of play or nurture, as any explicit emphasis on 'the pure and beautiful stuff of nature'.

Peter Bishop reminds us of another aspect of Long's perceived Romanticism, drawing attention to the way in which, for example, both Long and Constable have 'been invoked in the same breath'; where both artists are seen as sharing a 'deeply geological, archaeological and archetypal vision'. What the work of these two artists is assumed to share is a sense that 'space and time unite in a feeling of enormous extension, continuity and coherence', so that the 'uncertainties of contemporary cultural and psychological fragmentation are bypassed or shrunk to an insignificant layer in geological time 7. An observation that can be seen as being of particular relevance, for example, to our understanding of Bonnell's Fossil series as both a continuation and a critique of Romantic attitudes. This sense of holding both continuation and critique in friendly exchange is for me taken up in the rather different context of Daro Montag's work which, while literally indexing the processes of microorganisms in a way that is as exact as that of any scientist, does so in ways which often produce images which seem to reference Romantic or pantheistic transcendence. While Montag's Bioglyphs work with natural processes in such a way that the decay of a man-made product through biological exchange produces beauty, in Bonnell's work it is the references to childhood that reintroduce a sense of fragility and transitoriness, along side that of wonder, in the face of natural or geological time. (Tucker's choice of the rock strata of the sea shore as the site for her creation 'from memory' of another, imagined yet bodily place deploy yet another strategy with regard to the Romantic issue of 'geological time').

I would suggest that the work of an artist like Bonnell can be seen in terms of an attempt both to engage with something of the Romantic tradition perpetuated by Long and Fulton - although within distinct limits derived from her own experience - and, at the same time, to keep some distance from the sense of a 'high ritual' or 'transcendent poetics' which pervade their visual rhetoric. (While a sense of both ritual and poetry are often present in her work, they come modified by a very clear sense of the child's 'let's pretend that' which, psychologically, might be linked to James Hillman's concept of art as 'healing fiction 8). Rather than seeking out distant, high or lonely places which carry a sense of the exotic, spiritual or sublime, as a sign of an archetypal 'nature' in which to trace, as Long does, a minimal, abstract sign of ordering intellect (straight line, circle, etc.), Bonnell is happy to work with everyday objects in a mundane, worked, even taken-for-granted, rural landscape; to engage with a fragment of natural environment, a thicket, patch of grass or corner of a field; or with the 'enclosed or occluded landscape' identified by Burrell, particularly when working on the sea shore.

Having made these points, however, it is important to keep in mind that Long has quite explicitly refuted the claim that he is a Romantic, insisting that he is what can only be called a 'realist':

My work is real, not illusory or conceptual. It is about real stones, real time, real actions. My work is not urban, nor is it romantic. It is the laying down of modern ideas in the only practical places to take them' 9

The difficulty with this statement is that the notion of the 'real' here is highly problematic. I would suggest, however, that if we substitute the word 'literal' for the word 'real", it becomes considerably easier to make sense of this statement. This substitution also illuminates the key difference between Bonnell's interventions or placements in the 'natural' world and those made by Long. If Long is a 'literalist' in relation to the objects he manipulates, Bonnell uses objects to create 'fictions'. This difference between the two artists is best indicated by reference to James Hillman's discussion of the psychological functions of fiction. Hillman writes:

'As we muse over a memory, it becomes an image, shedding its literal historical facticity, slipping its causal chains, and opening into the stuff of which art is made. The art of healing is healing into art. Of course, not literally' 10

Long is not directly concerned with memory (although much of the aura that clings to his land pieces stems, in my view, from our memories, cultural or personal, of remote Romantic landscape sites) but, for example, with the literal reality of geometric forms made, for example, with real stones in real time. While Long conforms to a 'what you see is what you get' approach that derives from Minimalist, Bonnell constantly invites us to 'see through' the literal elements of her work (in both senses of that phrase) to the meanings conjured up in her playful, but never less than serious, fictions. In this respect her orientation is, in my view, representative of that of many of the best younger contemporary artists engaging with 'landscape'.

Placing the ubiquitous 'nomad' An artist like the 'landscape' painter Andrea Thoma, a German national educated in France, Germany and the United States and now living and teaching in England, might be said to represent - albeit in a somewhat extreme form - how many artists find themselves positioned in relation to place in our contemporary hybrid culture. In certain important respects a person with her background is now typical rather than atypical. It is those who have lived their entire lives in one, usually rural, location informed by a culture of relative continuity who are now the true 'exotics'. In this context we may need to ask to what extent the understanding set out in Heidegger's Building Dwelling Thinking can still be taken as authoritative?

Arguably Heidegger presents an understanding of dwelling that is now too 'masculine', too fixed, too overtly heroic, to help us to understand the existential world in which we find ourselves. While Heidegger's 'simple oneness of the four we call the fourfold (made up of Earth, Sky, Mortals and Divinities), together with his emphasis on 'dwelling' as 'sparing and preserving', has by no means become irrelevant, none the less fails to find an appropriate place for some of the particular qualities of dwelling - the act of walking, or gardening, as particular forms of pleasurable discipline which are not 'building' in Heidegger's sense, but which none the less are inseparable from dwelling of another kind. His stress on Mortals as being only able to come to dwelling in so far as they are able to 'save the earth' now has a proprietary ring which is wholly at odds with, for example, the thinking of 'deep' ecology. It is the constructed bridge which provides Heidegger with his prime example of the way in which 'building belongs to dwelling'. But this appears to exclude, in ways that walking or gardening do not, complexities of pleasurable relationship with the life of plants and animals alongside Mortals, on Earth, under the Sky, and before the Divinities. Much of what I take to be the most valuable contemporary art, whether it deals implicitly or explicitly with 'landscape', with our place in the world, addresses issues of becoming which Heidegger's model of dwelling would seem to exclude.

When painters like Andrea Thoma or Judith Tucker engage with 'landscape', it is somehow inevitable that something of these issues presses in upon them in one way or another. Like many of the best of their contemporaries they are too honest, too clear sighted about the world in which we find ourselves, to wish to produce an art which seeks to validate the promise of transcendence seemingly offered by the 'sublime' - even if they were to believe that such a possibility remained open to them. Yet they are equally aware of the actuality of that sense of wonder and reconciliation that, through art, can secretly permeate and temporally redeem what comes to us through day to day attention to the mundane, the ordinary, if only by moments. Consequently, they cannot wholly abandon all aspiration to an art that might still somehow serve 'becoming other'. For Tucker the solution has been to produce what I can only describe as images which offer us a sense the sublime that is both present and, simultaneously, cancelled out. Her images seem to me to represent an acknowledgement of our being tied to an endless crossing and recrossing of the borderlines between the particular 'here' of the body and the ungraspable 'there' of the life world, each with their own intertwined times and materialities, their own configurations of memory, power and promise of identity, of a provisional 'coming home' that can never be concluded this side of death. It is the opportunity to engage with such work, and with that of other artists similarly engaged the complexities of our relationship to 'landscape' (some of whom are named here), that has led me to LAN2D coming into being.

lain Biggs
Bristol, November 2002


  1. Durham and London, Duke University Press 2002
  2. Barbara Bender (ed.) Landscape: Politics and Perspectives Providence, USA & Oxford, Berg Publications Ltd. 1993 P. 2
  3. In "Lydia Bauman: The Poetic Image in the Field of the Uncanny" in Lydia Bauman. Landscapes Warsaw, Zacheta Gallery, 1997
  4. See Stephanie Ross "Gardens, earthworks and environmental art" in Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts (eds. S. Kemal & I. Gaskell) Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993 pp. 158-182. All quotations from Ross below are taken from this chapter.
  5. This emphasis is held in common by a number of women artists, for example the painter Andrea Thoma. See my "Andrea Thoma's Thought Dwellings" in Dialogue in Place: Joyce Lycn and Andrea Thoma Bretton Hall College of the University of Leeds in association with the University of Minnesota, 2000 pp. 20 - 24
  6. Robert Rosenblum "Towards a definition of New Art" in New Art (eds. A. Papadakis. C. Farrow & N. Hodges) London, Academy Editions 1991 p. 48
  7. Peter Bishop An Archetypal Constable: National Identity and the Geography of Nostalgia Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995 p. 198
  8. James Hullman Healing Fiction Texas, Spring Publications Inc. 1983
  9. Quoted by John T. Paoletti in "Richard Long: Art in the Nature of Things" in Art Monthly No. 101 Nov. 1986 p.5
  10. James Hiliman Healing Fictions op. cit. pp42 - 43 "See the essays "Building Dwelling Thinking" and "The Thing" in Martin Heidegger Poetry Language Thought (trans. A. Hofstadter) New York, Harper and Row, 1975