Friday, 11 January 2013


Since its emergence from the domination of history painting in the 16th century, landscape art rose to high fashion in the 19th century and back to such relative obscurity that now the indexes of many art history books do not list it.

FAUXSCAPE – Virtualy Landscape

“…a shadow on a landscape, a memory of some scenery
you'll never get away with this, you'll never get the clearance
I work for the department, the department of disappearance..”  

Jason Lytle

Coinciding with the decline of landscape art our view of nature itself has changed.  The aesthetic of nature has moved away from that of the picturesque through the sublime to a new and unresolved dichotomy brought about by our reaction to science. The popular definition of nature is still restricted to the realm of living things. The word nature was originally derived from the Latin word ‘nasci’ (to be born.). This romantic conception of nature is unsupported by science, revealing that which was previously unseen and rendering the world uncanny. The insistence that nature is ruled by invisible forces that obey mathematical rules speaks of a world that for some people seems to come from a far place. This has altered the way we feel about nature. 
In a post-modern way, the 18th Century literary sublime still operates at the same time as picturesque images of nature are being made. The awe once associated with the sublime has been deported to ‘outer’ space or abstracted by geology. 
We could all be wiped out by an asteroid, tomorrow, or in a million years. The potential super volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park could destroy the U.S.A. In a more positive sense, Carl Sagan described the Voyager images of Jupiter’s churning cloud systems as “sublime”. For everyday life: postcards, magazines, calendars and computer wallpaper continue to display a reassuringly picturesque view of recognisable nature.

Images of nature produced by science are different from those of art in that they are either ‘discovery images’ or they contribute to the steady accumulation of data that hopefully leads to a conclusion. In the past, nature in art was often related to a narrative that was already known. Landscape art often inferred moral values related to ideas of naturalness and also concepts of taste historically linked to high social status. At its most influential power in the 18th Century, landscape art had a circularity of purpose. Landscape paintings influenced the actual landscaped estates of the landed gentry who in turn commissioned paintings of them. Humphrey Repton’s ‘Red Book’ was a catalogue of landscape designs for the aspiring aristocrat. A feature of these 18th century gardens was the 'Ha Ha’, a ditch with one or more walled vertical sides. The device prevented cattle from entering formal gardens without creating a visible barrier and disguised the distinction between the productive farmland and the decorative gardens. From the viewpoint of the mansion the source of wealth and the geometric expression of order were seamlessly blended together. In modern mass media the link between production and nature is also largely concealed. Advertising has hidden the realities of farming and food. The ordered landscapes of leisure; beaches, ski-slopes, holiday resorts and golf courses, are celebrated by advertising. Television documentaries present wilderness as an armchair phenomenon – untamed nature as a televisual commodity for the concerned consumer.

Any narrative, whether literary or visual, is as much about what is left out as what is included. Landscape pictures are a kind of garden in which some elements of nature are celebrated and others are ignored. A representational picture is largely determined by the choice of what place to represent and how much of it is included within the view. The production of any picture contained in a frame is also determined by its boundaries. This characteristic is shared by images as seemingly different as those of Thomas Gainsborough and Barnet Newman. Even the Jackson Pollock’s ‘all over’ paintings have swirls of paint that shy away from the edges. Previously fluid, the now dried paint-trails are recorded trajectories. They are rather like the tracks left by sub-atomic particles in a bubble chamber, made visible in photographs and constrained by magnetic fields generated on the outside of the tank.

Visual art once delighted in the overlap of science and art. John Constable, known for his cloud studies, saw landscape art as a part of science. The impressionist artists’ exploration of colour was originally associated with experiments in the physiology of vision and the essence of colour. By the end of the 19th century science moved on and nature disappeared into the laboratory as physics studied electromagnetism, sub-atomic particles and forces that create radioactivity. If the invisibility of nature presents a challenge to visual art then the incomprehensible scales of its operation present a similar difficulty to language. The idea that nature is ruled by mathematics, which is also the basis of engineering, is a paradox.  Actual landscapes were once meaningfully confused with landscape pictures. Now it is the disparity between nature as described by science and the popular definition of nature that is significant.

This difference occurs at a time when science has revealed that we are entering a new geological age called the
Boston - U.S.A.
Anthropocene. Whereas in the past assemblages of species were affected by geology we have reversed the relationship with nature by altering the Earth. In the Anthropocene our own human species moves more material than erosion and rivers, affects 75% of land through agriculture and is altering the atmosphere with emissions from burning fossil fuels. These processes will create rates of change so great that some populations of plants and animals may not be able to evolve or move fast enough to survive. It may be necessary to engineer whole ecosystems. Designing a kind of nature V2 may be attempted but past experience with replicating the natural world suggests that large scale manipulation of the biosphere will be difficult. Attempts at creating closed system analogues of the Earth, such as the 'Biosphere 2' project, demonstrate our lack of knowledge. The experimental system of artificial biomes was intended to replicate the ecosystems of the Earth and to be occupied for two years. All food, water and air was to be provided by sections divided into desert, marsh, savanna and rainforest as well as fresh water and salt water. The seal had to be broken when diminishing oxygen levels threatened the health of the researchers.

The failed attempt at creating a world-in-a-bottle raises questions about the possibilities of changing the world to deal with the consequences of our disruption of the environment. Genetically engineering not only crops but also plants to be released into the wild or geo-engineering the atmosphere to mitigate global warming are being considered. Even if these interventions are possible do we want to live in a world where there is no longer any distinction between the natural and the artificial? If we believe that it is not possible to reduce our impact on the planet it is as if we accept that the sum total of human activity is a kind of  ‘technological sublime’ that is as given as nature itself. Although journalism will examine the contested facts of the situation there needs to be a modern equivalent of landscape art to allow us to test our feelings about the possibility of a world without wildness. This already happens to some extent with land art. From Robert Smithson’s intriguing Spiral Jetty to Walter De Maria's quasi-scientific Lightning Field, land art has re-imagined the tradition of landscape art through the medium of civil engineering.

These constructions are situated on remote sites, partly to reduce costs, but also because they need a tabula rasa to fulfil their minimalist style. Land art is genuinely frameless art. The viewer could travel away from the pieces, circumnavigate the world, and return to the other side. It is art for the space age, not quite as distant as the magnetopause currently being explored by the Voyager 2 probe, but equally esoteric. Land art reverses the flow of image from nature to the city. The
'Partially buried shed' by
Robert Smithson. 
artist/designer exports the project from the studio/office to the site where the concept is realised. It is part of the same industrial ethos that is creating the Anthropocene. Land art is off the tourist trail and it is more likely to be seen in reproduced images. There is still a need for a form of a contemporary art that relates to nature but finds the type of focused audience that might choose to view it either in an art gallery or in a book form. The art should continue the tradition of landscape art by creating the opportunity for contemplation of our newly ambiguous relationship to nature while exceeding the expectations of the amateur landscapists' obsession with nostalgic views.
European Space Agency infra-red photograph reveals patterns created by irrigation to sustain agriculture. An
increasingly common situation in arid regions - one of the new landscapes of the Anthropocene epoch.

The pictures in this book are unfinished works. They are mostly scanned images of found items or accidental bi-products of spray painting that are being upcyled into collages. The completed semi-abstract pieces I produce relate to the tradition of landscape art. The finished compositions are analogous to the creation of a cultivated landscape, an ordered space which is achieved within the limits imposed by nature. I use discarded items and the remnants of technology to create imaginary landscapes. This process is a rhetorical question. My artwork reflects a tension between the picturesque tradition of landscape art and the possibility of allowing a new awareness of nature influenced by science or the technology of seeing.