Sunday, 13 December 2015

Utopias - 2

Even the most cogent definition of nature fails to dispel a sense of ambiguity about our position in relation to naturalness. Alexander von Humboldt established a geographical and scientific view of nature that could be more or less contained within literature and the genre of landscape painting. The revolution in our understanding of nature resulting from 20th century nuclear physics and recent advances in synthetic biology makes it harder to continue a shared definition of nature. The realisation that nature obeys physical laws that are amoral undermines what was once a common reference point in culture.

Because technology uses the forces of nature for industrial production, which is both useful and destabilising, it creates a tension between a popular view of nature and its scientific description. The developing ability to intervene in the functioning of biology at the level of genetics, either to save us from disease, create new products, or even reorganise the biosphere, raises the question of how much of the natural world should remain unaffected by humans.

Researchers have suggested that the images are not randomly
(1) The Mind in the Cave 
distributed but are arranged into groups of types of animals which must have been significant at that time (1).These cave pictures could have been a kind of 'periodic table' of animals that attempted to make sense of the patterns of nature. While the images of some animals have enough blank space around them to resemble a

landscape picture, other depictions are closely associated with variations in the rock surface. The producers of these images were involved with the physicality of the underground spaces that they chose. These pictures are an early record of a conception of nature as something that has to be negotiated. They suggest that the fundamental laws of nature affect everything but seem to come from a profound ‘elsewhere’ that requires a special effort to reach.

For a culture that did not have our modern distinctions between religion, art, science and technology, it seems inappropriate to describe the pictures as ‘art’. Our understanding of art is based on leisure and the opportunity for reverie after work. In the Palaeolithic era, cave paintings may have been regarded as an intervention in the invisible forces behind nature much as we expect technology, such as gene editing (2), to have a positive outcome. Rather than religious offerings or artistic celebrations were they a putative means of control?

The technology of cultivation, agriculture, created civilisation. The annual flooding of the river Nile and its management provided the soil fertility that made ancient Egypt into a culture. Even today it is possible to stand with one foot on crops supported by irrigation and the other foot in the desert. In the time of the pharaoh Akhenaten an anonymous writer left an early example of thoughts about how the process of life is supported by light and water. Akhenaten was a religious revolutionary who decreed that a pantheon of gods should be replaced by the worship of a single deity- the sun god Aten. The ‘Poem in Praise of the Sun’ was written during the reign of Akhenaten:

..."When you set in the western horizon of the sky
The Earth is in darkness like the dead.
People sleep in their rooms with covered heads:
They do not see each other.

If all their possessions were stolen
They would know it not.
Every lion leaves its lair;
All snakes bite;
Darkness covers all.
The world is silent
For the creator rests in his horizon.

When you arise from the horizon the earth grows bright;
You shine as the Aten in the sky and drive away the darkness;
When your rays gleam forth, the whole of Egypt is festive.
People wake up and stand on their feet
For you have lifted them up.
They wash their limbs and take up their clothes and dress;
They raise their arms to you in adoration.

Then the whole of the land does its work;
All cattle enjoy their pastures,
Akhenaten and  Nefertiti  withtheir children under the
 sun  god Aten. In this picture the rays of the sun
 in an ankh symbolÄgyptisches Museum Berlin

Trees and plants grow green,
Birds fly up from their nests
And raise their wings in praise of their spirit.
Goats frisk on their feet,
And all fluttering and flying things come alive.
Because you shine on them.
Boats sail up and downstream,
All ways are opened because you have appeared.
The fish in the river leap up to you
Your rays are in the deep of the sea."....

The poem suggests an intuitive understanding of what we now call the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which describes how the flow of energy from our sun can be captured by plants, allowing them to make food and how solar energy powers the water cycle that fills rivers - carving the land as they return the water to the sea. The phrase "Your rays are in the deep of the sea" implies an all-pervading force that brings about order and structure. The sense of process in the poem is combined with a feeling for beauty that is associated with purposeful function.

This desire to see values represented in nature is a theme that became established in both literature and visual art. Whether beauty is within objects or is subjectively in our minds is related to the question of whether we are inside or outside of nature. The paradise gardens that originated in the semi-arid areas such as Egypt were irrigated spaces offering protection to plants that were valued for their beauty. All subsequent gardens follow this separation of the cultivated from the wild, even those walled gardens and greenhouses that provide shelter from the cold.

The Oracle at Delphi is evidence of a continued belief in an underground 'other' that was responsible for nature and the course of events within it. In ancient Greece theatres were sited where landscapes literally provided a background to the narratives acted out there. In the Hellenistic period the stage was augmented by the 'stage screen' (3) incorporating painted backgrounds which subsequently evolved into landscape paintings in Roman homes. From the Renaissance the composition of nature in painting paralleled the increased complexity of garden design. In the17th century French formal, geometrically arranged gardens, were separated from the productive farmland and express an anxious desire to impose rational order on nature. The English 'parkland' style of 18th century landscape garden, based on pastoral ideals, displayed a sanguine confidence in the rightful ownership of nature. The synthetically 'natural' parkland was often separated from the formal gardens and the kitchen gardens by a hidden wall and ditch arrangement called a 'Ha Ha' - invisibly merging nature and design into one aesthetic.
The Great Exhibition 1851

Throughout its history landscape art depicted wilderness, cultivation and habitation, expressed in the styles of the picturesque and the sublime and from the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition to the curtain-wall buildings of modernism, technology enabled architects to reduce the separation between inside and outside.

Falling Water
Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water house (1935), built as a summer residence for the wealthy Kaufmann family in Pennsylvania USA, is essentially a nature-viewing  station with 'cinemascope' picture windows, a stream flowing under the house and native rock incorporated into it's structure. This playful use of nature and artifice has remained a unique design. In the 21st century nature is presented to the consumer via tourism and TV screens the size of paintings. The unintended alteration of the biosphere by humans means that we are still in nature and the consequences may be so complex as to be only visualised by computer models acting as Anthropocene oracles.(4) The algorithms behind their predictions may appear as abstruse as nature did to Palaeolithic cave painters.

          Two newspapers from Saturday 17th March 2001.

The Independent shows the opening of the Eden Project visitor attraction in Cornwall, U.K.. Building on the success of  botanical glasshouses from the Victorian era, the plastic bio domes of the Eden Project occupy the site of a former clay pit that was devoid of life but now houses a collection of plants from around the world. In the style of  Biosphere 2  the different domes are able to replicate different climatic regions of the world. The educational purpose of the project is to explain the interdependence of plants and people to the wider public. The redemption of the former industrial site by the creation of the project suggests a sense of moral purpose that is reminiscent of the 15th Century botanic gardens in Europe which were created partly as a response to the realisation that global explores had failed to locate the biblical Garden of Eden. As the mariners of that age of exploration filled in the blanks of the world map, the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise was re-interpreted by some scholars as being the scattering of creation by divine will. (5) The concept of piecing together the dispersed fragments of paradise as a duty mirrors the modern post-industrial idea the true workings of the biosphere need to be rescued from the destructive influence of the machine age.

The story in The Guardian refers to a concurrent outbreak of foot and mouth disease that was eventually controlled by the slaughter of affected livestock and the imposition of restrictions on the transportation of farm animals as well as the limitation of public access to the countryside. Although a naturally occurring disease, the story reflected a sense of crisis which was exacerbated by the impression that agriculture had departured from a traditional relationship with nature, especially as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was still prominent in the media. 

Paradoxically, it later emerged that the greatest economic loss to the rural economy during the crisis was caused by the temporary cessation of tourism. (6) The desire to spend leisure time in a rural landscape, the image of which is largely defined by landscape art, is partially supported (in the U.K.) by the allocation of some Common Agricultural Policy(CAP) funds to maintain farms in a traditional form. 

The special subsidies for hill farming may actually be contributing to flooding by preventing those areas from returning to natural vegetation cover, as would happen if market forces were allowed to operate.(7) The prevention of the return of tree and bush cover by subsidised grazing accelerates the flow of water from high rainfall events, but helps the landscape to conform to an aesthetic created by landscape art and derived images in popular media.

(1) Lewis-Williams, David. The Mind in the Cave : Thames & Hudson : 2002: Page 61

(2) New Scientist 14th November 2015 - Gene editing beat a baby’s leukaemia. Are other cancers next? Vol 228 No 3047

(3) Crandwll, Gina. Nature Pictorialized Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press. Page 36

(4) Anthropocene.

(5) Prest, John. The Garden of Eden: The Botanic Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise. Yale University Press. 1981 Page 9

(6) Foot and Mouth Report

(7) the guardian.britain uplands farming subsidies



Anthropocene Desiderata