Sunday, 4 April 2010

3 observations on landscape (i)

with all the work on portfolios it seems ages that i spent some time in landscape. assembling the material for the portfolios, demonstrating and providing a statement around these was very useful in surveying my 'fieldwork' as i indeed called the statement [reminder to self: rewrite and post this].

it however also made obvious that i am moving along something less painterly and more conceptual and 'other materially' than paint. some of my reservation about the genre of landscapism remain, remain and remain and need addressing in other means.

the three exhibitions i saw over the past week will serve as initial markers.

1. the return of landscape. akademie der kuenste, hanseatenweg, berlin

it draws knowingly on the romantics' constructions of landscape and the rich and varied and problematic nature (!) of germany's cultural history and its basis for geopolitics (be it it with prussia's colonisation of the east; or ns blood and soil politics and economics).

however, the main part of the exhibition is a juxtaposition of two cities (venice and las vegas) and their dependence on nature - water. so: landscape becomes the domain of landscape planners to struggle with issues over sustainability amongst capitalist thirst for land and expansion. the imagery that dominates are those of aerial photography of landscape patterns - nature/cultivation/destruction, the main slide show made up of images by alex s maclean. a third part of the exhibition shows various landscape projects, their master plans and details to manage sustainability.

in this, the exhibition is limited: it's limited to the act of planning for sustainability and the belief that a plan will solve a problem. though my own professional background has always been situated in close proximity to the 'belief in a plan', i find this increasingly tiresome and mis-placed. mis-placed also if we consider the power of aerial photography without social practice, without people. to assume that patterns from high above reveal the groundwork. - the photography of bernd and hilla becher marks the precendent of a rich tradition of photography of human activity and the outcome of these with the agents being absent. rich by absence and stillness. photography always freezes activity in stillness. and nonetheless, it's probably one of its biggest problems.

the piece that really caught me, was - possibly unsurprisingly - a video by the canadian documentary film maker peter mettler. his documentary on the destruction by open pit oil production, petropolis (canada, 2009, 43min), visit the site for the film here.

again: it's aerial imagery. yet, this destruction through the tar sands is narrated by mettler. he tells the viewer how his requests to visit the fields was refused again and again so that flying over the fields was the only way of getting access and of being able to document; he talks about the first experiments of flying and much more. thus he makes an imagery thoroughly part of this world and the relations that make petropolis possible.

mettler's film is one of three shown on the side of a large field of illuminated boxes which show quotes concerned with landscape from throughout (German-speaking) history.

landscape text panels, illuminated, wiederkehr der landschaft, adk, berlin

two I noted down.

ich hatte einst ein schönes vaterland
so sang der flüchtling heine,
das seine stand am rheine,
das meine auf dem märkischen sand.
wir alle hatten einst ein (siehe oben).
das fraß die pest, das ist im sturz zerstoben.
o rößlein auf der heide
dich brach die kraftdurchfreude. (mascha kaleko, 1907-1975)

i once had a beautiful fatherland
so sung the refugee heine
his stood next to the rhine
mine on the markian sands.
we all once had one (see above).
it got devoured by pestulence, it broke apart in its fall.
oh little rose on the heath
you were broken by strengththroughjoy.

allmählich entdeckte sie neue linien im gesicht der landschaft. ackerflächen, deren grenzen in einem anderen winkel zum horizont verliefen als die uralten grabenrunzeln der erde früherer zeit. so schnell prägten die neuen züge sich nicht in die gesichter der erde. (christa wolf, *1929)

slowly she discovered new lines in the face of the landscape. fields whose boundaries were running in different angles to the horizon than the ancient furrow marks of the earth of previous times. it wouldn't be that quick for the new contours to settle in the faces of the earth.

thus, my first observation:
while nature is never outside from what people experience and engage with (i.e., nature cannot be external to people... unspoilt or otherwise), considering nature outside of landscape is a necessary opening to get beyond the landscape genre and its conventions.

this is likely to require radically different means to the framed picture plane and conventions of landscape compositions in painting.

it's probably not by chance that these reconsiderations of nature hit me as i'm about to engulf myself in a week of facilitation training inspired by deep ecology and sustainability. it's a reconsideration that i avoided for a decade or more. so, i think it's high time. hello dartmoor, hello permaculture.

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