In the film Reaching for the Moon, the poet Elizabeth Bishop is on the deck of a ship travelling from New York to Brazil, anticipating the bell which sounds to mark the crossing of the Equator. Afterwards, late-coming passengers join her at the rail and ask her how it felt and she replies, ‘it was nothing really, only a slight bump’. The relationship between the body and space or of landscape being melded with bodily and subjective experience, and the two as interchangeable has been variously addressed in culture. There is a correspondence between belief and connectivity in the chaos and changing states of elemental space that can be felt as well as perceived. The Scottish writer Nan Shepherd compares the heightened awareness of landscape to the experience of art: ‘pure and terrible … a newness that cannot be carried away in the mind’. In her writing there is reciprocity between the body and landscape where the body’s immersion in light, mist and dark expresses an immanence and unity – a sense of ‘life beyond the self’. In The Living Mountain, written in the 1940s and published thirty years later, Shepherd ‘writes landscape’ honed from many years of walking in the Cairngorms in Scotland. Landscape was for her, ‘matter impregnated with mind’, a place without destination and the need to look with love and with ‘humble privilege’ at the natural world. In a series of intensely observed scenes, experience and writing coalesce as she describes a floating moon over snow, its green light shimmering against violet, rose and mauve; the opalescent blue of the hills above purple gullies; the sullen blackness of rain; the red, pink and grey of granite gashed with fragments of red; snowfields that burn indigo and blue; white wings over grey stones; an ashen and yellow sky. The words read like a painter’s diary or sketchbook – patterns of white on the edge of a plateau, iridescent drifts of veils of mist, the ‘astonishing’ transparency of water, streaks of ice ‘tearing the soil’, the vivid brilliance of the sky shadowed by rock. Shepherd collapses and inverts perspectives through a series of visual of encounters: a tree hung with light underwater; a loch suspended high on a mountainside; falls of water into still pools; hanging summits of snow; fissures like ‘surface eddies’ in a distant plateau. Formal conflations shift emphasis of space with interplays of movement: blood /rock; falling /draining; glowing / fading; freezing / running. Verbal alliterations – scarfed, savaged, scooped, shattered, split – could be transposed and considered as methods or acts of painting or sculpture. Shepherd’s writing permeates the remote immensity of the landscape with a deep humanity: dirty snow ‘tattered like a worn dress’, the ‘chill of sodden places’ and the sense of ‘long blue distances’ are living encounters with moments in time and space. Shepherd’s writing evokes landscape in the act of becoming through a process of returning again and again: experience observed over time. Films of light, broken plateau, bristling landscapes, gaunt, grim – her terms – imply continual change and movement. Behind the form of prose-poetry lies the rigour of thought, of ‘not getting lost’ that is purely ‘a matter of mind.’ The concept of ‘writing landscape’, applied by George Bernard Shaw to the work of Robert Louis Stevenson in the late nineteenth century has evolved into the contemporary genre of modern landscape literature of which Shepherd’s writing is now considered a part. She emphasized the importance of quiescence, to know small places over time (a group of trees, a field edge, a view of moorland), returning again and again to reflect on their subtle changes – positions of the sun, light against frost, the interplay of water, the substance of moonlight – and the integration of the body, experience and the nature of writing. The idea of uncontested ‘landscape’ though, is a subject seemingly close to heart of the British national character, especially the British landscape. Its place in national identity is apparently so treasured that it is emphasised in the new British passport. Embedded within the pages reserved for visas and entry and exit stamps to and from other countries are images of pastoral idylls of the British countryside. ‘VILLAGE GREEN’, ‘BEACH’, ‘FISHING VILLAGE’, ‘WOODLAND’, ‘MOORLAND’ and ‘LAKE’ complete with local pub, beach huts, sundial and wooden bench are impregnated as if messages ingrained deep within the British unconscious. In an age of celebrity landscapes involving pilgrimage to places made holy by popular culture – Air New Zealand has scenes from the film version of Lord of the Rings as the livery on its aircraft (‘The Land of Middle Earth’) – these British passport images seem disingenuous. These efforts to appropriate ‘landscape’ seem in denial of how it can easily tip into evoking feelings of despair, despondency and desperation. An ‘assemblage of moments’ is what a recent graduate of the MA Fine Art, Canterbury described her video-film work, shown at the Turner Contemporary and in the Whitstable Biennale in 2014. Inspired by Margate’s derelict Dreamland site and its archival footage made in the 1960s, it also drew on Edgar Allan Poe’s (1808-1949) poem of the same title where ‘By the lakes that thus outspread Their lone waters, lone and dead…, By the dismal tarns and pools…By each spot the most unholy – In each nook most melancholy…’ where the traveler ‘meets aghast, sheeted memories of the past’. Helen Poulteney’s film was a powerful evocation of desolation, the nature of time, the fragility of place and the innocence of experience.
Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, ‘Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox’ found in manuscript form and published after her death draws pleasure and loss with words, where ‘in the block of honkey-tonks, cavities in our waning moon….drinks like lonely water-falls, in night descend the separate throats’(Chatto & Windus, 2011). Hers is the imagery of a human landscape collapsed with hope and observed through a reduced poetic language.
How the infinity of space and its potential chaos can be invoked through a coalescence of restraint and reduction is explored in artist Vija Celmins’ work. Her works with charcoal, pencil and paper drawn from photographs of deserts, oceans, pebbles and galaxies investigate the nature of surface and time. She describes how light, the graphite of pencil and the paper surface ‘unfold together’ in subtle differences of perspective and pictorial space. Almost imperceptible shifts in emphasis between the image and how it was made hold a kind of tension and intensity (some took a year to complete). These works of the night sky, webs and the surface of the sea hold a kind of melancholy in their loss of boundaries. Celmins spent a lot of time in the desert, where ‘you need to spend time to see things’, absorbing its light, and its simultaneously flat and illusionary surface. Conversely, Anya Gallaccio’s 2014 work, ‘Untitled Landscapes’ sited in the coastal nature reserve of Orford Ness facing the North Sea in Suffolk was based on magnified photographs of pebbles found there. Large billboards of intricately patterned and detailed images made from pebble fragments evoked a sense of turmoil and disorder, and had an eerie correspondence with the history of the site as a centre, in the 1920s, for the development of aerial photography, radar and ballistics research.
Meanwhile, in Britain’s green and pleasant land, 450,000km of ancient hedgerows are threatened by the expansion of large-scale farming controlled by satellite. From the use of TNT in the 1950s to blow up trees and hedges to the removal of lone oaks that spoil the view from some bed and breakfast establishment, the historical fabric of the UK countryside is diminishing. Significant areas can now only been seen as ghosts – as bumps or ridges in the land, or as subtle differences in colour, visible (ironically) only from above. Further references and links: Elizabeth Bishop, Nan Shepherd, MA Fine Art Canterbury, Vija Celmins, Anya Gallaccio, Whitstable Biennale