Drawing on Landscape: 2

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’. 854 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’.814 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. 827 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.’819 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. 836 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.853 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.

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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. 1017 Further references and links: Elizabeth Bishop, Nan Shepherd, MA Fine Art Canterbury, Vija Celmins, Anya Gallaccio, Whitstable Biennale

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Concrete and Barbed Wire

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The title of this blog is also the name of a Lucinda Williams song from the album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, where various characters from places in the USA ask how this wall can be real. Back in Algiers, down in Opelousas and somewhere in Louisiana, strong hands or mean dogs can’t break down or move the wall which, although it divides us on two different sides, is not what it seems – after all, it’s only made of concrete and barbed wire. The song could become a kind of anthem and have several applications, material, philosophical or ideological. In fact ‘the wall’ has been a potent subject for many international contemporary artists.

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For example, Palestinian artist Emily Jacir’s video work, Crossing Surda (2003) concerns forms of exclusion and identity, focusing on the stressful realities of everyday movement crossing armed checkpoints in Ramallah. The work depicts a landscape of concrete barriers, tanks and dirt roads in what has been described by Palestinian poet, Mahoud Darwish as a condition of ‘near distance’.

Photographer Sophie Ristelhueber’s work investigates concepts of territory and devastation. Her images of disfigured landscapes from Kuwait, Bosnia and Iraq of bomb craters and blasted buildings can be considered, according to her book Operations (2009) as scars of conflict and a metaphor for a universal ‘terrain of emotions’.

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These works reflect WJT Mitchell’s view that despite contemporary tools and technologies such as Google Earth and GPS, the world has actually become more invisible and inscrutable and in a state of entrenched terra incognita of antagonism. Perhaps what is needed is a renewed consciousness of space through performance. I speculated on a revised Group Material response via a site-specific performance-as-intervention; or what artist and writer, Coco Fusco has proposed as interrogation via a series of instructional drawings. Through the development of an ongoing oppositional public sphere, I suggest that this Lucinda Williams’ song could be brought to serve as a form of laboratory theatre: stuck on repeat and staged within different environments when needed. Ideally it would function as a collaborative performative intervention, critiquing how we perceive and experience the world, drawing our attention to issues of repudiation and power.

662 - CopyPhilosopher Michel Foucault saw power itself as embedded within an ubiquitous network which runs throughout the social and cultural body, inducing both pleasure and forms of knowledge. In Discipline and Punish (1980), he proposes the central tower as the all-seeing architectural figure which functions as a mechanism of control and regulation.  This supervisory restraint is absorbed as a method of self-control in modern societies, reaching into the ‘very grain of individuals…touching their bodies and inserting itself into their attitudes and everyday lives’. Strategic interventions into this indeterminate ‘play of powers’, Foucault considered as part of a rationale for resistance.

590 - CopyAnother song by Lucinda Williams from the same album always seems to me to be evocative of an Ed Kienholz installation of the 1960s.  Its scene is set in a ‘dirty little joint’ where there’s no good or no bad and where house rules apply with no exceptions: no bad language, no gambling, no fighting and no credit (so don’t ask).  A figure sits in the corner by the bar who ‘sold his soul to the devil, so he could play guitar’. This, I propose can be considered as a form of ‘song sculpture’: like Kienholz’ assemblaged scenes, it conjures a form of tableau where other figures, as Claire Bishop has observed, are ‘immersed on our behalf’. The viewer / listener is at a distance and becomes the absent onlooker of the everyday, but somehow disturbing, scene. (The bar is a trope for a particular ennui of modernity: see for example Edward Hopper and Patrick Caulfield).

A form of scene-setting is being explored by a current MA Fine Art sculpture student who manipulates the placement of miniature figures of the kind used in the design of architecture models, in relation to found objects to create unsettling scenarios.493 - Copy In a recent exhibition in a new gallery in Folkestone, he installed a large, 3m x 2m block of found polystyrene packaging which he hacked into two asymmetrical sections. The larger part stood nakedly alone, projecting a dominant presence in the small gallery space. The surface of its white, seemingly perfect but pocked-marked body was reminiscent of refrigeration or meat packaging:  trails and smears of dark brown streaks powerfully suggested a history of blood and violence.

The other (smaller) section stood nearby, its flat end to the floor. On its hewn, uneven, white surface was placed a miniature figure, becoming a desolate Arctic landscape, persuasively evoking the ultimate isolation and futility of life, in a version of a man-against-nature scenario. The two works summoned a metaphor for human experience and struggle evidenced by the tracks, scars, scratches and stains of the larger piece and its overwhelming scale;  and the barrenness of the ‘snowy’ landscape’s ‘non- geography’ which seems to submerge the tiny protagonist in the smaller work. The sculptures’ intrusive effects in the gallery appeared to be recognized by viewers of the exhibition, triggering hostile reactions. According to the invigilators, one individual came repeatedly every day to rant angrily about it.

469 - CopyThere was something about the use of packaging as material for sculpture that had a resonance with Folkestone as a port which had gone into decline since containerization in the 1980s. The packaging, once itself a form of container, becomes ironically site-specific: now discarded and non-degradable.

The same student is a JG Ballard fan, in particular of the 1974 novel, Concrete Island, where, through a series of misguided decisions, the protagonist becomes stranded in a section of fenced-off wasteland in the middle of a motorway intersection. In a recent discussion about practice, the student described a wire fence that he was trying to get hold of that surrounded the derelict Dreamland funfair site in Margate. The fence had been trampled and flattened in parts over years and was mostly set in concrete below ground level. It failed to keep out trespassers but was impossible to remove: whenever the student tried to pull a part out, a security guard appeared from nowhere.

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As Adrian Forty (Concrete and Culture, 2012) has observed, concrete is a potent material in our understanding of time and materiality. It is both unclassifiable (neither simply stone, plaster nor iron) and transformative (materially and socially). Associated mainly with architecture and modernism, concrete nevertheless induces ambivalence. Like Richard Serra’s text-drawing, Verb List (1967) its technical and material possibilities are versatile and potentially endless. Paradoxically associated with efficiency and brutality, aesthetic cool and demolition rubble, concrete embodies, according to Forty, our profound discomfort with modernity. Le Corbusier’s use of ‘rough concrete’ as an aesthetic form has echoes in London’s post-war buildings from the South Bank to the Barbican where students of architecture gather to study the hammered concrete surfaces of the support pillars.

715 - CopyThe internal struggle to come to terms with change through processes of dereliction and renewal has an obvious relationship to art – both in subject and method. In the catalogue to the exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s drawings and paintings of London building sites from 1952-62 held at the Courtauld Gallery in 2010, Barnaby Wright reflects on Auerbach’s own experience and survival of war, his process of painterly destruction in the ‘thick, obliterated and reworked surfaces’ and the city’s devastation and rebirth through construction after the Second World War. He saw in the bomb sites a landscape of formal drama and precipitous mountain crags where survivors scurried among the ruins.634

Relevant Links:

Emily JacirSophie Ristelhueber;  Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish; Turner Contemporary; Frank Auerbach Building Sites; JG Ballard; MA Fine Art Canterbury