Figuring LandscapesFiguring Landscapes is a remarkable collection of moving image works that has grown from the background of the political and cultural history that links the UK and Australia. Presented as a series of five screening programmes, the works in Figuring Landscapes address questions of ecological survival, post-industrialism, gender, the touristic gaze, and uniquely in Australia, the social, political and cultural status of Indigenous people in a post-colonial society.

The following extracts from essays commissioned for Figuring Landscapes reflect the scope of its themes and concerns. The Figuring Landscapes catalogue contains the complete essays and is available, along with further information about the project and the works included, from: http://www.figuringlandscapes.co.uk.

“In historical terms, from the earliest rock art onwards through to the image-processed video and computer generated graphics of contemporary art, it is possible to discern a constant interplay between a sense of awe with the environment around us and the very real need to use it in order to survive. In this sense, the landscape is and always has been a source of inspiration, a place in which we dream, but it is also a site of hardship and struggle. It is this tension between our spiritual and physical attachments to the landscape that lies at the very core of this show. Pulling together a diverse range of film and video work from Australia and the UK, Figuring Landscapes begins to unravel the complex and multifaceted ways in which landscapes and the environment are physically experienced. More than this, the programmes draw on the many ways in which landscapes also provide symbolic resources. The pieces on show take us beyond the boundaries of the material into the realm of the imagination and the ways in which we infuse landscapes with metaphysical and cosmological significance.”

– Stan Frankland, from “Caught on Uncertain Ground: Belonging and Permanence in Moving Image Landscapes”.

Stan Frankland is lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His current research interests cover a wide range of subjects that include the history of cinematic representations of the Other and the media mythologies of the colonial and postcolonial eras.

Figuring Landscapes is a multifaceted title. The phrase suggests the idea of forming landscape, as in ‘configure’; it suggests analysis and interpretation of landscape, as in ‘figuring out’ the subject; it could also imply peopling the landscape with figures. It thus compresses into a single phrase the making, reading, and inhabiting of landscape, which is after all what our lives are about: where we choose to settle, how we mould our environment, how we see ourselves within that environment, spatially and historically.

Landscape in art is traditionally a still image, an arrested moment maybe, like the sunset over a mountain lake, which Thomas Gray sought to fix in his mirror. Borrowing musical terminology, we talk of a painter ‘composing’ a scene, bringing into harmonic relation a potentially discordant array of visual materials, dramatising if not resolving tensions between the natural setting and its human characters – so often culturally constructed as antithetical components. ‘Composing’ landscapes entails framing, mediating and (often) domesticating for consumption something that is uncontainable (‘the frame is too small’): ‘composing’ has overtones of sedative ‘composure’, as landscape so often tantalises us with idyllic reconciliations between man and nature. But landscape art has also, in its more recent history, beckoned us into something more challenging, the phenomenological collapsing of subject-object distinctions (1). The films and videos in this exhibition – ‘moving images’ in every sense of that phrase – regenerate and renegotiate these landscape traditions with a restless, questing energy.”

– Malcolm Andrews, from “Impressing the Landscape: Place and Human Presence in the Recent Work of British Moving Image Artists”.

Malcolm Andrews is Professor of Victorian and Visual Studies at the University of Kent, UK. He is the author of The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760-1800 (1989) and Landscape and Western Art (1999). He is the editor of the journal The Dickensian, and his most recent book is Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves: Dickens and the Public Readings (2006).

“All the works in this programme, to varying degrees, serve to break the monopoly of traditional European landscape, and replace it with alternatives for which we might or might not yet have a name – but which we could just as well call ‘landscape’ and thus splinter the semantic field of that term. And it’s not trivial that these works are moving images. The moving image is probably the medium or aesthetic site in which we see, most powerfully, the wresting away and reclaiming of the landscape tradition from its bourgeois-Romantic roots. Film and video art is very good at activating the dialectics – or rather, the multifariousness – of landscape, because, in the moving image, everything that was excised and excluded from traditional landscape rushes back into the picture with a vengeance, not least, movement and sound. This is, I think, what W. J. T. Mitchell meant when he wrote that film landscape served as a kind of unspoken support for the revisionist (largely Marxian) critiques of traditional landscape painting that appeared in his influential anthology of essays, Landscape and Power (2). The reifying and normative tendencies of traditional landscape find it harder to gain a foothold when translated into the moving image because of the addition of movement and sound, because of the appearance of chance, contingency, and difference in the screen image. I don’t mean that there is something intrinsically radical about the film or video medium that can oppose itself to the ostensible conservatism of landscape. Rather the moving image is, in the best possible sense, a mismatch with normative landscape conventions – such as the enforcement of stasis and immobile enframing – and so the imposition of the ‘unifying principle’ becomes fractured.”

– Eu Jin Chua, from “Untethering Landscape”.

Eu Jin Chua is a PhD candidate and Commonwealth Scholar at the London Consortium, University of London. His doctoral research is on cinematic aesthetics and ecological thought. He has published in Postmodern Culture, The Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature, and in various exhibition catalogues, and has curated a number of exhibitions in New Zealand.

“For UK film and video makers growing up in the experimental ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, a simple reconstitution of romantic traditions of landscape painting was untenable; the iconoclasm of the age demanded a radical rethink of both the plastic arts and the grammar of film and television that came boxed with the movie camera. Painting was jettisoned along with conventional sculptural forms and what was regarded as a redundant landscape tradition. Under the influence of writers such as John Berger and geographers such as Denis Cosgrove, landscape art was found guilty of masking the inequalities of land ownership that still retained elements of British feudalism. Similarly the chocolate-box sentimentality of the rural idyll became associated with an English conservatism that was being challenged on all sides by a Marxist-influenced avant-garde. And yet landscape was fundamental to artists’ moving image throughout the 1960s, into the 1970s, and beyond…”

– Catherine Elwes and Steven Ball, from “Polyvocal Islands: Moving Images from the Landscapes of the British Isles”.

Steven Ball is Research Fellow at the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London, UK. He spent many years working in the film and video sector in Australia and is an artist, writer and curator of screening programmes both there and in the UK.

Catherine Elwes is Professor of Moving Image Art at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London, UK. She is an artist, writer, and curator and author of Video Loupe (2000) and Video Art, A Guided Tour (2005). She is currently researching Landscape and the Moving Image for Wallflower Press.

“The relationships that link human existence to land or to place have proved to be enduring subject matter for artists. While the notion of ‘landscape’ as a means of classifying artistic genres is a fairly recent development in the long history of cultural expression (3), the subject of connection to, or dislocation from, specific sites has persisted as a focus of interest in a vast range of other cultural practices.

Simon Schama traces the etymology of the term to the introduction of the Dutch word landschap into the English language (‘along with herring and bleached linen’) around the end of the sixteenth century. Although Schama does not draw these associations further, we are left with a wry implication that the genre, like those other preferences he cites, issued a kind of orderly, even mundane domestic appeal to the British. He underscores this point about the maintenance of orderliness by excavating the German term Landschaft, which he describes as having an even stronger connection with aspects of ‘jurisdiction’ – a statement of the principles of connection between people and place, rather than with the evocation of the boundless, sometimes groundless, pleasure of pure aesthetics.

Schama’s interpretation of the German term Landschaft may in fact bring us closer to an understanding of representation in some aspects of Australian Indigenous art, with its insistence on the interrelationship of the law and art, than what the term eventually came to represent in Europe. As Schama insists, once the term had established a voguish following in Britain, it was very soon accompanied by schema that involved set procedures for depiction and associations, including the assumption that the ‘rustic life’ was imbued with moral and ethical superiority. The term ‘landscape’, Schama argues, came to be associated with loyalty not only to a particular geography, but also to a particular idea of God, and to a particular set of ideals. In short, the genre operated as a system of boundaries through which experiences of place or land could be expressed.”

– Danni Zuvela and Pat Hoffie, from “When Boundaries Flicker”.

Danni Zuvela teaches Screen History and Australian Film at Griffith University, Australia. Her ongoing research examines the history of Australian film and video. Her curatorial and exhibition activities include work for the Brisbane and Melbourne International Film Festivals, and the artists’ collective OtherFilm.

Pat Hoffie is a visual artist who has worked extensively in the Asia-Pacific region. She is a regular contributor to arts journals and is a Professor at Queensland College of Art, Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.

“What to do with these shared places? How to practice landscape more beneficially? One must start by acknowledging that the Australian environment is strewn with the debris of systems that were once functional and robust. These include Indigenous systems of hunting and fire-farming, narrative systems, endemic ecological systems, and some ancient procedures of land husbandry that have been recently imported, such as Asian, South Pacific, and European-peasant customs of placemaking (4). In several cases, in the aftermath of so much colonial space-grabbing, contemporary Australians have managed to reverse part of the damage, either by setting scenes where resilient nature can reassert itself, or by applying well-placed analysis, technology, ceremonies, and labour to rehabilitate some blighted regions. In other instances, places are teetering with a minimal degree of systematic cohesion and can be made lively only if people act promptly and radically. But it all requires imagination.

When applied to landscape, imagination encourages the ability to propose astute what-if scenarios that might help us stimulate some disrupted spaces so that they can become places again. This imagining must be partly speculation and partly remembrance. ‘Remember’ is a word that bears examination. It is a bodily word, the active verb sub-tending the noun ‘memory’. Memory comes from two roots, memor, meaning ‘to be mindful’, and membrum, a limb. When you remember, you put a body back together by coordinating some disaggregated or severed members.”

– Ross Gibson, from “Remembering a Future for Landscape in Australia”.

Ross Gibson is Professor of Contemporary Arts at the University of Sydney. His recent works include the book Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002), the video installation Street X-Rays (2004), the interactive audiovisual environment BYSTANDER (a collaboration with Kate Richards, 2004-2006) and the durational work Conversations II for the 2008 Biennale of Sydney.

“When you look at a landscape what do you see? This of course depends on who you are. It also depends on what you consider a landscape to be, how it is seen, and what you think there is to be seen. This collection of films and videos from Australian and British artists helps us to answer the initial question. It does this by showing that the act of seeing is not a simple matter: what you think you see is not all there is to see – what you do not at first see might be equally revealing.

We see land, people, places, and things. Although often not readily apparent we also see a course of action, a becoming. This is because landscapes are inherently connected to social life, to the diverse projects and potentials that people seek to achieve. Boundaries, humour, tragedy, journeys and power are intrinsic to social life and to the myriad landscape images assembled here. These artists assist us in recognising potentialities that landscapes make evident and, ultimately, potentialities evident in ourselves.”

– Eric Hirsch, from “Disrupting the View, Revealing the Landscape”.

Eric Hirsch is currently head of anthropology at Brunel University, UK. He is the co-editor of The Anthropology of Landscape: Perspectives on Place and Space (1995) and most recently of Knowing How to Know: Fieldwork and the Ethnographic Present (2008).

Endnotes

  1. See, for example, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, eds. Galen Johnson and Michael Smith, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 1993; and Andrew Causey, Peter Lanyon: Modernism and the Land, Reaktion, London, 2006, pp. 100-3, 146-51.
  2. W. J. T. Mitchell, “Introduction”, Landscape and Power, 2nd ed., ed. W. J. T. Mitchell, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2002, p. 2.
  3. Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, Harper Collins, London, 1995, p. 10.
  4. For example, in my early morning shopping in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Marrickville today, I stopped by a family business to buy hand-fashioned curds and soft cheeses made in a locally adapted style based on centuries-old techniques from Northern Italy; then further down the road, I bought vine-ripened tomatoes from a Vietnamese farmer who has learned and in some ways improved the growing techniques of a Neapolitan neighbour; Mr Tran also sells dozens of herbs and greens that have adapted to his small but prodigiously productive allotment now that they have been transplanted from the delta-soil of his homeland.

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