Saturday, June 30, 2007

First light, Moscow, 1812

I’ve been reading the new Milan Kundera book on the novel, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, which talks among many other things about Henry Fielding’s idea that the novelist should probe human nature with ‘a quick and sagacious penetration into the true essence of all the objects of our contemplation.’ Thus, rather than framing and contemplating a landscape, the novelist actively moves in and explores it. Indeed, some of the great novelists hardly stop to describe a particular view. I read somewhere recently that War and Peace has memorable descriptions of Russia in winter, but does it? There are soldiers suffering frostbite and, in earlier happier times, young people sledging through the snow, but in these cases it is people’s actions and perceptions that are being described. War and Peace is like a series of history, genre and portrait paintings, but I don’t recall much that could be described as landscape. On the other hand, Tolstoy, ‘quick and sagacious’, writes with such economy that he didn’t really need to stop the action to dwell on a particular vista. If you look, for example, at that sledging scene (Vol 2, Part 4, Chapter 10) you find fleeting but evocative sentences like these: ‘As they drove down past the garden, the leafless trees, sometimes cast their shadows right across the road and hid the bright moonlight. But once they were out of the gates, the snowy plain, glittering with diamonds on a wash of midnight-blue, opened out on all sides, quiescent and bathed in moonlight.’ (Anthony Briggs translation, p576)

Here is one rare moment when a character in War and Peace does stop to look at the view. The prose reads like topographical poetry (or a cinematic panning shot), but appears naturally in the narrative to symbolise a turning point for Russia and a re-birth for Tolstoy’s character, Pierre. ‘On that first morning, when he had got up at first light, come out of the shed and seen the dark domes and crosses on the Novodevichy Convent, then the grass with its dustings of hoar-frost, then the slopes of the Sparrow hills and the wooded river-banks meandering away into the purple distance, when he had felt the chill touch of the morning air and heard the cawing of jackdaws flying across the fields away from Moscow, and then seen a sudden glint of light in the east followed by the sun’s rim rising majestically from behind a cloud, and the domes and crosses, the hoar-frost, the horizon and river all merrily sparkling in the new light – Pierre had felt a new surge of strength and vitality, the like of which he had never known before.’ (p1126)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Vista, Furness Abbey

I was looking at ‘A Vista, Furness Abbey’ (1860) by Roger Fenton in Tate Britain’s How We Are exhibition today. The abbey itself looks rather as I imagine it looks today - what’s interesting are the three figures, backlit and semi-posed, creating a Romantic atmosphere that doesn’t really emerge from the stones themselves. They look, and were no doubt meant to look, like characters in a story, and now the passage of time has turned the ‘actors’ themselves into characters.

I made a note of some of the landscapes in the exhibition, listed here with links to earlier posts where I’ve talked before about some of the photographers. In the first room, apart from Fenton, there are early photographs by William Henry Fox Talbot, picturesque countryside scenes by Benjamin Brecknell Turner (1815-94), photographs to accompany the Ordnance Survey by Sir Henry James (1803-77), and commercial landscape photographs by Francis Frith (1822-98) – Frith established a family firm that lasted until 1971 and whose images are viewable online at the Francis Frith site.

Moving into the twentieth century there are two striking aerial photographs of London and Edinburgh by Alfred George Buckham (complete with superimposed images of an aeroplane). In a room on the ‘new Britain’ covering the post-war period, the curators include more aerial views, from geographer J.A. Steers’ book The Coast of England and Wales (1946), along with some Country Life Picture Books, colour guide book photographs by Walter Arthur Poucher and W.G. Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape (although I’m not sure why this last book was particularly relevant to a photography exhibition). Geoffrey Grigson always crops up in anything to do with mid-century British landscape, and he makes an appearance here as editor of An English Farmhouse and its Neighbourhood (1948), with photographs by Percy Hennell.

Among more recent photographers, the exhibition includes some post-industrial scenes by John Davies - he has a homepage with various landscape photographs and images of Rachel Whiteread’s House. There is a neat (too neat?) juxtaposition of ghastly modern suburban houses photographed by Fergus Heron and David Spero’s shots of hopeful but rather fragile looking eco-houses from his Settlements project (which were discussed in a Guardian article here). There are some of Jonathan Olley’s sea wall pictures and two of Jem Southarn’s intriguing large format photographs of The Pond at Upton Pyne – a fuller set of these can be seen at the V&A site. Finally there is one of Dan Holdsworth’s ‘Machine for Living’ non-spaces and a rather stunning photograph of a ‘slight disturbance of the sea’ by Simon Norfolk (the first image reproduced in this BLDGBLOG post).

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lightning Field

Looking at the archives of the excellent Cabinet Magazine today I came upon some artists’ impressions of Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977), under the title ‘Please Draw That Famous Photograph of The Lightning Field From Memory’. The 'photograph' they are trying to remember is one of the most iconic in recent art, and certainly one of the images that defines ‘land art’, although the resulting pictures suggest they are not all remembering one specific photograph.  Nobody is allowed to photograph the site - restrictions placed long before circulation of images on the internet could be imagined.  [Update 2014: It would be interesting if Lightning Field came increasingly to be appreciated through artist's impressions, imprecise enough to avoid copyright restrictions.  I just commissioned my young son to provide his own version, below].


The Lightning Field site itself, like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, is now a place of pilgrimage, as described for example on Todd Gibson’s blog: 'As the sun drops in the sky when evening approaches, the field becomes different. A shadow grows from the base of each pole, giving it additional definition. The more veiled, angled light of evening begins to reflect off the poles, bringing into view the whole mile-long by kilometer-wide field. Watching this happen, it’s as if your vision suddenly sharpens. The field emerges from the landscape in its totality. If you happen to be there on a night that is not overcast and you get a brilliant orange sunset, the effect is stunning. The poles reflect that light, flashing orange, setting the field ablaze with color.'

I’ve always been intrigued by De Maria for his connection to the New York avant garde music scene - he was briefly in an early version of the Velvet Underground, as he recalls in an old interview at the Archives of American Art. Ubuweb has two sound recordings by De Maria: ‘Cricket Music’ (1964) and ‘Ocean Music’ (1968). [Update 2014: De Maria sadly died last year and The Independent's obituary emphasises the music link, 'Walter De Maria: Artist who forsook a career with The Velvet Underground to create electric, enigmatic installations'.  Other obituaries appeared in the New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.]

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A yew on the chalk downs

'In England the light preses from above. It is not the clear white light of warmer countries, but it is dominant; there is a glitter at midday on glabrous leaves and lustrous glimmering flowers which drain the life from the colour so that only under a leaden sky or at twilight can a planned effect achieve its fullest value... Take for example, the nebulous shape of a yew on the chalk downs, where it appears sporadically and grows to greater perfection than many evergreens. Against rolling light green grassland it has no connection, no vital link of similarity or even of contrast to weld it to the surrounds. The grass lifts up, the yew tree weighs it down; there is a lack of balance in colours and forms. See the same tree against the jagged whiteness of a chalk-pit, and the aesthetic effect is at once satisfactory.'

This is Christopher Tunnard, writing with an appealing old-fashioned self-confidence about the aesthetics of landscape in his book Gardens in the Modern Landscape (1938). He concludes with recommendations that 'the yew tree on a lawn is less powerful emotionally than one placed in relationship to buildings; from the grey stones of a churchyard it draws the necessary illumination to enhance its form.' Soon after writing this Tunnard left the English light behind to take up a post at Harvard, and then after the war he rather drifted away from landscape design, concentrating instead on urban planning.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills)

There's often precious little useful information on the internet about poets and artists who have involved themselves in landscape, but one thing the web is usually good for is popular music. Brian Eno, for instance, is unsurprisingly well served by various sites - most obviously Enoweb, which contains, for example, these comments from the sleeve notes to a reissue of On Land (1982).



Eno writes that "from Another Green World [1975] onwards I became interested in exaggerating and inventing rather than replicating spaces, experimenting in particular with various techniques of time distortion. This record represents one culmination of that development and in it the landscape has ceased to be a backdrop for something else to happen in front of; instead, everything that happens is a part of the landscape. There is no longer a sharp distinction between foreground and background.

In using the term landscape I am thinking of places, times, climates and the moods that they evoke. And of expanded moments of memory too... One of the inspirations for this record was Fellini's Amarcord (I Remember), a presumably unfaithful reconstruction of childhood moments. Watching that film, I imagined an aural counterpart to it, and that became one of the threads woven into the fabric of the music.

What qualified a piece for inclusion on the record was that it took me somewhere, but this might be somewhere that I'd never been before, or somewhere I'd only imagined going to. Lantern Marsh, for example, is a place only a few miles from where I grew up in East Anglia, but my experience of it derives not from having visited it (although I almost certainly did) but from having subsequently seen it on a map and imagining where and what it might be. We feel affinities not only with the past, but also with the futures that didn't materialize, and with the other variations of the present that we suspect run parallel to the one we have agreed to live in."

In a subsequent interview he explained the need to avoid New Age pastoral landscape music by providing a texture of more dissonant sounds. "Texture is information. Texture is only form looked at from a distance. If you look at this carpet, you perceive it as texture, but if you looked closer, you would see that it's actually a whole lot of forms. If you take birdsong -which is one of the aural textures of being in the country - the fact of it is that much of it is the sound of alarms and distress and attack.

"Landscape is a funny word for me, because it does conjure up pictures of nice little paintings with little paths going down them, but landscape really is and always has been a depiction of a psychological space, often of psychological cataclysm. it doesn't imply peacefulness, not to me.

"On the whole On Land is quite a disturbed landscape: some of the undertones deliberately threaten the overtones, so you get the pastoral prettiness on top, but underneath there's a dissonance that's like an impending earthquake."

As I write this entry I'm listening to a particularly effective track from the album, 'Unfamiliar Wind (Leeks Hills)'. According to the Wikipedia entry on the album, Eno explained that "Leeks Hills is a little wood (much smaller now than when I was young, and this not merely the effect of age and memory) which stands between Woodbridge and Melton. There isn't a whole lot left of it now, but it used to be quite extensive. To find it you travel down the main road connecting Woodbridge and it lies to your left as you go down the hill"


Sunday, June 17, 2007

Somewhere near Allonville

An interesting article in the LRB a few weeks ago by Brian Dillon included a quote from Paul Nash describing the strange beauty of no-man's land: 'The mud is dried to a pinky colour and and upon the parapet, and through sandbags even, the green grass pushes up and waves in the breeze, while clots of bright dandelions, clover, thistles and twenty other plants flourish luxuriantly, brilliant growths of bright green against the pink earth.' Dillon was reviewing Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime, by Kenneth Helphand, which discusses the attempts of soldiers and prisoners to find ways of cultivating small patches of beauty, or catching a glimpse of a better world, like the 'pair of Australians lounging in a meadow picking wildflowers, somewhere near Allonville. The image is purest pastoral: an aesthetic that flourished in soldiers' presentations of themselves to the camera, or to their own journals.'

There is more on this book at the National Public Radio site, including a photograph of a Japanese stone garden made at the Manzanar Internment Camp in California.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ocean Surface

Still thinking about John Cheever’s the Swimmer... if I were to curate an art exhibition on the theme of this story I would certainly want to include Ed Ruscha’s Nine Swimming Pools. I was looking at this last week in an exhibition at Tate St Ives inspired by Brian Wilson, where it is included along with Ruscha’s Thirty-Four Parking Lots (which I wrote about here). The exhibition has the poetic title If Everybody Had an Ocean, which is the first line of ‘Surfing USA’ (I now realise I always heard this as ‘everybody had a notion’ – which sounds pretty lame in comparison!) Of course Brian Wilson didn’t write the Beach Boys’ lyrics so the exhibition’s quotations from their songs are themselves the work of people inspired by Wilson’s music – Tony Asher, Van Dyke Parks etc. Anyway, it’s a nice exhibition which we saw on a beautiful sunny day when the sea was as blue as a Californian swimming pool.

One of the other artists featured in the exhibition is Vija Celmins, a favourite artist of Mrs Plinius, who enjoyed the exhibition of Celmins prints like Ocean Surface Wood Engraving (2000) at the Met a few years back. Celmins’ seascapes remind me of the Roni Horn river water images mentioned last week, as well as the seas photographed by Hiroshi Sugimoto (which I discussed briefly here). The PBS site explains that ‘Celmins received international attention early on for her renditions of natural scenes—often copied from photographs that lack a point of reference, horizon, or discernable depth of field. Armed with a nuanced palette of blacks and grays, Celmins renders these limitless space—seascapes, night skies, and the barren desert floor—with an uncanny accuracy, working for months on a single image.’ I was interested to read in the PBS interview how Celmins relates herself to Cézanne, whom she sees as having had ‘a really gutsy relationship between the image and the plain flat object. He has such a wonderful way of pointing that out to you in every stroke. And also the fact—which I think was a great part of the twentieth century—that this is an invented thing, you know? That it’s not like a copy of nature, or a copy of photograph. It’s an invented thing that you have in front of you, you know? So I think I kind of have that in me somewhere, this relationship.’

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Hot Pot at Strútur

The new issue of Tate etc. includes a piece by Roni Horn. Few artists write as well and I think we can assume she didn't come up with the silly title for the article! She discusses her footnoted photographs of the River Thames, which I've mentioned here before and which I think must be one of the best contemporary art works about London. She also talks about Iceland and relates her experiences to The Swimmer, played by Burt Lancaster in the film of John Cheever's story. On a simple level, the way the character experiences his environment is bound to be inspiring for landscape artists, and was the basis for the Roger Deakin book Waterlog. But Roni Horn also talks about the vulnerability of the swimmer and the way the Icelandic landscape offers a mixture of bleak emptiness and sheltering protection.

"I first went to Iceland in 1975. I travelled with a tent, hitchhiking and walking, then on a motorcycle, but still with a tent. So I was outside most of the time, and I often found myself heading for the hot springs. They became a kind of shelter. They took the form of hot pots or swimming pools. Sometimes they are located in remote places, so I found myself pool-hopping to these exquisite faraway places and spending a lot of time in the middle of nowhere, outside, in hot water. It struck me at the time as a great combination. When I look back, I am reminded of Burt Lancaster in the film called The Swimmer. He is divorced and having had the time of his life for years, he now wants to go home; he's alone. And so he is swimming home, pool-hopping home, and home is somewhere in suburban Connecticut. And you watch him going from one backyard to the next. He was in a swimsuit throughout the whole film and you felt his sensitivity to everything, and his vulnerability. So here I am, looking for shelter. and those pools were a great form of shelter. I was in these amazing settings, way out there in the thick of it, so to speak, alone but protected. Sometimes in the middle of a desert. For me, a desert is confrontational in a way, because it's so dogmatic. But here it was a totally sensual experience. And that happened a lot in Iceland, where you were in places that you would normally associate with difficult, aggressive things and they became alluring and attractive, comforting really."


The cover of the excellent Phaidon book on Roni Horn, showing the Hot Pot at Strútur (1991)