Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mt. Cotopaxi Transplant

Forty years ago the Dwan Gallery Earthworks show had two more days to run in New York and you could see the works of Smithson, Heizer, De Maria, Morris, Andre, Oppenheim...

On Saturday, Dennis Oppenheim himself was at Tate Modern for a talk with Lisa Le Feuvre. I thought he came over well, despite a ridiculous interruption at one point, and seemed happy to reminisce about his days doing 'fine art' as well as more recent 'public art' projects. He recalled the radical dematerialisation land art represented as being "like music without sound" and described 1968 as "the summer of the hole in the ground" - although by then quite a few holes had already been dug (Claes Oldenberg's Placid Civic Monument in Central Park, 1967) or proposed (see my earlier posting on Carl Andre's Crater formed by a one-ton bomb).

Oppenheim exhibited Mt. Cotopaxi Transplant at Earthworks, a land art proposal to reconstruct in Smith Center, Kansas the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador. It featured a plan and a model 'executed in Cocoa Mat to simulate a Kansas wheat field.' As Suzaan Boettger notes in her book Earthworks, Oppenheim was referring to Frederic Edwin Church's 'icon of American nineteenth-century landscape painting' (see below). Oppenheim's proposal brought 'foreign exoticism to bucolic farm country, the mystique of a volcano to bucolic farm country, and the height of a summit to the Great Plains.'

Oppenheim's transplantation of a landscape reminds me of the Situationist method for experiencing a city anew by superimposing the map of another city onto it. Oppenheim actually carried out a landscape transplant near New Haven, Connecticut, projecting a mountain onto wetlands in Contour Lines Scribed in Swamp Grass. He emphasised the conceptual element of this new kind of art: "altitude lines on contour maps serve to translate measurement of existing topography to a two-dimensional surface... I create contours which oppose the reality of the existing land, and impose their measurements onto the actual site, thus creating a kind of conceptual mountainous structure on a swamp grid." So much for the genius loci...


Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 24, 2008

Precipice with overhanging grotto

Coach House Books have published a new edition of Christian Bök's Crystallography. Among its crystalline poems the book includes a 'Key to Speleological Formations', relating each letter of the alphabet and four punctuation marks to a specific landform. So, for example p is a 'precipice with overhanging grotto', l is 'an unbroken column of dolomite' and i is a 'plinth from broken stalagmite'. Strung together they can form a complete landscape, e.g.

p l i n i u s

precipice with overhanging grotto
an unbroken column of dolomite
plinth from broken stalagmite
archway of oolitic limestone
an unbroken column of dolomite
trench from alluvial riverbed
escarpment with avalanching scree

It seems a rather arid place, but as Bök has provided the key to a book of poems about crystals it is not really surprising that the landscape resembles a kind of quarry. A book of pastoral poems could define the letters quite differently, and p l i n i u s might then spell out an overhanging branch, a classical column, a fragrant flower, a gently sloping hill, another fragrant flower, a gently sloping valley and a winding stream...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Of flutes & wild roses

There is an interesting Flashpoint article by Mark Scroggins on 'The Piety of Terror: Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Modernist Fragment, and the Neo-classical Sublime'. Scroggins discusses a 1979 proposal for an inscription on a tree-seat, a two line 'poem' that reads "of flutes / & wild roses." Finlay explained "clearly this inscription is not a `poem' as we know it, but equally short fragments appear in recent translations of Archilocus, Alkman & Sappho." Scroggins notes that 'there is behind these translations a complex history of the modernist appropriation of the fragment, one outlined in detail in Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era (54-75). Kenner dates the modernist renaissance of the fragment to such works as Pound's "Papyrus" (1916), where the poet, instead of worrying over what might be missing from the poem at hand (a mere three words, a few stray letters, and three lines from a Papyrus deciphered in Berlin in 1907), translates and presents the scrap as it stands, asserting the status of the poetic, not merely for the poem itself, but for the fragment of the poem.'

Another possible link is to Romantic poems in the form of fragments written by Coleridge and Goethe. For Schlegel, "a fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine." However, according to Scroggins, Finlay's inscription on the tree-seat 'is a fragment in neither the Romantic nor the Modernist sense: it serves neither as the occasion to meditate on a lost spiritual whole, nor as the surviving index of a historical moment now fallen into desuetude: formally speaking, it is in no way detachable from its context, "complete in itself like a porcupine." Rather, the tree-seat "poem" is an element of the larger garden as a whole. It is a syntagm in the larger signifying complex of the entire piece, and seems fragmentary and abbreviated only when read out of context.'

Ian Hamilton Finlay was on my mind this week after I attended a meeting at No. 10 Downing Street and saw the set of his prints now decorating the waiting room there, e.g. Rock Rose and Seams. An article in The Telegraph attributes this selection to Sarah Brown, the PM's wife. It describes her choices as 'not particularly inspiring'... I would beg to differ.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Itinéraire de Jean Bricard

To the NFT last night for a showing of the Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet film Itinéraire de Jean Bricard. I'm going to be lazy here and quote the BFI's description of it by Helen de Witt: 'Based on the book by Jean-Yves Petiteau, Itinéraire de Jean Bricard is the last film that Straub and Huillet made together. In it they show us the Loire in long moving takes of the river in silvery black-and-white. This is where Bricard grew up on on a river island during the German occupation. Observations of the land and the water accompany Bricard's narration (recorded by Petiteau in 1994) of the rich history of the region, from commercial fishing and farming in the 1930s, though the Occupation, the Resistance and its brutal suppression. The film is a commemoration of the lost livelihood of the earth, the lost lives of the War and to the work of two of the cinema's greatest artists.'

The film starts with a complete circuit of an island in the Loire. It is a very long take (I wasn't timing it - 15 minutes perhaps?), shot from the boat, which gives you time to contemplate the shifting grey waters and the patterns made by winter branches. It reminded me of car journeys as a child, where the rows of passing trees seemed both monotonous and hypnotic, and indeed when the narration finally begins, you realise the film is going to be about both landscape and memory. Boat journeys usually engage all the senses, but here, after a while, I came to feel the absence of wind and spray, as the austere black and white photography and hardly-varying sound of the motor reduced everything to a simple sensation of moving space and passing time.

Itinéraire de Jean Bricard was accompanied last night by Straub's most recent work, Le Genou d'Artémide, which might also be called a landscape film. It starts with the last movement of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (as discussed in a posting on Supposed Aura) and ends with a sequence of shots showing the sunlit woodland where the dialogue between Endymion and a stranger has taken place. I suspect my enduring memory of this film, over and above the music of Mahler and the words spoken by the two actors, will be of the unceasing sounds of birdsong.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Land

One of the ways landscape art may evolve in the future is in the development of actual sites by artists, not simply for aesthetic purposes, as in, say, Roden Crater, but for the purposes of social engagement and interaction. Rirkrit Tiravanija's project The Land is a good example of this. Hans Ulrich Obrist describes it as 'a large-scale collaborative and transdisciplinary project taking place on a plot of land that Tiravanija purchased in the village of Sanpatong, near Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Land is a laboratory for self-sustainable development but it is also a site where a new model for art and a new model for living are being tested out.'

Tiravanija was a participant in 'Remote possibilities: a roundtable discussion on Land art's changing terrain', which appeared in the Summer 2005 Artforum (the whole discussion is worth reading). There he stressed the difference between The Land and earlier land art: 'The Land in itself is just a land, a leveled field to be acted on, and we request that this action be in the sphere of the everyday. Which is to say that we do not encourage earthworks unless we can eat, drink, or live from them. At this point we are more interested in sustainable infrastructure than outdoor sculpture.'

The Walker Art Center has an entertaining video of Tiravanija talking to Bruce Sterling.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Belvedere castle

"The time will come when New York will be built up," Frederick Law Olmsted wrote in his design proposal for Central Park. "The picturesquely-varied, rocky formations of the Island will have been converted into formations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface with the single exception of the few acres contained in the Park. Then the priceless value of the present picturesque outlines of the ground will be more distinctly perceived." So Olmsted rejected the standard lawns and copses of 'civic pastoral' and instead left woods and outcrops of rock that create a series of local horizons. However, this isn't the case everywhere, as is evident from the fact that the park contains a belvedere tower.


"Sitting high atop Vista Rock (the second highest natural elevation in the park) Belvedere Castle provides a panoramic view in almost every direction. It is also perhaps the most magical monument in Central Park, one that combines function, form and romance - all in one convenient, central location." This photo, which I took on a rather misty morning earlier this year shows what the Central Park website describes as a "breathtaking" view. Maybe I was feeling jaded but I wouldn't describe the view as breathtaking. Perhaps in many cases the prospect tower or belvedere itself is more important than the view - this one is a kind of folly designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. (I looked up belvederes on Wikipedia and see that in addition to places with beautiful views, the word Belvedere crops up as a type of vodka, a helicopter, a cartoon dog, a car and a Canadian punk band.)


Simon Schama's discussion of Central Park in Landscape and Memory ends with a memorable description of it's dark side (I wonder if he would have written it in quite the same way today?) 'Olmsted could have had no inkling, of course, how the very features that made his park unique - the sunken roads, the gullies and hollows that closed off views to the streets - would shelter a savagery at which even Pan himself might have flinched. The woods and trails of Upper Manhattan are certainly not the only lair where ancient myths and demons, best forgotten, or left to academic seminars, have returned to haunt the modern polis. In fact Central Park divides its arcadian life by the hours of the clock. by day it is all nymphs and shepherds, cupids and fêtes champêtres. But at night it reverts to a more archaic place, the realm of Pelasgus where the wolf-men of Lykaon prowl, satyrs bide their time unsmiling, feral men, hungry for wilding, postpone their music.'