Friday, November 28, 2008

No Man-Made Obstacles for the Winter Winds

Still on the subject of Land Art, discussed in the last posting, I thought it was interesting that Ben Tufnell divided environmental art into (i) 'healing' land reclamation projects, (ii) symbolic warnings / poetic meditations and (iii) art that simply bears witness to environmental concerns. In the first category he has several exmples, including Agnes Denes' Tree Mountain which I have discussed here before. However, for the other two categories he focuses on just one example each: Joseph Beuys' Eichnen 7,000 and, rather surprisingly, for 'bearing witness' the recent text works of Hamish Fulton.

Clearly Hamish Fulton feels strongly about the natural environment and has contrasted his own 'leave no trace' approach with that of Richard Long, as well as the more American land artists with their bulldozers. Tufnell gives the example of Fulton's To Build is to Destroy. No Man-Made Obstacles for the Winter Winds. 14 Seven Day Walks, Cairngorms, Scotland, 1985-1999, which criticises the building of ski lifts. But I have to say that for me, the idea that Fulton's walks leave no trace is increasingly hard to hold onto when, like any art works that are sold and exhibited, the artifacts generated by his walks create their own carbon footprint. And of course Fulton is not just walking around Britain - text works based on walks in Tibet, say, make no mention of the flight required to get there.

The way Fulton and Richard Long downplay the process of travel to remote parts is discussed in a critical essay 'Ain't Going Nowhere' by Anna Gruetzner Robins (see Gendering Landscape Art edited by her and Steven Adams). She cites Long, describing A Circle in Alaska / Bering Strait Driftwood on the Arctic Circle: 'I just happened to find myself on the Arctic Circle, and it seemed just the perfect opportunity and place for me to make a circle.' In the work of Long and Fulton, 'the viewer is asked to accept that these journeys are a primal quest divorced from time and space.' Robins compares this to the way colonial explorers tended to write up their exploits. I think this is a useful comparison - although it's hardly surprising that Richard Long or Richard Burton would skip the boring bits, we need to bear in mind what comes before and after their wilderness treks. Robins' essay is well worth reading even (especially?) where it goes rather over the top. She obviously feels bitter about Richard Long, whom she once invited to come and talk to her students - apparently all he did was turn up, play country music tapes and say nothing at all.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Marsh Ritual

Looking at some of Cildo Meireles' Arte Física (Physical Art) from 1969-70 at Tate Modern on Saturday I was reminded of the early manifestations of land art being made then in the USA. For example (to quote from the Tate magazine's interview with Meireles) there was his 'Cordões/30km de Linha Estendidos (Cords/30km Extended line), 1969, which involved laying string along 30 kilometres of beach front and then collecting what was left of it'. It's a reminder (if one were needed) that this kind of conceptual engagement with landscape was going on all over the world - in this case, Brazil.

A couple of years ago the Tate published an introduction to land art written by Ben Tufnell (who curated the Hamish Fulton exhibition there in 2002). It 'attempts to redress a historical imbalance in previous accounts, whereby American artists, particularly those working with earthworks are prioritised over Europeans whose work is perhaps small-scale or ephemeral.' Thus the opening chapter is on Richard Long, with Robert Smithson relegated to chapter 2. However, reading about them in this order really serves to emphasise how full of fertile ideas Smithson was. Long has largely lets his minimal work speak for itself, although Tufnell quotes Long's objection to 'so-called American land art' with its need for large tracts of real estate and earth moving machinery.

Ironically, the perception that it is European artists who create 'small-scale or ephemeral' land art, along with the fame of Andy Goldsworthy, may have obscured the contribution of North American's working in this quieter vein. Ben Tufnell mentions Patrick Dougherty, Roy Staab and Michael Singer. Works by Singer, 'such as the Marsh Ritual Series 1973, Long Island, and the Glades Ritual Series 1975, Everglades National Park, Florida, were composed of sculptural constructions spread across large areas of landscape, each barely visible but gradually revealed, through the ongoing engagement of the viewer, as part of a complex whole.'

Non-Western land art is largely beyond the scope of Ben Tufnell's survey, but he does say that Andy Goldsworthy has inspired a kind of school of land art in Japan, citing the works included in the Hakone Open-Air museum's 30th anniversary exhibition 'Forms in Nature.' Among the artists who exhibited were Masafumi Maita, Takamasa Kuniyasu (see below) and Toshikatsu Endo (whose Epitaph can be seen at Flakstad in Norway). If anyone knows more about the ways in which these Japanese artists see Goldsworthy as an influence, please feel free to leave a comment...


Takamasa Kuniyasu, Spiral of Töölönlahti Bay
Source: tietoukka

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The ring of living beauty

In his memoir Father and Son (1907), Edmund Gosse described the effect of collectors, many inspired by his father's bestseller The Aquarium, on the rockpools of Devon:

'Half a century ago, in many parts of the coast of Devonshire and
Cornwall, where the limestone at the water's edge is wrought into
crevices and hollows, the tideline was, like Keats' Grecian vase,
'a still unravished bride of quietness'. These cups and basins
were always full, whether the tide was high or low, and the only
way in which they were affected was that twice in the twenty-four
hours they were replenished by cold streams from the great sea,
and then twice were left brimming to be vivified by the temperate
movement of the upper air. They were living flower-beds, so
exquisite in their perfection, that my Father, in spite of his
scientific requirements, used not seldom to pause before he began
to rifle them, ejaculating that it was indeed a pity to disturb
such congregated beauty. The antiquity of these rock-pools, and
the infinite succession of the soft and radiant forms, sea-
anemones, seaweeds, shells, fishes, which had inhabited them,
undisturbed since the creation of the world, used to occupy my
Father's fancy. We burst in, he used to say, where no one had
ever thought of intruding before; and if the Garden of Eden had
been situate in Devonshire, Adam and Eve, stepping lightly down
to bathe in the rainbow-coloured spray, would have seen the
identical sights that we now saw,--the great prawns gliding like
transparent launches, anthea waving in the twilight its thick
white waxen tentacles, and the fronds of the duke faintly
streaming on the water like huge red banners in some reverted
atmosphere.

'All this is long over and done with. The ring of living beauty
drawn about our shores was a very thin and fragile one. It had
existed all those centuries solely in consequence of the
indifference, the blissful ignorance of man. These rockbasins,
fringed by corallines, filled with still water almost as pellucid
as the upper air itself, thronged with beautiful sensitive forms
of life, they exist no longer, they are all profaned, and
emptied, and vulgarized. An army of 'collectors' has passed over
them, and ravaged every corner of them. The fairy paradise has
been violated, the exquisite product of centuries of natural
selection has been crushed under the rough paw of well-meaning,
idle-minded curiosity.'

Friday, November 14, 2008

Shoreland

The New Arcadian Press aims 'to generate a continuous programme of artistic, scholarly and poetic research into cultural landscape.' Since 1981 The New Arcadian Journal has discussed William Shenstone, William Kent, John Sell Cotman and Ian Hamilton Finlay, along with varius British Arcadias, from the northern fells to the shingle of Dungeness. The cover shown here is my copy of issue 41/42 (number 199 out of the edition of 300!), bought recently at the Small Publishers Fair in London.

Among the illustrations in Landfall are a set of music boxes by Grahame Jones, each with a different musical landscape on the lid. The first is the Shoreland Musical Box, showing the Seven Sisters, Sussex, 'an invocation of Seafoam, second of the four movements of The Sea by Frank Bridge (1879-1941), inhabitant of the Sussex shoreland.' Next is the Broadland Music Box, 'an invocation of Dawn, the first of the Four Sea Interludes in the opera Peter Grimes. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was a Suffolk man and his music oozes the flatlands. Peter Grimes and the Sea Interludes are as much to do with the land as the sea.' The third musical box depicts Chanctonbury Ring, 'an invocation of the musical response, by John Ireland (1879-1962), to the barrows, tree clumps and hillforts of the Sussex downs; in particular to Chanctonbury Ring, which evokes this tree planted, circular fort.' Then there is an Upland Musical Box, inspired by the North Country Sketches of Delius and a Moorland Musical Box based on the Moorland Suite of Gustav Holst. Finally, to illustrate some Litanies in honour of Alfred Wainwright, there is a Lakeland Musical Box, 'an invocation of the composition for strings, Land of the Mountain and Flood, by Hamish MacCunn (1868-1916).

The main article in this edition of the New Arcadian Journal is Michael Charlesworth's 'Shoreland', about the gardens of Derek Jarman and Brian Yale. It mentions Jarman's The Last Of England (with its 'landscape of rubble and repression'), a film I saw before actually getting to visit the garden itself. I remember being struck by the film's soundtrack with its persistent, oppressive background hum from the nuclear power station. The day we went to Dungeness to see Jarman's garden, the electricity could be heard even above the noise of the wind, which was so fierce you could hardly stand up, and the cold bleakness of the place seemed to discourage any lingering examination of the garden sculptures.


Derek Jarman's house and garden, 2006

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

From the top of Beechen Cliff

One thing that connects the last two postings here is that Jacquetta Hawkes quotes 'The Ruin' in her book. Another rather more tenuous link is Jane Austen - an admirer of George Crabbe, a visitor to Bath. On being told that Mrs. Crabbe had died, Jane Austen imagined being able to "comfort him as well as I can'. Crabbe's poem 'The Parish Register' provided the name for Austen's heroine Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, one of the novels in which Jane Austen refers to landscape gardening and the Picturesque. The wealthy but dull Mr Rushworth talks about improving his estate: "Your best friend upon such an occasion," said Miss Bertram calmly, "would be Mr. Repton, I imagine." This seems to be a dig at Humphry Repton's landscape garden design, although Colin Winborn (The Literary Economy of Jane Austen and George Crabbe) has argued that Repton's approach in the Red Books, seeking to create freedom within boundaries, is consistent with the views of both Austen and Crabbe.


In Northanger Abbey, the heroine Catherine is given a lecture on the Picturesque by an admirer and the reader is led elegantly from aesthetics to politics in a way that has made this, I would think, one of the most frequently quoted passages in histories of landscape:
'... a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances--side-screens and perspectives--lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape. Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the enclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.'

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Land

Jacquetta Hawkes' A Land can be seen as one manifestation of the widespread interest in Britain's landscape pursued by artists, composers, film makers and writers in the 1940s. It is a consciously poetic history of the land, opening with the author lying in her back garden imagining the earth's strata beneath her. Throughout the book she emphasises her feeling of connectedness with deep time. She describes the formation of rocks, the evolution of animals and finally the influence of people on the landscape - initially good, increasingly malign. The book ends with 'A Prospect of Britain', from the city streets round her home in Primrose Hill to the different landscapes of Britain described in the order they were created: the chalk Downs, the Costswolds, the West Riding, the Lake District. She says of these places that 'their poetry, the images rising from the darkness of unconscious memory, seem to be as much a part of the growth of that countryside as the distinctive plants and animals which it more directly supports. Hardy's poems grew from the Wessex downlands, Clare's from the tiny stretch of the Midlands in which alone he felt at home; Crabbe's are the bitter fruit of the Norfolk Coast: 'There poppies, nodding mock the hope of toil, / There the blue bugloss paints the sterile soil.'

The philosophy of A Land can be read in condensed form in the description of her immediate surroundings: 'the York Stone paving, worn by footsteps into attractive miniature landscapes, survives in the side streets but has recently been replaced in Fitzroy Road itself by lifeless cement slabs.' Like W. G. Hoskins, whose The Making of the English Landscape appeared in 1955, she was no fan of the modern city. Indeed, in a passage impossible to imagine someone writing today, she explicitly locates 'one of the best of times to have been alive in this country' for 'all classes' in Queen Anne's reign and contrasts life then with the materialism of modern Britain. 'It is idiocy to pretend that to live in a lovely countryside, to handle only comely things, and to know that only comely things will issue from your hands is of no importance when set beside the amount of cash in your purse'.

Jacquetta Hawkes moved in artistic circles and was friendly with Henry Moore. In A Land she waxes lyrical about his use of native stones: 'it is hardly possible to express in prose the extraordinary awareness of the unity of past and present, of mind and matter, of man and man's origins which these thoughts bring to me. Once when I was in Moore's studio and saw one of his reclining figures with the shaft of a belemnite exposed in the thigh, my vision of this unity was overwhelming.'

There are hints of a rather overheated imagination in A Land, but it was her 1980 novel A Quest for Love that combined archaeology and sex in a mixture that alienated many of her admirers. Christine Finn has written an entertaining account of this affair. She wonders of Hawkes, 'are her manuscripts, set down in her hard-to-read handwriting, meant to be entirely serious? Her script for Figures in a Landscape, an experimental film, starts: "Cornwall, a horn of rock, Cornwall is England's horn, Its point thrust out into the sea, Smooth or ribbed with waves . . ."' The photograph of Hawkes on the Penguin paperback doesn't give much hint of volcanic sexual passion, but her lover J. B. Priestley described her in elemental terms to a friend: "What a woman — ice without and fire within!"

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Ruin

Earlier this week Mrs Plinius had a well earned rest from some intense work issues and traveled to Bath to take the waters. Her trip reminded me that one of the most intriguing old poems in English, 'The Ruin', mentions the old Roman baths as they appeared in the eighth century. The poem's narrator wonders through the remnants of an old city and sees 'i þær þa baþu wæron, hat on hreþre' (where the baths were, hot at hall's hearth).

I first read this poem in Michael Alexander's anthology The Earliest English Poems (1966) where he says that 'the city of the poem is Aquae Sulis, the Roman Bath, and we may imagine the anonymous author walking about the overgrown streets... the first of many English meditations on old stones.' Another translation can be read at the Anglo-Saxon Poetry Project - 'roofs are fallen, ruinous towers, / the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged, / chipped roofs are torn, fallen, / undermined by old age...'

Saturday, November 01, 2008

A bulwark shore

Essex... 'This is a bulwark shore, creating an architecture of sea-walls, lighthouses, forts, tidal defences, gun-emplacements, airfields, Martello Towers, sea-forts, decoys, piers and harbours,' Ken Worpole observes in 350 Miles: An Essex Journey, his collaboration with photographer Jason Orton. The photograph following this description shows a minewatching tower at Dengie, looking like a strange church, isolated against the flat horizon. Later in the book, Orton photographs the 'United Reform with Methodist Church' in Burnham-on-Crouch, a solid brick structure with narrow, almost slit-like windows. Worpole sees 'an uncanny correspondence between some of these austere church buildings, with their minimal window apertures, and the fortified military buildings in and around the coast.'

I have only got to visit certain parts of Essex in the last ten years or so, and have never, for example, made the musical pilgrimage to the jetty at Canvey Island (see below), which features at the end of a bleak sea wall in one of Orton's photographs. However, I've carried around Billy Bragg's musical map of the county, 'A13, Trunkroad to the Sea', since hearing it on John Peel in 1983 and maybe one day I'll do the full trip down to Shoeburyness. The V&A's collection of contemporary writings on Essex (which includes extracts from 350 Miles: An Essex Journey) features Bragg's reflections on the road. He concludes, that whilst memories slide into the past, 'the A13 is still there, rolling through a Springsteenesque landscape in which riverine Essex takes the place of the New Jersey shore, a tarmacadam trail to the Promised Land'.