Monday, January 29, 2007

Wittgenstein's cottage

There is an excellent new 'exhibition in a book' on the theme of Place put together by Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar, published by Thames & Hudson. Their introduction doesn't try to place 'place' precisely, but among other things they remark that 'one might say that 'place' is to landscape as 'identity' is to portraiture'. For example, they mention Guy Moreton's photograph, Wittgenstein's Cottage (2002-4), taken as part of Alec Finlay's Wittgenstein project. Both the photograph and the site itself might be seen as beautiful landscapes, but the ruins of Wittgenstein's cottage give the landscape a particular identity.

The book discusses place under the headings 'urban', 'nature', 'fantastic', 'myth / history', 'politics / control', 'territories', 'itinerancy' and 'heterotopias and non-places.' There is also a postcript which gives a four way conversation on place and its relationship with space and landscape, involving the two authors and two art historians: Joseph L. Koerner and Simon Schama. Here are some points they make:
  • That we now tend to reject the framed view (even though it is hard to escape - the painting having been replaced by the TV screen), in favour of a wider sense of experience and possibility.
  • That limitless space, as in the ocean, remains frightening, but that grids of latitude and longitude have made this kind of abstract space knowable (Deleuze and Guattari).
  • That obviously historical change means that places mutate, and that people can value both the monumental and the transient, e.g. landscapes seen through the car window like the frames of a film (Walter Benjamin).
  • That society only has a sense of place when it is no longer rooted. Urban dwellers looking at rural society and feeling their own rootlessness start to value 'place'.
  • That in the modern world place can be fixed with linear perspective and abstract thinking, and yet do we really know that their was a different sense of place in the pre-modern world?
  • That places can be experienced and recalled through all the senses (e.g. smells and sounds), but space may be something that can only be imagined.
  • That the forces of globalisation may be destroying the specificity of places, and yet those forces may themselves result from the 'staggering boredom' of life in the countryside and the possibilities of the modern city.
  • That we understand place emotionally, through memory, and ultimately find it much more difficult to explain than space.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo

When art historians read changes in style as reflecting broader political changes it is often possible to argue from both ‘sides’. For example, Ann Bermingham in her essay ‘English Landscape Drawing around 1795’ argues that the impact of the French Revolution was seen in a rejection of earlier forms of landscape composition, based on the idealised classical landscapes painted in seventeenth century Italy, in favour of more naturalistic drawings where the forms of nature took on a more individual character. From a liberal perspective, this would be consistent with an appreciation of the real qualities of the English countryside, rather than the kinds of views sought on the Grand Tour. However, from a conservative point of view, the change in landscape painting could equally be seen as a rejection of the systematic abstractions of theory and the open intellectual spaces of the prospect view, in favour of local scenes demonstrating the timeless qualities of the native landscape.

Thomas Hearn, A Brownian Landscape Garden and A Picturesque Landscape Garden
illustrations for Richard Payne Knight's 'Landscape'

These political differences reflect contemporary changes in picturesque theory. The conservative position was essentially that taken by Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight in their criticisms of the gardens of Capability Brown and the picturesque theories of William Gilpin. Both Brown and Gilpin had imposed the harmonious compositions of painters like Claude onto the real landscape. Thomas Hearne provided the illustrative etchings of Brownian and Picturesque gardens for Knight’s didactic poem 'The Landscape' (1795) - see above.  Ann Bermingham sees the new style embodied in Hearne’s art. She contrasts Hearn’s detailed view of Oak Trees (c. 1786) with a slightly earlier view of The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo (c 1783-5) by John Robert Cozens. So Cozens’ older painting could be either a comforting conservative souvenir of an idealised Italy or a liberal artistic expression of the eighteenth century’s expanding horizons. Take your pick.

John Robert Cozens, The Lake of Albano and Castel Gandolfo, c. 1783-5

Thomas Hearne, Oak Trees, c. 1786

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Wind vortex on the ice cap

Landscape artist Chris Drury is currently working in Antarctica and writing a blog (which looks rather like this one... except that he has lots of nice photos!) However, as he says: "I expected to be out in the landscape most of the time. But in truth Antarctica is a dangerous and unpredictable place and I am here as part of a large organisation who have to ensure everyone’s safety... So for these first 3 weeks the experience has been primarily a social one." Furthermore, "the land itself and the experience of it is absolute. It is so stunningly beautiful, that in the face of it art has no place. As a result I am increasingly reluctant to do anything much in it, apart from make marks with my feet or a skidoo in the snow. I have no wish to use other resources to make a futile impression on what is absolute. I will be content to record on film and photograph what is here and to let the experience of place; land, weather, people and science, become embedd[ed] deep within me." However, in his most recent post he does say he has plans to "make a drawing of a wind vortex" on the ice cap, so we can look forward to some new land art as a result of the trip.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Bridlepath is Filled with Clouds

Certain Trees was the title of an exhibition of 'the constructed book, poem and object 1964-2006' held at the Centre des livres d'artistes last year. It focused on a loosely connected group of artists and poets who have presented their own work through small presses and exhibition spaces: Simon Cutts, Stuart Mills, Brian Lane, Les Coleman, Thomas A. Clark and others. In his essay for the catalogue, John Bevis sees these artists as inhabiting the (relatively narrow) space between Robert Lax, the American minimalist poet (working in a line that runs from Emily Dickinson through William Carlos Williams and the Objectivists), and Ian Hamilton Finlay, maker of concrete poems.

It is interesting how often these artists work with landscape themes. Bevis himself is represented by works called Cloud Study (1981), The Foliage Society (1984), and An A-Z of Birdsong (1995). The catalogue describes Bevis as pursuing a 'dialogue between the natural world and its classification and presentation through the idiom of language'. This is a description that could be also applied to works by Thomas A. Clark, Ian Hamilton Finlay and other books and objects: Simon Cutts' After John Clare (2002-4), Stuart Mills' The Bridlepath is Filled with Clouds (1970), Fridjof Nansens's Fog Log (1978) by Brian Lane. Some of the names of the small presses also suggest an affinity with the natural world: Moschatel, Wild Hawthorn, Coracle.

The title 'Certain Trees', with its own hint of landscape, comes from a Roy Fisher poem 'Epitaph: Lorine Neidecker' (evoking her best known poem, 'My Friend Tree', which was published in Ian Hamilton Finlay's magazine 'Poor. Old. Tired. Horse', which was in turn named after a line in a Robert Creeley poem...) The lines by Roy Fisher are juxtaposed in the catalogue with a Simon Cutts poem from 1968, 'The Menagerie goes for a Walk': '.... shade from your tree / touch from my wood. A wood full of trees / a tree full of wood.'

Finlay, Fisher and Neidecker all feature in another exhibition, 'The possibility of poetry: from Migrant magazine to artists' books' currently on at the British Library, which celebrates Gael Turnbull's 1960s little magazine, Migrant.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Four Stones and Castle Tomen

There is an interesting Tate Paper by Stephen Daniels on the photographer, antiquarian and promoter of ley lines, Alfred Watkins. It notes a link with the work of land artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, but focuses mainly on Watkins' career and the way photography shaped his archaeological theories.

Watkins was a member of Hereford's Woolhope Club and wrote articles for them 'on various antiquarian subjects, chapels, wayside crosses, city walls and ancient pottery, accompanied on his excursions by the manager of the Meter Works, W.M. McKaig, who assisted with the field work including the photography. Nothing, it seems, prepared members for Watkins’s astonishing contribution to field archaeology, his systematic idea of ley-lines, at the Club’s autumn meeting on 29 September 1921. This was an afternoon excursion and evening lantern slide lecture in the Club’s rooms in Hereford Free Library and Museum, reported the following year in the Club’s transactions as a paper on ‘Early British Trackways, Moats, Mounds, Camps and Sites.' His book, Early British Trackways appeared in 1922 and, following further research and elaboration of his theories, a more substantial book, The Old Straight Track (1925) became a popular success.

Daniels reproduces some of Watkins' illustrations, including the frontispiece to Early British Trackways, showing the alignment of the Four Stones and Castle Tomen. 'This takes the form of a collage, with three photographs of the sites, one a telephoto shot of Castle Tomen, superimposed on a woodland glade marking a ley.' However, neither Watkins' ideas nor the illustrations had a strong impact on contemporary art. Instead painters like Paul Nash and John Piper were more influenced by Antiquity, a journal started in 1927 by O.G.S. Crawford, who considered Watkins a crank and refused to accept an advertisement for his book, The Old Straight Track.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The fields of Ennor

Artists trying to find a new way of seeing the landscape may need to try something more unusual than standing and gazing at the view or walking and taking notes. I always think of Peter Lanyon, driving round Cornwall trying to find new angles and eventually taking to the sky in his glider. Roger Deakin's book Waterlog might also be seen in this way: he chose a cold, wet option - swimming in rivers, ponds, lakes and seas around Britain. Literally immersed in these places he not only got a different perspective, he was also sometimes able to see landscapes that would be otherwise inaccessible, like the submerged fields of Ennor...

Deakin's swimming journey started off the coast of Cornwall, where he swam between the Scilly Isles of Bryer and Tresco. He explains: 'The Scilly Isles are the last outcrop of a ridge of volcanic granite that forms the backbone of Cornwall and they were, until about 4000 years ago, the high points of a big island called Ennor. But the melting of the polar ice caps that began after the last Ice Age meant that Ennor’s lowland valleys and fields were gradually submerged. I donned the wetsuit, mask and snorkel, and swam out into the shallow sandy bay. It was high tide and about thirty yards off the shore I looked down at a pair of stone walls meeting at a right angle, and a circle of stones that must once have been a sheep pen. With seaweed hedges growing from the stones, these are the patterns and remains of the patchwork of old fields that once stretched all the way across the valley to Tresco. They are really just a continuation of the remaining field boundaries on shore. This may be why some stretches of water around the Scillies still have names from Before the Flood that are literally outlandish, like Garden of the Maiden Bower or Appletree Bay.'

There are many obituaries and memories of Deakin (who died last year) on line: see here for example. Ken Worpole pays tribute to Deakin on the Open Democracy site (one of several short pieces he has written there on Landscape and Identity). There are also various texts by Deakin, like this one about orchards on the Common Ground site. And the Radio 4 site has a programme Deakin made on a canoe journey from Redgrave Fen in Suffolk to Geldeston Lock in Norfolk, along with another about his garden.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Boden Sea, Uttwil

There is a nice exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto photographs at the Hirshhorn Museum site. Here is how he introduces some of his seascapes: "One New York night in 1980, during another of my internal question-and-answer sessions, I asked myself, "Can someone today view a scene just as primitive man might have?" The images that came to mind were of Mount Fuji and the Nachi Waterfall in ages past. A hundred thousand or a million years ago would Mount Fuji have looked so very different than it does today? I pictured two great mountains; one, today's Mount Fuji, and the other, Mount Hakone in the days before its summit collapsed, creating the Ashinoko crater lake. When hiking up from the foothills of Hakone, one would see a second freestanding peak as tall as Mount Fuji. Two rivals in height—what a magnificent sight that must have been! Unfortunately, the topography has changed. Although the land is forever changing its form, the sea, I thought, is immutable. Thus began my travels back through time to the ancient seas of the world."

"Immutable", but never the same... as you look at the different seas you wonder if he has captured essential differences in them - the hazy shimmer of Boden Sea, Uttwil (1993), the firm horizon of Tyrrhenian Sea, Conca (1994) or whether in different atmospheric conditions these images could be reversed.

In an interview here Sugimoto says: "The first portfolio of seascapes I published was entitled 'Time Exposed' because time is revealed in the sea.... People have a lot of strange ideas about my seascapes - they think these photographs were done using very long exposures, but they are in fact very fast because I wanted to stop the motion of the waves, which are constantly moving. You heard I took some photographs using a camera speed of zero ASA? That's impossible."

Postscript 2015:
I was wondering if it might be possible to include a fair use / non-copyright image with this now and I see that since I wrote this post the photograph Boden Sea, Uttwil has been used for two album covers.  The first, below, was Specification.fifteen (2006) by Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree.  Three years later U2 used the same image for No Line on the Horizon.

The Owl's Map

I have been listening to The Owl's Map, an album on Ghost Box by Belbury Poly. It is is based on the fictitious 'ancient market town of Belbury' which, according to the sleeve notes, 'is an uneasy mix of ancient and modern': Iron Age ramparts and a 'picturesque 11th century church', but also 'some notable modernist architecture', including the Polytechnic which gives its name to the group. The album is labelled 'Field Guides to British Towns and Villages Volume 7'. It contains murky photographs which, like the images in W.G. Sebald's books, invite you to peer at them trying to work out the boundary between truth and fiction. Most seem to have been taken in the 1970s (see here for example), a time when such towns were uneasily facing both backwards and forwards (before the homogenisation of identical chain stores and the re-branding of polytechnics as universities). The music itself sounds futuristic and pastoral at the same time, whilst the design is inspired by old school textbooks and Penguin paperbacks.

Simon Reynolds has investigated Ghost Box and other strands of 'haunted audio' in contemporary music for an article in Wire and his Blissblog features outtakes from this, including some thoughts on 'The Owl's Map' as a title: 'the owl: the perfect Ghost Box bird-mascot, where the wholesome (children's story books from Winnie the Pooh onwards, bird-watching guides, owl as symbol of wisdom etc) collides with the umheimlich (spooky creature with ultra-acute nightvision). Nature studies meets the supernatural... the map: likewise collides the scientific / precise / diagrammatic / official-bureaucratic-governmental-landsurveying (all those symbols indicating building types, gradients, terrain, natural features and man-made monuments) with the more magical evocations (parchment scrolls, the manuscript illuminating occult path-ways, routes to the treasure…)'

In his interview with Reynolds, Jim Jupp, the man behind Belbury Poly, says that The Owl's Map concept derived partly from old tourist guides ("you know the sort of thing, murky old photos of Chichester Cathedral") and that the colour scheme for the album was inspired by the "those brown road signs that point the way to Roman ruins, falconry centres or stately homes." Jupp's partner in Ghost Box, Julian House, plans to start making films about Belbury (which is named, incidentally, after the fictional town in C S Lewis's That Hideous Strength.)

Friday, January 05, 2007


Leonardo da Vinci, Deluge over a City, 1517-18

The V&A exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design brought together some of the most inspiring pages from his notebooks, and actually animated some of them. It included one of Leonardo's Deluge drawings from the Royal Collection, described thus: 'Spiral cataracts of air, spray and dust wrench water and even rocks into the air, while a tree (which gives scale to the cataclysm) bends to breaking point as the storm approaches.' The drawing is set in the context of his scientific studies of motion, flow and natural forces. It is so much about the properties of the storm that it feels perverse to try to make sense of the Deluge as a landscape, but the power of the wind and water seem particularly real if you imagine them transforming the view of an actual place.

 Leonardo da Vinci, Deluge, 1519

It made me think about where artists or writers have created landscapes of deluge. I recalled a Ray Bradbury story, 'The Long Rain' (1950), which is not about a storm but does describe perpetual heavy rain. It starts like this: 'The rain continued. It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping at the eyes, an undertow of the ankles; it was a rain to drown all the rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunnelled the soil and moulted the bushes...' Bradbury's science fiction story is set on 'the rain world of Venus', which by the time he wrote it was a poetic idea rather than a scientific possibility.