Monday, August 30, 2010

The King Lake and the Watzmann

A couple of years ago the Pushkin Press published a new translation of Der Hagestolz (1850) by Adalbert Stifter (1805-68).  Their edition comes with a beautiful cover, The King Lake and the Watzmann (1837), painted by Stifter himself when his main energies were focused on landscape painting, prior to the publication of his first story Der Condor in 1840.  The image is perfect because the story's hero Viktor is forced to stay on an island in a lake surrounded by mountains.  There his youthful energy and generous spirit convince the miserly uncle who has summoned him there to provide for Viktor and save him from the dull and restricting administrative career he was intending to pursue.

The book has many vivid passages of landscape description, like the moment Viktor wakes and looks out from the island, seeing the distant mountains shining in the sun: 'everywhere broad shadows were cast; and the whole spectacle appeared again in the lake, which, swept clean of every wisp of mist, lay there like the most delicate of mirrors.'  Viktor at the window (that archetypal Romantic moment) is 'awestruck.  The sharpest of contrasts was created by all this encircling profusion of light and colours alongside the surrounding deathlike silence in which theses gigantic mountains stood' (trans. David Bryer). Like other artist writers (Mervyn Peake for example), Stifter's descriptions are always sensitive to the distribution and intensity of light.

Pushkin also publish Stifter's Bergkristall (Rock Crystal) in a 1945 translation by Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore, a writer one can well imagine being sympathetic to Stifter's gentle, poetic stories.  This is another story that takes place in the shifting light of the mountains, where darkness falls on a winter journey and two children are lost in the snow.  As I have promised to read this story to Mrs Plinius one Christmas Eve I shall say no more about it here, but if you're interested I can recommend a good article about Rock Crystal by Adam Kirsch.  He quotes Hannah Arendt's review of the 1945 edition, where she described Stifter as "the greatest landscape painter in literature ... someone who possesses the magic wand to transform all visible things into words."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Green Pasture

'I know a painting so evanescent that it is seldom viewed at all, except by some wandering deer. It is a river who wields the brush, and it is the same river who, before I can bring my friends to view his work, erases it forever from human view. After that it exists only in my mind's eye.'  I'm always interested in examples of the landscape creating its own art, and in 'The Green Pasture' section of his environental classic A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold writes of the way the river builds up a painting, first with silt and then with plants which in turn attract birds and animals.

'To view the painting, give the river three more weeks of solitude, and then visit the bar on some bright morning just after the sun has melted the day-break fog. The artist has now laid his colors, and sprayed them with dew. The Eleocharis sod, greener than ever, is now spangled with blue mimulus, pink dragon-head, and the milk-white blooms of Sagittaria. Here and there a cardinal flower thrusts a red spear skyward. At the head of the bar, purple ironweeds and pale pink joe-pyes stand tall against the wall of willows. And if you have come quietly and humbly, as you should to any spot that can be beautiful only once, you may surprise a fox-red deer, standing knee-high in the garden of his delight.'

Photo: Wikimedia Commons (James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster)

There are several instances in the book where nature is described as a superior, more fundamental kind of culture - the essay that follows 'The Green Pasture', for example, is called 'The Choral Copse' and describes 'the misty autumn daybreaks ... What one remembers is the invisible hermit thrush pouring silver chords from impenetrable shadows; the soaring crane trumpeting from behind a cloud; the prairie chicken booming from the mists of nowhere; the quail’s Ave Maria in the hush of dawn.'  This kind of artistic epiphany in the landscape is a nice way of promoting the land ethic to city folk like me who admire the naturalist's endless curiosity and patient observation of wildlife but, to be honest, would rather not read too much of the detail.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing

Francis Alÿs, The Loop, Tijuana - San Diego 1997
Postcard given free at the exhibition Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception

One of the best exhibitions I've seen in London this year has been Francis Alÿs: A Story of Deception, and in the very first room you encounter a kind of landscape film - footage of a mirage on a desert highway in Patagonia.  This work provides the title for the exhibition and it is accompanied by a small canvas with a murky indistinct view, Untitled, Patagonia 2004 - the canvas is slashed and, going further than Lucio Fontana, the cut actually penetrates the wall of the gallery.  The mirage reminded me of Herzog's Fata Morgana; other Alÿs works like Rehearsal I (1999-2001), where a VW Beetle is repeatedly driving up a hill, and Tornado (2000-10), documenting attempts to to run into the eye of a dust storm, might also have been scenes in Herzog's films.

In my previous post on Francis Alÿs I described When Faith Moves Mountains, a communal effort that challenged earlier land art. "When Richard Long made his walks in the Peruvian desert, he was pursuing a contemplative practice that distanced him from the immediate social context. When Robert Smithson built the Spiral Jetty on the Salt Lake in Utah, he was turning civil engineering into sculpture and vice versa. Here, we have attempted to create a kind of Land art for the land-less, and, with the help of hundreds of people and shovels, we created a social allegory." In this exhibition there were other works that provided interesting contrasts with land artists, like Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing) (1997) where, three years before Andy Goldsworthy left snowballs melting around London, Alÿs was pushing a block of ice around the centre of Mexico City until it disappeared.

This kind of walking project, reminiscent of Richard Long but with a strong social or political edge, has been a persistent element of Alÿs's practice.  In The Green Line he trod the 1948-67 border between Israel and Jordan dripping green paint as he went.  In The Collectors (1990-92) he walked round Mexico City with magnetised 'dogs' collecting metal detritus.  And in my favourite, Patriotic Tales (1997), he 'led a circle of sheep around the flagpole in the Zócalo, the ceremonial square and the site of political rallies. The action is based on an event in 1968 when civil servants were paraded in the city to show support for the government, but bleated like sheep to protest their subservience.'

Saturday, August 14, 2010

On the Island of Saint-Pierre

Near the start of this section of Civilisation (1969) we see Kenneth Clark sitting in a rowing boat discussing the 'revolution in human feeling' that occurred when Jean-Jacques Rousseau spent two months on the Island of Saint-Pierre in 1765.  'In listening to the flux and reflux of the waves, he tells us, he became completely at one with nature, lost all consciousness of an independent self, all painful memories of the past or anxieties about the future, everything except the sense of being.'  It is one of those points in the series where the beauty of the colour photography and ambient sounds convey as much as Clark's words. 

The writing referred to here is the fifth of Rousseau's ten Reveries of the Solitary Walker, composed during the last two years of his life (1776-78).  There he says that 'everything is in constant flux' and 'our earthly joys are almost without exception the creatures of a moment.'  But happiness can be found as long as we can experience nothing but 'the simple feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely ...  Such is the state I often experienced on the Island of Saint-Pierre in my solitary reveries, whether I lay in a boat and drifted where the water carried me, or sat by the shores of the stormy lake, or elsewhere, on the banks of a lovely river or a stream murmuring over the stones' (trans. Peter France).  When writing The Reveries of the Solitary Walker Rousseau was living in Paris, but able to escape the city in order to breath freely under the trees.  The quiet happiness he was able to experience was only possible because he had learned to rid himself of 'self-love' (amour-propre) and leave behind the bustle of the world. 

This fifth walk gives an account of Rousseau's happy life on the island walking, botanising, boating and losing himself in reverie, and within the book as a whole it comes as refreshing contrast to the other walks, with their sad and bitter complaints against the enemies he saw all around him.  In this it is very like the all-too-brief description Rousseau gives of the island in Confessions.  This comes in Book 12, a detailed account of his troubles which starts: 'This is where the works of darkness begin, in which for eight years I have found myself entombed without it being possible for me, however I have gone about it, to penetrate their terrifying obscurity'.  Rousseau describes the landscape as a refuge from his persecutors.  'Often, abandoning my boat to the mercy of wind and water, I would give myself up to a reverie without object, and which, for being foolish, was none the less sweet.  At times, filled with emotion, I would cry aloud, "O nature! O my mother! Here at least I am under your guardianship alone; no cunning or treacherous man can come between us here." In this way I would drift up to half a league from the shore; I should have liked this lake to be the ocean' (trans. Angela Scholar).

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Magnetic City

Ten years ago I went to the Hayward Gallery's Sonic Boom exhibition where one of the more memorable works, Christina Kubisch's Oasis 2000: Music for a Concrete Jungle, required us to put on headphones that replaced the noise of the city on the gallery's bleak concrete terrace with a soundworld recorded in a distant rain forest.  In more recent years the city itself has been the subject of her investigations and in her 'electrical walks' participants wear special headphones that pick up the waves emanating from 'light systems, transformers, anti-theft security devices, surveillance cameras, cell phones, computers, elevators, streetcar cables, antennae, navigation systes, automated teller machines, neon advertising, electric devices, etc.'  As she says in the liner notes to the album The Magnetic City (2008), recorded in Poitiers, "often what you can see normally and what you hear electromagnetically, is quite different: quiet streets burst out with strong electrical hums, the lively market place is quiet instead, the train station is a dense net of regular beats and clicks, the parking Carnot is the place where antennas fill the air with internet signals, the ATM machines of the banks hum musical chords and the security gates in the shopping streets surprise by their volume and intensity of continuous signals."

In an interview in Cabinet Magazine she describes the sonic characteristics of different cities.  "In Bremen, there’s a tram system that you hear all over the city, even when you’re not near it. It’s a kind of basic drone that’s very present. And in Madrid, a really persistent sound is that of the mobile phones that people carry around. You don’t hear people talking, of course. But you hear when they dial—that moment when the information is being transported. It’s a sort of short chirp: dip, da-rip, da-rip, da-rip, something like that. You hear that every moment, sometimes in duos or trios, because, in Madrid, everyone lives with their phones. In Taiwan the sounds are very aesthetic. Maybe they have a new technology that’s already very sophisticated. In Paris you have some very heavy sounds, like in the train stations, where there is so much interrupted current. Train stations in general are very full, heavy, and dusty with sound." You can hear sound samples at the Cabinet Magazine website or by clicking on the link to Boomkat below:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The sand and the stars

Last year I finally finished converting all my CDs to MP3s and while going through the crates came upon some Flying Saucer Attack albums, like Chorus (above), which I hadn't really listened to in at least a decade.  I thought about a post then on FSA's use of landscape imagery but didn't think I had much to say about it.  However, I was interested to read this week in the latest edition of Wire about the links between their strain of pastoral post-rock and the hauntology of the Ghost Box label, which I discussed here a few years ago.  In his article Joseph Stannard also makes connections with Richard Youngs, Fredrik Ness Sevendal and the groups associated with the Jewelled Antler Collective (mentioned in passing in a recent post about Richard Skelton).

Flying Saucer Attack's music had by the mid 90s, according to Stannard, 'arrived at a heady, impressionistic hybrid of pastoral acoustics and wraithlike feedback...  Vast, wordless drones such as 'Rainstorm Blues' evoked the feeling of being a tiny human speck in a mythic English landscape, time-locked in perpetual twilight, at the mercy of the elements.' One of Simon Reynolds' blogs reproduces a 1995 article on the band where he notes that 'on their three albums and innumberable 7 inch singles so far, FSA have consistently, nay, obsessively, deployed cover images of idyllic Nature: cloud-castles in the sky, scintillating seascapes at sunset, lakeshore trees reflected in limpid water, ebbtide beaches at dusk. Then there's the song titles: "Land Beyond The Sun", "In The Light Of Time", "To The Shore", "Standing Stone", "November Mist", "Oceans"...' However, FSA's Dave Pearce punctures any grand ideas about this: "the pastoralism comes down to the fact that as a child I used to live in the countryside, in the Cotswolds. And being a shy, quiet person, I prefer the country, 'cos you can wander off on your own. In the city you get aggro and hassle all the time."

FSA were part of a Bristol scene that included Crescent, AMP, the Third Eye Foundation and Movietone.  Rachel Brook was in both FSA and Movietone, and several Movietone records had a landscape connection, like the single above, released in 1997.  In 2003 Movietone recorded The Sand and the Stars at various outdoor locations.  As Andy Beta says in a review for Pitchfork, 'the quintet lugged recording equipment out of their home studio and into churches and warehouses, up a cliff, and even into a bay near Land's End to capture that quality. The incidental, environmental sounds infuse with guitar, dulcimer, banjo, brushed drums, cubist bass, and the pastoral whispers of Kate Wright and Rachel Brook (who offset the brunt of early Flying Saucer Attack with a gentle serenity in her maiden days).'  The Domino website quotes Kate Wright: "We found the perfect bay in which to play the music, near Land’s End.  The sand shelved gently and the waves were loud even on calm days. We found a house to rent above the bay. The path down to the beach was steeper than I remembered and fairly difficult to navigate in the dark. But there were clear nights under the stars. We recorded on the beach with two microphones."

Monday, August 09, 2010

Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground, Dugway, UT

There are several surveillance landscapes on show at Tate Modern at the moment - the Exposed exhibition website has some of Jonathan Olley's photographs of watchtowers built by the British Army in Northern Ireland; other examples are Sophie Ristelhueber's Fait (1992) series, providing aerial evidence of the impact of the first Gulf War, and Shai Kremer's Panorama, Urban Warfare Training Centre, Tze'elim (2007).  However, the photograph in this exhibition that most intrigued me was Trevor Paglen's Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground / Dugway, UT / Distance - 42 miles / 10:51 am (2006).  It is a beautiful, shimmering, nearly abstract image taken from so far away that the landscape is impossible to read.  Paglen's website has an explanation of the 'limit telephotography' method used for this and similar images:

'A number of classified military bases and installations are located in some of the remotest parts of the United States, hidden deep in western deserts and buffered by dozens of miles of restricted land. Many of these sites are so remote, in fact, that there is nowhere on Earth where a civilian might be able to see them with an unaided eye. In order to produce images of these remote and hidden landscapes, therefore, some unorthodox viewing and imaging techniques are required.  Limit-telephotography involves photographing landscapes that cannot be seen with the unaided eye. The technique employs high powered telescopes whose focal lengths range between 1300mm and 7000mm. At this level of magnification, hidden aspects of the landscape become apparent.'

Bryan Finoki's 2005 article on Paglen's work for Archinect explains that 'by zooming in on the military taking cover in the sheer remoteness of nature, Paglen seeks to debunk the mythologies that adorn the American frontier, and expose those off-limit landscapes-as-camouflage for the pervasive culture of inscrutability they serve.' Paglen is both artist and geographer, and he sees his experimental geography as running counter to the history and current practice of the discipline (he tells Finoki "I've heard that around 40% of professional geographers in this country work for the CIA or other intelligence agencies.") In the clip below he compares nineteenth century photographers, whose work helped open up the West for expansion, to modern reconnaissance satellites. In The Other Night Sky, Paglen uses the data of amateur satellite watchers to track classified spacecraft in Earth's orbit so as to photograph them over iconic Western landscapes. His book Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes will be available soon, with an accompanying essay by Rebecca Solnit.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Chiswick House Garden

Chiswick House, designed by the third Earl of Burlington, 
completed by 1729 
My photograph, July 2010

Last month we visited Chiswick House and its gardens for the first time in years, lured by the website which says: 'in recent decades the gardens fell into decline with over one million visits every year taking their toll. This decline has now been spectacularly reversed with an ambitious £12.1 million project which has restored the gardens to their original 18th century glory.'  There is a nice new cafe and children's play area, but anyone thinking of going may wish to wait until the restoration is complete - the Ionic Temple for example is still under scaffolding. 

The Ionic Temple and Orange Tree Garden, c. 1726
Source: Wikimedia Commons, photograph from 2008.

The restorers have erected several notices around the gardens in the form of picture frames.   The one shown below reproduces an idealised view of the house and invites you to compare it with the present view (somewhat obscured by trees).

Picturesque viewpoint, Chiswick House
My photograph, July 2010

The gardens designed by Burlington and William Kent have a special place in landscape history, having inspired Alexander Pope's fourth 'Epistle' on good taste, which argues that all should be 'adapted to the genius and use of the place, and the beauties not forced into it, but resulting from it.'  Here are the lines relating to garden design:
To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the column, or the arch to bend,
To swell the terrace, or to sink the grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.
But treat the goddess like a modest fair,
Nor overdress, nor leave her wholly bare;
Let not each beauty ev'rywhere be spied,
Where half the skill is decently to hide.
He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds,
Surprises, varies, and conceals the bounds.

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th' ambitious hill the heav'ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th' intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

- Alexander Pope, 'Epistle to Burlington', 1731

The cascade, Chiswick House garden, designed by William Kent
My photograph, July 2010

As this verse implies, the garden is both formal and informal.  It has geometrical features like the Patte d’oie (‘goose-foot’) - three radiating avenues ending in small buildings - but it also has a lake created from a stream and 'naturalised'.  The overall design 'pleasingly confounds, surprises, varies'.  As John Dixon Hunt says in The Figure in the Landscape (p96), the visitor, once walking down the main axis of the garden, was confronted with 'frequent openings that tempted to left and right; once such invitations to divert from the main avenue were accepted the windings and intricacies of the garden were quickly discovered.'

Jean Rocque, Plan du Jardin & Vue des Maisons de Chiswick, 1736

Finally, here are The Beatles in May 1966 performing 'Paperback Writer' in the gardens.  At the start you can see them at the exedra, a semicircular yew hedge which formed a backdrop to Burlington's copies of antique statues said to represent Caesar, Pompey and Cicero. The other main location is the conservatory, renowned for its camellias, designed by Samuel Ware in 1813, a forerunner of the famous glasshouses at Kew and Crystal Palace.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Lu Mountain's true face

Mount Lu

Lu Mountain (Lu-shan or Hermitage Mountain), at the juncture of the Long River and Lake P'o-yang in China, must be a contender for the most inspirational landscape in literature.  It became established as an important religious centre with the arrival of Hui-yung (332-414), for whom the West-Forest Monastery was rebuilt in 377, and Hui Yüan (334-416) who taught Pure Land Buddhism at the East-Forest Monastery.  The poet T'ao Yüan-ming (365-427), founder of the fields-and-gardens tradition (see my earlier post here) knew Hui Yüan and lived on a farm near the mountain.  Hsieh Ling-yün (385-433), whose mountains-and-rivers poetry I discussed here earlier, was influenced by the teachings of Hui Yüan and wrote about Lu-shan, with its 'jumbled canyons', 'thronging peaks' and 'dragon pools.'

Three hundred years later the T’ang Dynasty poet Meng Hao-jan (689-740) had his own mountain home further west in Hsiang-yang and made Deer-Gate Mountain there famous through his poetry.  But on one of the many journeys he made as an official he wrote about Incense Burner Peak, the most spectacular in the Lu Mountain range, and the distant sound of the bell from East-Forest monastery.  Li Po (701-62) stayed at the monastery and wrote of the silence and emptiness that could be found there away from the city. Climbing towards Incense-Burner Peak, he gazed at the waterfall, three thousand feet high, and wrote a celebrated poem which I have discussed here previously.

Po Chü-i (772-848) composed poems about the mountain and a famous prose account of the thatch hut he built in 817 facing Incense-Burner’s north slope. From this place he could experience 'the blossoms of Brocade Valley' in spring, 'in summer the clouds of Stone Gate Ravine, in autumn the moon over Tiger Creek, in winter the snows on Incense Burner Peak' (trans. Burton Watson). I particularly like his description of the way water was channeled around the hut, with a small waterfall that in twilight and dawn had 'the color of white silk' and at night made 'a sound like jade pendants or a lute or harp'  A bamboo trough led water from a spring in the cliff, across the hall into channels that fell from the eaves to wet the paving, giving 'a steady stream of strung pearls, a gentle mist like rain or dew, dripping down and soaking things or blowing far off in the wind.'

By the Sung Dynasty, the mountain was almost overburdened with poetic tradition.  In An Anthology of Chinese Literature Stephen Owen writes that Su Tung p’o (Su Shi, 1037-1101) resolved to visit the mountain as 'an "innocent traveler", wanting to experience the mountains without writing poems (as a modern tourist might resolve to travel without taking photographs).'  But he was unable to restrain himself and ended up composing several, writing his own reputation into the landscape with perhaps the best known of all the mountain's poems, a quatrain 'Inscribed on the Wall of West Forest Monastery', stating the impossibility of ever knowing Lu Mountain's true face.