Saturday, February 23, 2013

Shadow Sites

There are some interesting things in the V&A's current exhibition, Light from the Middle East: New Photography: Tal Shochat's portraits of fruit trees, for example, and Ahmed Mater's Magnetism series in which pilgrims circling the Kaaba turn out to be iron filings surrounding a cube-shaped magnet.  But here I want to draw your attention to Jananne Al-Ani's video installation Shadow Sites II (2011), a sequence of aerial views in which the camera zooms down to reveal unexplained structures in the desert.  The exact history and identity of these sites is deliberately obscure, so that you might be looking at archaeological photography, reconnaissance film, land art documentation or footage from the lunar module descents.  There is a rather ominous soundtrack of wind and some unidentifiable machine hum; human life seem absent until there are a few bursts of distant radio crackle.  The artist's intention had been to explore "the disappearance of the body in the contested and highly charged landscapes of the Middle East.''  In the video talk that I've embedded below, she discusses her archival research, studying, for example, the panoramic vistas photographed a hundred years ago by German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld.  She shows how he re-touched an image to remove all trace of his own shadow, which had intruded into the frame.

The aerial views of Jordan in Shadow Sites II are very reminiscent of those taken after the Gulf War by Sophie Ristelhueber.  In the video clip below Ristelhueber describes how she wants to play with uncertainties in scale: in one image, tanks are reduced to the size of match boxes, and she juxtaposes this with what looks like a distant grid pattern on a landscape but is in fact a close-up of a camouflage bag.  In a Guardian interview Ristelhueber explained that she did not want people necessarily to connect her photographs with the war: "I don't give any clue that this is Kuwait. When I exhibited it in Johannesburg, people thought it was Africa; they recognised the sand, weapons and trails of violence." She goes on to say how one of these landscapes seemed uncannily similar to Man Ray's famous photograph Dust Breeding (1920), an image of the build up of dust on Duchamp's Large Glass that has created a kind of miniature desert landscape.  Jananne Al-Ani says in the talk that she was influenced by Ristelhueber's aerial photographs, along with Werner Herzog's film Lessons of Darkness. This chain of art historical influence all the way back to Duchamp further distances Shadow Sites II from the reality of the lived landscape being flown over.  I couldn't help wondering as I left the Victoria & Albert Museum whether this installation in this location would be seen as being about "the disappearance of the body", or simply another example of it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Index to Some Landscapes

Just a brief post to let readers know that I have now completed a new version of the index to this blog.  I had realised that I was no longer able to remember who all the artists mentioned here actually were and so this new index includes their nationality, dates (where known) and an indication of their field of activity.  At the moment it stretches from Tiglath-Pileser I, the Assyrian king and garden designer (reigned 1115 - 1076 BCE), to Levi Van Veluw, the Dutch artist born in 1985. The result is almost the size of a small book: 15,000 words long - goodness knows how many words the blog itself now amounts to.  Walter Benjamin, writing about the urge to catalogue a library, refers to a 'dialectical tension between the poles of order and disorder' and this index represents an attempt to retain some control over the unpredictable rhyzomic growth of the blog.  I'm hoping it will be a pleasure to browse in itself (it certainly is for me).  If you're so minded you could search for every 'painter' or 'Swiss painter', or for a 'Swiss painter' born in '1853' (you'd strike lucky with Ferdinand Hodler).  But it is not a sophisticated database or an attempt at a comprehensive Companion to Landscape in the Arts. I can't help noticing that there are still big gaps: I haven't got round yet to writing anything about Robert Frost or Wendell Berry or Mary Oliver or many other well known figures.  But the list keeps growing and my next post will add a new name near the start of the index: Jananne Al-Ani.  She'll be going in just before Seyed Alavi, Leon Battista Alberti and Alcman, and just after Eileen Agar, César Aira and Yamabe no Akahito...

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ice on the Yellow River

Ma Yuan (1160–1225), The Yellow River Breaches its Course

It would be impossible to summarise the career of Liu Tieh-yün (1857-1909) briefly.  In addition to writing and scholarship (he was a pioneer in the study of Shang dynasty oracle bones), Liu got involved in traditional Chinese medicine, printing, politics and numerous failed commercial ventures, ranging from a a handicraft weaving shop in Shanghai to a steel refinery in Chuchow.  This admirable breadth of interests was evident from an early age.  According to Harold Shadick, in his introduction to Liu's novel, The Travels of Lao Ts'an, 'he studied the Sung philosophers with his father and spent much time with a group of friends who formed a sort of club with the intention of preparing themselves to help the country in her hour of need.  They discussed questions of military science, economics, and mathematics, and practiced boxing.  Liu T'ieh-yün himself specialised in the study of flood control and also showed great interest in music, poetry, astronomy, and medicine.'  His research into river conservancy stood him in good stead when the Yellow River flooded in 1887.  Liu was given charge of work to repair a breach in the dike, and on the strength of this spent three years as an adviser to the Governor of Shantung.  However, when his fictional alter ego, Lao Ts'an, is offered a similar position he politely declines, having no intention of settling into official life.  'That night he wrote a letter thanking Governor Chuang [and] before daylight he cleared his account at the inn, hired a wheelbarrow, and left the city.'

Later in the novel, Lao Ts'an arrives at another inn, at Ch'ihohsien on the banks of the Yellow River.  There he is told that the town is full of people unable to cross the partially frozen river, with its drifting blocks of ice as big as a house.  Li Ts'an wanders down to the river dike to look at this spectacle.  There follows one of the descriptive passages for which this novel is renowned in China: a precise depiction of the way the ice is gradually packed together and wedged solid.  'The ice from above kept coming down block after block, until at this point it was caught by the ice in front, couldn't move, and came to a standstill.  More ice came and pressed it with a rustling sound, ch'ih-ch'ih, until the ice behind, pressed harder by the flowing water, simply jumped on top of the ice in front.  Pressed down in this way the ice in front gradually went under...'  As night is falling, Li Ts'an returns to the inn; 'each willow tree on the dike cast a shadow of moving threads on the ground, for the moon was already shining brightly.'  But after supper he goes out again and watches the boatmen still hard at work, breaking the ice.  Eventually, he raises his head from the river and looks up at the hills.  'The snow-white line reflected the light of the moon; it was extraordinarily beautiful. The mountain ranges rose tier on tier, but they could not be clearly distinguished.  A few white clouds lay in the folds of the hills so that you could hardly tell cloud from hill unless you looked intently. ... The hills stretched away to the east farther and farther until gradually the sky was white, the hills were white, and the clouds were white, and nothing could be distinguished from anything else.'

(This post uses Wade-Giles spellings.  Liu Tieh-yün is Liu Tieyun, the courtesy name for Liu E.  The novel is also spelled The Travels of Lao Can.  The YouTube clip above shows a news item about ice on the Yellow River this year - it is still a regular occurrence.)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

In the Field

I spent Friday and Saturday at In The Field, a symposium on the art and craft of field recording. During the two days we heard about a diversity of methods - from undersea hydrophone recordings made by Jana Winderen to impressions of the Hong Kong soundscape written for Salomé Voegelin's Soundwords project - and approaches ranging from the collective educational audio projects Claudia Wegener develops in Africa to the solo expeditions made by Simon Elliott to capture the intimate sounds of ospreys and peregrines.  Chris Watson came along briefly to talk about an installation he created at the London Children's Hospital in which patients remixed recordings he made on each of the seven continents.  He also mentioned In Britten's Footsteps, a collaboration with cellist Oliver Coates performed at Aldeburgh last week, which involved 'twenty speakers, split between the floor, head height and ceiling, developed to give an accurate spatial representation of the environment in which Watson had recorded the sounds' (The Liminal).  I think the weekend's highlight for me was a presentation by Christina Kubisch, whose Electrical Walks I wrote about here in 2010.  A recording she played of the beats made by different security gates sounded like the kind of music Chris Watson was making with Cabaret Voltaire all those years ago.

Reverberant flats on Peter Cusack's site

The most relevant talks from a landscape perspective were those that dealt with sound mapping, a subject I wrote about here last year, following a Wire Salon.  That event featured Ian Rawes, who modestly took on the job at this symposium of roving microphone holder, a role he could be seen as holding for the city itself in his work compiling the London Sound Survey.
  • Peter Cusack started his talk with a quote from The Peregrine: 'the hardest thing to see is what is really there', and suggested that the same is true for sound.  He therefore focused on just one recording: children playing in a reverberant space created by a semi-circle of flats, which would surely leave its residents with "a particularly strong sonic memory".  The block of flats' shape reminded me of the garden designed to produce echoes that John Evelyn observed in Paris and I wondered if Cusack had sought it out deliberately for its acoustic properties.  But  he had been there as part of a project to document sounds under the flight path to Tegel Airport: every four minutes the children's voices have to compete with the noise of aircraft overhead.  This too will be form part of their memory of living in these flats, a sound that will disappear when the airport is eventually closed.
  • Udo Noll, who has recorded sounds with Peter Cusack in Germany, talked about radio aporee, his global soundmap project. Various contributors had mentioned the importance of striving for the highest possible fidelity in their recordings but radio aporee is participative and welcomes all recordings of a reasonable standard.  Noll has now developed a radio aporee app, although he remains somewhat sceptical: "I don't like phones much and apps even less".  Is this augmented reality experience really progress?  Well, if artists don't work in this space, he argued, other commercial interests will.  Given that the non-mediated world is increasingly "a lost country", it seems better to have the option of coming upon a GPS-generated poem than some piece of corporate marketing.  This is also a way of inscribing a landscape without altering it - better, perhaps, to have the option of tuning in to a Simon Armitage stanza as you walk over the West Yorkshire moors, than coming across it carved into a rock.
  • Francesca Panetta described the creation of a similar sound app, Hackney Hear.  This sadly doesn't stretch as far as Stoke Newington, otherwise I could hear it as I type this, but it can't be long before we get one - she has also created Soho Stories, Kings Cross Streetstories and, most recently, an app to accompany Rachel Lichetenstein's Diamond Street.  Users of Hackney Hear have actually preferred its field recordings to the interviews and commissioned texts (Iain Sinclair, inevitably).  The talk concluded with an introduction to The Guardian's new interactive panorama from the top of the Shard, which incorporates clips from The London Sound Survey.  As she zoomed out, the sound of swirling wind and distant sirens gave way to more immersive soundtrack.  She clicked on various sound samples across the city to show us how it worked, but time was running short.  The final sound we heard was 'Land of Hope and Glory' emanating from the Albert Hall and for a moment it seemed as if the whole symposium was about to end with an echo of the Last Night of the Proms.  
 The Guardian's interactive view from the top of the Shard

Finally I should mention that In the Field is also the title of a new book of interviews with field recordists, edited by Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle, who co-organised the weekend's event with Cheryl Tipp.  I may have more to say about this in a future post. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Anamorphic landscape in the form of Saint Francis of Paola

Emmanuel Maignan, Saint Francis of Paola (detail), 1642

I have talked here before about landscapes that are transformed into bodies, and vice versa.  Another example can be found at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, in a corridor of an old convent building, part of the Trinità dei Monti.  There on the wall is a fresco, painted in 1642, showing a landscape with figures, buildings and small boats.  But there is something slightly uncanny about the dark shadows of the hills and certain incoherent shapes encroaching into the view.  As you walk away, towards the form of a large tree framing the view, and then look back, the landscape is no longer readily apparent: it has been replaced by the bearded figure of Saint Francis of Paola, founder of the Order of the Minims to which the convent belongs.  The painting is explored in Anamorphosis, or De Artificiali Perspectiva, a 1991 film by the Brothers Quay.  'Anamorphosis thrives on mystery, and its masters rarely give away their secrets', the narrator says.  But the film includes an animated demonstration using thread and paper figures: 'a peep at the apparatus which Emmanuel Maignan supposedly used to construct his anamorphic fresco of Saint Francis.'

Emmanuel Maignan, Saint Francis of Paola, 1642

The Brothers Quay, Anamorphosis, or De Artificiali Perspectiva, 1991

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Our Banner in the Sky

Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861

The National Gallery's new exhibition ‘Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch’ includes a version of this patriotic sunset, painted within a month of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.  As the Terra Foundation site explains, 'Union troops were out manned and their commander raised a flag of truce along with the American flag. The Confederate side responded by bombing the American flag and continued until the Union’s Major Robert Anderson lowered the American flag. Showing their loyalty to the Union, Anderson and his troops saluted the flag and sang Yankee Doodle. Northerners were outraged about the demeaning treatment of both the flag and the Union forces. The tattered flag became a symbol of the North’s resilience and artists used the image in their work. When the war was over, the flag was raised again over Fort Sumter in victory.'  In Church's painting, which was subsequently widely distributed as a lithograph, the North Star shines through a gap in the clouds and an eagle soars above the broken tree.  It resembles a painting Church completed a year earlier, Twilight in the Wilderness, that is easy to read as a premonition of war, with its dark and fiery sky over an unpeopled landscape. 

Frederic Edwin Church, Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860

The original painting Our Banner in the Sky (the National Gallery is showing a sketch) can currently be seen at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's exhibition on The Civil War and American Art.  It immediately inspired imitations and continues to interest artists: Marc Handelman's 2005 version crops and inverts the image - 'a defiant gesture on the part of the artist to express his own ambiguity of feelings regarding national identity', according to the Saatchi Gallery.  (Another Saatchi artist, Ged Quinn, has recently made a version of Twilight in the Wilderness). The print below was clearly based on the elements of Church's composition but introduces a lone figure: 'a Zouave sentry watching from a promontory as the dawn breaks in the distance. His rifle and bayonet form the staff of an American flag whose design and colors are formed by the sky's light. Below, in the distance, is a fort - probably Sumter. The print is accompanied by eight lines of verse: When Freedom from her mountain height / Unfurled her standard to the air, / She tore the azure robe of night / And set the stars of glory there. / She mingled with its gorgeous dyes / The milky baldrick of the skies, / And striped its pure celestial white / With streakings of the morning light.' 

Pro-Union patriotic print: Our Heaven Born Banner, c. 1861

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Domain of Arnheim

"The usual approach to Arnheim was by the river. The visitor left the city in the early morning. During the forenoon he passed between shores of a tranquil and domestic beauty, on which grazed innumerable sheep, their white fleeces spotting the vivid green of rolling meadows. By degrees the idea of cultivation subsided into that of merely pastoral care. This slowly became merged in a sense of retirement — this again in a consciousness of solitude. As ­the evening approached, the channel grew more narrow; the banks more and more precipitous; and these latter were clothed in richer, more profuse, and more sombre foliage. The water increased in transparency. The stream took a thousand turns, so that at no moment could its gleaming surface be seen for a greater distance than a furlong. [...]  The windings became more frequent and intricate, and seemed often as if returning in upon themselves, so that the voyager had long lost all idea of direction. He was, moreover, enwrapt in an exquisite sense of the strange. The thought of nature still remained, but her character seemed to have undergone modification; there was a weird symmetry, a thrilling uniformity, a wizard propriety in these her works. Not a dead branch — not a withered leaf — not a stray pebble — not a patch of the brown earth was anywhere visible. The crystal water welled up against the clean granite, or the unblemished moss, with a sharpness of outline that delighted while it bewildered the eye." - Edgar Allan Poe, 'The Domain of Arnheim', 1847
This uncannily perfect landscape is the work of the narrator's friend Ellison, now deceased, but a man who had been borne from cradle to grave by 'a gale of prosperity'.  Having inherited a fortune, he spent four years searching for a site that he could re-shape according to his aesthetic ideals.  Ellison believed it would be possible to unite the beautiful and the sublime, to combine vastness and definitiveness, to design 'a landscape whose united beauty, magnificence, and strangeness' would resemble 'the handiwork of the angels that hover between man and God.'  There is something godlike in the way he controls the traveller's passage and manipulates their mood like a poet, passing from the georgic to the bucolic, before they enter the silent gorge as the sun begins to set.  The boat then emerges into a clear basin of water, its surface reflecting steep hills of flowers that resemble a 'cataract of rubies, sapphires, opals and golden onyxes, rolling silently out of the sky.'

At this point the visitor must descend into a light canoe of ivory and proceed alone, past wooded slopes that display 'not one token of the usual river débris' and through another winding channel until a gate of burnished gold is reached.  The story is nearly at an end and, this being Poe, one expects some kind of dark revelation, perhaps a sepulchral vision like  Böcklin's Isle of the DeadThe boat descends rapidly into a vast amphitheatre. 'There is a gush of entrancing melody; there is an oppressive sense of strange sweet odor; - there is a dream-like intermingling to the eye of tall slender Eastern trees - bosky shrubberies - flocks of golden and crimson birds - lily-fringed lakes - meadows of violets, tulips, poppies, hyacinths, and tuberoses - long intertangled lines of silver streamlets - and, upspringing confusedly from amid all, a mass of semi-Gothic, semi-Saracenic architecture, sustaining itself as if by miracle in mid-air, glittering in the red sunlight with a hundred oriels, minarets, and pinnacles; and seeming the phantom handiwork, conjointly, of the Sylphs, of the Fairies, of the Genii, and of the Gnomes.'

Poe wrote another story two year's later, 'Landor's Cottage: A Pendant to "The Domain of Arnheim"', in which a walker, travelling through 'one or two of the river counties of New York' comes upon another magical vista.  This vale, emerging from the mist, with its crystal clear lakelet, emerald grass and triple-stemmed tulip tree, is described in (rather laborious) detail, as is the house itself.  Eventually the reader is led inside and shown the interior decoration of Landor's cottage.  The simple furniture has 'evidently been designed by the same brain which planned 'the grounds': it is impossible to conceive anything more graceful.'  Hopes of meeting the designer of all this beauty are disappointed however, as the narrator ends abruptly at this point: 'it is not the purpose of this work to do more than give, in detail, a picture of Mr. Landor's residence - as I found it.'  To what extent the narrator has projected his own dream landscape onto the New York countryside remains unclear.

Harry Clarke, Landor's Cottage, 1919
Public domain

'Landor's Cottage' and 'The Domain of Arnheim', along with Poe's essay about an ideal room, 'The Philosophy of Furniture', form the basis of a "study of the inner refuge" made by a character in Paul Auster's novel The Brooklyn Follies.  Taken together, he says, they comprise "a fully elaborated system of human longing."

Friday, February 01, 2013

A banked-up, soothing, wooded haze

Seamus Heaney's first foray into translation, Sweeney Astray, published thirty years ago, was a version of Buile Shuibhne, which survives in seventeenth century manuscripts but probably written five hundred years earlier.  It tells the story of an early seventh century Irish king driven mad by the curse of a priest after the battle of Mag Rath (Moira), who wanders for years in the wilderness, lamenting his fate and composing poems in celebration of nature.  I find it tempting to read this not just as a version of the Wild Man legend, but as a distant memory of a real poet of landscape; there is a ninth century law tract mentioning stories and poems composed by Suibhne Geilt and another fragment that may be older which includes a nature poem attributed to him.  Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson’s wonderful anthology A Celtic Miscellany features several extracts from Buile Shuibhne alongside other early Irish nature poetry, remarkable for its freshness. He says that 'comparing these poems with the medieval European lyric is like comparing the emotions of an imaginative adolescent who has just grown up to realise the beauty of nature, with those of an old man who has been familiar with it for a lifetime and is no longer able to think of it except in literary terms.'  It was reading Jackson's book that first got Seamus Heaney interested in the Sweeney story.

When Heaney began work on Sweeney Astray his instinct was 'to snatch certain moments of definition and intensity out of their place in the story and to present them as lyric poems in their own right.'  I am glad he didn't, because it is good to read the vivid descriptions of nature in their context: the stanzas praising 'all the trees in Ireland', for example, are prompted by Sweeney's feelings of homesickness, brought on by the bellow of a stag, and they give way to memories of his flight from the battlefield, overtaking a startled fawn and riding him from mountain to mountain on 'a high demented spree.'  Nevertheless, for Heaney 'the hankering to skim off certain favourite lines persisted' and when he saw the photographs Rachel Giese had taken around Sweeney's old kingdom of Dal-Arie, he finally felt 'emboldened to snip lyric leaves off the old narrative boughs.'  The result was a collaboration, Sweeney's Flight (1993) that intersperses their photographs and poetry, as well as including a full and revised version of Sweeney Astray.  My copy above is turned to a page with a few words uttered by Sweeney when he is about to leave Ailsa Grag, a bleak island in the outer Firth of Clyde, and is longing for the consolation of woodlands.  'I imagine treelines / far away, / a banked-up, soothing / wooded haze.'