Friday, November 28, 2014

Views from the Internet

Last week I went to a discussion on landscape and photography at Tate Modern.  This wasn't linked to their new exhibition Conflict, Time, Photography but to one at Somerset House I referred to here last year, 'Landmark: the Fields of Photography'.  The event was to promote a book of the show, edited by William Ewing, who chaired the panel of five artists: Thomas Struth, Massimo Vitali, Lauren Marsolier, Penelope Umbrico and Mishka Henner.  This represented a kind of spectrum, from Struth and Vitali who still compose and takes photographs to Umbrico and Henner who construct images from sources found on the internet.  Marsolier might be seen as somewhere in the middle, using her camera to capture fragments of landscape which she then digitally montages into scenes that convey a sense of feeling "disorientated and disconnected".  These oneiric visions with their blank windows and pale skies, "absolutely still with no breath of air" as Ewing observed, seem to fuse the reality of California with the abstract spaces of the internet.

Penelope Umbrico said she sees the Web itself as her landscape.  In Views from the Internet she collected landscapes glimpsed through windows found on home decor sites. 'Used as peripheral devices to elicit desire for the objects (and lifestyles) sold on these websites, the views are an invitation: they invite retreat and escape - into utterly flat space that is nowhere.' She has also made a series called Honeymoon Suites by scanning the candy coloured horizons and skies in holiday brochures to create distilled digital abstractions of happiness. 'While the horizon is intended to signify perfect love and escape, it equally points to the unattainability of both.'  The vast archive of holiday photographs on Flickr is the source for her installation Suns (from Sunsets), which I saw at the Landmark exhibition.  A a sense of the digital sublime is conveyed by retitling the work each time she exhibits it according to the number of sunsets available on Flickr at that date: in 2006 this was 541,795, on the day of the talk last week it stood at 22,177,914.  Apparently people have taken to photographing themselves in front of her wall of sunsets as if they were posing in front of a real sun.   

The two quotes in the paragraph above are from this book

I found Mishka Henner particularly interesting, although his dry humour seemed to bypass some in the audience (he sounded like Simon Armitage would if he read BLDGBLOG).  He argued that the problem with digital culture is not that there are too many images, but that we have not yet found ways to navigate through them.  He talked about the world of GoogleEarth and online photography as a kind of landscape of infinite detail.  He has been able to construct striking aerial views of oil fields that would have been impossible to photograph directly, exposing the way pipelines have grown like root systems through river valleys, farmland and urban centres.  Thomas Struth took issue with this kind of work, suggesting that it has immediate political impact but no aesthetic value.  Henner didn't argue the point, although it seemed pretty obvious that his images of US feedlots, for example, composed from satellite imagery, have a horrible beauty. Struth has himself chosen political subjects - Ramala, Chinese industrialisation - and his early work in Germany documenting urban architecture always seems to ask the basic question of why we have designed our living environment to look like this.

Although Struth is a major figure I find it quite hard to think of anything particularly interesting to say about him (I went to his retrospective at the Whitechapel in 2011 but didn't write about it on this blog).  His large-scale photographs of people in museums are similar to the beach scenes that  Massimo Vitali has been photographing for the last twenty years.  At first sight such photographs have more in common with the panoramic crowd scenes painted by artists like William Powell Frith than the panoramic unpeopled views we associate with 'landscape photography'.  However, in Vitali's case, what is beyond the foreground seems important: the people sporting around in the water in his 1995 photographs at Viareggio are overlooked by watch towers and cranes, whilst in another image of Rosignano from the same year, the sunbathers are oblivious to the cooling towers of a power station behind them.  There is pathos in the way these apparently unprepossessing strips of coast attract so many people, despite the proximity of factories, viaducts and graffiti.  "Being a tourist," Vitali told the Tate audience, "is one of the worst experiences you can have."

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Watermeadows at Salisbury

John Constable,  Landscape with goatherd and goats, 1823
Source for all images: Wikimedia Commons

The V&A's Constable: The Making of Master exhibition provides a fascinating survey of the way Constable was influenced by other artists throughout his career.  He admired the early Gainsborough and it is easy to see why: the Landscape with Pool (1745-6) which Constable would have seen in Ipswich is absolutely exquisite.  Rubens was another stimulus: Constable's Moonlit Landscape with Hadleigh Castle uses effects he took from Rubens' Landscape by Moonlight.  I was fascinated by another Rubens in the show, Summer, with its sunlit plain and turquoise distances (Mrs Plinius dismissed it as "garish").  Also on display are direct copies of seventeenth century masters - the 'facsimile' of a Claude painting (above), and the version (below) of a Ruisdael winter scene owned by Sir Robert Peel, who insisted that Constable include a small dog to distinguish it from the original (I wonder which version is worth more now?)  This added dog inevitably reminded me of the cruise missiles inserted by Peter Kennard into his 1980 version of Constable's The Haywain, a work now owned by the Tate.

John Constable, A winter landscape with figures on a path,
a footbridge and windmills beyond, 1832
  Inscribed on the stretcher 'Copied from the Original Picture by Ruisdael in the possession of Sir Robt Peel Bt by me John Constable RA at Hampstead Sep. 1832 P.S. color (...) Dog added (...) only (...) Size of the Original (...) and Showed this pictures to Dear John Dunthrone Octr 30 1832 (...) this was the last time I (...)' and further inscribed 'Poor J Dunthorne died on Friday (all Saints) the 2d of November. 1832-at 4 o clock in the afternoon Aged 34 years.'

Constable was also interested in the methods and advice of earlier artists.  The exhibition juxtaposes Twenty Studies of Skies after Alexander Cozens (1823) with a copy of Cozens' own examples.  Constable drew these at Coleorton Hall, home of the great collector Sir George Beaumont, where (as I read on the NGA site) Constable 'also studied Cozens’s list of twenty-seven types of ‘Circumstance’ in nature, consisting of accidents (wind, rain, storm etc.), seasons (spring, autumn etc.) and characters (time of day such as ‘rising-sun’, ‘setting-sun’, and ‘close of day’'.  There is something both seductive and reductive about the idea that landscape can be classified in this way, like the tags used to label internet images.  Constable also took heed of Leonardo's advice on a means of achieving accurate perspective whilst out sketching directly from nature, a method demonstrated in this exhibition with a drawing for Watermeadows at Salisbury.
'Take a glass as large as your paper, fasten it well between your eye and the object you mean to draw, and fixing your head in a frame (in such a manner as not to be able to move it) at the distance of two feet from the glass; shut one eye, and draw with a pencil accurately upon the glass all that you see through it. After that, trace upon paper what you have drawn on the glass, which tracing you may paint at pleasure, observing the aerial perspective.' - Leonardo da Vinci - A Treatise on Painting
John Constable, Watermeadows at Salisbury, 1820 or 1829

The most interesting room in this excellent exhibition is the least colourful, devoted to Constable's collection of prints.  As the curators explain, over his career Constable amassed '59 oil paintings by ‘Old and Modern Masters’ and over 5000 prints, 250 drawings, 37 books of prints and 39 framed prints and drawings.'  This enthusiasm reminds me of Van Gogh, whose letters vividly convey his pleasure in acquiring prints (and also photographic reproductions, an option not yet available to Constable).  The small selection of Constable's collection displayed at the V&A amounts to a history of Western landscape art in its diverse forms: Dürer, Titian, Claude, Rubens, Rembrandt, Rosa, Waterloo.  It was only a few years ago that I too would need to have owned a reproduction of one of these images to study it here in the comfort of my home.  Now they are available to me instantly wherever my phone can get a signal.

Google Image Search: Rembrandt's The Three Trees (1643),
an etching owned by Constable.


Earlier this week, at the LRB bookshop event mentioned in my last post, I met Chris from pastoral punk duo Way Through, who told me that they had been in Constable Country this summer for a Field Broadcast project called Scene on a Navigable River.  As part of this they reworked the track 'Dedham Vale' which appeared on their 2013 album Clapper Is Still.  Field Broadcast is 'a live digital broadcasting platform led by artists Rebecca Birch and Rob Smith. After downloading a special Field Broadcast app, the software waits quietly until the artist’s work is ready for transmission, when a live video stream opens unannounced on the recipient’s computer, tablet or mobile phone desktop.'  I am now imagining what would have happened if Way Through's dissonant music had suddenly activated while I was in an important meeting - I suppose this element of surprise is a way of countering the sheer availability of art online.  Two hundred years ago there was only Constable, leaving his room full of prints to walk out into the landscape his paintings were in the process of 'creating' for us.  He could reproduce an old painting but in working from nature he held up a small screen of glass the size of a modern tablet device and tried to trace what he could see.  'When I sit down to make a sketch from nature,' he wrote, 'the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture.' 

John Constable, Dedham Vale, 1802 

Friday, November 21, 2014

A stand of trembling reeds

In The Small Heart of Things (2013) Julian Hoffman writes about the Prespa Lakes, where the borders of Greece, Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia come together in the middle of a stretch of water.  History and politics divide this landscape but artificial frontiers 'make no allowance for the mobile lives of people and animals, for shifting water currents, for the ways of wind and wing.'  In one of the interconnected essays that make up the book he writes of finding bear tracks on the damp sand at the edge of the lake.  'Walking in the bears' steps tightened the weave of the Prespa basin, threaded the lakes and three countries together, transforming the term transboundary into something more than just a human designation.'  He follows them in his imagination through the marsh grass and down from the high mountains, past migrating butterflies and apple trees seeded by storms, over a land bridge once used by refugees and through a quiet wood of oaks and junipers where white ribbons on the trees mark the paths of migrant labourers making their way at night across the border. Finally, 'passing the wide-open eye of a long blind bunker, the bears move off into darkness.'

Two of the essays in the book can be read in the journal Terrain - one centred on the work of the Society for the Protection of Prespa, another on time spent recording the movement of birds for an environmental assessment on the region's karst plateau.  These online versions are illustrated with photographs but the book relies solely on its vivid descriptions of landscape and nature.  Reading it I sometimes felt as if I had entered a Poussin painting... enigmatic ruins, trees stirring in the wind, light penetrating storm clouds, a shepherd playing a flute, a snake choking a heron.  The book is full of chance encounters with animals and birds - dolphins cresting the surface of the sea, kestrels sheering across the grasslands, snipe exploding out of a marsh, a fire salamander, a caterpillar, an old collection of micro-moths, 'delicate as filaments, ephemeral as dust.'  Such moments, he suggests, arise from a receptivity to experience: 'everything beckons us to perceive it'. This line, from one of Rilke's poems, is 'an invitation to openness, encouraging us to let in the wild and unpredictable, the ordinary and overlooked, the fleeting and unexplained.'  It is possible to find more mystery in 'a few moments spent in a stand of trembling reeds than a lifetime passed in an unperceived world.' 

Last year Julian delivered a presentation on the Hoo Peninsula at the Shorelines Festival that I didn't get to see but have heard a lot about (Diana Hale called it 'mesmerising' on her blog).  It sounds like he had a kind of Hendrix-at-Monterey impact - Gareth Evans described this entrance into the New Nature Writing scene as so electrifying that Robert Macfarlane, next on the bill, had an almost impossible job following it.  Gareth was talking at the LRB Bookshop this week, introducing Julian as part of a panel there to discuss 'Place Writing Now'.  They were joined by Ken Worpole's, whose New English Landscape I featured here last year, and Philip Marsden, whose recently published Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place I've not yet read.  It was a fascinating discussion ranging across language and representation, regeneration and displacement, ritual and memory.  Julian's short talk, prepared specifically for this event, felt perfectly pitched.  I'll be looking out for news of future gigs, although this current four-stop tour will soon be over and he'll be heading back home to the Prespa Lakes.  You can follow him there on his blog, Notes from Near and Far.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Mountain with boat

We made our annual visit to the Small Publishers Fair this afternoon, where there were various new publications with a landscape theme: from Shearsman, the book version of Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn's The Road North; from Corbel Stone Press, Mark Peter Wright's Tasked to Hear; from Peter Foolen, herman de vries - an edition in two parts.  I was talking to Peter about his son's new boat tattoo and he was explaining that it is based on a design by sailor/artist Graham Rich.  Peter gave me the bookmark below, showing a similar boat scratched onto a broken end of wood.  Its jagged edge resembles a mountain landscape, like the ones Hamish Fulton ('HF') photographs or draws in outline to represent his walks.  Seen upside down, this vessel draws attention to the way the bottom of the sea is an inverted mountain range.  The course of a boat is like the path of a walk.

The paintings Graham Rich makes do not need to describe a place directly because they are made from fragments that have a synecdochal relationship to the rivers and estuaries through which he and his wife sail.  Indeed these pieces of wood can have a kind of "magical" resemblance to the wider landscape, as he explains in the YouTube clip below.  "Very often the material that we find will reflect the place where we found it ... We were in the mouth of the River Otter and we found a piece of wood and I held it up and it was the shape of the mouth of the River Otter."  These remnants of old boats, detached from their original use and immersed in the water for an unknown period, have soaked in something essential about the environment.  And their traces of paintwork, faded by the elements, can even guide the artist to a better understanding of the landscape.  "I've actually discovered the light on the upper reaches of the estuary," he says, "from having found the light on pieces of wood."

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Dancing in Water

I have been listening recently to music by Somei Satoh, particularly Sun - Moon (1994), three pieces for shakuhachi and koto.  His best known composition is probably 'Birds in Warped Time II' for piano and violin (see clip above), but I am intrigued by a more experimental piece, 'Echoes', created back in 1981 for the Mist, Sound and Light festival of Kawaji (it can be found on Volume 18 of the series Obscure Tape Music of Japan)Here is how Satoh describes it:
'The venue was located at the Kawaji hot spring’s Ojika river valley, which was 50 meters wide and 200 meters long with an area of 7,000 square meters.  Eight large loudspeakers were set up on hills surrounding the stream, with music played through an octuple channel-tape system.  The combined length of cables connected with the loudspeakers exceeded one kilometers.  The audience was amidst dense artificial mists spreading upward from the bottom of the valley, laser light beams projected on the hill surface, and tape music that played in extremely low tone at full blast, echoing in the valley.  'Echoes' consists of the sonic ingredients of the three types of percussion instruments used in 'Emerald tablet' as well as my own voice.'

Satoh also engaged with nature in another more recent work, River, composed for the Kronos Quartet to accompany a dance piece by Eiko and Koma.  It was staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the dancers emerging from shallow water bordered by two low banks.  The dance had previously been performed outdoors - in the Delaware River in 1995 and subsequently in various bodies of water.  A reviewer at that first performance wrote as much about the landscape as the dancers: 'Muted light shone through the water.  Across the river, the shoreline and trees glowed at times in a faint haze of light.'  That evening the performance ended in a sudden downpour: 'pocking the river, the rain made a river of the sky above.'  Reading this reminded me of a post I wrote here on Ben Greet's outdoor Shakespeare theatre, which toured America a century earlier - on one occasion the heavens opened during a performance of The Tempest.  I have embedded below two clips of Eiko and Koma: Dancing in Water: The Making of River, preparations for a performance in the landscape, and River: Proscenium Version, in which you can hear Satoh's score.