Saturday, July 29, 2017

Taste of a Stone

The Documenta 14 catalogue is organised in a way that appeals to my fondness for chronologies - each of the 163 living artists is allotted a double page corresponding to a day during the duration of the exhibition, and is also allowed to pick one date that is particularly important for them.  The artists are then ordered in accordance with their special dates, so for example Susan Hiller chose 4 November 1899 (the date Freud's Interpretation of Dreams was published) which means that she gets August 16th, in between artists who went for events in 1900 and 1897.  I'm not sure if this makes sense without looking through the catalogue.. in any case it's not really relevant to what I thought I would do here: highlight those artists in Documenta who have been addressing the landscape in various ways.  This is not necessarily an exhaustive list but it gives an idea of the range of current practice.  Some of these artists are using various media to consider sites round the world that are threatened, contested or marked with traces of recent political change.  Others are finding new approaches to the profusion of new land and environmental art practices that emerged in the sixties.

The landscape as artist
Probably every artist at Documenta is influenced at some level by landscape, but some allow it to act on their own work, bring a chance element to the final product.  Nevin Aladağ has made a sound piece out of furniture for Documenta but she has previously made city symphonies by filming instruments being played by the environment itself.  In City Language I , 'a flute held out the car window is played by the wind; claves tumble down streets; a tambourine skates across the water behind a boat'.  That was in Istanbul; in the video clip below she describes a more recent piece made in the playgrounds and pedestrian areas of Stuttgart.  Another artist who allows the landscape to complete her artworks is the Guatemala-based painter Vivian Suter.   Leaving her work outdoors, 'she befriends deluge and mud; she invites time to act on her canvases in the manner of acid biting an etched plate. Implicit in the work is a politics of insistent experimentation and an embrace of ruin.'

Landscape documentation
Khvay Samnang's is represented at Documenta by work he made in the Areng Valley, the last great forest in Cambodia, now under threat from a hydroelectric dam project.  A few years ago he highlighted pollution in the lakes of Phnom Phen, wading into them and pouring buckets of sand over his head.  Bonita Ely has had similar environmental concerns and is best known for The Murray River Project.  In the video clip below she describes coming to the river in 1977 when concerns over pollution were first emerging.  She did field research at five locations, objectively photographing the water through cartographic grids (she says she is fascinated by maps and the way they reflect our real interests - "we don't make maps of where daisies grow, we don't make maps of how a butterfly flies across the landscape").   The ecology of the river continues to be disrupted through irrigation and the construction of weirs: "the health of the river depends on flooding but nobody wants it to flood."  Ely has recently returned to the original locations to document how they have changed.  She has also reprised a performance piece called Murray River Punch in which she serves up an unappealing cocktail of all the pollutants that are put into the river. 

Landscape performance
Many of the artists here incorporate performance into their multimedia practice.  It might seem a stretch to think of Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens as landscape artists but perhaps we should.  Sprinkle recently took a Guardian journalist on an “ecosexy nature walk” - "a nature walk with a former porn star who keeps encouraging me to find my Eco spot (or E-spot) is much more exciting than anything I’ve seen on Countryfile".  Something perhaps for a future Robert Macfarlane book?  Documenta also contains archival material from the long career of postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin.  In their catalogue essay Pierre Bal-Blanc and Lou Forster highlight the continuing importance of her outdoor dance deck, 'built in collaboration with Lawrence, her husband, the landscape architect, urban designer, and ecologist, between 1953 and 1954, in the redwood area of Kentfield, California.'  Performances that relate in different ways to nature and landscape stretch from The Branch Dance (1957) to Spirit of Place (2009). You can see the dance deck in the video clip below.

Land art structures
Agnes Denes is an artist I discussed here in one of my early blog entries, a short post about Tree Mountain.  Much more recently she has made another land art pyramid, in Long Island City, New York.  Candice Hopkins describes it in the Documenta catalogue: 'constructed of stacked wooden terraces filled with soil and thousands of various living plants, the sculpture arcs nine meters up toward the sky.  It is a social structure. Social because the planted material conveys ideas of evolution and regeneration; the work also cultivates a micro-society of people responsible for its planting and ongoing care.'  You can see images of it in a Brooklyn Rail article which praises her pioneering role, as a land artist more interesting in growing things than excavating new landforms.  However, it also notes that she has been criticised for creating in Tree Mountain a version of mono-agriculture, 'the creatures inhabiting her forests aren’t allowed the kind of complex habitat that would be more to their liking. We now know that trees communicate through their root systems, educating their neighbors. Nature has no voice in Denes’s work.'

Artificial landscapes 
Lois Weinberger works with ruderals (plants growing on waste ground) and for this year's exhibition at Kassel 'he has excavated a “cut” through the park beside the Orangerie and then abandoned it to whatever will emerge.'  You can see a similar work made in Cologne on his website - what makes it interesting is the contrast between the 'wild' weeds and carefully mown park grass.  Twenty years ago for Documenta 10, Weinberger 'planted a garden amongst the railway tracks of Kassel’s central station. The plants were cultivated from seeds of ruderal plants collected throughout Central and Eastern Europe, during and after the collapse of communism. These nomadic survivors, ‘foreign immigrants’ to German soil, flourished amongst the transit lines of ‘Old Europe’, subverting any human projection of territorial sovereignty, or fixed borders, and still do so today' (Tom Trevor, 'Lois Weinberger: The Three Ecologies').

Louis Weinberger, What is Beyond the Plants / Is at One with Them, 1997
Source: Wikimedia Commons (Dietmar Walberg)

Political landscapes
Mexican artist Guillermo Galinda has made instruments from objects found along the U.S. border and for Documenta he is is composing new music scores, 'odes for border crossers'.  The video below shows a more spectacular work about the U.S./Mexican border, Repellent Fence by the Postcommodity collective.  Where borders have come down, there is a fascination in what the landscape retains of societies that have been completely changed.  Ulrich Wüst trained as a town planner and began photographing East Germany in the 1970s.  There were usually no people in his images - 'the sozialistischer Staat der Arbeiter und Bauern is symbolically devoid of its titular workers and farmers.'  Edi Hila lives in Tirana and paints buildings that have been left behind in time.  "In these abandoned houses hope and the desire to inhabit them has departed with the migrant. These houses have been transformed into objects, almost weird and absurd..." 

Disappearing landscapes
Here's a good opening line for one of the catalogue entries.  'In August 1988, four days after appearing in the seminal Freeze exhibition with fellow students at Goldsmiths College of Art, Lala Meredith-Vula left London for the Albanian countryside, where she began to photograph haystacks.'  While the YBAs did their thing, she continued making her photographs in what had been Yugoslavia.  'Their forms are governed by habits of working the land, which are older than nations. The needs of animals and the poetic license of farmers play their parts. Yet, even if haystacks do not belong in the polis, are not political subjects per se, they do bear silent witness to history.'  There is actual hay from another part of Eastern Europe in Documenta, woven into the work of Olaf Holzapfel.  His hay canvases are made with local people in a village on the border between Lower Silesia and Greater Poland (as explained in an article in Frieze).  They are part of a complicated installation, Zawn, with components that 'range the gamut from architectural models of medieval churches and nineteenth-century mine shafts to the writings of Austrian critic Kristian Sotriffer and the graphic work of Hermann Glöckner.'

Landscape as memory
Finally, there is art made from the artist's own memories of places that have undergone profound change.  Abel Rodriguez was born around 1944 in the Colombian Amazon and became an expert in plants.  He was employed by a Dutch NGO, Tropenbos International Colombia, that wanted local experts and later moved to the city, assuming a Western name.  There he began working again with the NGO, creating botanical drawings from memory.  These jungle landscapes 'are the visions of someone who sees the potential of plants as food, material for dwellings and clothing, and for use in sacred rites.'  He doesn't consider his pictures as art, but talks about what they show and how the animals and plants in them behave with the changing seasons.  Fish "start going up the river because they know that the water is going to rise, and they're looking for the overflows to enjoy the abundance of worms and seeds."  Monkeys "stay because they like to look at their reflection, as ugly as it is, in the water."

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Hoar Frost

 Camille Pissarro, Landscape, St. Thomas, 1856
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I was reading in the news the other day about a forthcoming Tate exhibition, Impressionists in London, French artists in exile (1870-1904), which will include two views of Kew by Camille Pissarro that have never been shown in the UK before.  I'm sure it'll be interesting, but I'd have been much more curious to see an exhibition that has just finished at Ordrupgaard in Denmark: Pissarro. A Meeting on St. Thomas.  This 'meeting' was with the Danish Golden Age painter Fritz Melbye, who arrived seeking inspiration on St Thomas - now one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, then part of the Danish West Indies - around 1850.  The young Pissarro had been sent away to school in France but was back working for his father whilst aspiring to become an artist.  The two of them became friends and in 1853 they headed off to Venezuela, where they would spend two years sharing a studio before parting company - Pissarro for France and the birth of Impressionism, Melbye for further adventures in the Caribbean and Far East.  

Pissarro is also the subject of an excellent New York Review of Books article by Julian Bell which discusses two more exhibitions dedicated to his work in Paris.  It begins with one of the paintings that appeared in the first Impressionist Exhibition in 1874, Gelée blanche.  This is now in the Musée d'Orsay, who quote the most scornful response from a contemporary reviewer, Louis Leroy: 'those are sheer scratches of paint uniformly put on a dirty canvas. It has neither head or tail, neither top or bottom, neither front or back.''  It is hard to imagine any treatment of this humble motif that would have pleased such critics, but Pissarro's winter earth, painted without earth colours, must have seemed particularly off putting.  You can't simply enter into this landscape, letting the eye be led into the distance.  Hoar Frost is a world away from Pissarro's carefully composed view of St Thomas.  Its rough paint surface is hard going, like the frosty ground beneath the peasant's feet.

Camille Pissarro, Hoar Frost, 1873
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The whole of Julian Bell's article on Pissarro is well worth reading, but here is how he explains the particular magic of Hoar Frost.  
'Oil painting can turn shadows from nothings into palpable somethings: slabs of rich color. The gently rising Île-de-France farmland depicted in Hoar Frost (Gelée blanche à Ennery) becomes an intricate weaving of russets, blue-greens, umbers, and pale yellows as morning sun shines on it from behind a row of poplars. As you approach the canvas, the bristles that have scuffed it with stiff, clotted brushloads seem to rasp your skin, and you are jolted into a poetry of chill January: a poetry sustained by close plein air observation and resolved with a scrupulous completeness.
'At the same time, you may perhaps register the oddness of the operation. Those long stripes of shadow criss-crossing the ruts and country road are cast by no visible object. The colors of what’s sunlit and the colors of what isn’t meet in stout equivalence on the canvas, but for anyone on the scene—say that trudging peasant with his load of sticks—the former would have priority. We expect grass to be green more than we expect it to be blue. In effect, the shadows spook the comfortable farmland, nagging us with the consideration that a further unseen presence stands beneath the poplars, that of the observing artist.'

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

From the flowers of summer


Having mentioned in my last post one enjoyable book published last year, I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend another, Christopher de Hamel's much-praised Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts.  Plants, birds and animals abound in medieval manuscripts, as is evident in the cover of the book itself, an illustration from the Morgan Beatus, fifth of the twelve Remarkable Manuscripts that the author visits.  Morgan is the Morgan Library in New York, Beatus is Beatus of Liébana (c. 730 – c. 800), a monk whose commentaries on the Apocalypse were written in the Picos de Europa mountains just at the time Charlemagne was fighting the Moors in Spain.  The manuscript was made later, in north-west Spain, and is actually signed by a scribe called Maius (d. 968).  It includes a map ('extremely naive and based on echoes of Roman geography') and Mozarabic paintings with colours and patterns suggesting 'the tiles and mosaics of Islamic architecture', but nothing, unsurprisingly, that could be called a 'landscape'.  Later in the book, though, there is a full-page landscape illustration and it appears in what is probably the most famous of de Hamel's Remarkable Manuscripts.

Illustration from the Carmina Burana
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Carmina Burana is a collection of songs and poems, mainly about love and drinking, made around 1230 somewhere in the county of Tyrol, in what is now Austria.  It has become world famous thanks to Carl Orff's cantata, first staged in 1937; his setting of the first song in the manuscript, O Fortuna, has been recycled endlessly in films and will forever be associated in Britain with the advert for Old Spice aftershave.  Here though I am interested in one of the other poems, which begins "Ab estatis floribus amor nos salutat' ('From the flowers of summer, love greets us...')  The accompanying illustration, de Hamel writes, 'shows two scenes in verdant woodland.  This must be a prime candidate for the earliest pure landscape in all of medieval art.'

As you can see, this woodland in the Carmina Burana is not exactly realistic.  It is not the German forest that will appear, three hundred years later, in the first independent landscapes painted by artists like Altdorfer and Huber.  Nor is it remotely like the detailed scenes that appear in the margins of high-quality fifteenth century illuminated manuscripts, and which resemble those wonderful views seen through windows in contemporary Northern Renaissance portraits.  This illustration was conceived at a time when no landscapes as such were being painted in the West.  Now, as I insert a reference to the Carmina Burana into my international landscape and culture chronology, I can't help wondering what its illuminator would have made of a Southern Song Dynasty scroll painting...

Clearly the scene depicted in this manuscript is not even a naive attempt at topography.  As de Hamel points out, 'the inclusion here of a lion is much more appropriate for the Garden of Eden than for a familiar spring day in the German woods.'  Those strange, luxuriant trees look primeval.  In the top section we see birds which, according to Genesis, appeared on the fifth day of Creation, and in the bottom half are the animals that arrived a day later.  This is not then the setting for a bawdy German love song.  It is a medieval vision of the original landscape, created by God.

Friday, July 14, 2017

View of the Garden of the Villa Medici

 Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, c. 1630
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the course of her fascinating book on Velázquez, The Vanishing Man, published last year, Laura Cumming writes about 'a picture without precedent.'  The View of the Garden of the Villa Medici 'seems to have no pretext, no definitive narrative or focus.  A fragmentary glimpse, strikingly modern in its random observations, it is simply itself - the momentary scene.'  Velázquez was in Rome in 1630 and knew Poussin and Claude, who were painting their great classical landscapes at this time.  But 'to depict nature purely for itself, live and unadorned - in its natural state, as it were - was very much the innovation of Velázquez.'  Cumming sees nothing similar in art before Corot, 'whose silvery landscapes with their secretive air have a genetic link back to Velázquez'.  But is it really the case that Velázquez was so ahead of his time?  

Albrecht Altdorfer, Landscape with Footbridge, 1516
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In Western art, earlier 'independent' landscape paintings, going back to Albrecht Altdorfer, do not have the air of real places seen at real moments.  There are plein air sketches that have this quality, but they do not resemble the Velázquez eitherClaude made such studies in the Roman Campagna and the example below is by another contemporary, Van Dyck, who was court painter to Charles I while Velázquez worked for Philip IV of Spain (The Vanishing Man is about a portrait of the young Charles that was apparently painted by Velázquez, or possibly by Van Dyck, or maybe neither...)  The View of the Garden of the Villa Medici is different, more reminiscent of certain oil sketches made in the late eighteenth century (the cloth on the balcony is like the washing hung out on Thomas Jones' A Wall in Naples).  It could have been a sketch of this kind, but the Prado's curators (quoting Javier Portús) say that it is currently considered to be a finished, self-sufficient work.

Anthony van Dyck, An English Landscape, c. 1635
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Laura Cumming describes The Vanishing Man as 'a book of praise for Velázquez, greatest of painters.'  She writes effusively about the brilliant and subtle ways he found to apply paint to canvas.  In the View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, which is relatively small (48.5 x 43 cm), she notices something remarkable.
'The weave of the cloth is exactly the right size to imitate the pattern of bricks at that distance.  This is one of Velázquez's unimaginably subtle calculations.  How could he guess in advance, or did it come to him as he painted?  This is a great question with his art: what grows out of what, how it all evolves at leisure, or at speed, by chance or design.  But what one sees here is something akin to precision engineering, in terms of vision and judgement: each brick finds its tiny outline in the grid of threads.'
   Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici [detail], c. 1630
Source: Prado

Perhaps surprisingly, Cumming makes no mention of the fact that this painting of the Villa Medici has a companion piece, also in the Prado: a view of the same structure seen from a different angle, but with more prominent foreground figures.  It is a marvellously strange, enigmatic image; in the background a man looks out at the distant view, like a Romantic Rückenfigur, and beside him the statue of sleeping Ariadne foreshadows the sequence of mysterious Ariadne paintings de Chirico painted in 1912-13.  There might originally have been two more of these paintings.  It may be that what we have now 'are two of the four little landscapes that the artist sold to Phillip IV in 1634' (Portús).  The disappearance and reappearance of artworks is central to The Vanishing Man and now, after having read it, I can't help wondering about the possibility of other Velázquez landscapes one day coming to light.

Diego Velázquez, View of the Garden of the Villa Medici, with the statue of Ariadne, c. 1630
Source: Prado

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Igualada Cemetery

Commenting yesterday on my post about the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery, Ken Worpole, author of Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West, mentioned his high regard for the modern cemetery at Igualada in Spain.  Ken has also kindly sent me three photographs which I have included here (an ArchDaily article on Igualada has more images, including some taken after a snowfall).  Enric Miralles designed the cemetery with his partner Carme Pinòs in 1984 and it was constructed over the following decade.  In Britain, Miralles is best known for the Scottish Parliament Building which was completed after his early death in 2000 (he is buried at Igualada). Writing last year in The Architectural Review, Ken notes that Igualada 'is in harsh rocky terrain punctuated by quarries' and so the architects made use of this in their design, incorporating rusting steel, old railway sleepers, quarried stone.  The result is somewhere that 'possesses a profound spiritual presence within its severe landscape: serious and purposeful without being in any way morbid.'

I have not visited Igualada myself (though we weren't that far away a couple of summers ago).  I will therefore quote here some impressions by two British architects, Joe Morris and Mary Duggan, interviewed in Building Design.
'The work is like no other we had come across. It is an architecture of the land, a work which choreographs the geological and sculptural qualities of the landscape; an architecture of topography. The narrative, one in which the living are brought downwards into a city of the dead, is potent and creates an eerie but contemplative series of spaces. 
'The palette of materials speaks of the site. It is reduced to materials which over time will express the ravages of time and weather and are intended to be subsumed by the landscape within which they sit. Concrete, granite, Corten, each material is selected for the visceral illustration of its origin, forged or excavated from the earth, and slowly returning to the landscape.'

And to conclude, from a lengthier more theoretical article by Tom Bliska, here is another reflection on the way the architects worked with space and time:
'Miralles and Pinos are serving as “exegetes of the landscape,” drawing from the site’s history and local landform precedents to create a space that is itself a program. Every cemetery has an explicit connection to the past, in the sense of a distorted reflection of the city that produced it, but Miralles and Pinos are specific in creating traces of the past through articulation of fragments, frameworks, and the path one takes through them. The long walk down to the mausoleum plaza at the low point of the site is filled with the “immediate and imperfect”: rough aggregate ground surface, violently skewed steel markers, indeterminate edges between precast concrete and gabion wall. It is this layering that builds the narrative quality of the space, boundaries that shift with movement and tactility to present an abstracted history of the site itself as process. In this way, Igualada cemetery can be read as a chronotopia, a space where fragments of the past are either exposed or rearticulated didactically to express the meaning of the site’s current form.'

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Skogskyrkogården, the Woodland Cemetery

I was in Stockholm for a meeting in May and took the opportunity to visit Skogskyrkogården, the famous Woodland Cemetery which in 1994 became only the second location developed in the twentieth century to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.  It was late on Sunday afternoon when I got there - the visitor centre was shut but I had the place almost to myself.  A couple of other tourists, one person tending a grave, a solitary jogger (they are everywhere).  I took a short video clip on my phone (below) which gives a sense of how peaceful it was, though you could never escape the low background rumble of traffic.  I'm not sure how many deer there are in these woods; another one emerged from behind these graves just after I stopped filming.  They were watchful but not fearful.  It did not seem that surprising to find them there - even here in London when you step into a graveyard like Abney Park Cemetery, near my home in Stoke Newington, you become aware that you are among squirrels, birds and butterflies.

Skogskyrkogården was conceived jointly by architects by Gunnar Asplund (1885-1940) and Sigurd Lewerentz (1885-1975), who won a competition in 1915 to design a new cemetery on the site of an old quarry.  In addition to the landscape, they designed distinctive buildings - a classical Resurrection Chapel positioned at the end of a long tree-lined path, an intimate Woodland Chapel amid the pines, and a graceful and a functionalist crematorium.  From this crematorium you look across a pond towards a bare slope on the summit of which is a group of trees.  On my visit this meditation grove was a dark silhouette against a white sky which would soon be filling Stockholm with unseasonable snow.  But you can see the trees in full leaf on the cover of Ken Worpole's fascinating book, Last Landscapes: The Architecture of the Cemetery in the West (2003).  From the vantage point of this photograph (by Larraine Worpole), the foreground is dominated by Asplund's stark granite cross, inspired by Caspar David Friedrich.

Caspar David Friedrich, Cross on the Baltic Sea, 1815
Source: Wikimedia Commons

On the occasions I have visited graveyards over the years, there has usually been at least one prominent memorial I've been keen to find - Ezra Pound at San Michele near Venice, Alejo Carpentier in Havana's Colon Cemetery, Karl Marx at Highgate, dozens of culture heroes at Père Lachaise...  Wandering around the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery it was something of a relief just to be experiencing the landscape, without looking for anybody famous.  Nevertheless, I did come upon the grave of Greta Garbo, whose family chose this for her because it was 'a long way from the hustle and bustle of the world'.  There is no eye-catching monument to the great movie star, but neither is it the case that she is simply buried in an egalitarian spirit along with all the others.  Her headstone stands isolated against the trees -  fittingly perhaps for someone famous for saying "I just want to be alone".  It seems to have the makings of a shrine: a path has been laid to it and, as you can see below, trees are being planted in a semi circle to form a kind of special enclosed space.    

There are no film stars buried in Abney Park Cemetery, though you can find a famous nineteenth century music hall artist, George Leybourne, the original 'Champagne Charlie' - a fact mentioned in Last Landscapes (Ken lives near me in Stoke Newington).  I would agree with Ken that despite the efforts of the Abney Park Trust, it is still in parts 'a forlorn, tangled forest', very different from the woods of Skogskyrkogården.  Originally the early Victorian London cemeteries were designed as Gardenesque landscapes - John Claudius Loudon published an influential book on the subject in 1843.  Abney Park Cemetery Originally (which opened in 1840) was designed as an arboretum and became a kind of tourist attraction like Kew Gardens.  As the population grew it rapidly filled up, but perhaps in its early days it would have had something of the atmosphere of a woodland cemetery.  Today they are very different: as Ken says, the Stockholm Woodland Cemetery gives the impression when you enter it of 'a vast rolling landscape, with deep forest beyond', yet you quickly come upon intimate, peaceful spaces for tranquil reflection.  It is, he concludes, 'the most successful example of large-scale landscape design in the twentieth century.'