Thursday, December 27, 2018


'A lot of my paintings are anonymous backdrops for the drama of words.  In a way, they're words in front of the old Paramount Studios mountain.  You don't have to have a mountain back there - you could have a landscape, a farm.  I have background, foreground.  It's so simple.  And the backgrounds are of no particular character.  They're just meant to support the drama, like the Hollywood sign being held up by sticks.' - Ed Ruscha interviewed in Shift magazine, 1988.
I've been reading Richard D. Marshall's monograph on Ed Ruscha and what comes over repeatedly is his very postmodern, conceptual insistence that there is nothing very significant about the content of his paintings - backgrounds and foregrounds, images and texts are often arbitrary or deliberately chosen to subvert any obvious interpretation.  In this quote he is talking about the paintings he has done of words and mountains - I can't reproduce one for copyright reasons but you can see above in low res the results of a google image search for "Ed Ruscha mountain".  In these paintings, the mountains dominate the visual field and yet Ruscha's insistence that they are nothing more than a background returns landscape to its Renaissance function as parergon, secondary to the painting's actual subject matter. 

The original Paramount mountain, used from 1917 to 1967

Mention of the Paramount mountain made me look it up on Wikipedia.  The article's authors make this corporate logo's origins and meaning sound like an intriguing mystery:
'Legend has it that the mountain is based on a doodle made by W. W. Hodkinson during a meeting with Adolph Zukor. It is said to be based on the memories of his childhood in Utah. Some claim that Utah's Ben Lomond is the mountain Hodkinson doodled, and that Peru's Artesonraju is the mountain in the live-action logo, while others claim that the Italian side of Monviso inspired the logo. Some editions of the logo bear a striking resemblance to the Pfeifferhorn, another Wasatch Range peak, and to the Matterhorn on the border between Switzerland and Italy.'
The twenty-four stars on the logo referred to the actors originally under contract at Paramount in 1916.  Logos generally have to be simple but because this one is shown on a movie screen it can be very detailed - modern versions have tended to resemble nineteenth century landscape paintings.  And of course the actual logo you see at the cinema now is animated - I've included a clip of the 100th anniversary version below.   

In the quote above Ed Ruscha mentions another, different form of Hollywood landscape art - the famous old sign itself.  Erected in 1923, to advertise "HOLLYWOODLAND", a new segregated, whites-only housing development in the hills above the LA, it was originally only meant to stay up for a year, but soon came to be seen as a popular landmark and symbol of the home of cinema.  It was renovated in 1949 (losing the 'LAND') and again in 1978.  Wikipedia will tell you about some of the ways it has been altered, imitated and spoofed over the years, although I see that their 'In Popular Culture' section has a stern note from the editors saying 'this section appears to contain trivial, minor, or unrelated references...'  Perhaps someone should put a mention of Ed Ruscha in there - he painted several versions of the Hollywood sign in 1968 and returned to the subject again in 1977, showing the letters in reverse as The Back of Hollywood.  Here's another Ruscha quote, from an interview in 1984.
'The Hollywood sign is actually a landscape in a sense.  It's a real thing and my view of it was really a conservative interpretation of something that exists, so it almost isn't a word in a woay - it's a structure.  It's a phenomenon or something.' 
I think this ilustrates how difficult it is to define this sign, let alone an oil painting of it that exists within a long sequence of works whose subject is nothing but painted words.

The back of the HOLLYWOOD sign
Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


I thought it was time to bring back my regular surveys of 'landscape music', having had a couple of years off.  The last one I did was in 2015 - it contains links to the earlier ones, or you can just check back through my old December posts.  I should apologise for some dead links in my previous surveys, as videos and tracks have been moved or taken down over the years.  Looking back I see there's now a missing video in a post I wrote back in 2010 about Toshiya Tsunoda, the Japanese sound artist.  He's the first of my picks for 2018, with the album Wovenland, a collaboration with Taku Unami (the title refers to the way their separate field recordings are woven together).  Reviewing it in Wire Magazine, Derek Walmsley thought this 'one of the most original and startling recording projects in recent years.'

One of the albums I missed by not doing this in 2016 was 3hattrio's Solitaire, inspired by Edward Abbey’s nature writing classic, Desert Solitaire (1968).  Abbey, author of The Monkey Wrench Gang, based this, his first non-fiction book, on the time he spent as a park ranger at Arches National Monument.  3hattrio say they play 'American desert music':
'Their aim is to create a new music which responds to the natural world of their sacred homeland near Zion National Park in Utah.  They also strive to acknowledge the cultural traditions of generations of people who have worked and lived on the deserts of the American southwest. The subject matter of the songs is often desert oriented, sometimes not. Mostly, they express the desert experientially from a daily-ness of watching light off distant mesas and hearing the way sound plays off sheer sandstone cliffs. Then they play music. They don’t over-think it.' 
Their new release is Lord Of The Desert and includes tracks called 'Night Sky', 'Skeleton Tree' and 'Dust Devil' (see video clip below).

My earlier round-ups always featured music from Touch and their most recent release is relevant - Howlround's The Debatable Lands.  This was inspired by the border region in Cumbria which Graham Robb wrote about in his latest book (quite interesting, but not as rewarding a read as I was expecting).  Another liminal space was the source for Jana Winderen's Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone, originally a sound installation for the 2017 Sonic Acts Festival:
'The marginal ice zone is the dynamic border between the open sea and the sea ice, which is ecologically extremely vulnerable. The phytoplankton present in the sea produces half of the oxygen on the planet. During spring, this zone is the most important CO2 sink in our biosphere. In Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone the sounds of the living creatures become a voice in the current political debate concerning the official definition of the location of the ice edge.' 
I'm listening to the album now as I write this, streaming from Jana Winderen's bandcamp page.

In my round-up for 2012 I featured Erland Cooper's Orkney Symphony.  In March this year he released Solan Goose, its tracks named after the Orcadian words for seabirds (the solan goose is a northern gannet).  He also released Murmeration, with a Norman Ackroyd picture on the cover (incidentally, Ackroyd's daughter Poppy is a Brighton-based composer, whose work sometimes references landscape themes and uses field recordings).  Erland Cooper is planning a third record in this vein, as he explained in an interview for The Island Review, which will explore 'our relationship and respect for the sea: how it surrounds the community and the landscape; how it supports the greatest ecosystem of all.'  Together these albums are inspired by the words of the poet George Mackay Brown. “The essence of Orkney's magic is silence, loneliness and the deep marvellous rhythms of sea and land, darkness and light.”

Stuart Hyatt's Metaphonics: The Complete Field Works Recordings comprises 7 LPs and a book, based around his own field recordings but incorporating collaborations from around forty other artists.  The YouTube clip below presents a track from the album Pogue's Run - 'from its source, through the city, into a mysterious three-mile underground tunnel, and finally to the White River, Pogue’s Run represents the ongoing tension between nature and civilization.'  I enjoyed seeing field recordists filmed as if they were in a pop video, although as this goes on and they reach the underground river, it more closely resembles scenes a scene from a science fiction film.  There is an interview with Hyatt at the online art/science magazine CLOT.  He quotes from an essay by Yiorgis Sakellariou in the Metaphonics book, which views field recording as "an alchemical practice, a transformation of perception of both recordist and environment. A recording location is not simply a geographically framed scenery, but more importantly, a place of inquiry, experimentation, and wonder."

I will stick there at five main recommendations, but here, briefly, are a few other albums from 2018 that reflect landscape in different ways.  Further suggestions in the comments below would be welcome.
  • Grouper's Grid of Points, written by Liz Harris during a residency in Ucross, Wyoming. One of its tracks is inspired by Zabriskie Point, a film I wrote about here in May.
  • Richard Skelton's Front Variations subjected sine waves 'to increasing amounts of feedback in order to simulate the so-called ice-albedo feedback mechanism. This is the process whereby the action of melting glaciers reduces the global surface area of ice, thereby reducing the amount of solar radiation that glaciers reflect, which in turn increases global temperatures and causes further glacial melting.'
  • Laurie Anderson's Landfall is a cycle of songs about Hurricane Sandy - a recording was released this year with the Kronos Quartet.  Tracks include 'Wind Whistles Through the Dark City,' 'The Water Rises' and 'Our Street is a Black River'...  
  • Daniel Bachman's guitar in The Morning Star is set against a background of field recordings.  It continues a sequence of 'Songs for the Setting Sun' that he began on the 2015 album River (which was featured on my 2015 round-up). 
  • Jim Ghedi's A Hymn For Ancient Land, was a bit too pastoral for the Quietus reviewer: 'only on ‘Phoenix Works’, a song dealing with the decline of traditional industries in the north, does he explicitly deal with darkness. This, coupled with the dense, meandering tonalities of ‘Fortingall Yew’, saves the album from being a landscape painting.' 
  • According to The Quietus, the album of the year was Gazelle Twin's Pastoral, which 'picks away at the bucolic, Constable-generated image of English countryside like a fetid scab.' Gazelle Twin is Brighton-based electonic musician  Elizabeth Bernholz, whose previous project was based on J. G. Ballard's last novel Kingdom Come
Finally, I will conclude here not with an album, but with an app.  Numero Group's 'Environments collects the entire historic record series by master sound engineer Irv Teibel into one easy to use package for the iPhone and iPad' (it costs £2.99).  If you're not familiar with Irv Teibel's 1970s psychoacoustic nature recordings, there's a good article about him at PitchforkAquarium Drunkard described the new app as 'an ingenious re-contextualization of this retro-futurist “gebrauchtsmusik” that recapitulates the series’ initial novelty. However captivating Teibel’s tale, the Environments app now illuminates an anthropocene landscape where 'Dusk in the Okefenokee Swamp' and a 'Summer Cornfield' are mediated by an inescapable layer of sleek, fabricated hardware and playfully nostalgic software.'

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Liquid landscapes

George Lambert, Box Hill with Dorking in the Distance, 1733
Images: Wikimedia Commons

Yale University's British Art Studies is a completely open access journal and its Autumn issue is dedicated to 'Landscape Now'.  In addition to various articles, including the Tim Barringer piece I referred to earlier this month, there is a 'Conversation Piece' coordinated by Alexandra Harris.  She refers to the current popularity of books about nature, but suggests that 'while readers are offered new ideas about landscape writing at every festival (several festivals are devoted to the subject) and with every Amazon click and with each week’s Caught by the River newsletter, it can be harder to get much purchase on developments in contemporary visual arts and art history. Work by art historians is not always being brought to the common table...'  Unsurprisingly (given what I wite about here), agree with this.  She also gives an insight into what she has been researching recently (I have written about here before about her previous books on landscape and culture, Weatherland and Romantic Moderns). 
I've been trying in my own research to get closer to an understanding of what places have looked like to different kinds of people living in them. I want to find evidence for what “views” have looked like to people, other than the makers and consumers of landscape art. It’s hard: I’ve been reading for two years—parish registers, local histories, antiquarian guides, court proceedings, wills and inventories, tithe maps, a very occasional diary; I’ve been wondering at the skill and sensitivity of local historians like Margaret Spufford and many who followed her lead—yet still I’m baffled by the difficulty of reaching the landscape feelings of the past. [...] Whether we are reaching back to life before (or without access to) the grammars of Western landscape painting, or looking again at Lambert, Wootton, and Wilson, or thinking about contemporary artists, it may be fruitful to reunite landscape with local knowledge and local people, from the airy prospects to make out local habitations and names.
John Wootton, A Fox Hunt, c. 1735

Several responses follow Alexandra Harris's introduction, some more informative than others.  Rachel Hewitt for example, tells us that at present 'there is important work being done, by Hayley Flynn among others, on [William] Blake’s interactions with, and subversions of, the eighteenth-century British landscape tradition' (I wonder if this new scholarship will surface in the Tate's Blake exhibition, scheduled for autumn next year). Emily Hayes writes about the influence of the Royal Geographical Society's magic lantern lectures, including those by Vaughan Cornish, a 'chemist turned geographer' who specialised in the study of waves, before turning later 'towards eugenics and landscape heritage activism'.  The intention is that this Conversation 'will develop as more respondents enter the debate. Readers can also join in by adding a response at the bottom of the page.'  There are no responses yet - I hope there will be, but I've learnt here that in the age of Twitter you can't really expect people to go to the trouble of adding written comments.

Vaughan Cornish, Breaker and Bores on a Flat Shore, 1910  

I will conclude here by pointing you to three other articles in the journal, each about landscape artists I have discussed here before.

  • Greg Smith takes a fresh look at Thomas Girtin's panorama, The Eidometropolis, drawing on material that has become available only in recent years;
  • And in 'Liquid Landscapes', Stephen Daniels juxtaposes a series of pond photographs by Jem Southam with Constable's depiction of Branch Hill Pond in his pictures of Hampstead Heath.

 John Constable, Hampstead Heath, with Pond and Bathers, 1821

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Water Village

Zhao Mengfu, Water Village, 1302
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I have been reading Shane McCausland's scholarly study, Zhao Mengfu: Calligraphy and Painting for Khubilai's China, which focuses not just on Zhao's paintings, but on the colophons added to them over the years by writers wishing to comment on the artist and his work.  These are not usually visible in reproductions - the photograph of Water Village above shows only the annotations and seals visible on the composition itself.  Below I've photographed the colophons for Water Village reproduced in McCausland's book (pp242-3).  A footnote lists the authors of these - most were writing soon after the painting was finished but others date from the late Ming Dynasty.  It would be natural to consider these as critical texts rather than works of landscape art themselves.  But the fact that these colophons were composed in verse and written in beautiful calligraphy mean that they form a kind of secondary landscape art themselves.  Zhao Mengfu himself was a renowned calligrapher and his own artistry can therefore be seen in colophons he added to other scrolls of paintings or poetry.

Water Village has a pictorial realism that impressed its colophon writers - one said you could almost forget it is actually a picture.  The handscroll 'begins' at the far right with a vertical title, leading the eye down to a bluff with bushes sprouting from it (see below).  McCausland sees this as having a 'liminal role', marking the transition from calligraphy to painting and from surface to illusionistic space. From there the eye can explore the low-lying landscape, arranged in an X-shape and centred on a tiny bridge. There are few people, just a few isolated huts.  Zhao Menfu himself wrote that this subject captured the ideal hermitage, a place of scholarly retreat. Other colophon writers were reminded of Wang Wei, the great landscape poet and painter who wrote about his own retirement from the world in the Wang River Sequence.

The most intrusive colophons to Water Village were added by the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned over China for much of the eighteenth century.  He added two seals and a poem to the painting itself.  In one of the first posts on this blog I wrote about the way the emperor filled his own painting of Mount Pan with no less than thirty-four later descriptions.  He also added a colophon to Zhao Mengfu's Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (1296) pointing out an error in the artist's  geography (this painting is discussed in an earlier post).  For Water Village, he wrote a colophon referring to Qu Yuan, an early Chinese poet I wrote about here in March, who drowned himself after being wrongly banished from court.  The emperor read this act as a gesture of loyalty, perhaps reflecting his own anxieties as a Manchu ruler of the Chinese.  He also described taking the painting with him on a visit to the Eastern Mountains, where Water Village is set (somewhere near Sonjiang). 'In surveying the scene,' McCausland writes, 'the emperor drained this place and its depiction of any symbolism as a private refuge of the literati from the affairs of state and government.'

Monday, December 03, 2018

La Mer Pacifique

Jean-Gabriel Charvet and Joseph Dufour,
 Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique wallpaper, before 1829

A new article in British Art Studies by Tim Barringer provides a history of recent trends in landscape art history. In this century, he explains, there has been a strong focus on art and empire, influenced by Edward Said’s Orientalism, and analysis of paintings made far from Europe, which reveal 'the impediments offered to the totalizing “colonial picturesque” by local geographies'.  He then describes a recent artwork that I was looking at only this weekend:
'The work of contemporary indigenous artists increasingly offers critical reflections on the continuing power of landscape as a contested space open to multiple interpretations, and as a site of historical and contemporary violence. Lisa Reihana’s in Pursuit of Venus [infected], (2015–2017), on display at the time of publication in the exhibition Oceania at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, responds to the historical provocation of Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, a scenic coloured wallpaper in twenty panels, created in 1804 by Joseph Dufour on the basis of imagery from the Pacific voyages of James Cook (Les Voyages du Capitaine Cook was proposed as an alternative title for the paper). Reihana’s panoramic video spanning 26 metres embraces the “monarch of all I survey” viewpoint of the painted panoramas of the late eighteenth century, but inserts speaking, singing, and moving figures to contest the silent, stereotypical representations of indigenous people in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources.'

At the Royal Academy, you encounter this video panorama towards the end of the exhibition and I found it quite hard to drag myself away.  Figures like Captain Cook, Joseph Banks and Chief Kalani'opu'u are seen in various moving tableaux as the viewpoint pans steadily round.  The original wallpaper was not on display in the exhibition (the National Gallery of Australia has an example) - perhaps it would have been out of place among so many beautiful objects from the islands.  In an interview in the Guardian, Lisa Reihana describes its design as
'“a concoction, a fabulation invented in someone else’s elsewhere”.  The greenery, for example, was transplanted not from Polynesia but from South America, which Jean Gabriel Charvet, the Frenchman who designed the wallpaper, had recently visited. Similarly, the idealised, pale-skinned locals are dressed in neoclassical costumes inspired more by what had recently been dug up at Pompeii than by anything from Hawaii or Tahiti.'
In Pursuit of Venus was previously shown at the Venice Biennale and has its own website (it even has an Instagram feed, although there are no posts on it yet...)  Tim Marlow, the RA Director, calls it 'stupendous' in an interview with Lisa Reihana, viewable on the RA's site.  Excellent as it is, there are many more wonders in the show which I could mention but which go beyond the remit of this blog, from the Brancusi-like male deity sculpture tino aitu to a Tobi Island necklace of sea-urchin spines.  As Jenny Uglow wrote in her review, 'Oceania is a powerful demonstration of art’s capacity to fight the tide of loss, honoring tradition, reclaiming places, histories, and identities, and opening the way to the future.'

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Crossing a river

One of the most renowned Buster Keaton stunts involves him getting the better of a landscape feature.  Our Hospitality (1923) has scenes filmed at California's Truckee River and when I first saw it I thought the waterfall scene (above) was filmed at a real location.  In reality the whole waterfall was constructed on a Hollywood backlot, as is explained (with photographs) on the excellent Silent Locations website.  I will quote here what John Bengtson says there:
During the climax of Our Hospitality, Buster rescues his girlfriend, played by his first wife Natalie Talmadge, from sweeping over the brink of a waterfall, by swinging like a pendulum from a rope tied to a log jammed in the rocks, grabbing her just as she starts to fall.  Buster’s waterfall stunt set was built astride the [...] T-shaped concrete pool (or plunge as they were called back then) that stood on the Robert Brunton Studio backlot just north of Melrose Avenue, now part of the current-day Paramount Studios lot.

The Our Hospitality waterfall stunt set
Image from Photoplay Productions Ltd via SilentLocations.
In Sherlock Jr. (1924), Keaton, a projectionist, falls asleep and walks in his dream into the motion picture he is showing.  We then see him in a sequence of cuts that seamlessly position Keaton in different landscapes: a rocky promontory (below), a jungle, a beach, a rock in the sea.  This was done using surveying instruments to position him at precisely the right place in each setting.  From the rock in the sea, Keaton dives into the water and lands in a park, then leans against a tree and finds himself in a garden, after which the main story of this film-within-a-film begins, with the humble projectionist somehow transformed into a Sherlock Holmes style detective. 

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

The bridge scene in The General (1926)

Thinking about Keaton in relation to this blog, it occurs to me that his most spectacular film stunt - building a bridge and wrecking a real train for The General (1926) - had a similar level of ambition to the works of land artists like Christo and Jeanne Claude.  Apparently, bits of Keaton's railtrack can still be seen at the bottom of Row River at low tide.  But if I had to choose my favourite example of Buster Keaton 'landscape art' it would be the moment in The Scarecrow (1920) when he manages to cross a river without getting his feet wet, by walking across it on his hands. 

I will conclude here by recommending again the website, which is still posting fascinating information on Keaton and other silent movie stars.  Browsing through it I came across the photograph below: if Richard Long had been working in the 1920s he might have looked like Charlie Chaplin in this field.  In fact, this circle is the trace of the departing circus, which is just packing up and leaving The Little Tramp behind.  Detective work by Bengtson and other enthusiasts has identified the location for this scene and even a surviving tree that was there when the film was made.  'Just as there are trees that remain today having witnessed the making of The Birth of A Nation, a giant old oak tree in Glendale, appearing onscreen at left, witnessed the concluding scenes from The Circus.'

Charlie Chaplin in The Circus
Image from SilentLocations.