Saturday, November 25, 2023

Salt Island

 Mónica de Miranda, Salt Island, 2022 (detail)

I recently went to look around RE/SISTERS A Lens on Gender and Ecology, at the Barbican. In this exhibition the politics goes well beyond environmentalism and feminism, encompassing work that reflects on sexuality, race and the history of colonialism. And yet it would be possible in some cases to wilfully ignore all these strata of meaning and admire a work as landscape art, like Salt Island, a sequence of five photographs embroidered with green thread. We are told by the wall label that Mónica de Miranda's work 'considers the complex experience of Afrodiasporic lives and Europe's colonialist past through a Black ecofeminist lens, drawing on ideas of matrilineal relationships, kinship, migration, slavery and African liberation movements.' However it's hard to get all this from Salt Island and the exhibition would ideally have displayed more of the multimedia project of which this is just a part, The Island. There is a good description of this in a text by Ana Nolasco on the artist's website, including historical background on the “Ilha dos Pretos” (Island of Blacks) which inspired it - stories of an eighteenth century settlement of people of African origin by the Sado River. 


Agnes Denes, Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982

The addition of new ways of understanding our relationship with the planet make it increasingly hard to position art in this field. Agnes Denes, for example, is included for her famous Manhattan Wheatfield project, but she is now being criticised for using wheat, a Eurocolonial industrial cereal crop, 'implicated in the displacement of Indigenous people and indigenous plants over much of the continent for at least two centuries' (Catriona Sandilands). Today, artists need to think intersectionally. They have to create arresting work while steering (if I can use a mythological gendered landscape metaphor) between the Scylla of 'Mother Earth' attitudes, that equate women too closely with nature, and the Charybdis of panoramic or abstracting viewpoints, associated with power and possession

Back in 1986, Tee A. Corinne's Isis photomontages placed vulvas in the landscape of Oregon. Did this go too far in equating the female body with nature? Context is important: Corinne is well known for her books and images celebrating lesbian lives and these 'landscapes' were just one small project in a prolific lifetime's work. It is hard to criticise artists like Corinne, Ana Mendieta, Laura Aguilar and others for positioning themselves as part of their environments, as an alternative to the disembodied vistas of landscape painters or large-scale interventions of land artists. They were 'performing ground' - locating 'the self not merely in the world but of it' (Lucy Bradnock). Writing about Corinne's work, Tamsin Wilton argues that her 'celebration of woman in the woodland focuses on women's sexuality, the seat of female sexual pleasure. In other words, precisely what is most often erased in the women-as-landscape genre.' 

Symrin Gill's aerial photographs of open-pit mines can be seen as avoiding the industrial sublime by 'alluding to the corporeal' (the series is called Eyes and Storms), emphasising the landscape's 'bodily textures' by allowing shadows to disrupt a two-dimensional 'extractivist viewpoint.' By contrast, Sim Chi Yin does provide a beautiful abstract aerial view (below) as part of her Shifting Sands project. But this aestheticisation of the 'infrastructural' gaze' is juxtaposed with other photographs ('the human gaze') that show the impact of erosion in poorer areas of the Global South. Another artist, Mary Mattingly is represented by some striking unpeopled 2016 photographs: Mineral Seep, where a cliff is transformed into a drip painting by black and brown stains, and Ore Transport, where an uncanny, unfathomable concrete structure, framed by grey water and pale sky, draws you into its shadowy interior. But these too are contextualised with a chalk board Cobalt Map showing the complex system that supports its production and distribution, 'a network of violence that percolates outward from the original site of extraction.'

Sim Chi Yin, Shifting Sands #2, 2017-ongoing

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Uncultivated regal hunting grounds

Awrangzib Hunts Nilgais c. 1660

I've just read Julian Bell's new book on Adam Elsheimer, Natural Light. He talks about the paintings I referred to here in 2006, when I visited the Dulwich Elsheimer exhibition, including The Flight Into Egypt (1609) with its extraordinary depiction of the night sky. He explains that Elsheimer would not necessarily have needed a newly-invented telescope to paint this, although he was working at a time of increasing interest in natural phenomena. The book's last chapter takes an unexpected turn east, to consider some paintings from Mughal India that have been described as 'naturalistic' in a similar way to art made in seventeenth century Europe, beginning in Rome with Elsheimer, Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci. The painting above, by an unknown artist (owned now by Dublin's Chester Beatty library), is one of Bell's examples. It struck me as a relatively rare Indian 'landscape painting'. Artists working in Agra knew about European compositions from engravings and some of Elsheimer's best paintings travelled in this form, although Bell doesn't suggest Awrangzib Hunts Nilgais is based on any of these. However, he thinks Vermeer's observational experiments, 'paintings of high ambition and coolly systematic facture', bear a 'distant affinity' to this detailed, panoramic view. Figures seem of minor importance here. Instead the interest is in 'unbounded open space - the looseness and rambliness of the uncultivated regal hunting grounds, with their warm harmonies of ochre and sap green'.      

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Lake Superior, Cascade River

Sugimoto Seascapes at the Hayward Gallery

I wrote about Hiroshi Sugimoto's seascape photographs here in 2007, referring to some online images at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum. Checking back just now I found the link was dead, but there is still information on the exhibition at their website. I would love to visit the actual building in Washington one day - not only did they do that major career retrospective, they have also more recently commissioned Sugimoto (who is also an architect) to redesign their lobby and renovate their sculpture garden. This autumn though, at long last, a British gallery has put on a Sugimoto retrospective and it's just a 341 bus ride away from our home. Hiroshi Sugimoto: Time Machine includes the photograph I mentioned sixteen years ago, Boden Sea, Uttwil (1993), along with others just as beautiful. 

These luminous images, made with an old large-format camera, are referred to by the artist as seascapes, although Boden Sea is what Sugimoto calls Bodensee, i.e. Lake Constance, and my photo below shows another lake view. But The Guardian exhibition review begins with a wonderful view of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Evening Standard's includes Sugimoto's photograph of the Bay of Sagami. I will briefly quote Laura Cummings' article, as she manages to include the lovely word for a cold sea fog, 'haar'.

These monochrome photographs must all be captured at a particular moment, by their very nature, and yet they appear to stand outside time. Their poetry lies in more than they show. [They] hover between representation and abstraction. There are visions of shining light where up and down appear inscrutable, seas that tip over the horizon, or resemble nothing but haar. There are seas that register as oblongs of graphite shading. All are real – look closely and you can even distinguish tidal flow – but as intangible as outer space.


Lake Superior, Cascade River, 1995

Sugimoto's photographs allow you to imagine a primal sea untouched by humanity. In my book Frozen Air I described looking out on the English Channel, which Sugimoto has photographed for this series from both shores. There can be passages of time when no ships cross your field of vision, and nothing but light and water lie in front of you. In Marcel Proust's first book, Pleasures and Days, he described this pristine vision: ‘unlike the earth, the sea does not bear the traces of human works and human life. Nothing remains on the sea, nothing passes there except in flight, and how quickly the wake of a ship disappears! Hence the sea's great purity, which earthly things do not have.'

Saturday, November 04, 2023

The Eight Mountains

I recently watched The Eight Mountains which I'd been looking forward to since reading Peter Bradshaw's review in The Guardian:

This rich, beautiful and inexpressibly sad film is about the friendship between men who can’t talk about their feelings and about winning and losing at the great game of life. It is set in the breathtaking and wonderfully photographed Italian Alpine valley of Aosta, which includes the slopes of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. But the “eight mountains” of the title refers to the eight highest peaks of Nepal: a mysterious symbol of worldly ambition and conquest. Belgian film-makers Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch have adapted the award-winning 2016 novel by Italian author Paolo Cognetti and have created a deeply intelligent meditation on our capacity for love, and how it is shaped by the arbitrary, irreversible experiences of childhood, and by our relationship with the landscape. The Aosta valley is depicted with magnificent sweep, and van Groeningen and Vandermeersch find a stratum of sadness under it, a kind of water table of tears.

Unfortunately, although I did quite enjoy it, I was disappointed - my view of the film was closer to Richard Brody's review in The New Yorker. In this he describes a scene that echoes a central dilemma of landscape appreciation I've referred to often on this blog. 'By far the best scene in the film is one in which the adult Pietro (Luca Marinelli) brings a trio of Turin friends to the mountains; in response to their rapturous enthusiasm for “nature,” Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) explains that the people who live in the mountains never use that “abstract” word but rather speak lovingly of the physical specifics—“forest, meadow, river, rock, path: things you can point at, things you can use.”' 


that line of dialogue conveys more of the essence of the movie’s alpine setting than does the cinematography. Much of the action there takes place outdoors; Pietro’s father (Filippo Timi) is an enthusiastic hiker and climber who takes the two boys with him on his expeditions, and Pietro, in his many returns to the region, delights in the peaks, in the clear water of the lake, in the rock formations. The movie presents these landscapes as cinematic abstractions, with drones and Steadicams and cameras perched on high to show the small figures of humans overwhelmed by, yes, nature, and to show the spectacular sights that surround the characters. But it stints on the visual point of view of the characters, voids itself of contemplative poise and analytical precision, hardly stays still long enough, looks in detail long enough. It doesn’t pay enough closeup, hands-on attention to soil and stone and water and snow, to wood and fire, to flesh and fabric, to suggest that the characters have any more of a physical connection to the settings than they have a perceptual one.

We used to exclaim "oh no, not a drone shot!" whenever they appeared on TV documentatries or movies, until they became almost ubiquitous. But complaining about the drone shot cliché has itself become a cliché, so I won't labour the point here. A New York Times article on the phenomenon did note some highly effective examples - Werner Herzog 'opens his remarkable 2016 picture “Into the Inferno” with an astounding aerial sequence that soars up a mountain and then into the volcano at its center.' Maybe we could just have some more drone shots that are grainy or misty or flawed in some way, rather than being taken on smooth glides over perfect landscapes that are not as awe-inspiring as they should be, because they look almost computer-generated. 

Another review of The Eight Mountains notes that 'some obvious drone shots are included, but much of the hiking sequences appear to have been done with Steadicams, following the men through their treacherous treks. Andrea Rauccio is listed as the Steadicam operator, but the credits for camera operators are lengthy, and the entire crew deserves credit.' Richard Brody may be being a bit harsh on all this, but I do know what he means when he says that in these scenes it's hard not to 'hear and see the crew, the walkie-talkies, the muffled clamor that goes into turning raw experience into overcooked and denatured images.' 

I feel I should end on a more positive note though. So here are a few more quotes from reviews (ending back with Peter Bradshaw), where the temptation to use mountain metaphors has proved irresistible.

  • 'Stately and serene from a distance, but up close riven with the fissures and follies of a friendship that costs both men so much but gives them even more, the movie, too, is a mountain.' (Variety)
  • 'Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi put in mountain-sized performances to offset the film’s silences and propensity for postcard shots, bringing heart and guts to the chilliest scenery. A worthwhile hike through many obstacles to friendship.' (Irish Times)
  • 'A movie that seems to grow before your eyes, leaping across continents as years go by, all the while slowly accruing power. By the end it has scaled a peak, offering a bracing perspective on life experience.' (FT)
  • Much like climbing a mountain, the two-and-a-half-hour runtime may occasionally feel arduous, but the emotional release is worth it once you reach the peak.' (Time Out)
  • 'This film has mystery and passion, it climbs mountainous heights and rewards you with the opposite of vertigo: a sort of exaltation.' (The Guardian) 

Friday, November 03, 2023

The Airfields of Lincolnshire

The cover of Simon Cutts' The Small Press Model is a photograph of his 'forgotten one-word poem' which can be found outside Skellingthorpe, 'A History of the Airfields of Lincolnshire'. It comprised seven slabs of concrete taken from RAF Sinderby with letters in orange anodised aluminium, glued on 'with the fiercest epoxy and a contraption that allowed it to set'. You can read a description at Simon's blog. Within the book is a the script for a talk he gave in New York called 'The Metaphor Books' which describes the book version of this poem and a later version where the word 'flax' is used to evoke the image of flak and the blue flowers that were becoming more prevalent on the old airbase. I doubt I'll ever visit Skellingthorpe, but I did have a look on Google Earth and found the sculpture - see my screenshot below (there is a visual glitch where the software has joined up photographs). Presumably that's the photographer's bicycle, well chosen to match the orange lettering.

The Small Press Model discusses artists and writers that I have written about here over the years, like Ian Hamilton Finlay, Richard Long and Jonathan Williams. Of particular interest for my theme is the introduction to The Unpainted Landscape, a 1987 exhibition that featured Finlay, Long, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Roger Ackling, Hamish Fulton, Andy Goldsworthy and Chris Drury (I've linked these names here to different Some Landscapes posts). The only artist Simon Cutts describes that I've not mentioned before is David Tremlett, who was up for the Turner Prize back in 1992 with his wall drawings. The Tate owns one of his early works, The Spring Recordings, comprising short soundscapes collected during 1972 in all 81 counties (there is a detailed description on their website). The tapes should ideally be heard when the work is on show, but in The Unpainted Landscape they were lined up on a shelf as 'a silent wallwork, referring to its source and potential replay.'

The Small Press Model was reviewed a few months ago on Caught by the River by Sukhdev Sandhu. 'Like its publisher Uniformbooks, The Small Press Model celebrates the local, the non-metropolitan, those who have a ‘resolve for a critical alternative to mainstream publishing’. ... It’s a model that stands for the dignity of production, the importance of collaboration, the need for alternative networks—and alternative publics.' The book's short texts range over five decades and the cumulative effect of reading them is to feel moved by lives 'built and lived' to support the idea of poetry - as words, objects, spaces and projects, carried out with serious attention to detail and a playful, questioning creativity.