The written component of my senior thesis for SVA. I used the assignment to grapple with why landscapes were important to me personally, as well as how they function within and reflect contemporary society.
The View From Here
Art shows us ourselves outside of language. It taps into a collective store of beliefs, visions, and myths to offer a familiar yet bewildering blend of contemporary society. Artworks that remain from the past are husks of something that was once more rounded, fleshy... alive. Without a contemporaneous store of cultural knowledge, we can’t instinctively relate to these works. They become curiosities and puzzles, different from the art of now. Landscape art sticks out as an ever-evolving yet constant subject. Each generation has its own cache of landscape art, and these landscapes carry the myths of the day, shifting meaning and emphasis with the passing generations. But as the terrain itself is largely constant, we can note the changes and interpret the piece with relative confidence. In the case of contemporary landscapes, we can access the collective and glimpse the current human condition.
In his book, Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama introduces the idea that the landscape is a construct of human imagination; a repository of history, myth, and politics. These define the landscape, making it a “line of time as well as space” (5). Schama says that it takes a person’s perception to identify a landscape, that “wildness does not identify or name itself” (7). For example, he traces the cultural history of the german woods, beginning his narrative with the Nazis and their obsession with a rare manuscript by Tacitus. The manuscript documents a German/Roman battle in 15-17 A.D., and attracted the Reich with its origin myth of the German people:
“...in the peoples of Germany there has been given to the world a race unmixed by intermarriage with other races, a particular people and pure, like no-one but themselves, whence it comes that their physique, so far as can be said with their vast numbers, is identical: fierce blue eyes, red hair, tall frames, powerful” (82).
The manuscript describes the Germans as savages, living organically in the woods, performing human sacrifices; mingling blood and body with the trees. Schama goes on to show how contemporary German identity and this notion of the primeval forest are intricately entwined. From the Grimm Brothers to Casper Frederick, the idea of the forest and a barely contained wildness permeates German cultural identity.
Our perception of landscape is deeply rooted in cultural paraphernalia, and our relationship to the landscape shifts alongside our political and social views. In 1489, the poet Conrad Celtis used the image of the nobly savage German to draw attention to Germanic virtues of simplicity and strength. In his poems, persons and nature act simultaneously. Shortly after they were written, the German woods were nearly stripped by landowners eager for lumber profits, and a campaign sprang to re-establish national pride in the forest. The campaign was successful, and it became posh to own acres of lush woods. This fad is illustrated in Albrecht Altdorfer’s Saint George and the Dragon (1510). In this painting, the foliage is so dense as to give the impression that the “beholder [is] being smothered and blindfolded by leaves” (99). The forests again experienced a dearth during the Thirty Years War and were afterwards replanted not with the oaks of old, but with quick-growing fir varieties. Artists responded with a wealth of paintings using the oak tree as a symbol of mortality. Frederick prolifically used the barren oak throughout his career, and many of his contemporaries used them as pointed remarks on specific loss. In 1815, Georg Kersting painted On Sentry Duty, showing three of his friends who had died in war sitting under an oak tree.
Schama’s depiction of Germany illustrates that a tree depicted is never just a tree. Rather, it is a compilation of all the trees that have come before, shaped by the fears, hopes, and politics of the current age. And if the landscape is indicative of the times, then it is fully accessible only to those steeped in the same energy. To others, its meaning is glimpsed more dryly, academically, or historically.
Take Corot’s pastoral landscapes that look so idyllic, yet were conscientiously ignoring the People’s Revolution that was sweeping through Europe and turning the countryside into anything but the tranquil wonderland he depicted. Or, Ansel Adams, forever memorialized on cards and calendars and estranged from his life-long advocacy expanding the National Parks system. Both artists were addressing larger social issues, yet their work grows sweetly utopian with age.
The term ‘landscape’ need not be constrained by natural terrain. ‘Landscape’ as an artistic term encompasses all place-based imagery, including that of cities. ‘Landscape’ is stepping back from the individual and creating an expansive documentation of place. This act of distancing helps to clarify the subject; what appears as chaos on the individual level coalesces into pattern once distance is achieved.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes offers a eulogy to his mother while simultaneously exploring the nature of photographs. He explores his memories of her through photographs, commenting that some photographs could be examined objectively while others contained a jolting essence distinctly her own. He coins three terms to deal with this chasm. ‘Studium’ is used to describe an image whose meaning can be summed up in a glance. By contrast, ‘punctum’ describes a moment, or detail, that can recall a vivid experience not easily defined in words. It is what the photograph is about beyond the ostensible subject. For Barthes, this represented something quite personal, and not necessarily accessible by the audience at large. And, finally, ‘noema’ refers to the roles of emotion and subjectivity in the experience of looking at photography. If we broaden these terms a bit, we have a working vocabulary for discussing contemporary landscapes. The terms need to be able to refer to all artworks, and the ‘punctum’ and ‘noema’ need to be seen not as a personal but as a collective experience. The noema can embody a collective energy, and the punctum can deal with moments of perception, exploring visual signifiers and how they feed into a collective identity; a mark can embody the essence of a subject without ever describing the subject specifically. For example, a tree can be more ‘tree-like’ in a few expressive strokes than it ever can through careful rendering. How we identify the tree within the strokes and, further, attach a mood or experience to this collection of marks defines current culture.
In 2010, The Drawing Center exhibited four graphite drawings by Gerhard Richter. Meant to hang as a set, they are ambiguously titled Drawing I through Drawing IV. Each is the size of a standard window. The first drawing is calm. Two rectangles stand, side by side, taking up the entirety of the paper. The graphite is applied with a relatively even hand, there is no significant erasure, and little contrast in shade. The second drawing depicts the same rectangles, but grows suddenly violent. The right rectangle’s outline wavers and internally grows dark. Streaky erasure marks lash into its side and then pour out the bottom in heavy lines. The third drawing shows the rectangle’s lines collapsing in on itself, and the cloud of darkness is now hovering outside the rectangle with a lightning-like rip separating the two shapes. The final image is once again calm, the rectangle on the right having been completely erased.
Gerhard Richter was headed to New York City on September 11, 2001. His plane was re-routed after the two towers were hit, and he spent the next few days landlocked, watching the planes hit the towers repeatedly on TV. Once given the key, anyone who remembers the attacks can instantly recognize and respond to the abstracted imagery Richter used of the tower hit and collapsing. Without that, the images remain abstract, and will become so to future viewers. When his contemporary audience recognizes and responds to the piece, they do so instinctively. They respond because there is a moment where the image embodies not only this event, but all the events that led up to it. It embodies all the myths, the customs, and the politics surrounding the event. And all the suffering, and all the good, and all the hope and all the despair that we have seen as a culture, condensed into a single point or moment. That is, the punctum.
Landscape art presents its audience with the tensions and strains of contemporary culture. This is not necessarily isolated to one specific cultural problem. Rather, it is the reverberations of many problems re-presented as a singular piece. Julie Mehretu collapses cities into a mass of line and energy. Her large-scale paintings are built up through smooth layers of clear acrylic paint, each layer containing its own lines and shapes. The layers converge on top of each other into largely gestural expressions. Thicker, often colored, forms have a tendency to shoot out, creating an explosion that streams from the center. Occasionally she’ll offer a more hard-lined depiction of a building, but clarity is subsumed in the throbbing, relentless, energy her paintings depict
Fran Siegel’s work is also abstracted, but one intuitively sees them as landscapes. In her Density Drawings, she uses earth-toned pigment and cut-and-collaged paper to build up topographical images that feel very place-specific, although the place is never identified. The viewer looms over the landscape, the elevated vantage point distant and cold. Her images speak to a dismantling of space, of an unfolding disaster far enough away to watch detachedly.
Both artists eschew representation for abstract energy, and a portion of that energy shifts from piece to piece, indicating that they are tapping into energy specific to the location that they are working with. Bob Levine, Professor of Psychology at California State University, traveled the world measuring the pace at which various cities’ citizens walked in the downtown commerce area. He found that the beat was remarkably constant. When measured over time, the average remained identical. However, each city had a unique tempo; Dubliners took 10.76 seconds to walk sixty feet, while citizens of Buchanan, Liberia trailed at 21 seconds for the same sixty feet (Krulwich). This might indicate that there is an unconscious energy that drives a city, effecting its citizens bodily. When Siegel and Mehretu are successful at tapping into this energy, they are also able to present us with the noema.
There is a constant anxiety that is present in all of Siegel’s and Mehretu’s work, a chronic unrest. This comes from the density of their lines, a confusion and abstraction because of too many layers and too much information. Our human experience is now one of density; density in our population, and density in the information that the Internet streams to us. We aren’t emotionally able to deal with this amount of stimuli with grace and understanding. We’ve developed as social creatures, depending on our peers for survival emotionally and physically. But today, walking down a New York City street, we encounter more people than our ancestors would have encountered throughout their entire life. And the Internet connects us to the rest of the world, so that every natural disaster that happens bombards us with images and videos of the crisis. As a result, there is a numbing effect to the individual tragedies but a complementary rising societal stress. Mehretu and Siegel tap into this feeling of dismantling and unraveling, and a deeply permeating anxiety. They speak to the density of the city, the frantic pace, the overwhelming amount of information, and a society quickly coming apart.
Jake Berthot’s work is atmospheric, presenting us with groundless forms that shift in and out of recognition. In his graphite drawings, he supports his trees by mapping out a faint grid that seems to support the ephemeral shapes, barely, as they slip in and out of form. His work is quiet, and not imbued with the frantic unraveling that Mehretu and Siegel’s work holds, but none the less, it is delicately unwinding. If this is our body, our society, there isn’t a whole lot left of us. A gust of wind could blow the form away.
Todd Hido’s photographs have a palpable tension to them. The viewer relates to them bodily, and the result is that one views them physically; they not only indicate danger, they feel dangerous. Always, there is a looming, ominous feeling, as if something terrible is about to happen. In figure 8, the landscape slopes ever so slightly, and the telephone pole reaches up at an angle. The whole scene is slightly off-kilter, destabilizing the viewing experience. There is nothing specific in the image, which makes the photograph disorientingly groundless. The landscape itself can barely be called that; a horizon spotted with a generic power-line and a cluster of trees, and a road that leads immediately into dark obscurity. It’s a nod to landscape while never actually referencing place. Its noema is one of general and unspecified unease.
Similar to Berthot, Hido references a space that fated to disappear. Berthot’s space gently but consistently unravels, while Hido’s sits and waits for the inevitable end. While Mehretu’s and Siegel’s work is filled with an unrelenting anxiety, Berthot and Hido take it further to resignation. Their work speaks to an end that has already been set into motion. Global warming…overpopulation… an energy crisis… Inescapable extinction seems to loom over our age.
According to these artists, our cultural noema speaks to destruction, unraveling, and doom. Their artworks tap into a societal tension and unease that stems not from a singular problem, but a confluence of many problems. All that they reference speak’s to unresolved changes and tensions. Our generation will be the first to live and die in the age of the internet. Our generation will see the apex of population growth, and the destruction of any non-protected natural resources. Our generation will have children that grow up playing not with dolls, but with digital friends. All are major changes to our culture, and thus have a significant amount of foreboding surrounding them. But, if we look to the future, our concerns will likely be for naught. Perhaps we will fall into destruction, or, more likely, we’ll enter a new era where the concerns will be something else entirely. And in that case, these artist’s works will lose their potency because nobody will be able to access their punctum or noema. To experience these works in the future will be to experience new works altogether.
Works Cited Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010. Print. Berthot, Jake. "Jake Berthot." Betty Cunningham, New York. 6 Jan. 2010. Berthot, Jake. Untitled. 2006. Pencil on paper. 20 ¾ x 19 ¼”. Krulwich, Robert. "Cities." Radio Lab. Prod. Jad Abumrad. WNYC. Http://www.radiolab.org/. Web. Mehretu, Julie. Black City. 2005. Ink and acrylic on canvas. 108 x 192”. Mehretu, Julie. "Grey Area." The Guggenheim, New York. 14 May 2010. Photograph. Todd Hido. By Todd Hido. Web. Mar. 2011. . Richter, Gerhard. Drawing I-IV. 2005. Graphite on paper, 59.4 x 40.2". Richter, Gerhard. "Lines Which Do Not Exist." The Drawing Center, Brooklyn. 11 Sept. 2010. Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print. Siegel, Fran. Overland 1. 2007. Color pencil and pigment on Dirala and cut papers, painted wall. 108 x 108”.