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From the Faraway Nearby

The Limits of Landscape

Going beyond traditional ways of seeing

by Rebecca Solnit

Published in the November/December 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Photograph: Raymond Depardon/Magnum Photos

I LOVE A LOT OF THINGS that I think are at least a little problematic, from my car to cowboy movies, and landscape might be one of them. That is, landscape as a particular and peculiar mode of perception that prizes aesthetics and the visual, renders places and even nature itself quite literally flat and static, and often fails to see much else that might be out there. Landscape paintings and photographs perpetuate this habitual way of imagining what’s out there, acting as blinders of a sort. There’s nothing wrong with them, except when their version of the world becomes the limits of our imaginations.

I was in Ireland a couple of summers ago, talking about landscape with a bunch of art historians, and living in it for a few days: a stark, rocky western landscape of stone, low green plants, and grasses, with whitethorn and blackthorn and a bog here and there. But I could also describe it as an Atlantic coast expanse of constant wind, frequent rain, strange limestone formations, rare flora, and traces of colonial brutality—I catch my landscape bias telling me what to focus on. The majority of my colleagues in that remote, old place mostly talked about paintings of landscapes, and they often suggested that in talking about these images they were talking about the whole panoply of possibilities of art about nature.

There are a lot of other ways to imagine the natural world out there. Some of them were not very far away: the stone circles that the prehistoric Irish erected for ceremonial and celestial-observation purposes, for instance. A picture may capture a moment of time—late afternoon light raking over, say, the golden rocks of the deep desert—but a stone circle calls attention to time in a deeper sense, to the swing of sun from north to south across the sky over the course of a year, and to calendrical time. It is not just something to behold, but an invitation to observe and connect. It doesn’t represent the landscape, but helps make the most invisible forces—time itself, and the rotation of the Earth—present, and brings you into alignment with these forces.

Landscape as a way of describing what’s out there tends to reduce it to vegetation and form, and in so doing it misses or at least de-emphasizes the forces, processes, beings, and energies coursing through it on every scale from the microscopic to the galactic. Nature, as opposed to landscape, includes the migration of birds and other species, the changing seasons, and much more—energies and phenomena that are neither static nor easily represented by static visual imagery. (This is why visual art so often relies on a title—“The First Swallow of Summer” or “The Salmon Swim Up Laguitas Creek, December”—to invoke what the image itself cannot depict.)

A culture that imagines the world out there primarily as landscape might impart a refined aesthetic of summer light or winter ice, but not a particularly sophisticated sense of organic time and space.

European and most American landscape art comes out of a tradition that represents land and the Earth as feminine and the feminine as passive—as something you act upon rather than an actor. It is easier to dump nuclear waste, for example, into a place you imagine as inert than one you understand to be constantly moving, changing, and connecting to everywhere else. That is to say, landscape is often a lot closer to real estate than are other modes of imagining the tangible, natural, spatial world around us. Indeed, much of the battle of the environmental movement has been to change people’s imagination of the organic world from a collection of static fragments to a dynamic and deeply networked system, but the accompanying images—usually photographic and too often photographs of trite epiphanies—have not always served this agenda.

As early as the 1960s, sculptors and conceptual artists were already investigating what else they could do. Their bravura works in the years after functioned like surveyor’s stakes, marking out a vastly expanded territory in time, in ideas, in roles, as well as in place. Landscape as such was mostly left behind, though landscape photographs often served as documentation of something that had happened out there: a walk, a performance, the drawing of a mile-long line across the desert. The bible of this transformation is still Lucy Lippard’s 1983 book Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, which connects the era’s most radically innovative, performative, sculptural, site-specific art with prehistoric art’s rituals, cycles, observatories, and abstractions. Lippard’s point, put simply, was that the function of art, as well as its appearance, was being reinvented, or recovered, and the alternative models were very ancient.

What began as fairly formal artmaking in the world out there—for example Robert Smithson’s 1970 Spiral Jetty on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake—was quickly surpassed, and as the range of artistic possibility opened up, so did the role of the artist. The German artist Joseph Beuys modeled himself after a shaman, performed hermetic rites with coyotes, but also swept streets, got involved with politics, and for one project in Kassel, Germany, in 1982, planted seven thousand oaks. Other artists experimented with environmental remediation, from Michael Heizer’s 1980s mine reclamation projects to Mel Chin’s famous 1990 Revival Field, a pioneering project to use hyperaccumulator plants to draw heavy metals from the soil. Mierle Laderman Ukeles became the artist-in-residence of the New York Department of Sanitation and devoted herself to making visible the city’s waste and landfill, as well as the workers who clean up after the rest of us. Art became more a mode of investigation than a craft-based discipline.

Much of the art world since has pulled back to its concern with fashion and with representation, but engagements with land as something other than landscape still happen. The young artists now moving into this expanded arena are often involved in social-actions-as-art that are as fluid and as unframed as any performance or earthwork was then. In my own town, for example, Amy Franceschini has started investigating street sweepers and has completed a project to revive World War II–style victory gardens across San Francisco. These gardens function as a demonstration of existing possibilities and a blueprint for further transformation. Through involving others as gardeners, the power of the artist is expanded, or given away. 

The art that meant most to me in the 1980s was mostly about presentation rather than representation. And it was about substances: there was Wolfgang Laib, whose displays of pollen were evidence of long solitary walks in blooming places; Ann Hamilton, whose materials included corn, mussel shells, hair, worn work shirts, and bread dough, referencing human labors as well as animal actualities; there were artists working with water, with earth, with blood, bone, honey, with organic systems. Some, including Hamilton, even brought live animals into the gallery. You saw not a finished work of art but one that was being made—or in Hamilton’s case, unraveled. What they created was not a representation of a place out there but a sample of it, a piece of out there that suggested we pay attention to all the other things that connected here to there, from our garbage to our food. We have paid attention—particularly to food, sometimes as an upscale fetish but often as a moral and imaginative engagement with the world that lies beyond our urban and suburban lives.

Some of these works are deeply political interventions; one of the most eye-opening moments of my visual education was a 1992 debate between Andy Goldsworthy and the Cheyenne-Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds, whose work pointedly incorporated—sometimes as actual public signs—all the political histories that aesthetic work like Goldsworthy’s left out. And some of them still exist as objects in galleries, but they imagine and describe the world in very different terms than a landscape that just lies there. Individually, they can seem like small gestures, but as steps toward a redefinition of what the world is made of and a re-education of the imagination, they matter.

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Rebecca Solnit is a retired art critic who enjoys the views out her windows and works closely with landscape photographers, albeit ones who are reimagining the American West.

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