The Limits of Landscape

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.


  1. I’m now reading Solnit’s “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” and have read her “Wanderlust,” which I expect to read again. I almost always find her observations interesting; she is the only writer I’ve encountered in a long time who makes me want to take notes.

    Perhaps I’m missing something here, but it seems to me that the decision to paint something is also a decision not to paint something else. There are always elements one might have included but chose not to, for reasons the viewer may never know.
    I go to a painting, and even to a photograph (though, admittedly, less often), for a representation I understand may be very much a composed or embellished one. I admit I’m more interested in impressions than facts.

    As I write this, I’m looking over at the only landscape I own (though I’ve never thought of it as one). It’s a landscape-of-sorts in the form of a scroll by painter Joyce Malerba Goldstein. The scroll depicts a meeting of earth and sky as seen from the perspective of someone looking down a canal or narrow river toward the horizon.

    This Malerba-Goldstein scroll is in some ways a very conventional image. It is saved from being trite by suggesting the meeting of earth and sky, rather than stating it baldly, which to me at least would have made it almost reportage rather than art.

    As someone who has begun taking (digital) photos only very recently in connection with my blog, Walking is, I’ve been amazed to discover how much a photo reveals that I, who took the picture, failed to see–as it reveals more fully whatever it was that caught my eye in the first place.

  2. I enjoyed Solnit’s thoughts on landscape and nature.

    I write about dreams and about the role of dream imagery in healing. I make the statement in my book that I am alive because of my dreams, a truth for me because my dreams diagnosed my breast cancer 18 years ago when doctors found nothing of interest on a mammogram. In the healing process I learned how to use dream imagery to my advantage – how to take the fixed image of the dream – the visual landscape of the dream – and turn it into a living fluid scene that – in waking – invoked the full scene unbounded by a frame. An important part of that process of turning landscape into “nature” was to connect to my symbols within the dream and allow them to guide me into the deeper meaning of the dream.

    I found a personal comparison of working with a sleep dream in Solnit’s distinguishing between the painted landscape and the experience of that landscape when viewed in its full form as nature. Dreams are a place – a place you go to, a place you experience on many levels of consciousness – and when you return to waking from a dream, you have the ability to transfer that place to others in a visual painting of all that happened there. Sometimes your transfer can guide others in understanding the importance of their dreams through a guided tour of your dreamscape.

    I’m learning to draw and I have found the most difficult thing to do in a drawing is to not just see an image and transfer it to paper but to really see what is inside the image, what it was before and what it is after its transfer to the paper. I understand now how easy it is to lose the deeper meaning when it becomes fixed on the paper but if I am describing my image to someone, if I am completely in touch with the image, I can take the viewer back to the place where I was and allow the lines on the paper to become fluid again and to capture again the scene I have drawn and perhaps guide the person viewing the image to capture something unique for themself. It might not be the same scene for me, and it might be an entirely different scene for the person looking at my drawing; but both are valid because I am seeing what I have drawn in a different way and the other person is seeing something from their personal experience in a new way.

    I am new at drawing. My goal is to learn to “see” in the way Solnit describes and to transfer landscape to paper as nature. I strive – in imagination – to find a way to connect to that deeper sense of place in all the landscapes of my life. I strive to see them in their most fluid and ever-changing forms and to find ways to lead others to that same place – where landscape becomes nature.

  3. Welcome home Rebbecca, You have more claim to the megaliths than most.As your “part” o a perilous European Enlightenment project. cam I reccomernd the current Unesco website bleak, and a bit like trying to stop the Carbon Cycle.Its easy to “see” why the current War on Terror is doomed to failure, it is just like any other colonial stuggle, bad land and overpopulation will out.My hunting dogs aghree lol Interesting l;y they also use photorgaphic representation.Hmmmm

  4. corn,
    mussel shells,
    worn work shirts, a
    and bread dough

    oh humans labor
    as animals do,
    working with water,
    with earth,
    with blood,
    with thanks
    for poems
    rising up out
    of the ground

  5. The issue of landscape versus nature reflects a fundamental belief in Western culture of the sentient human as the subject and the rest of nature as the object. The human as subject has power over the object (nature) – the object is always the servant of the subject. To change this way of looking – to see all nature as subject in its own right – requires a fundamental change in beliefs. And a humility to accept that the needs of other creatures are as important as our own.

  6. As I understand Ms. Solnit, she finds traditional landscape painting and photography lacking because it does not incorporate enough reality. She also doesn’t like it because it portrays the earth as feminine and; therefore, passive. Finally she doesn’t like the fact that it “de-emphasizes” the energies which pulse through the landscape and the universe.

    Wrong, wrong and wrong again.

    Of course landscapes leave out stuff. One of the first and most important compositional decisions an artist makes is what to leave out; what to ignore. That is just like survival; to live we must decide what to ignore. Even if it were possible to depict all of reality in a photograph or on a canvas, no artist would want to. Art is about discrimination. Whatever an artist’s vision is; to convey it to the rest of us compels omission.

    Moreover, even though she may like the requirement, “traditional” landscapes do reduce a multi-dimensional reality – probably many more than the three Ms. Solnit recognizes – into two. Photographers must learn to see in at least three dimensions but reduce to two. Another way of counting – and viewing landscapes – is that they reduce four dimensions to three: A good landscape includes time. The eye is drawn into the photograph and then through it, thus incorporating at least one concept of time. But the fundamental point is that the artwork requires imagination from both the artist and the viewer. The limits Ms. Solnit finds in landscapes may well be the limits of her imagination, not the artistic imagination that created the work.

    Next she faults landscapes for coming out of a tradition of seeing land, “. . . as feminine and the feminine as passive—as something you act upon rather than an actor.” No doubt many artists may have thought that about land as feminine. The earth is our mother in most traditions, after all. But it is much less certain that landscapes all come from a tradition of viewing the feminine as passive. Inanna, Lilith, Hera, Artemis, Durga and uncounted other women from mythology were anything but passive. I doubt that Ms. Solnit herself is passive.

    Comparing landscapes to real estate, she says, “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 too seems wrong. If Ansel Adams had made a photograph of the moon rising over Yucca Mountain in Nevada, I doubt the nation would be contemplating storing our nuclear waste there. No one is suggesting we should store it in Yosemite, thanks in part to Adam’s landscapes.

    Finally, she decries landscape art’s inability to portray the energies pulsing through the place. It is true that we humans have a very limited ability to detect energy. We have only five senses which we tap into — most of the time. And even those are limited. Most of the reflected light illuminating those landscapes is invisible to our eyes; most of the sound, inaudible to our poor ears; unsmelled by pathetic noses; untasted and mostly untouched. But does that mean I can’t feel the energy pulsing through a Turner landscape or a Picasso representation of a landscape? I don’t think so.

    What Ms. Solnit worries about isn’t the art form, it is the viewers.

  7. I’m wondering if anyone knows how to find a transcript or documentation of the debate between Andy Goldsworthy and Edgar Heap of Birds that is referenced at the end of this article.

  8. Romanticism has indded formed much of our Landscape perception.Its vitalism, however is misplaced.Islamic culture for example has no Landscape, We as products of Enlightement thought have tended to “Mediterreanize” much repesentation in photography and painting.The urgency of addressing Global Warming make that proposition redundant,In addressing the very “Real” facts of human extinction(Unep)Solnits work faces that challenge.This in a “Nation of climate change denial”.In the “Anthropocene” errors in human thought have geopolitical implications,it time to reinvent America.

  9. I’ve read several of Solnit’s pieces and appreciate her as a writer. This article is a bit too much of the art critic for me. I am a writer who occassionally does art. I am of the mind of Arguelles’ “The Transformative Vision” – that everyone is an artist and manifesting your vision in some form of art is a spiritual necessity.

    I found myself doing large outdoor landscape sculptures when I lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico – found art, “god art” we called it, tree limbs and bird wings and dried sunflower heads and stones. I did monoprints with acrylics on leather and wood, wildcrafted wreaths, tuned waterfalls and rerouted small creeks. I’ve taken thousands of photographs of the natural world. I’ve written poems and songs and stories for the love of nature. I’ve cried a million tears for what we’ve lost. I’ve taken every child I could find to the bank of a river, every chance I got, and told them all the stories I knew. We can never do enough. In these days when all is threatened, let us not discourage anyone from making their gift. It is all needed. Very much. I’m writing a blog at about living in harmony with the natural world.

  10. Landscapes are a limited vision of a place we love for personal reasons.
    As such they are loaded with emotional content. I co not think it is necessary to make the traditional right of wrong statement here. Nature is One. Landscape is a perception of Nature involving a lot of the viewer personal vision, which should be of interest to us, as there is no limit to perception. That does not make Nature a Subject. It is just different.
    A landscape is a dream, a memory of a cherished place where personal things have happened…
    It is limited? well by choice . You cannot recollect a thousand landscapes and feelings at the same time. One view and you sit and ponder and let the imagery unlocked by the landscape flow out.
    I would also disagree with the artist inability to render energy.
    I think every good landscape carry its own energy. I think that what happens that is not necessary is to compare two things that are not comparable. Nature is all powerful, I dare say we all know it.
    when the artist chooses to paint a landscape , he odes not have in mind to compete with Nature.
    He operates a transmutation of sort through the filter of his consciousness.
    I appreciate Solnit’s piece and her passion for the limitless. she just forgets that like Nature we are limitless.

  11. i’ve recently moved…to a new place and by states, it’s now my 11th geographical state…solnit ever makes the point that the changes in the land are cause enough for us to reflect on what inner change we’ve experienced as a result…now that i’m living in a desert state, it seems it’s the last place “free enough” to scar…and yet, it’s the last place that allows one the room to find renewal, if not a paradoxical escape from a culture that scars for profit and convenience… you may want to consider those landscape artists out there (Michael Asbill in New York, for one) whose work is not just about place or change but the change of place…these artists are the new impressionists that cause us to see not just strokes of impression but constructs of our impression on the canvas of land…

  12. “If Ansel Adams had made a photograph of the moon rising over Yucca Mountain in Nevada, I doubt the nation would be contemplating storing our nuclear waste there. No one is suggesting we should store it in Yosemite, thanks in part to Adam’s landscapes.”
    This is precisely the problem. The repetion of images of a particular chosen landscape, chosen for its match to a current cultural ideal, makes it a place to save to be held static, to be preserved – often without consideration for the people that may live there, who may have shaped the landscape. Marshy boggy areas are deemed suitable for digging up and siting windturbines, for draining and building on; they are places not considered beautiful, not a landscape to be photographed, painted.
    I am an artist and I do work with landscape/Nature/natural world – the environment that I find myself in (performance, drawing, photovisual, written word). I do admire photographs of the world we live in. But photographs do fix things. The photograph that headed the article points this out, it is suggested to us as a veiwer that this is The Place from which to get The Shot, the prefered shot. And I am moved by Turner’s landscapes, but he is not always very particular about acheiving the clear representation of the landscape, it is more of an experience.
    The area of Britain that I live in is a national park, there is a vested interest in keeping it as it is, no change: bare hills, quaint buildings. Thank heavens some of the farmers got some of their comfortable double glazed easy to live in bungalows build before the planning regulations got too rigid.
    All the world that we live in needs to be left alone as much as possible, not just the famous views.I have a preference for art that makes one think about the world, not just admire it at a distance, for example work by Josef Beuys & Mierle Laderman Ukeles

  13. A good painter will absorb these arguments, understand the 2-D limitations, and make the most of all of it. Landscape painting is not a fix-it form, it certainly is really old with lots of accumulated baggage. Of course, in a capitalist economy, we will find people treating any art like real estate. When its good, it speaks to something, although maybe not the politics du jour. But it IS just painting and its so interesting to hear decades old arguments come up. Why must we beat ourselves over the head. Is it because this other work, while institutionally accepted, is not culturally adopted. Everyday people still want that good ol dose of skill for realism? Painting is still synonymous with art? Message over medium, message over medium, message over medium. Look, most landscape painting is dull given the thousands upon thousands of practitioners both amateur and professional, commercial and academic. So, if there’s something out there of deep cultural value I sure do hope it rises to knock all that dull landscape painting off the wall.

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