Enclosure Acts: Radical Landscapes at Tate Liverpool

Navigating the docklands on my way to Tate Liverpool

Just what is a landscape? It is with this question that I open the undergraduate art history module Looking into Landscape, which I have been teaching at Aberystwyth University since 2016.  In 2014, I leaped at the opportunity of trialling the module in China, where the history of art engaging with the natural and human-made environment spans many more centuries than it does in the West, and where it bears little resemblance to what Westerners tend to regard as “landscape” when referring to artistic practices rather than the outdoors.  Landscape, that is, as a genre distinct from portraiture or still life.

But I am not lecturing.  Actually, I am on research leave, which will take me back to New York – after a three-year absence from my old neighborhood and the favorite haunts that may well have become unrecognizable or ceased to exist in the interim – in preparation for my exhibition Asphalt Expressionism, about which I shall have – and have to have – more to say in subsequent posts as I ponder just what I have gotten myself into this time.

To some extent, Asphalt Expressionism – a belated follow-up to my 2018 exhibition Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies – is a response to the question “Just what is a landscape?” It aims to explore, in a series of photographs snapped with my phone camera, the terrain of Manhattan from the perspective of a walker looking down on the pavement rather than ahead, taking in the sights.  It is an alternative approach, a looking away from what is privileged or deemed worth seeing.  It is also an alternative to the tourist’s selfie, as my feet will stand in for my face in pictures that say “I was here.”

Downtown Manhattan, 11 September 2019

Unlike selfies, my photographs will not be shared first, let alone exclusively via social media, from the platforms and forums of which I have largely absented myself.  Do these images belong in a gallery? Do they need to be printed and displayed to have a life, to find eyes and minds other than mine to serve other than dead ends? 

Is the gallery the habitat for creative practices engaging with the act and art of living? I asked myself just that the other day when I went to Liverpool in order to experience – or, as it turned out, in hopes of experiencing – the exhibition Radical Landscapes.  The show, at Tate Liverpool, invites audiences to consider many of the forms that responses to the environment can take and how those responses may be motivated, whether it is primarily to make a living or to fight for the survival of the planet.

Displayed among the commodifiable images of the countryside were sculptures, textiles, installations, photographs – among them early efforts by Angus McBean, whose later works are currently on show in the exhibition I staged with students at Aberystwyth University – videos of performance art, as well as living plants and early twentieth-century scientific wood-and-papier-mâché models thereof.  So, the question arose, again and again, “Just what is a landscape?” How is that term defined here?

Radical Landscapes, Tate Liverpool, installation view

The dissatisfaction I felt walking through Radical Landscapes – well worth the walk though it is – is not so much that it does define its territory so loosely.  It is that it still insisted on calling all those responses “landscapes” and declaring them to be “radical.” “Radical Landscapes” is not an oxymoron – Peter Kennard’s Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980) makes that plain – but it is certainly a misnomer.

Curators Darren Pih and Laura Bruni do provide some indications of how the theme or subject of their project was delimited by throwing a few descriptors into the mix, via the exhibition’s subtitle: Art, Identity and Activism.  Still, much of what is on show, from oils to soil, is not genre landscape.  What is radical in the creative practice of adapting to our changing environment or adopting ways of making the future survivable is activism, which may or may not yield a physical by-product displayable in a gallery space. You cannot expect to be walking a line in, say, Peru – or any line that, through radical thinking and doing, has temporarily been withdrawn between art and life or between objects and objectives – by looking at line, color and form in a cube, white or otherwise.

Peter Kennard, Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980) detail

There is evidence of radical engagement with land on the walls, mainly in the form of documentarian photographs.  But those images only remind us how galleries, by educating us about what is or was out there, also distances us from those radical approaches.  In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Helen Legg, Director of Tate Liverpool, makes the claim that the “gallery space for this exhibition has become inverted, with the outdoors brought inside: living sculptures, film, painting, photography and immersive installations transform the gallery into a new fertile terrain.”  For the most part, this is not achieved.  Radical Landscape is no New York Earth Room.  You can smell the difference.  Nor does it hand out shovels or seed.

Thoroughly researched and contextualised though it is, there is nothing curatorially radical about Radical Landscapes.  While the large spaces and open plan display enable stimulating interventions and juxtaposition – such as seeing Jeremy Deller’s Cerne Abbas (2019) reflected in the glass behind which other objects are mounted on the walls – it nonetheless rehearses what is part of the history it puts on view: the Enclosure Acts that, during the Industrial Revolution, did away with common land and restricts access to most of what remains of the British countryside. We can still see the countryside to which we have no access, but we can no longer experience it – unless we take radical action and trespass, invade, occupy or appropriate what has been taken from us so long ago that we are often no longer aware of that loss and the consequences of our detachment, the aftermath of which involves crises of identity and climate. 

Jeremy Deller’s Cerne Abbas (2019) reflected in a display of flower models by R. Brendel and Co.

Similarly, Radical Landscapes takes from the field of creative practice – from the domain that the radical insist on being public – and parcels out what now can only be contemplated at a remove, not lived.  “Developed,” as Legg reminds us, “in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when access to fresh air and green space took on special significance,” Radical Landscapes casts those venturing out to experience it as witnesses, not as participants. We end up looking at where life ends by ending up as art – at historical practices preoccupied with land whose future we are shaping by our actions and apathy alike.

“See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face

Marlene Dietrich (1951) by Angus McBean, SoAM&G, Aberystwyth University
Purchase: Adrian Woodhouse (2016)
Funding support: ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and The Art Fund

Of all the pictures currently on display in Make/Believe, the latest in a series of annual exhibition projects I create for staging by students of my curating class at Aberystwyth University, Angus McBean’s 1951 photograph of Marlene Dietrich is my favorite. 

What draws me in is the blankness of Dietrich’s face, her eyes looking not at us but beyond us, at nothing in particular, with a lack of any definable expression, emotion or urgency. The vacant gaze, bespeaking an unavailability and a refusal to engage, suggests the subject’s control over an image that is all surface: like theatrical curtains, the lids may come down on those eyes any moment now, shutting us out entirely.

It is a blankness that is not nothingness, invested as it becomes with the spectacle it makes of our longing.  It is a blankness that is not openness; it gives nothing away while it commands our attention and inspires our awe at its sublime perfection – a perfection that belies the sprezzatura, the rehearsed effortlessness and nonchalance of the performance.

Nothing here encourages us to imagine what those eyes are looking at; nothing that invites us to see anything through those eyes.  Those eyes are the event in a face – a site – that is all look.  I am glamor, this face says, and what else, what more could you – or anyone – possibly be looking for!

The photograph holds me because the look withholds so much. What we are not getting is a portrait of the sitter, then in her fiftieth year.  This photograph, clearly, is not of Dietrich, the person.  It is the image of a mask that is already a persona.  In this masquerade, as intriguing as anything conceived by Cindy Sherman in her film stills, the image is a simulacrum – the fiction of a fiction of a fiction.

Continue reading ““See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face”

Make/Believe: Photographs of/by Angus McBean

The illusion of the stage. The magic of the movies. The glamour of fashion. In a career spanning half a century, Angus McBean (1904–1990) turned instances of make-believe and masquerade into enduring records of enchantment.

Poster design by Neil Holland, from a photograph of Angus McBean by Robert Greetham

McBean was born and raised in South Wales. His father had worked in the collieries. Encouraged by his mother to make art his life, McBean moved to London. After working in banking and retail, he became a theatrical mask-maker and designer before achieving international fame as a photographer.

This year’s exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, showcases McBean’s work in advertising, his commissioned portraits, and his annual Christmas cards. It offers rare glimpses of McBean’s private life, holidaying on the continent, as captured in two unique photo albums. Also featured in the exhibition are portraits of McBean at home, in later life, by the contemporary photographer Robert Greetham.

Make/Believe installation view

Not all the personalities on view in this exhibition – Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Draper, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Claire Luce, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Welsh icon Ivor Novello among them – are as familiar today as they once were, even though some of them, including Rosemary Harris and Maggie Smith are acting to this day. All of them, like McBean, lived by their passions, whether performing on stage and screen or playing on the tennis court, as Wimbledon champion Helen Wills Moody did.

Make/Believe installation view

McBean’s photographs were made in the pre-digital age of the medium. Using scissors and paste, montage and collage, as well as elaborate sets and props, McBean employed every trick of the trade to bring out the beauty, vitality and personality of his subjects. His photographs were staged, not taken.

Drawing inspiration from Salvador Dalí, whose exact birthday he (incorrectly) claimed to share, McBean ‘surrealized’ many of them. ‘This thing of truth doesn’t really come into it,’ MacBean said in late life of his portraits.

Make/Believe installation view

The theater, to McBean, was ‘fantasy.’ It was ‘what you wished it to be.’ It was also the refuge McBean needed at a time when being queer was a crime. During the Second World War, he endured a two-and-a-half-year sentence of imprisonment and hard labour. His work is a testament to the imperatives of making, believing, and make-believe.

Make/Believe, which draws almost entirely on the School’s collection, opened to the public on 16 May 2022 and runs until 30 September 2022.

Curators: Hannah Beach, David Eccles, Helen Flower, Ellie Hodnett, Mayu Maruyama, Ekene Okoliachu, Lucija Perinic, Joanna Reed, Katerina Vranova, Portia Sastawnyuk, Anna Slater, and Helena Zielinska. with support from Senior Lecturer Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Senior Curator Neil Holland (staging and design).

Make/Believe installation view

Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies

As a frustrated writer, or, rather, as someone who is disenchanted with the business of publishing and of ending up not reaching an audience, I have come to embrace exhibition curating as an alternative to churning out words for pages rarely turned.  I teach curating for the same reason.

Staging an exhibition reminds students of the purpose of research and writing as an act of communication.  Seeing an audience walking into the gallery – or knowing that anyone could stop by and find their research on display – is motivating students and encourages them to value their studies differently.

Travelling Through, installation view

As someone who teaches art history, and landscape art in particular, to students whose degree is in art practice, curating also enables me to bridge what they might experience as a gap or disconnect between practice and so-called theory, between their lives as artist and art history at large.

It also gives me a chance to make what I do and who I am feel more connected.

Angus McBean’s personal album of travel photographs featuring McBean and his gay companions (1966)

In my latest interactive and evolving exhibition, Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies (on show at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, Wales until 8 February 2019), I bring together landscape paintings, ceramics, fine art prints, travel posters and luggage labels, which are displayed alongside personal photographs, both by a famous photographer (Angus McBean) and by myself.

Here is how I tried to describe the display of those never before publicly displayed images from my personal photo albums:

Before the age of digital photography, smart phones and social media, snapshots were generally reserved for special occasions.  Travelling was such an occasion.

For this collage, I rummaged through old photo albums and recent digital photographs. When I lived in New York, from 1990 to 2004, I very rarely photographed the city.  All of these images either predate that period or were produced after it. The historic event of 11 September 2001 can be inferred from the presence and absence of a single landmark.

The World Trade Center is prominent in many of my early tourist pictures.  Now, aware of my gradual estrangement from Manhattan, I tend to capture the vanishing of places I knew.

Plinth display of NYC, Travelling Through Me (1985 – 2018), digital and digitised photographs

For this collage, I rummaged through old photo albums and recent digital photographs. When I lived in New York, from 1990 to 2004, I very rarely photographed the city.  All of these images either predate that period or were produced after it. The historic event of 11 September 2001 can be inferred from the presence and absence of a single landmark.

The World Trade Center is prominent in many of my early tourist pictures.  Now, aware of my gradual estrangement from Manhattan, I tend to capture the vanishing of places I knew.

Lost New York City landmarks: Twin Towers and Gay Pier, 1987

Back in the 1980s, New York was not the glamorous metropolis I expected to find as a tourist. My early photographs reflect this experience.  Most are generic views of the cityscape.  Others show that I tentatively developed an alternative vision I now call ‘gothic.’  Yet unlike Rigby Graham, whose responses to landscape are displayed elsewhere in this gallery, I could never quite resist the sights so obviously signposted as attractions.

Like the personal photo album of the queer Welsh-born photographer Angus McBean, also on show in this exhibition, these pages were not produced with public display in mind.  McBean’s album was made at a time when homosexuality was criminalised.  It is a private record of his identity as a gay man.

I came out during my first visit to New York.  The comparative freedom I enjoyed and the liberation I experienced were curtailed by anxiety at the height of the AIDS crisis.

Being away from home can be an opportunity to explore our true selves.  Travelling back with that knowledge can be long and challenging journey.

Harry Heuser, exhibition curator

Pennant Tour of Wales featuring illustrations by Rigby Graham, with one of my photo albums and a collage of luggage labels from my collection beneath it.