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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.