Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Landscape Theory (2008), edited by Rachael Ziady DeLue and James Elkins, is Volume Six in the 'Art Seminar' series, which addresses current issues in writing about art through roundtable discussions and invited contributions.  It is a really rich and readable anthology of writing about landscape; the theory doesn't get too heavy despite the forbidding cover - an empty seminar table rather than a picturesque landscape.  Interestingly, one contributor to the book, Jill H. Casid, noticed the way that the general preface to the whole series, written by Elkins, is actually 'implicated in the discourse of landscape with its rehearsal of what we might call the metaphorics of theoryscaping.  Current writing on the visual arts is compared to a "trackless thicket" in order to assert that it is "not a wilderness."  Instead, visual graphs (that are given the look of geological formations [they are 3D area charts]) convert "theory in art history" into a "landscape of interpretive strategies" through which the series offers a well-blazed and navigable trail.'

I thought it might be interesting here to try to summarise briefly the seminar discussion (70 pages in the book!) and in doing so add links to some relevant earlier posts on this blog.  The event took place in June 2006 at the Burren College of Art in Ireland and brought together art history, geography and landscape architecture academics (plus an independent scholar - Rebecca Solnit).  James Elkins opened the discussion by remarking that in the years since the original publication of Denis Cosgrove's influential Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (1984), it has become increasingly possible to move beyond the idea of landscape-as-ideology. There was general agreement to this, including from Cosgrove himself, who nonetheless recalled that his book had been a reaction against two then-prevalent ways of thinking about landscape: as the romantic, aesthetic response to nature or as more scientific, geographical analysis. Elkins introduced a third notion, landscape as a work of physical production, leading to discussion of the etymology of 'landscape' - the OED defines it in relation to art but another root is the Old English 'landscipe', which concerns the shaping of a place.  A fourth version of landscape, the representation of space and time ('landscope') provoked discussion of the priviledged position of the observer in art history and those 'timeless' landscapes without figures, like Ansel Adams' photographs of Yosemite.

The problems of separation - either by framing a view or more generally from the unbridgable distance between observer and those actively shaping the landscape - led to the first mention of phenomenology as a way of thinking more about our experience of landscape. Jessica Dubow talked about the recent turn to phenomenology in cultural geography, which has moved beyond the study of images (or images-as-texts) to a more direct encounter where the subject is inside the landscape. There was some further discussion of ideology and whether it is helpful to think of 'landscapes' in the postmodern global cultural economy (Arjun Appadurai's notions of 'finance-scapes', 'techno-scapes' and so on).  But the last words of the morning session were Denis Cosgrove's, concluding that a focus on virtual spaces 'raises issues in relation to the materiality of landscape that phenomenology emphasizes.'

The conversation recommenced with discussion of the extent to which landscape became less central to twentieth century art.  David Hays referred to a different trend in landscape architecture, where art has become less influential: ecological concerns now dominate and 'art' is seen as almost a dirty word (although there are exceptions -  Anne Whiston Spirn mentioned Martha Schwartz's Splice Garden). The discussion then turned to maps, panoramas and their military origins and from map-making to the distinction between cartography, the conceptual visualisation of the landscape, and chorography, a more sensory, descriptive approach.  But in the midst of this I was struck by Denis Cosgrove's comment that 'mapping removes us a little from the suffocating embrace of ecology when thinking about the natural world and places and our relations to them.'  Trenchant stuff - just as well no ecocritics had been invited!  The absence of any ecological discussion in this seminar was interesting to me (since this blog has always focused on forms of landscape art, rather than environmental art) but disappointing too, given the natural expectation that there would be cutting edge theoretical thinking in this area.

At this point in the seminar James Elkins intervened to change the subject and ask whether it is possible to imagine landscapes outside of their representation in art.  The subsequent discussion touched on the way tourists see Yosemite through the lens of Muybridge and Adams, partly because the park's infrastructure leads them to specific viewpoints. These photographs are social acts - people rarely take a view without posing in front of it - but such views are still based (for Elkins) on the late-Romantic Western tradition of painting and photography. This view has been put forward in Joseph Leo Koerner's writings on Friedrich and indeed one participant, Michael Newman, suggested that Friedrich's hyperreal style clearly pre-figures our contemporary digital landscapes. I was surprised there wasn't more exploration at this point of different perspectives, although participants did mention the Silent Traveller books, written in England by Chiang Yee, and the landscape architect Nicholas Brown, who 'walks somewhat in the spirit of Richard Long.'  But time was obviously running short and after a few more questions from the audience Elkins closed the seminar, inviting participants to head out for a hike 'in what we persist in pretending is the actual landscape'.
The Burren landscape

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