Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, 6th July – 8th September 2002

In 2007, according to the UN, the number of people living in urban areas will equal the number living in rural areas. After that, the majority of the world’s inhabitants will live primarily in an urban context. It’s worth mentioning, because ‘Viewfinder’ is all about the landscape genre in art, one that historically reflects urban society’s changing attitude towards itself and its place in the world. ‘Viewfinder’, curated by Stephen Hepworth and Arnolfini’s Catsou Roberts, presents an eclectic group of artists offering various interpretations of how the genre might still function in our environmentally aware, consumer-driven and technocratic society. Those looking for the sincere enjoyment of impressionist plein air painting will be disappointed, as will those expecting the heroic avant-garde gestures of land art. Instead, ‘Viewfinder’ presents the very up-to-date melancholia of an urban culture that would like to indulge in the romantic gesture of the landscape, but just can’t bring itself to believe that notions beauty and grandeur can any longer be that simple.

The least engaging, though most enjoyable work in ‘Viewfinder’ tends to reiterate the truisms of contemporary culture, where the romantic landscape is dismissed as a cliché, yet indulged as post-modern foil to the inescapably synthetic reality of urban experience. Patrick Jacobs’ remarkable facsimile model of a field of dandelions, seen through a heavy concave lens, epitomises this slightly morose sentiment, in which the naïve desire for an ‘authentic’ experience of nature is neutralised by the obvious artifice of the experience. In the same vein, but more light-hearted, are Rob de Mar’s wacky models of floating forests, waterfalls and telecommunications towers, retro sci-fi fantasies that shamelessly indulge in the adolescent desire for the hanging gardens of exotic, distant planets. Similarly, Virgil Marti’s eye-boggling UV-glow Landscape Wallpaper, reworks the 70s modern taste for having a wilderness scene in your living room, though here the colours radiate with the acid tones of a bad trip; synthetic, hallucinatory, fantastic, you wonder if any of these artists have ever made it beyond the city limits, or ever walked up a hill by themselves.

But they do have a point. Western culture has somehow ‘disenchanted’ its relationship to the non-urban world, and for some reason no longer ‘enjoys the view’. We may holiday abroad more than ever, and expand the territory we inhabit, but we’re oddly ashamed of our presence, environmentally sensitive to our impact on the natural world. Compare this to the painters of the American frontier, at the Tate’s recent ‘American Sublime’ show, saturated with the enjoyment of laying claim to virgin territory, and the adventure of its exploration, and you realise how jaded our sensibility to the landscape has become. Fantasising about impossible and forbidden landscapes from the confines of the city becomes more acceptable than acknowledging our real presence and effect upon the natural world; the more human presence and control becomes a fact, the more we want the image of an untouched and untouchable nature.

The idea of a rift between society and nature emerges in Paula Kane’s paintings, which, whilst reworking a renaissance enjoyment of the pastoral, erase all trace of human presence or civilised habitation, whereas Melanie Carvahlo’s collages shut out the viewer of her jungle reveries with an excess of cutout flora. In Tobjørn Rødland’s comic photographs, hapless city-types try to commune with the countryside, but are just too gauche and self-conscious to pull it off. A darker side to this tense relationship emerges in images of environmental destruction, figuring strongly in Michael Ashkin’s depressing tabletop models of blasted bits of wasteland, stagnant lakes and cracked earth. Meticulous obsession betrays the angst of a culture uncomfortable with the consequences of its own presence. Equally riven are Gianni Motti’s found press photography of valley scenes in Macedonia, where one realises that the gentle billows of smoke that wreathe the hillside houses are the product of artillery attacks the moment before. Dirk Skreber, by contrast, paints the aerial view of a homestead caught in some great flood, the environment become vast and awesome again, threatening obliteration.

From here you start to notice the absence of human figures in much of the work. When figures do occur, they’re more usually caught up in their own internal emotional landscapes, rather than confronting the grandiose horizons of the physical world. Seamus Nicholson’s moody young protagonists mope around twilit urban corners, whilst Børre Saethe’s large wall-photo, The Pasolini Experience, finds a naked figure lying prone in a dark, snowy wood, a victim of some unstated violence, or the self-inflicted abandon of a modern Ophelia? Clare Langan’s remarkable video projection Forty Below presents a female swimmer in an arctic sea; dreamy, chilling, and sincerely interested in the ongoing symbolic possibilities of the visual landscape, Langan’s film hangs ambiguously between internal and external vistas, with quiet and persuasive affect.

‘Viewfinder’s anxiety is the difficulty of re-engaging with a genre that idealises and celebrates the human subject’s objectification of the natural landscape, in a culture that is suspicious of its motivation for doing so, even as it continues to assimilate the natural to an evermore social and technological order. The best works in ‘Viewfinder’ put this question up in the air without offering an easy moral resolution. Claude Closky’s two-slide projection, which alternates from a sugary sunset tropical beach, to the same image transferred onto the tight top of an equally seductive female torso, addresses the cultural mediation of desire, moving between physical reality and its assimilation in the cultured image. James Ireland’s witty installation How and Why, cobbles together bog-standard bits of landscape photography, mirror, twigs and cardboard boxes, that looked at from a particular angle, reveal the artificial origin of the landscape photographs projected on the far wall. The technical how of imaging the landscape suggests that the why is always anyway a process of construction, synthetic and necessarily human.

By 2030 apparently, the rural population of Europe will have halved. What people will have done with the landscape by then remains to be seen. Whether they will still be making art about it is another matter!



First published in Contemporary, September 2002 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated