Another Green World: The Landscape of the 21st Century

As the second decade of the 21st century draws to a close we don’t really need to be reminded just how contested the landscape is. From its state of crisis in a changing climate, to disputes over resources and use, to questions of ownership and sovereignty, the landscape continues to be of vital importance as a subject in wider culture, and in contemporary art.

The modern definition of landscape art emerged in the early 1500s as a ‘picture depicting scenery on land’. Through the work of classicists such as French painters Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin the genre became an idealised representation of nature and history, and was intimately tied to discourses on how the genre reflected the values of Western European cultures. By the Romantic and early Modernist periods of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the genre had been repurposed to serve an array of more subjective interpretations. In the second half of the 20th century, artists using new media including photography, film and video created art that suggested a more objective, scientific recording of the land, while the monumental interventions of Earth and Land Art in the 1960s and ‘70s produced projects where the land itself could be altered into more aesthetically interesting formations.

When we think of the landscape in art now we unconsciously acknowledge the cultural dominance of this history while consciously accepting that whatever ideas and approaches had historically defined the genre, these notions have become inadequate for the task of defining what the landscape is in the contemporary era. ‘Landscape ‘ is thus now a word that is a synonym for the entirety of the biosphere, and landscape art itself is an expanded field of practice.

Following on from curatorial projects that explored the connection between science fiction and contemporary art, and an exhibition of more traditional landscape art by five female painters, the inspiration for Another Green World: The Landscape of the 21st Century began by wondering; what would an exhibition of contemporary landscape art made by women look like? Would it be possible to connect the speculative practices of science fictional art to the landscape genre? The original thought was that the show would be primarily concerned with a feminist, utopian landscape art with a focus on responses to the anthropocene – the current epoch named for the period in which humanity’s impact on the planet’s ecosystems can be measured. After a survey of recent exhibitions, and considering a wide range of contemporary artists and their work, the curatorial idea evolved its focus to look at how individual artists responded to the land, the world, to human and natural environments, to cultural traditions, to the past and possible futures. The work in this show is essentially eco-feminist insofar as it seeks to question the heteronormative values of an expansionist Western culture, and it’s connected to recent thinking and debate on the environment. While one might hesitate to call the work here science fiction, the artworks share a speculative and critical response to that thing we call the landscape. Thus, inevitably perhaps, the future comes into play.

Ashleigh Garwood_The Gap 2014

The photographs of Ashleigh Garwood suggest straightforward if somewhat fantastical representations of the landscape. On close inspection they reveal themselves to be fictionalised dreamscapes created through the manipulation of a number of source photographs taken by the artist. Works such as Govett’s Leap and The Gap [both 2014] are created by a simple mirroring effect that produces a vertical symmetry. This disturbing, uncanny effect is heightened further in works from Garwood’s Under Erasure series [2016] where multiple photographs from a variety of sources are layered together to create images that suggest strange, alien environments. Whatever logical understandings we may think we have about the landscape are complicated by the evocation of the uncanny; primal, powerful responses that defeat pure logic and produces a kind of magic.

LRG_Nav Failure 01

Lynne Roberts Goodwin’s photographs have the vivid directness of a documentary. The works, taken from the two series As Close As [2017] and closeupatadistance [2016], record the politically contested lands of the Middle East. While the subject itself is compelling, two aspects of the artist’s process add fascinating elements to how we might interpret these works as contemporary landscape art; Goodwin, in the process of taking these images, allows herself to wander the environment without maps or guides, sometimes getting lost, recording the features of the land as she encounters them. This process adds a performative aspect to the work, the images transformed from grand desert vistas to something more intimate and personal. Added to this is the artist’s decision to disregard classical, formal framing of the photographed landscape, losing horizon lines, and cropping skies, looking down to the earth. While subtle, these creative decisions add a palpable yet almost unaccountable difference to Goodwin’s images. The technological aspect of observation is again evoked in Goodwin’s video work navigationalfailure 90 degrees [2017] a work that reproduces the sightless gaze of a military drone, an observation at the mercy of optics and communication technologies, a metaphor for misguided political and military intervention.

Erin Coates_Thigmotaxis Install 03

The civilian application of drone technology has produced a remarkable change in the way entire genres of videos are now made. One can see drone footage in everything from advertising, new reports and documentaries to wedding videos, real estate promotions and any number of specialised YouTube channels. What’s common to all of these videos, and to Erin Coates’s Thigmotaxis [2014], is the way the representation of a landscape is transformed from the fixed view of one and two point perspective to a flowing, rolling and endlessly revealing multi-point perspective. In Coates’s video, the drone documents the artist and her team’s urban climbing and parkour through a variety of sculptures, art centres and other cultural buildings. The static city becomes a place of play and adventure, an urban landscape opened up to intervention and potentially unacceptable OH&S risk. As a work of landscape art, Thigmotaxis is about the act of delimitation – all ground is now playground.

Megan Cope_Yulkit William detail 01

The language of mapping has always been essential to a claim for land – and one of the most powerful tools in the project of conquest and colonization; to map is to name, and to possess. Megan Cope, a Quandamooka woman from North Stradbroke Island in South East Queensland, has remade maps to reinstate the Indigenous cultural ownership of the landscape, as well as to suggest a possible future. Cope’s Age of Entitlement [2016] repurposes an historic map of three of James Cook’s voyages, placing over the map the words Age of Enlightenment, a punning play on the intentions and results of Cook’s exploration, a remodeling of the world into the view of an imperial power. By contrast, the four paintings on canvas shaped to invoke the shape of the Indigenous shield – Mining Boom Part 1 & 2 [2013] and Boon Wurrung and Yulkit William [both 2014] imagine the removal of the colonist’s map, one the landscape of mining, the other the urban landscape, reclaimed by sand and water, reinstated to their Indigenous names.

Sian McIntyre_Soraidh Bhuam gu Barraigh 2017 detail 02

Siân McIntyre’s Soraidh Bhuam gu Barraigh (Farewell to Barra) [2015] is an elegiac interpretation of the experience of diaspora – and a reminder of the cost of imposing one set of cultural values over another, both spiritually and physically. The growing of a grass circle symbolises the ecosystem of land, but one transformed to better suit the tastes of a dislocated population; the song is a rendition of Gaelic folk song Soraidh Bhuam gu Barraigh composed by a bard from the island of Barra. The two screen video work Quarter Acre Block [2015] literally inscribes the circular pattern of the grass circle into the hard earth of Fowler’s Gap, NSW – an action that recalls historic land art interventions, but one that is temporary.

Kylie Banyard_kaleidoscope 03

An imagined future state – paradoxically one of the past – is the subject of Kylie Banyard’s Daydreamer II [2013] installation and the accompanying series of paintings. The works conflate the utopian architectural visions of Buckminster Fuller and the geodesic dome, and the often ad-hoc expression of a grass roots utopianism found in artist’s communes. In the paintings, Banyard memorializes the DIY aesthetic of building into the landscape to produce what the inhabitants believed would – and could still be – a harbinger of a better tomorrow. Like most utopian visions, attaining equilibrium with the natural environment can prove problematic, as can producing a wholly consistent ideology. The geodesic dome Daydreamer II however, contains within it a suggestion that to achieve a vision, one must first have visions, an experience where a landscape of the future must first be glimpsed in the mind.

Perdita Phillips_Anticipatory Terrain 05

Perdita PhilipsAnticipatory Terrain (Capricious Dreams) [2017], commissioned for this exhibition, takes as its starting point the dream lives of animals. Phillips’s past work has investigated the possibilities and limitations of human and animal communication while proposing what she calls an ‘anticipatory archive’ – the creation, collection and collation of images and sounds that record these projects. In Anticipatory Terrain, Phillips is interested in the umwelt of animals – how a particular organism experiences and interprets the world – through a speculative audio-visual field of poetic imagery and sounds that suggest another kind of landscape, one in which animals have autonomy, but one that recognises how animals are essential to our own sense of being.

Caroline Rothwell_100 million years detail 01

The archive, the natural history museum, and nature as it is found within the landscape are the basis of much of Caroline Rothwell’s work. Interested in the visual legacies of museum objects and display, Rothwell investigates – in the true meaning of that word – what their memory holds for how we experience the world. Rothwell’s delicately balanced sculptures present us with ecosystems in miniature: 100 Millions Years [2016] includes a mollusk shell and an opalised bivalve mollusk fossil from the early Cretaceous era, collected at Coober Pedy in the Australian desert; Orbit [2016] incorporates living tillandsias (air plants) while Equilibrium [2016], a sculpture tethered by a rope, includes a vial of water. Made from Britannia metal, a pewter alloy with a silvery, smooth surface, these sculptures are a combination of artifice and ecology, at once a kind of metonym for how nature is recorded in the museum-archive, and how we literally encapsulate nature into a model of itself. Rothewell’s trio of screens, Lens-1-3, reinstates archival imagery of the Australian landscape into a visual field that produces a kind of ghostly presence of the past, now a low tech virtuality in the present.

The landscape as a subject in more traditional art continues to hold its place as one of the most popular genres of painting and photography. There is a magnetic attraction to an image of the land, the world and to nature, untrammelled except for the floating eye of the viewer recording a depiction of this scenery on land. But we also know that these often-idealized scenes don’t speak to the reality of the world we now find ourselves in. The thread of inquiry in Another Green World connects some common themes; the ability of contemporary art to offer a critical response to the landscape, not just as subject, but also to its status as a genre; the exploration of objective and subjective responses, to dreams and the uncanny, observation and documentation; the anthropocene as a matter of fact; the consequences of colonial invasion, colonization and their legacy. What I hope might come of this exhibition is a contribution to an ongoing conversation about the past and the future, imagined through art, and the possibility of a better, greener world.

Dr Andrew Frost

Curator Another Green World: The Landscape of the 21st Century, Western Plains Cultural Centre, August 25- December 3, 2017.

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