Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s
(Penn State University Press, 2018)
During the Renaissance, so E. H. Gombrich tells, European pure landscape painting originated thanks to the desire of city bound collectors to enjoy the delights of countryside scenes. Previously, history paintings had showed landscapes in the background. But what was novel, he argues, was pleasure in purely aesthetic scenes. Landscape painting, in China, as well as in Europe, reflects this city dweller’s desire to escape the bustle of urban life. And then in the West, industrialization made landscape art ever more desirable. Hence the attraction of John Constable’s and J. M. W. Turner’s bucolic scenes in the age of the English industrial revolution, and more recently, our pleasure in Arizona Highway’s sublime American landscapes. But this artistic tradition has come to seem hopelessly escapist if not downright naïve. We, all of us, are too aware of ecological problems to think that any part of nature remains completely unspoiled, untouched by human activity.
Everyone knows about rapid climate change. No one who even glances at the newspaper or looks at the news can be unaware of these concerns. How, then, can visual artists respond to this situation? Mark Cheetham argues that politically responsible contemporary art needs to explicitly take account of ecological issues. This is a new development—the old masters and the modernists who painted landscapes were not generally concerned with making political statements. The goal of Cheetham’s Landscape into Eco Art is to organize the presentation of art since the 1960s with reference to these emerging ecological concerns. In successive chapters Cheetham discusses the artistic manipulation of landscapes, indicates why we should not respond to landscape art purely aesthetically, gives a political analysis of some earth artworks, explores the role of nature within the art museum, and, finally, discusses the relationship of local and global ecology.
In the half-century covered by Cheetham’s radical revisionist art history, two dramatic changes have taken place. First, the dominant styles of visual representation have changed. You need only glance at the modernist art in Kenneth Clark’s admittedly old-fashioned survey Landscape into Art (originally published in 1949), as Cheetham indicates, to see this vast change in sensibility. In obvious ways, Paul Cézanne’s landscapes have more in common with the fourteenth-century landscape backgrounds of Ambrogio Lorenzetti than with Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Secondly, our concept of nature has been dramatically transformed. Today, determining any fixed division between nature and the human-created urban world seems impossible to maintain. “There are good reasons,” Cheetham rightly concludes, “for artists and art historians to be suspicious of the genre of landscape.”
What Cheetham calls eco art involves a “revived commitment to presenting the history of the earth in the visual arts.” He offers a series of examples: We have Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled: Alive entities and inanimate things, made and not made (2011-12), uprooted trees and assorted debris, commissioned images showing the recycling of organic matter in landscape gardens, thus critically reflecting on the creation of aesthetic experiences of nature. Kent Monkman provides a historical perspective on modernist ideas of nature by depicting Mondrian and Pollock in his comic figurative painting, Trappers of Men (2006), a work in the style of sublime nineteenth-century landscapes, which refocuses the picture on ecological concerns. Roni Horn’s Vatnasafn / Library of Water (2007) is a “powerful mediation, set in rural Iceland, on the intersection between weather and the emotional, phenomenological, and psychic aspects of meteorological experience.” Using water from Icelandic glaciers, she stages an inquiry into the relationship between nature and language. Jeff Wall embodies the recent history of Eco Art with his homage and commentary on Richard Long’s earth art in his The Crooked Path (1991), a staged photograph showing Long’s Line Made by Walking (1967). Jarostaw Koziara’s Unity Fish (2012), a gigantic outline of fish created in the farming territory on the borderline between eastern Poland and western Ukraine, reminds us that environmental art deals often with political boundaries.
A half-century ago Robert Smithson and some of his contemporaries wanted to escape the urban gallery world by making earth works in the deserts of the far west. Along with some American peers, which included Hans Haacke, Michael Heizer Nancy Holt, and Dennis Oppenheim, and their European contemporaries Joseph Beuys and Richard Long, he rethought our concept of nature. Rosalind Krauss’s remarkably prescient essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1979), provided a useful way of theorizing their achievement. Now, Cheetham suggests, we should understand this tradition, the source of eco art, differently. In the 1960s, Smithson was the most powerful opponent of Michael Fried’s formalist vision of modernism. Now, with more focus on sensitivity to environmental concerns, Smithson has become a founding figure of this recent tradition of eco art.
What sort of environmentally sensitive aesthetic is possible? This marvelous book assembles the visual and verbal resources needed to answer that question. When, in his acknowledgments, Cheetham observes that he is writing from a Canadian city and university occupying the “traditional indigenous territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit,” the very name of Toronto deriving from the language of the First Nations, he identifies part of the political background of this change. We live in the Anthropocene, “an era in which human activity changes the earth as much as what used to be thought of as independent natural processes.” Art history, he argues, should respond to this awareness of pressing ecological issues and human impact.
Recently, a number of survey histories of contemporary art have shown the difficulty of constructing any convincing picture of the leading trends. Pluralism rules, it seems. Not the least of the virtues of Landscape into Eco Art is that it offers a well-developed sketch of one convincing, conceptually consistent way of understanding our present situation.
David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.