SUSANNE GRUBE: LANDCAPE AS PROJECTION AND EXPERIENCE SPACE
When, in preparation for Redraw Tragedy, I asked those around me, “What comes to mind on the subject of landscape and catastrophe?” it was scenes of volcanic eruptions, tsunamis or flood disasters, broken cars and fleeing people, in each case the latest catastrophes from near to distant places taking turns in the media, and the possible connection to climate change. However, limited to the field of visual art, a diffuse picture presented itself: a photograph after hurricane Katrina, a painting on the war by Otto Dix, a snowstorm in the Alps by William Turner. Is this even about landscape? Given a subject that spans the globe, the field stretches immeasurably. Considerations that seek to bring together the concepts of landscape and catastrophe in relation to art hardly delimit the terrain because they expand the context of each work. The notion of what “catastrophe” means is subject to various interpretations that do not always have to focus on a horrific outcome. It is in the representation that it becomes clear that there is a before and an after. The frightening, perhaps also fascinating moment of a tremendous destruction or an uncontrollable violence is only explained in retrospect by the search for causes and consequences. At the beginning of the 21st century, man and nature face each other in the arena. Landscapes are part of this complex relationship.
A tree or a rock is not a landscape. A landscape is composed of the interaction of many individual elements to form a totality, which nevertheless always comprises only a section. In a sense, it is the face of the earth, the surface of our planet divided into areas and regions. From the point of view of the perceiver, it can reach as far as the horizon and changes depending on the location and perspective. Therefore, its extent is difficult to grasp.
Different and numerous forces interact here over time in a continuous forming, changing process. Animate and inanimate nature, the visible and the invisible also change at different and changing speeds. Thus the view of a landscape remains a momentary record, whose underlying dynamics can only be read from traces. Landscapes preserve in their vertical layers, both exposed and hidden, an archive of the earth’s history and, contained within it, spreading evidence of human activity.
Because nature and landscape cannot be equated.
Nevertheless: “Even where its counterpart is not primarily natural landscape, it leads us into the open of our nature-embraced historical world,” writes philosopher Martin Seel on the experience of landscape.[i]
Landscape also describes an environment. It is part of the environment with which cultural, social and political developments are linked. Children explore the world there. This gives rise to individual memories as well as collective narratives that can be charged with strong emotions.
In the representation there are set pieces that point to the character or identity of a landscape and forms of extension that introduce mental space.
The intention of the creator:s of artifacts and their reception are not necessarily the same.
“Landscape is a construction in our minds, and each generation relearns landscape.” The quote comes from an interview with Kassel professor Martin Schmitz in the context of the Corona pandemic and an involuntary new desire to walk in Germany. The lecturer and author refers to Lucius Burckhardt, the founder of the science of walking, when he pleads for slow movement and thus intensive perception of the surroundings. In this he speaks very vividly to what many know themselves from travel, the constant interaction of one’s own experience and imagination shaped by narratives, images – a worldwide media flood, and the trend is rising.[ii]
Technical developments require greater mobility as well as higher speeds, also in data transmission. Travelers do not necessarily have to physically go somewhere when moving in virtual space. Thus, computer simulations should by now be part of the pool of formative landscape images they draw upon elsewhere.
The changes affect regional and cultural differences just as much, although they are partially dying out, becoming blurred or superimposed with globalization.
Catastrophe or upheaval – it is more or less dramatic: the point at which history turns! Michael Stockhausen shows clearly how important the temporal aspect is, especially in the distinction from the slower dragging out crisis. The geological time calculation covers incomprehensible sections compared with the span of a human life. But there are also sudden events like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. In the second half of the 18th century, Europe had both the Lisbon earthquake and the multiple eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, although the destruction of the Portuguese capital was more devastating in scale. At that time, the term “catastrophe” belonged more to the world of theater. The volcano, however, became an attraction for travelers to Italy, including artists and scholars, at the turn of the century, due to the growing attention paid to the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It became a popular subject for the catastrophic image. But the fascination with volcanoes had also taken hold of researchers, who directed their observations to an active nature. Scientifically motivated representations emerged and that of Chimborazo, considered the highest mountain on Earth, gained great notoriety through Alexander von Humboldt’s comprehensive work, the “Cosmos”, in which the “polymath” published the results of his travels. [iii]
Movement and Time – From this point, a thread can be drawn to situations whose variants can be found in many biographical accounts, even in art history. May they be mythmaking – at least a little, they are of interest here as examples of an extraordinary encounter. They tell of hikes and paths through a special area, of pausing and experiencing a moment of inspiration or insight with great consequences.
Francesco Petrarch’s ascent of Mont Ventoux in Provence became famous as early as 1336, when roaming the landscape was not a leisure activity. The poet, who helped found the ideas of humanism, was also a geographer and cartographer. For the history of European art, the Renaissance is considered to be the epoch in which landscape painting was significantly developed. On the summit, “the clouds under their feet,” Petrarch quoted St. Augustine.[iv] Aesthetic experience of nature, Christian religion and scientific interest meet and have a long lasting effect. The introduction of central perspective into painting made possible representations of space that came very close to the perception by the human eye. Only the invention of photography in the 19th century was able to surpass this.
From the end of the 19th century, artists were overcome by an urge to go outdoors that surpassed their previous educational trips, often to Italy. William Turner reported that he had himself tied to a ship’s mast for four hours in a snowstorm. Claude Monet, again according to his own report, almost drowned in a cave in Etretat while painting during a storm.[v] What seemed important to both painters was the authenticity of their experiences in the wild storm and the raging sea, which recognizably flowed into their painting.
613 years after Petrarch on the North American continent: “Standing upright before the burial mounds of Miamisburg (…), I was bewildered by the absolute character of the sensation, by this simplicity that understood itself. “… “You look at the place and you think, Here I am, here…and back there, down there (beyond the boundaries of the place), there is chaos, nature, the shores, the landscapes.”[vi] With this experience of time and place, the painter Barnett Newman, came up with the idea of determining the important role of the viewer, the beholder before his abstract painting.
Like Newman, the author and curator Lucy Lippard moves in a territory that bears human traces. In nature, she wanted to unwind from the hustle and bustle of the art world. “Hiking on Dartmoor…I tripped over a small upright stone. When I looked back over my shoulder, I realized it was one in a long row of such stones. They disappearred in a curve over the crest of the hill. It took me a moment to understand that these stones had been placed there almost 4,000 years ago, and another moment to recognize their ties to much contemporary art.” Lucy Lippard describes this encounter as triggering her investigation into the connection between contemporary art and prehistory. “Later, a second level of that overlay emerged: the sensous dialectic between nature and culture that is important to me as a socialistic/cultural feminist, and the social messages from past to present about the meaning of art…”[vii]
Many of the artworks Lippard discusses can be classified as Land Art or Earth Art, which was able to emerge after the upheavals of the 1960s in art making. Artistic strategies were expanded to include everyday actions such as walking, or methods borrowed from science such as fieldwork, sociology, history, and the natural sciences. Traveling, walking, digging, planting – the artists:inside expanded the field of activity, the works were created in and with the landscape, with natural processes outside the protected space of museums and galleries. The place replaces the object. The viewers have to move because there is no longer an ideal point of view. However, the actions outside, marked by the critique of the conventional art business, brought back there collected materials, stones, sticks, earth, as well as a series of reworked documentation media, maps, photos, films, sketches, texts.
There are or were works, for many have disappeared again in the open air, of extreme horizontal extension like Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” on the Great Salt Lake in Utah, now submerged in water, or rather small in comparison to the landscape, like Ana Mendieta’s “Siluetas,” which were oriented around the artist’s figure and body. Ana Mendieta scattered flowers, sometimes used gunpowder. For Robert Smithson, trucks transported 6783 tons of earth. [viii]
“Over its (Land Art, author’s note) first manifestations lay the haze of diesel and dust: here were men with hard hat mentality, finding their identity far from cultural centers, digging holes and blasting aisles in rocky outcrops…”[ix] Although some ventures of Land Art, have been accused of acting more as destruction of the natural environment, it opened the space for ecological projects and contributed to an engagement of art, culture and nature in globalization until today.
Photographer and filmmaker Bruno Hadjih is excellent with darkness and light. “Nous n’irons pas nous promener”, photodiptychs, and the film “Nomadland Radióactif” are a clear indictment of the French nuclear tests, contracted and carried out underground in the Algerian desert. With his works, the artist not only recalls the irresponsible treatment of a forgotten – empty? – land, but brings the fate of the people living there into consciousness. Dense, frontal portraits, in which skin and picture surface become one, form a pair with landscape photographs, which lead the view to the horizon. In the deserted desert sections, a warning sign or abandoned bottles bear witness to past encroachments. The film, on the other hand, creates an atmosphere of building menace. Long sequences depict the explosion and blast wave in their force, the unleashed forces, not the causers, for they have long since gone out of business. Desert images in particular open up mental and often spiritual spaces, lead to the early history of the earth, or are currently popular settings for dystopian scenarios. At the same time, these stretches of land, supposedly devoid of organic life, awaken desires for raw materials and the vast expanse for energy production or for the military. Hadjih draws attention to what power can do.
Artist Wie-yi T. Lauw created the installation “Dark Mating I” on site from a spatially undulating wire structure, some plastic sheeting, an intentionally forgotten rubber glove, and exotic flowers that extend vertically into the height of the exhibition hall. The plants wilt over the duration of the presentation. The contrast of organic material and forms to the supporting grid that delimits create a tension of artificiality and nature, although a connection to the landscape is more indirect. This is because each plant has an original region of origin. Collecting plants, sorting and comparing them, was part of every European expedition into unknown territory. From today’s perspective, this attitude must be questioned in principle. “Collecting exotic plants was part of the instrument of colonization processes and can itself be interpreted as an act of cultural appropriation.” (Lynn Busch) On the other hand, explorers expanded knowledge of the connections between geography and botany upon which the natural sciences were built. In order to understand how natural processes and also the influence of humans shape landscapes in a globally conceived way, one of the most famous scholars of his time, Alexander von Humboldt, designed his plant atlas and thus significantly changed the view of landscapes.
“Even dust can burst into flames” goes back to a joint residency of Roberto Uribe Castro and Wie-Yi T. Lauw in Portugal and the work with what they found there. Forest fires had destroyed rapidly flammable eucalyptus forests and houses, people died. The traces of the destruction were found in the landscape and were now carried to Bonn in a room of their own. Frottages of charred tree trunks encircle the nest of gathered and bent branches in the center. The fast-growing eucalyptus trees, native to another continent, served as raw material for paper production, which entailed high water consumption and additionally dried out the soil. Thus, the silent yet moving installation can tell a story that Uribe Castro and T. Lauw gathered during their stay from stories and through research.
Ground-oriented and performative, the artist’s installation “Seringueros” occupies a large area in front of the viewer’s feet. Deep black dust, ground from car tires, frees itself from the uniform forms into which it has been pressed. The dark, crumbling material is reminiscent of earth, its shape of flower pots that are partially tilted and cracked. Order and chaos meet. Above all, the title suggests another level by including the struggle of the rubber workers, the “seringueros” in South America for better living conditions, who are now also committed to protecting the rainforest. Both installations intertwine the handling of natural resources and political realities.
Artist Hiroyuki Kobayashi collects small stones and makes metal casts of them, which he uses in installations. Despite the transformation, a relationship to the site of discovery and the source stone remains. Laid out into a rectangular surface in the manner of a traditional tatami mat, they form a bounded field with individual but related components. The horizontal alignment is reflected in a vertical plexiglass panel. The past and the present are related like the outside and the inside. For Kobayashi, each stone cast signifies a memory. In “Re,” the tatami provides a new place for the feelings and memories of the people who experienced the 2018 Okoyama flood disaster. Balancing the personal feelings and collective traumas is a scale with filled scales.
“I was born in Fukushima” The artist Rie Tanji has inserted this note into a map of Japan and grouped a series of images around it. Most viewers in Bonn know Rie Tanji’s birthplace from the media, which reported extensively on the fateful events of 2011. The earthquake, subsequent tsunami and reactor accident, which brought great destruction and long-term nuclear contamination, deprived the local population of their homes and livelihoods. “The theme of my work is the absence of home, the need for a place to settle, and how this ambivalence can be inherently unstable.” Rie Tanji speaks of a sense of emptiness, the absence of nature after disaster. Her reduced prints in shades of black and gray on a white ground capture this, people and objects appearing like shadows. She hints at the landscape they are in with a few set pieces. Only a Geiger counter measures how great the danger is that emanates from the environment and can be absorbed by everything growing, only a numeric value
The artist Grit Ruhland also uses maps and drawings. She, too, deals with the use of nuclear power in an area of land that she associates with memories of her childhood. But she explores a slow process, the effects of uranium mining, not those of a catastrophic accident, and makes them visible. Science and artistic appropriation go hand in hand. For Grit Ruhland observes, records, collects impressions and materials outdoors, which become components of the interactive works. Instead of objectivity, she takes a sensitive and creative approach. She designs a birch branch Geiger counter that may be touched and used. With a series of three-legged animals made from found branches, the artist echoes regional legends of the hunt for these creatures, which may have actually existed due to increased natural radioactivity. The multi-media, museum installation incorporates geographic, ecological, economic, and cultural aspects of the meaning of landscape.
Since the reactor accident in Fukushima, the artist Natalia Wehler has not let go of the subject of nuclear power, be it its use for military weapons or its civilian use for energy production. Landscape views that she uses and shows are therefore of interest precisely in this context. They belong to places where nuclear power plays a role and fit equally into a collection of motifs of architecture, people and their activities. News and contributions from all over the world in the form of photographs and films are the sources from which she selects the artistic material and processes it into a constantly growing “Atomatlas”. In doing so, she combines old, after studying Japanese woodblock printing, and new reproduction techniques. In the exhibition Redraw Tragedy she shows two new works from an island in Japan’s Seto Sea, which combine woodcut and projection in different ways. The printing blocks lend a material presence to “Café Round” and “Goma Must Not Go,” while both videos render journeys on the journey like fleeting impressions. In his mirrored doubling in wood and on screen, the dog Goma stands at the beginning of a car ride along a coastal road. In the film, he follows the vehicle and the camera as long as he can. The society, which has gathered around a table and turns to face the viewer, is held together by the resistance to the construction of a nuclear power plant on the island. This, in turn, draws a bow over 9200 km to Bonn. In her works, the painter Gaby Kutz draws on existing images, often known through news reports, which she transforms into a single work, thereby reinforcing their meaning. The statements in painting and watercolor are politically motivated. Neither does she show landscape painting in the exhibition, nor are there any indirect references intended by the artist. Only a real natural disaster, the flood on the Ahr and Erft rivers, to which Gaby Kutz’s studio fell victim, has now turned her paintings into testimonies of the worldwide effects of climate change on all areas of life. Despite a cleaning of the canvases and papers, traces of mud have remained. From an extended perspective, the contents are related to the struggle for land, overcoming and defending national as well as natural borders.
The painter Gaby Kutz draws in her work on existing images often known through news, which she transforms into a single work and thereby reinforces their meaning. The statements in painting and watercolor are politically motivated. Neither does she show landscape painting in the exhibition, nor are there any indirect references intended by the artist. Only a real natural disaster, the flood on the Ahr and Erft rivers, to which Gaby Kutz’s studio fell victim, has now turned her paintings into testimonies of the worldwide effects of climate change on all areas of life. Despite a cleaning of the canvases and papers, traces of mud have remained. From an extended perspective, the contents are related to the struggle for land, overcoming and defending national as well as natural borders.
[i] Martin Seel, Das Unsichtbare sichtbar machen. Zur aktuellen Lage des Austauschs von Kunst und Natur, in: Ferne Nähe. „Natur“ in der Kunst der Gegenwart, Ausstellungskatalog, Hg. Kunstmuseum Bonn, Köln 2009, S. S. 177, vgl. auch 173-181
[ii] Vgl. Interview von Martina Greulich mit Martin Schmitz, General-Anzeiger-Bonn, 23.4.2021, S.24
[iii] Vgl. Susanne B. Keller, Die Aneignung des Vulkanausbruchs zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunst, in: „Entfesselte Natur. Das Bild der Katastrophe seit 1600.“ Ausstellungskat. Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hg. Markus Bertsch und Jörg Templer, Petersberg 2018, S. 45-57; zu Humboldt allgemein: Andrea Wulf, Alexander von Humboldt und die Erfindung der Natur, München 2018
[iv] Jacob Burckhardt, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, Hg. Walther Rehm, Stuttgart 1987, S. 328
[v] Eberhard Roters, Jenseits von Arkadien. Die romantische Landschaft, Köln, 1995, S. 50-52
[vi] Barnett Newmann zit. in: Jean-Francois Lyotard, Der Augenblick, Newman, in: Aisthesis, Hg. Karlheinz Barck, Peter Gente, Heidi Paris, Stefan Richter, Leipzig 1990, S. 366-367
[vii] Lucy Lippard, OVERLAY. Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory, New York 1983
[viii] Land and Enviromental Art, Hg. Jeffrey Kastner, Berlin 2004, S. 56-59 u. S. 121-123
[ix] Ebd., Vorwort von Jeffrey Kastner