Cover image for Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s By Mark Cheetham

Landscape into Eco Art

Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s

Mark Cheetham

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$124.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08003-1

256 pages
7" × 10"
27 color/36 b&w illustrations
2018

Landscape into Eco Art

Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s

Mark Cheetham

“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.”

 

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Dedicated to an articulation of the earth from broadly ecological perspectives, eco art is a vibrant subset of contemporary art that addresses the widespread public concern with rapid climate change and related environmental issues. In Landscape into Eco Art, Mark Cheetham systematically examines connections and divergences between contemporary eco art, land art of the 1960s and 1970s, and the historical genre of landscape painting.

Through eight thematic case studies that illuminate what eco art means in practice, reception, and history, Cheetham places the form in a longer and broader art-historical context. He considers a wide range of media—from painting, sculpture, and photography to artists’ films, video, sound work, animation, and installation—and analyzes the work of internationally prominent artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Nancy Holt, Mark Dion, and Robert Smithson. In doing so, Cheetham reveals eco art to be a dynamic extension of a long tradition of landscape depiction in the West that boldly enters into today’s debates on climate science, government policy, and our collective and individual responsibility to the planet.

An ambitious intervention into eco-criticism and the environmental humanities, this volume provides original ways to understand the issues and practices of eco art in the Anthropocene. Art historians, humanities scholars, and lay readers interested in contemporary art and the environment will find Cheetham’s work valuable and invigorating.

“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.”
“Summarizing what is now a vast literature on environmentally engaged art, Mark Cheetham usefully historicizes landscape painting, land art, and eco art in Western traditions—and polemicizes against severing any of these artistic practices from landscape as such. Rather than make excuses for the centuries-old genre of landscape, Cheetham wants to use its encumbrances to reveal investments from the past. An essential contribution to urgent issues of the Anthropocene.”
Landscape into Eco Art offers a much-needed art history of the Anthropocene. Landscape art is not merely a precursor to contemporary practices, however. Cheetham’s ‘preposterous’ interpretive framing of eco art mobilizes fresh understandings of the landscape tradition in relation to Western industrialization. The case studies challenge the temptation to confine ecology to a political discourse. Instead, aesthetic history is borne out in a rethinking of how ethical dilemmas spark a new artistic modus operandi. A rich and compelling read.”
“A major contribution to the burgeoning discussion of ecology in the history of art, Landscape into Eco Art effectively cuts across a number of long-standing cul-de-sacs in late modern art scholarship by distilling debates from a truly expansive range of voices. Mark Cheetham’s claims about the persistence of landscape in the production and analysis of contemporary art absorbs cutting-edge thinking about climate change while working through legacies of environmental art in both Europe and North America.”

Mark A. Cheetham is Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto. His most recent books include Abstract Art Against Autonomy: Infection, Resistance, and Cure Since the 60s and Artwriting, Nation, and Cosmopolitanism in Britain: The “Englishness” of English Art Theory since the Eighteenth Century.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

1. Manipulated Landscapes

2. Beyond Suspicion: Why (Not) Landscape?

3. Remote Control: Siting Land Art and Eco Art

4. Contracted Fields: “Nature” in the Art Museum

5. Bordering the Ubiquitous: The Art of Local and Global Ecologies

Notes

Bibliography

Index

From Chapter 1

Manipulated Landscapes

One does not have to be a great seer to predict that the relationship between humans and nature will, in all probability, be the most important question of the present century.

Philippe Descola, The Ecology of Others (2013)

Rapid climate change and its increasingly serious consequences worldwide encourage many artists and scholars to ask an old question with renewed urgency: what can we do in the face of these pressing planetary problems? As one commentator suggests, “individual action over lightbulbs or transport seems to make no difference contrasted with the new coal fired power station being built weekly in China.” “Eco art” engages this conundrum in ways that make it one of the most vibrant aspects of contemporary art. Eco art emerged in North America and Europe in the 1970s. Much augmented in the 1990s, it is now extensively exhibited and discussed. A short form for “ecological art,” it embraces a range of contemporary practices that investigate the interconnected environmental, aesthetic, social, and political relationships between human and nonhuman animals as well as inanimate material through the visual arts. My zeal to explore eco art began with Olafur Eliasson’s celebrated installation The weather project (fig. 1). Displayed indoors and in a quintessentially urban setting, the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2003, the spectacle attracted over two million visitors in just six months. If Eliasson’s overtly artificial indoor sun and atmosphere promised an experience of “nature,” why would so many people come to an art gallery to experience what we commonly think of as out of doors and nonurban? This paradox is one of many addressed by contemporary eco art, which consistently questions our understanding and experience of nature. On a smaller scale but with great emotional impact, Roni Horn’s Vatnasafn / Library of Water (2007; fig. 2), in Stykkishólmur, Iceland, focuses our attention on the loss of glaciers worldwide. Sited in the institutional space of a transformed former public library, far away from world art centers, Library of Water, like The weather project, solicits local reactions to nature within a “climate-controlled” setting. Horn includes a record of a hundred interviews about the weather conducted with Icelanders in 2005–6.

Titled Weather Reports You, this component is available in the reading room adjacent to her installation and as a separate artist’s book. Eco art also expands well beyond these art-world contexts. A notable example is the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), based in Los Angeles, a collaborative research group “dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge about how the nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived.” CLUI’s expeditions and projects question not only land use from the artistic to the military but also the nature of artistic production and research as they engage human interactions with the earth, past and present.

Eco art’s responses to perceived planetary crises are as numerous as the disquiet around climate change is extensive. They are as individual as they are global in implication, and often as material as they are embroiled in both cultural and scientific ideas. The timeliness and complexity of eco art have led to an extensive range of exhibitions and publications, many with rubrics for coming to terms with the variety and priorities of this phenomenon in the art world. More than most contemporary art practices, eco art also transcends conventional borders of inquiry. As many examples throughout this book show, it often incorporates scientific and technological evaluations of environmental concerns. A question and response posed in the exhibition Carbon 14: Climate Is Culture (2013) say it all: “What does culture have to do with climate change? Everything.” Thus it is no surprise that understanding eco art’s perspectives on these insistent issues is also a growing priority across the humanities and within art history and the study of visual culture, as witnessed by the emergence of “eco art history.” An understanding of these perspectives is central to this book because it is the lens through which a scholarly understanding of contemporary eco art is perceived. As defined in a College Art Association of America session in 2014, eco art history is designed to “bring together art historians from diverse fields to work toward a more earth-conscious mode of analysis.” The initiative has been built on a number of precedents in the discipline, especially Alan Braddock and Christoph Irmscher’s foundational collection A Keener Perception. In his 2009 article “Ecocritical Art History,” Braddock linked ecocriticism in other disciplines with art-historical inquiry: “For art historians, ecocriticism entails a more probing and pointedly ethical integration of visual analysis, cultural interpretation, and environmental history—including aspects of the history of science—than has prevailed in the field” (27). Important too were model discussions in the 1990s, including special issues of the Art Journal and Leonardo. It is only in the later 2000s that the imperatives of eco art have been widely noticed. The collection Landscape Theory, based on discussions in 2006, is a prominent case in point. Respondent David Nye records his “surprise at how little the roundtable focused on the ecological sense of landscape. Environmental history and ecology were apparently not much on anyone’s mind” in the mid-2000s. Kirsten Swenson presciently asked in 2010 if “recent land- and environmental-based practices that blur disciplinary boundaries demand a new form of art history that similarly blurs distinctions between itself and other disciplines, or between theory and practice.” That new form is eco art history.

Landscape into Eco Art provides an armature for understanding a wide range of environmentally and ecologically focused art practices in what is now variously called the “Anthropocene”—the controversial term introduced by Paul Crutzen to describe the epoch in which human activity has become a force of nature—the “Capitalocene” (Jason W. Moore), and the “Chthulucene” (Donna Haraway), the last of which underscores the main cause of global warming, industrialization.

Jussi Parikka’s memorable neologism, “Anthrobscene,” stresses the obscenity of the wanton disregard for and humiliation of integrity, that of the earth, of humans, of nonhuman animals, and of other organisms and inanimate materials. Eco art is not a fashion or style among others: at its best, it is the site of frank engagements with many pressing crises in the Anthropocene, from species depletion to climate disruption to resource shortages, issues that entail reassessments of human nature and anthropocentrism in relationship to the planet. Eco art boldly enters into today’s debates on climate science, government policy, and both corporate and individual responsibility. Eco art is not monolithic any more than “science” is; aesthetic experiments and interventions do not promise solutions to climate change, for example, but instead enter into what Bruno Latour optimistically calls the “fruitful cacophony” of discussion.

I make the case that it is not sufficient to consider eco art only as a phenomenon within contemporary art, as an equally important (or inconsequential) trend among many. Humans have been held responsible not only for the planetary condition called the Anthropocene but also for cognate exploitations witnessed in the older landscape genre. Ian MacLaren calls the picturesque, a default way of seeing in Western societies from the early eighteenth century until the early twentieth, “an almost obscene practice” because of its integral relationships with colonization worldwide. The ways of seeing the earth common to landscape depiction were much more than mirrors of societal attitudes. They reinforced, developed, and disseminated these paradigms of the human relationship to the planet. My approach keeps this history current: to understand contemporary eco art as distinctive and significant in the present, but also as crucially connected to long-standing interactions with the earth in the visual arts and art history of the West, I reassess its artistic and theoretical reengagements with both the landscape genre’s venerable representations of the earth and also with land art of the 1960s and 1970s. Landscape’s ascent as a genre occurred in collaboration with the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century—a favored starting point for the Anthropocene—and the imperialisms of the nineteenth century. Earthworks and land art developed at the same time and in the same cultural milieu as mid-twentieth- century environmentalism in the United States and Europe. Ongoing relationships with eco art also illuminate the landscape genre and land art retrospectively, as, for example, in Vik Muniz’s Pictures of Pigment series, in which the artist often redeploys famous landscape paintings by building up powdered pigment that he then photographs, and his equally self-conscious revision of land art in Spiral Jetty After Robert Smithson, from the series Brooklyn, NY (1997). I present many more examples of this connection in chapter 2.

Of course, you may say, do we not already understand these parallels? Yes, and no. Consciously echoing Kenneth Clark’s groundbreaking but frequently criticized Landscape into Art (1949; 2nd ed., 1976), but not sharing his pessimism about the ongoing potency of the genre of landscape, Landscape into Eco Art works to complicate and ultimately to justify the linkage of historical landscape as a genre, land art, and eco art and to address in new ways the questions of how “land” comes into eco art. One objection to Clark’s account of the landscape genre is that he plots a linear progression through which landscape elements, once simply decorative or stage-setting supplements in religious and historical paintings, achieve independent status in the nineteenth century as “pure” landscape. Accounts of landscape as a genre—and as a more general, fluid response to nature in art—since Clark’s time similarly suggest, with varying degrees of explicitness, that landscape, land art, and then eco art also follow chronologically, dialectically, and in some accounts teleologically one from the other, and that landscape ends as Clark predicted. For example, in his nuanced survey Landscape and Western Art (1999), Malcolm Andrews proceeds from the emergence of landscape as an identifiable subset of European art, through a sophisticated thematic reading of its development up to the early twentieth century, to a concluding chapter titled “Landscape into Land: Earth Works, Art, and Environment.” But land art was not simply the next step in a sequence. These tendencies in the 1960s and 1970s had strong but, I believe, understudied relationships to the landscape genre and to land beyond this aesthetic and art-historical context. While the newer work often saw itself as replacing the purportedly outworn genre of landscape painting, it evolved in a dialectical relationship with it that is still operational, though rarely acknowledged, in eco art today. Robert Smithson’s articulation of an antipicturesque in his 1967 essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” and related visual works is a prime case in point. Aiming to augment rather than to curtail material and intellectual connections, as noted above, Smithson dismisses the landscape painting of the museums as restrictive: “Representing nature once removed in lyric poetry and landscape painting is not the same as direct cultivation of the land,” he writes in his long essay praising Frederick Law Olmsted. “I think we all see landscape as coextensive with the gallery,” he claimed in 1968, in what seems like a reference to landscape painting. As pioneer land artist Michael Heizer asserted colorfully, looking directly at the land was “more interesting than looking at works in the Louvre or Metropolitan.” For many land artists, the new approach disrupted ties to the model of the artist in (typically) his studio, the gallery system, medium-specific formalism, tired monumental sculpture in public spaces, traditional art materials and finish in sculptural work, the urban, and especially the landscape genre.

Many art historians and artists have adopted this dismissal of landscape, both as it denotes a genre—a compendium of historical practices—and as an elaboration of “land,” a putatively more fundamental category. In the authoritative Land and Environmental Art, published in 1998, Brian Wallis declares that land art “had virtually nothing to do with such conventional notions of landscape as gardening, open prairies, [or] natural rock formations.” Amanda Boetzkes claims that “earth art resists delivering nature as a thematic image, such as a landscape, or a tangible object, such as a specimen in a natural history museum.” Calling for an end to traditional landscape conventions in art because they block our access to nature considered more expansively, John E. Thornes also argues that in eco-art contexts “the use of the term landscape is misleading. It implies a static material approach, whereas artists like Constable and Turner, from the beginning of the nineteenth century, painted representations of their total physical and built environment (land, air, water, light, plants, trees, animals, people, buildings).” Ginger Strand claims that “[n]o one believes in landscape anymore. As a self- contained genre, pretty vistas and sublime scenes seem compromised.” Chapters 2 and 3 show that her view is largely correct, but not if construed as a somehow progressive evolution away from historical landscape practices. A pivotal case in point is the powerful landscape imagery of Icelandic artist Georg Guðni (1961– 2011), who stated early in his career that he and his peers believed that “landscape was old-fashioned and uninteresting,” but went on to extend the genre to new heights of observation and subtlety. Again promoting the familiar developmental narrative, however, central 1970s eco artists—Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison in the United States and Richard Long in the United Kingdom, for example—reacted to what they perceived as machine-driven interventionist extravagances in American land art of the 1960s and saw their alternative processes as an improvement on the less ecologically refined procedures of much land art.

Concerned mostly with land art as an immediate predecessor, however, early eco artists often ignored the nuances of earlier landscape expression and its ongoing import. In echoing but fundamentally revising Clark’s title, then, my aim is to insist that the landscape genre did not simply end, as he predicted, and that it is far from irrelevant today. Landscape does not easily slide “into” eco art, but neither is it a cast-off remnant of a Hegelian unfolding. Landscape into Eco Art presents a sustained argument for considering continuities between aspects of the landscape tradition in the West, land art of the 1960s and 1970s, and contemporary ecological art. By attending to a full range of relationships among these modes of engagement with the earth, I recover aspects of the unrecognized history of the landscape genre and also explore the art-historical implications of construing a longer tradition of landscape presentation and representation that includes land art and eco art in an ongoing drama of articulation.

(Excerpt ends here)