Viewing room #03

26.08.14 – 13.09.14
Cape Town

Featured artists include:
Jake Aikman
Ruann Coleman
Peter Eastman
Ashley Walters

Landscape reframed

The term landscape has often been understood and translated in purely visual terms and is frequently construed as a mere view; an understanding of a relationship to the world which is always spectatorial, and as such, separate and detached. [1] This traditional conception “takes landscape to involve the presenting of the world as an object, seen from a certain view, structured, framed, and made available to our gaze.” [2] Although many landscapes are affecting – we speak of “finding” or “losing” ourselves in a scene – and although we may well acknowledge the importance of a particular landscape, because it is always taken as a “view,” our involvement with it is habitually limited. This contemplative mode, when taken to an extreme, commodifies the scene – we treat it through fixed genres (sublime, beautiful, picturesque, pastoral) or media such as photography, painting or literature. We cast a cursory, unquestioning gaze on a setting, either urban or rural, to haughtily recognize the presence of Van Gogh in cypresses or Monet in cathedrals. [3] This suffices to express our authority and petit-bourgeois status. And yet, as spectators, we remain mere observers of a scene that is presented and the social and cultural constructs contained within the bounds of the representation significantly naturalized. Effaced, the relations of power and authority related within the image continue un-mined, holding their steady and continued sway over us.

But if we should understand landscape as a view of a view, and choose to “decode landscape as a body of determinate signs,” [4] questioning, as W.J.T. Mitchell urges, not what landscape “means” or “is” but what it “does”, we may possibly begin to understand the genre beyond the “aesthetic,” as a particular formation, one that can provide us with meaningful information about existence – both social and political – in a particular place. For landscape does not only represent power relations, “it is an instrument of cultural power, (and) perhaps even an agent of power.” [5] In the western world, landscape coincides with nature made useful. Only once (white) man has planted his orchard, his fruit trees or gardens does the land become a source of delight, only then does it command aesthetic appreciation. [6] Denis Cosgrove in the Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (1984) locates the origins of the idea of landscape in the early capitalist Italian Renaissance city. It was here that landscape painting and capitalism emerged, one might dare say, their histories entwined and inextricable. Landscape, like cartography, astronomy, land surveying and mapping involved formal geometric rules, and was developed as a particular way of seeing, a way of owning. [7] Gainsborough, centuries later, provides an example. The couple portrayed in Mr and Mrs Andrews commissioned this work in the late eighteenth-century, asking that the park that they owned be portrayed. The complacent landowners, as John Berger rightfully notes, are portrayed in a proprietary attitude, made visible in their stance and expression. [8]

In the post-colonial world we inhabit today, as viewers, we are beckoned to acknowledge that landscape is also an “expression and representation of a relation to a place.” [9] As such, every view is a view of a view, and not merely a surface. Landscapes provide us with an entry to a place: a setting in which locales occur, where meanings are created, reproduced and transformed. When we contemplate landscape today, we need to remain alert, attentive to the gazing or commissioning eye and the violence – be it industrial or colonial – written on the land.

Nancy Dantas

1Jeff Malpas, “Place and the Problem of Landscape,” The Place of Landscape, Malpas, J (ed) (Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2011), p. 6.
3For more on the “contemplative” approach, see W.J.T. Mitchell, “Introduction,” Landscape and Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 1.
5Ibid, p. 2.
6Jeff Malpas, op. cit., p. 7. Author’s parenthesis. For original context, confer Enzo Carli in The Landscape in Art (New York: William Morrow, 1980), p. 17.
7See Christopher Tilley, “Space, Place, Landscape and Perspective: Phenomenological Perspectives,” A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments (Oxford/Providence: Berg, 1994).
8“Among the pleasures their portrait gave to Mr and Mrs Andrews, was the pleasure of seeing themselves depicted as landowners and this pleasure was enhanced by the ability of oil paint to render their land in all its substantiality. And this is an observation which needs to be made, precisely because the cultural history we are taught pretends that it is an unworthy one.” Cf. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972), p. 108.
9 – Jeff Malpas, op. cit., p. 7.