Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s
Reviewed by Melissa S. Ragain
In 2000, the German artist Reinhard Reitzenstein suspended a tree from a pair of abandoned hydroelectric towers in La Gabelle Park in Quebec. Hung upside down, the 55-foot spruce tree contrasts tragicomically with the immense structures beside it, as though they had seized the tree and subjected it to this humiliating inversion. This arresting image flips (quite literally) our expectations of the landscape, even a human-altered landscape like the escarpment of a hydroelectric dam, and dramatizes the clear-cutting that makes such sublime industrial monuments possible. Reitzenstein relies on those expectations in order to subvert them. The cultural baggage of landscape, both pictures of the landscape and the land’s design as an aesthetic object, is the ground against which a work like Transformer appears. The urgency of climate change and mass extinction has made it necessary for anyone who works with natural materials or images to rethink the historical conventions that govern our perceptions of the natural world.
I was choosing a new survey text for my course Contemporary Art and Ecology when I was commissioned to review Mark Cheetham’s new book, Landscape into Eco Art. To judge by the title and the array of evocative illustrations, it looked like a viable candidate to replace my go-to anthology, Jeffrey Kastner’s Nature (The MIT Press, 2012). Though Kastner’s book offers an excellent selection of short primary documents perfect for an undergraduate seminar, it lacks what many art history textbooks offer: the lure of chronology, the analysis of individual artworks, and an authoritative narrative to help navigate the last 50 years of ecological art making. And yet, as I thumbed through Cheetham’s Landscape into Eco Art, I began to realize that it was not a survey text. Neither was it the kind of fine-grained history of a single object or movement we have come to expect in contemporary art history. Other texts in the genre take the standard contemporary art historical model of diving deep into a subject only to pop back out of it again with a new perspective on the long history of contemporary practices. For instance, James Nisbet’s Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s (The MIT Press, 2014) tells a history of land art and systems thinking by tethering it to a lengthy analysis of Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1977). Similarly, Suzaan Boettger’s Earthworks: Art and the Landscape of the Sixties (University of California Press, 2003) takes a wide-angle lens to land art in a chronological survey of the era’s greatest moments to shed light on the complex network of artists, gallerists, and collectors who motivated land art’s monumental minimalism.
Instead, Landscape into Eco Art might be more readily compared to work in environmental aesthetics, a subfield of aesthetic philosophy that rarely makes its way over to the art history department. Historically, environmental aesthetics has sought to understand natural environments as sources of aesthetic pleasure or displeasure, though it has increasingly taken human-altered and technical landscapes into account. As a discipline, it was founded in opposition to aesthetics as it served the fine arts, especially concepts such as the picturesque and the sublime, the two most profoundly influential concepts in 19th-century landscape painting and photography. That Cheetham’s book fits more comfortably in this category is not surprising, given his long-standing engagement with philosophical issues in art such as autonomy, purism, aesthetic judgment, and the legacy of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Cheetham’s corpus has focused on art writing, theory, and intellectual history. Landscape into Eco Art, although decidedly more focused on objects as sources of theoretical insight, is similarly concerned with the intellectual currents at work across a diverse and international collection of artists. Cheetham appears less concerned with questions of how localized movements formed and developed, the impact of institutional limitations and agendas, or the internal machinations of individual artists’ oeuvres. Whereas many works of environmental aesthetics make the mistake of ignoring artist developments since the 1960s, Cheetham’s work places them in the foreground. Malcolm Miles’s Eco-Aesthetics: Art, Literature, and Architecture in a Period of Climate Change (Bloomsbury, 2014) is perhaps its nearest precedent in attempting to account for more recent art world concepts such as “relational aesthetics” and sculpture’s “expanded field.” Nevertheless, Eco-Aesthetics frequently measures works of art by their political and social efficacy above other aesthetic or intellectual concerns, a measure by which many works of contemporary art come up short. A strength of Cheetham’s book is his tendency to judge works of art on their own terms, and indeed he devotes significant space to figuring out what those terms are.
Cheetham adapts his title from Kenneth Clark’s Landscape into Art (John Murray, 1949), which plotted the development of landscape painting as a tool to convey setting in portraits and history paintings into a stand-alone genre. Rejecting Clark’s pessimistic premonitions about the future of the landscape tradition in postwar England, Cheetham insists on the continued relevancy of the genre. Specifically, he refuses the notion that land art should be understood as a distinct break with landscape—or a simple continuation of it—and further that eco art constitutes a similar dialectical evolution out of land art. “[M]y aim is to insist that the landscape genre did not simply end as [Clark] 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.”
Cheetham tasks Landscape into Eco Art with enumerating continuities among the Western landscape tradition, land art, and eco art without losing sight of the great paradigmatic turns that these three modes represent. As a kind of object lesson in this practice, Cheetham offers the reader a case study in the introduction that tracks the use of “deracinated trees,” like the blasted stumps that populated Thomas Cole’s wildly romantic landscapes, in work from the 1960s to the present. From Robert Smithson’s Upside Down Tree (1969), a tree buried roots up, to Mark Dion’s installation Neukom Vivarium (2006), a fallen tree that continues to host a thriving ecosystem as it decays inside a greenhouse, Cheetham draws out the ways that this recurring motif has served many different aesthetic and social agendas. The litany of works deploying the deracinated tree is certainly striking, though what we are to take from the presence of this common image is less clear. Is this a theory for how culture works generally, through the resonance or afterlife of an image, à la Richard Dawkins’s meme theory? Is the mere demonstration of a connectedness among genres a useful enough theory for eco art? Or is there something more here about the ways in which the permutations of landscape’s themes in contemporary art might be useful for those tasked with sustaining, legislating, or designing natural landscapes?
The structure of subsequent chapters follows the pattern set up in the introduction. Each chapter begins with a theme or strategy held in common across two or more movements within environmental art, such as the importance of the “outside/inside dyad.” Cheetham describes, more or less chronologically, works made since the 1960s that partake in said theme. Each chapter ends with one or two case studies that take a closer look at a particularly illuminating example of the phenomenon. These preambles have the unfortunate effect of making the book feel like a slide list fleshed out with descriptive passages, which is particularly regrettable given Cheetham’s excellent taste in the artworks he uses as evidence. This effect is often exacerbated by the lack of transitional prose between the examples or many on-the-ground historical connections between the works selected. Luckily, the case studies provide a more sustained consideration of the work of a single artist (or group of artists) that feels more squarely art historical. The case studies can be read in one sitting and can stand alone as meditations on a single theme.
The meat of the book begins with an essay on the “suspicion” of landscape, meaning its problematic historical connections to imperialism, war capitalism, and power. However, Cheetham insists that landscape endures as a dialectical pole for contemporary art that seeks to “restore the terror,” in the words of the collective Art & Language, of a defanged landscape genre. As examples of these terroristic landscapes, Cheetham offers two case studies on “earth-death pictures”—a new coinage meant to invoke Carl Gustav Carus’s call for scientifically informed “earth-life pictures”—and decolonial strategies in indigenous landscapes. Each of these studies could have made for a rich chapter on its own merit, though perhaps not in the same book. The section on indigenous artists, which includes work by Kent Monkman, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Arthur Renwick, and Bonnie Devine, feels particularly like a gloss; the reader is left wanting more scholarship on these understudied artists. However, the divergence of these two threads draws attention to the diversity of contemporary uses to which the concept of landscape can be put. Diane Burko’s paintings of the cryosphere and Mariele Neudecker’s innovative depictions of deglaciation in Iceland, for example, create elegiac images of climate change that capture loss as an emotional experience, while Renwick and Yuxweluptun address contested narratives and spaces by remixing the tropes of 19th-century landscape painting and photography.
Cheetham’s next two chapters consider well-documented aspects of classic land art of the 1960s that continue to have currency for today’s eco artists: remoteness, ephemerality, and the play of institutional and architectural frames. Each of these middle chapters draws a line from land art to eco art via generational comparisons, from Michael Heizer to Roni Horn, for example. Questions of remoteness and ephemerality, Cheetham suggests, are residual effects of limited definitions of landscape against which the land artists reacted. Eco art addresses human relations to nature more consistently and underlines the impossibility of representing those relations while siting itself more regularly in the urban museum. Cheetham then explores the problem of “bringing nature in” by focusing on photography as a mechanism for contracting the open field of nature into the confines of the gallery. This is an elaboration of Smithson’s dialectic of “sites/nonsites,” suggesting that these may well work as a return to some impulses of 19th-century landscape photographic practices. The photographer Abelardo Morell, who creates portable camerae obscurae in hotel rooms and camping tents to project the landscape back into these sheltering spaces, and the land artist Nancy Holt, who used tunnels like giant viewfinders, both play with the mechanics of photography in ways that do not efface the constructedness of the image.
The final turn in Cheetham’s book works toward dissolving notions of inside and outside by introducing new materialism and speculative realism to undergird two evocatively woo-woo concepts he names “the crystal interface” and “the emotional life of water.” This chapter responds to environmental art’s preoccupation with boundaries in contrast to our unbounded ecosphere. It primarily describes material aspects of the world that might be considered coterminous with other forms of life, yet autonomous from human intention or feeling. In addition to functioning as metaphors of organic/inorganic interfaces, crystals, he claims, “stage a zone of exchange between the visual arts, the sciences, and philosophies of the crystal.” Likewise, water frequently signifies interconnectedness in contemporary environmental art, but Cheetham is concerned here more with our affective relationship to water and, curiously, to water’s “emotional life,” “the potential independence of water, to its own material and nonanthropocentric ‘life.’” For a range of eco artists, including Isabelle Hayeur, Paul Walde, and Olafur Eliasson, affect is the best means to change our conception of nature as connected to and independent of human perception. It’s not surprising that recording technologies, including but not limited to photography, play a significant role in capturing the fugitive states of nature and performance. As Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977), “All photographs are memento mori that enable participation in another’s mortality.”
The reader who needs an exhaustive history of environmental art should look elsewhere. But for those seeking a foothold in contemporary conversations around our aesthetic relation to the land, Landscape into Eco Art is filled with useful strategies for engaging the conceptual, scientific, and affective components of our landscape experience.
Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s, by Mark A. Cheetham; University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018; 256 pages, $124.95.
Melissa S. Ragain is an associate professor at Montana State University.