Photography, Art, Landscape, Nature and the Environment in the 21st Century

W.J.T. Mitchell’s preface update to the Second Edition of Landscape and Power focuses on redirecting the viewpoint to a more relative one, about space & place. Mitchell first explains that the term power in landscape is overused in analysis, and also actually not very powerful compared to how power relates to culture i.e. government, corporations, etc.  He opines that landscape & power is actually passive – the background or landscape of an image is “generally the ‘overlooked,” not the ‘looked at’.”  When looking at landscapes, it is generally done holistically as in “look at the view” instead of specifying what to look at in the image – the mountain, the lake, the tree, etc.  Mitchell further emphasizes that the landscape experience is a “mandate to withdraw” – which is interesting to use the term mandate, which is in itself a term of power – to order with authority, to officiate.  So the power in landscape lies in its “aestheticizing distance”, “to draw out by drawing back from a site.”

Mitchell then switches gears to back to the focus of his preface update, and asks the question, “What happens to landscape when its effects are gauged in relation to space & place?” Mitchell explains that the under analyzation of landscape more holistically (in terms of power, space, & place) has to do with critique stemming from art historians directing interest in painting and architecture.  Mitchell thus is attempting to analyze from an untapped (or under tapped) point of view.  Using Michel de Certeau’s model of landscape as field, space and place exist as polar binaries:

  • Space
    • “Practical Place”
    • Direction, Velocity, & Time variables
    • Geometry
    • Abstraction
  • Place
    • Stability
    • Law of the Proper
    • Specific Location, particularity
    • per David Harvey place “retains a concrete, complex, and sensuous existence beneath the spatial codes of mapping & depiction
      • “an empty place is filled with space, as if space were the negative void that rushes in when a place is vacated.”

In Contrast is Henri Lefebvre’s traidic spatial organization based on:

  • Perceived (space)
    • daily activities & performances that ‘secrete a society’s space’
  • Conceived (place)
    • Power
    • planned administered, consciously constructed (by architect,
    • “intellectually worked out” verbal signs
  • Lived (landscape)
    • mediated through images & symbols
    • experientially passive – “imagination seeks to change and appropriate”

Mitchell’s interest in Lefebvre’s model is in its triangulation in wholeness (topically) rather than the binary model of Certeau. Mitchell’s viewpoint is one of a ‘dialectical triad, a conceptual structure that may be activated from several different angles….activated by movements, actions, narratives, and signs, and a landscape is that site encountered as image or sight.”  He gives the example of Central Park being in a specific location where lots of activities occur, and “consumed”, or seen/viewed, as a “series of picturesque tableaus”.  Power or conceptualized space comes into play in such situations as saying “this happened here”


Side thought: Monuments and Power – one thing that really stuck with me from Mark Sealy’s lecture was his comment about building (buildings) & power – in terms of leaving a mark versus the historical invisibility of nomadic peoples.

Peter Apsden, The beautiful and the damned; Nadav Kander’s gift for communication has secured him the second Prix Picket for environmental photography.   Nadav Kander won himself the 2009 Prix Picket photography prize themed “Earth” with his body of work on China’s developments along the Yangtze River.  What stood out was Kander’s “attention to the ‘smallness of the individual’, seen in such works as below:Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 1.37.04 PM

Also up for this prize was Andreas Gursky and Yao Lu, which Apsden explains that all the submitted projects “capture the art-versus-journalism dilemma”.  This dilemma brings up issues of beauty and the question similar to that which Susan Sontag has posed regarding loosing the power/meaning of an image due to making it something beautiful.  The Prix Pictet hopes to preserve a ‘moral imperative’ and wishes to “effectively chronicle the dangers posed to the environment.”  And above all, they are looking for work that continues to ‘shock us into overdue action.’  So the prize’s hope is to act in a way like a visual activist in a sense…so promote work that elicits a reaction and responsibility of the viewer.


India Windsor-Clive, “New Landscapes: Yao Lu”  Yao Lu, who was also up for the Prix Pictet mentioned above, creates landscapes that trick the eye, initially.  They talk about culture and climate change through referencing traditional Chinese painting style but with photographic imagery that speaks to the waste of society (and its impact on the landscape).  His work is a reflection of what is happening in China’s modernization, construction, and transformation of its physical environment.  The mounds that at first glance could be believed to be beautiful picturesque mountains are in fact piles of waste covered with dust covers — a weak attempt to cover up the negative impact of “capitalism and power, modernity and progression.”  “Yao Lu criticizes economically driven policies that sacrifice tradition and Nature in the race for modernity.”  His work brings up the question of photography and truth, photography and beauty(in situations of destruction), and photography and power through this critique of the ‘the sublime’ Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 1.44.03 PMScreen Shot 2016-03-27 at 1.45.10 PMScreen Shot 2016-03-27 at 1.46.54 PM

Side Thought: I’m curious about Lu’s choice of presentation, in particular the circle (above).  This curiosity derives from my own use of circles – or on looking through a view that isn’t the traditional square/rectangle format.   I haven’t been able to find any info on his presentation format so wonder what other people think about it. I’m drawn to this work because of the manipulation or eye trickery in relation to landscape, as that is something I’ve been tackling in my current work. *** I asked George and he answered my question – the shape of the image, (whether a circle, scroll, oblong) is Lu referecing again to traditional Chinese painting, like this:Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 2.22.14 PM



Madeline Bunting, “The art of survival: Artists are waking up to climate change. But what good can they do – and how green is their work?”   Bunting’s article highlights a handful of artists whose work speaks to climate change.  Written in 2009, she explains, “Some activists have wondered why the art world has been slow to grasp the significance of climate change, so you could argue that these exhibitions represent a dramatic awakening”.   Tomas Saracenno’s installation, from the exhibition Rethink in Copenhagen & London’s Royal Academy’s EARTH show, is part of this awakening in which he hopes to cause people to “rethink the things you take for granted.”Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 4.52.01 PMCurators are wishing to give people an aesthetic response to climate change, tho issues of beauty are again challenged when involved with catastrophic climate change themes. Bunting uses Bright Ugochukwu Eke’s work, Acid Rain, as an example.  The plastic bags Eke fills and hangs look like a chandelier, bright and playful…however they contain carbon dust which is causing dangerous levels of air pollution in areas of Nigeria. Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 4.53.44 PMScreen Shot 2016-03-27 at 4.53.23 PMArtist Gary Hume talks about the inability to convey fully the world’s dilemmas so he looks to his own life for inspiration.  I’m curious about his work as I think I’m not fully grasping it, it seems unimpressive honestly but am I missing something??Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 7.49.09 PMBut he does bring up an interesting topic about how the people who support his work do the most damage to the world…which would be a great struggle to deal with when one’s work involves environmental consciousness/ impact awareness themes.  Also our own art materials also add to the mess….using resources like paper, chemicals, plastic, etc. all have an impact on the earth’s natural reserves & our changing climate.  Which Keith Tyson brings up with his Nature Paintings – all made with toxic chemicals and all the while causing some visually stunning effects.  Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 7.56.35 PMTyson believes the artist’s role isn’t to advocate solutions, and like Saraceno, believes the more passive power of art is to cause reflection and rethinking.  Others like James Marriott disagree and believe there is a greater sense of purpose to transform and persuade.  Marriott also is concerned with how artists impact environmental issues and the widely unacknowledged carbon footprint of the contemporary art world.  Others still, like Cornelia Parker, find responding to such a huge topic challenging and can reimagine work to fit in with communicating environmental impact themes, or “co-opted into the climate change narrative”  Her piece Heart of Darkness was part of the Earth exhibition, and was not originally conceived with climate change in mind. Yet it works, with the fragments of charred wood from forest fires:

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.20.38 PMScreen Shot 2016-03-29 at 4.21.01 PM


Roslyn Taplin asks the question, “Can and does climate change art crystallize a different subjectivity within viewers?” in her article Contemporary Climate Change Art as the Abstract Machine: Ethico-Aesthetics and Futures Orientation.  Crystallize is an interesting term…to make or become definite and clear…or to persevere.   Taplin believes the “drivers of climate change art has bene the ineffectiveness of recent UN climate negotiation conferences..which have achieved little diplomatic progress.” Scientists and artists are collaborating on projects such as the 10+ year eco-political project Cape Farewell.


Thinking about other works I’ve seen lately that could apply to the conversation, the work of Daniel Beltra came to mind after seeing it recently at Catherine Edelman Gallery.  His artist statement reads:

“The fragile state of our ecosystems is a continuous thread throughout my work. It is in nature’s beauty and complexity that I find my inspiration. My photographs show the vast scale of transformation our world is under from man-made stresses. To capture this, I have found it is often best to work from the air, which more easily allows for the juxtaposition of nature with the destruction wrought by unsustainable development. Aerial photography gives a unique perspective emphasizing that the Earth and its resources are finite.

By taking viewers to remote locations where man and nature are at odds, I hope to instill a deeper appreciation for the precarious balance we are imposing on the planet.”

So it seems he would align with the goal of art activating a rethinking of our impact on the world.

Screen Shot 2016-03-27 at 8.50.25 PMScreen Shot 2016-03-27 at 8.46.57 PM


Photography, Art, Landscape, Nature and the Environment in the 21st Century

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