Rethinking the landscape in critical terms.

The New Zealand landscape offers blessings and curses in almost equal measure to those who wish to draw upon it for their work.

In particular for a photographer this land sets many challenges: The relentless glaring light, all highlight or all shadow, never both at once. The boundless vistas, constantly reproduced in calendars, postcards, annual reports, Green Party billboards and beer ads. The seeming perfection of its untouched wilderness and the apparent lack of a human history visible upon it. The sheer number of possible visual clichés available.

In simpler times (pre. the billionth upload to Flickr perhaps) a Robin Morrison photograph of a shining wet road, or a Lawrence Aberhart mountain trailing its korowai of cloud could be made; beautiful responses to the impulse to record this landscape via the lens. It is still a hard thing to resist, this framing of the land through the viewfinder, the wait for the good light, that perfect cloud.

The shine’s gone off it though, for me anyway. I still find walking the land in Aotearoa spell-binding, and making images in response to that feeling for editorial stories or for my journal is engaging, rewarding and fun. But it’s not delivering the goods for this project, although the ideas I am working with do inextricably bind me to place and thus necessitate a tussle with these issues.

As a timely signpost to a possible new direction then I have recently been gripped by Emily Apter’s essay titled “The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats”

(October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd and MIT, herewith referred to as E.A)

It seems to me that in the same way that P.M Lee calls upon artists and art practices to analyse the conveyancing and commodification of art, (P.M Lee, Forgetting the Art World MIT Press 2012) Apter identifies and upholds the “radical pastoral” (John Kinsella, quoted in E.A p22) as a kind of geopoetics. She highlights the morphing of media and environment via globalization, and calls on an “ecologically engaged conceptualism” (E.A p22) that can operate as a “margin of critique inserted in the space where this translation process occurs” (E.A pp23)

Apter defines this critical habitat as “a concept that explores the links between territorial habitat and intellectual habitus; between physical place and ideological force field, between economy and ecology.” (E.A pp23)

I find this proposal hugely powerful and resonant within my own practice; it opens my eyes to the possibility of making work that contains, exploits and critiques the problematic aspects inherent in its own form and content.

Apter goes on to reference William Kentridge, John Kinsella, Andreas Gursky and John Klima in relation to her proposition. Of the four, in relation to this embedding of political critique into the geopoetic, I am most engaged by Kentridge and Gursky.

Kentridge’s works seem to contain the most explicit motifs of political resistance, highlighting as they do the relationship between labour and capital, and pointing out, in his words “the inherent connections between ecology and civil rights” (William Kentridge in William Kentridge London Phaidon Press Ltd 1999 p.108, and extracted from E.A p21) Gursky’s motives seem more opaque; the artist taking a more ambiguous and less overtly critical position in his role as commodity-creator. Gursky’s almost-seamless digital manipulations, Apter suggests, “all serve to intensify the image of nature, and this extreme technological intensification gives nature back an image of itself as visual ideology” (E.A p39)

There are aspects of both positions that I find compelling. While I do not aspire to creating the deadpan poker-face of a Gursky work, I can strongly connect with the way he uses the digital building blocks of the images themselves to subtly subvert their origins, as well as to subvert and mislead the responses of the viewer.

The raw passion and energy in Kentridge’s films are extremely powerful. I enjoy their macabre aspects, the noir palette, the audio and the low-fi aspects of his use of technology. I also relate to the more open and authentic expression of a political position that I think I can access in his works.

I have begun to experiment with some of these ideas and methodologies in my new work. I am already reacting against the more low-fi processes (my slick commercial kneejerk response to anything unresolved getting in the way here) whilst in the other direction I don’t want to disappear into a microcosm of pixel manipulation either. I have a sense that the most useful results will come when I have pushed too far in both directions.

A review of “Forgetting the Art World” by P.M Lee (MIT Press, 2012)

There is something a little un-nerving in reviewing only the introduction of a book; a small internal voice whispers that you have missed the central platform of the argument and thus are making an ass of yourself; if you had only read the entire book you would have understood all.

This anxious feeling is lessened somewhat by the exhaustive nature of P.M. Lee’s dense introduction to her book: “Forgetting the Art World”. And exhaustive it is. My powers of literary cognisance are admittedly a little rusty, and so it took me quite a while to come to grips with the historical and philosophical frameworks that Lee puts in place in the first 22 pages of her introduction. Here she delineates her themes of the “art world” and the “world of the work of art”. She painstakingly sets up a progression of ideas surrounding these concepts, from Danto’s rarefied, heavenly art world floating above the 60’s, through Lawrence Alloway’s writing on art as a system propagated via networks, and on to George Yudice, who describes the fall from Paradise as the “culturalisation of the economy”, a process whereby culture becomes a crucial part of capital. Once she has arrived at this point in art history and in a reversal of Danto’s image Lee appeals for a closer look at the underbelly of the “work of art’s world” from our position below it.

My uptake of Lee’s ideas really takes off from this point on, as she begins to mediate her theories of globalization and art via specific artists and their work.

Lee laces her evocative critical descriptions of Steve McQueen’s films Gravesend and Unexploded with coherent and compelling arguments for their indissolubility from the phenomenon that they themselves interrogate. This, she says, is the crux of the process of art in a globalized “world of the work of art”.

Lee goes on to outline a series of chapters, each utilizing an artist or collective of artists as the prism through which to view these Mobius-like ideas of art as both product and instigator of globalization. At the heart of these themes there is a challenge for any artist engaged with the process of making art, to consider their own place in this endless circularity and co-dependency. Lee asks me to complicate and worry about the relationship between these worlds, and in this introduction extends an invitation to play an active role both as viewer and maker.

In this heightened state of complication and worry I came across a short piece in the February Vanity Fair magazine. (Surely the perfect example of the conflation of culture and capital, and a guilty monthly pleasure.) In this piece, entitled The Diplomacy of Art, and written by Hillary Clinton, we learn about “art as a tool of diplomacy”. The article describes the creation of the Art in Embassies program, initiated by MoMA in 1953 and formalized by J.F.K in 1963. Since then the work of more than 4,000 primarily American artists has been showcased in U.S Embassies and Consulates around the world. Mrs. Clinton’s final remarks are illuminating in the context of cultural capital and the slippery political nature of globalization.  She says:

“Just think about what an exhibition of American and local artists means to someone across the world yearning to express himself or herself.”

This fervent expression of a desire, one that most non-Americans would describe as nostalgic at best, to march metaphorically and artistically into the hearts and minds of the global community, sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the double-page spread group portrait that accompanies it. From the balcony of the U.S State Department in Washington, with a backdrop of a dusky twilight and the Great Seal of the U.S.A, stare out a group of superstar artists; all adorned with gold medals hanging from blue ribbons around their necks, and expressions that range from the severe and the smug to the ecstatic. These artists look like nothing less than war heroes, wearing their spoils from the battle.

An additional layer of frisson is added by the knowledge that this group portrait has been made by Todd Eberle, he who regularly photographs the homes of the uber-wealthy for the same magazine.

In conclusion, I do think it is a bridge too far to stop reading Vanity Fair over breakfast. However P.M Lee has prevented me from doing so in future in quite such a state of blissful mindlessness. Now I think I shall have to read the rest of the book.

Vanity Fair. Feb 2013
Vanity Fair. Feb 2013