Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The land-ship and the eye of the pin

Tomorrow I'm giving an artist talk at Westspace as part of the last week of my Studied Natures exhibition. Below is what could be my talk, but i think I will take its essence and chat with whoever comes along....

The land-ship and the eye of the pin

When do we begin to look? Or does the landscape enter the bloodstream with the milk? - Ronald Blythe

We get the word landscape from the Dutch landschap - which loosely comes from the Basque term landa - meaning labored earth, and the Dutch schap - meaning ship. So: Land-ship...

I sort of stumbled upon the cult of landscape in western art. Of course I was aware that it was there, in theory, but I thought of it as a rather static practice - something with a long history which had slowly ground to a halt, to rest.

I grew up by the ocean in an area of NSW with no shortage of grand views and picturesque scenes, and family holidays involved traveling throughout Australia, away from the people and the cities, walking and camping in as untouched environments as could be managed within the school-holiday timeframe. So by the time I moved to Sydney to study music at 18, I was full to the brim of wilderness and ever-changing ocean vistas, and I went and got as urban as I could possibly manage. I sat in lounge rooms, computer labs and recording studios for four years and I ignored the sky.

However. A few years into my art practice, I was plunked in a little highway town called Kellerberrin, in the Western Australian wheat-country. Very flat. Very loud road-trains roaring by late at night. Very big sky. I was there as part of the IASKA residency program, and I was there to make a new-media work about Kellerberrin. Having spent the last three years making interactive installations and audiovisual performances within cities, I thought my work and concerns were all about space and community and how we transact with each other - how we negotiate the city and the evolving (or possibly devolving) role that public space has within the minds of an inner-city population. How we decide where we're allowed to be within the built environment.

But while in Kellerberrin I realized something pretty important to what I thought were my concerns. For me, cities were not actually about the people. And my work wasn't about people. It was about the actual spaces, about the whole organism created by the buildings and the people and the cars and the pigeons and the advertising and the rubbish. The layering of it all. It was about the city as a prism. And it was about landscape in its widest definition. I was aware at this point that I needed to do some serious research. I needed to get a sense of the sociological histories regarding place and landscape and the 'ways of seeing' that put so many different types of lenses over our mind's eye... but at least I knew which way I was pointed, and I stopped trying to be a community-based artist.

I do not pretend to know all that much about the history of landscape and how we, as westerners, see what we see, and much less about landscape and Australian indigenous knowledge, or how certain Maori songs map the open ocean like navigational charts. However I do know that while I was studying music, I had the privilege to learn from Sylvia Entcheva, a noted and incredible Bulgarian vocalist who had immigrated to Australia, and who for several years coached me in traditional Bulgarian singing and technique.

The different regions of Bulgaria have very different melodic structure and style within their vocal music. I learned that in certain parts of the country some songs, like laments, were used in order to warn partisans who were far off in the hills and who couldn’t be communicated with by any other means. This made me think of the high, nasal tones of those polyphonic songs, bouncing off and snaking around the dark mountains to the ears of the distant menfolk. It made me think that, perhaps, some laments were found to be more effective as communication in dire times than others. And it was these laments, these particular combinations of timbre and harmony, which had became subsequently valued for such purposes. Because they literally belonged within that landscape - belonged to it and traversed it, whereas other songs could not...

Landscape and our relationship to it. Us as animals, us as society. Us as a concept. Self as a concept. Self as defined by an attitude that, many anthropologists note, seems to have reared its head as part of the earthquake that was the industrial revolution. The idea of the individual, master of all he surveys, or the contemplative artist, considering the world from a favorable prospect. Victoria Finlay notes in her excellent book on the western history of image making, Colour, that pre 17th century, the depiction of nature was a rather messy business involving unstable and un-portable paints and pigments, and was therefore much confined to the artists studio. Which, of course, made for a very subjective depiction of nature and landscape in general.

As technology improved with such inventions as the mass-produced watercolor set, and more stable and portable paints that allowed the artist to actually get to the landscapes they were depicting, so too did their depictions of nature and landscape morph into a new way of seeing. And this seeing, though self-referential and constantly beset on all sides and packed to the brim by tradition, imperialism, available technology, manifest destiny and the ideology of each decade, continues to reflect back to us what our evolving cultures have chosen to see - ever since we began to look.

The concepts of nature and landscape and wilderness at this point in history are as ambiguous as they are problematic - there is a growing number of writers attempting to grapple with what is variously called 'new nature', 'next nature' and pretty much anything which encompasses the emergence and convergence of nature and human impact. Nature as a concept is a bit battered at the moment, for related reasons. How can one attempt to describe our relationship to nature when nature itself has been pronounced no longer definable? Or maybe it never was, but there used to be, in times past, so much more of it about that we didn't notice this problem.

So all this was quite boggling to me and not even the merest teensy tip of the iceberg that are these concerns. And so, being boggled and swayed and utterly unsure how to intersect with all this reading and history on how my species got along with its surroundings, I decided to come back to first principles as I saw them.

Sunlight. The passing of a day. The weather. All those things intrinsic and seemingly immutable to our world give or take the considerable flux of humanity’s impact. How could I work with some of these things? How could I work towards a relationship with light that allowed me to explore basic natural rhythms? Landscape seemed too big a bite to chew on just yet.

I started here. I haven't got very far past here. But I love it here. I think it's useful.

So I started working with the light on my studio windows, and I started experimenting with different layers of patterning that were perhaps felt and recognized on a fundamental level. Our species' ability to read the patterning of nature has been as important as everything else combined (opposable thumbs, bipedalism, tool making, plastic cheese) to our evolution and endurance as a species. I wanted to explore layering patterns together and to see, through recording the passing of time, what rhythms I got back.

I mapped out the night sky on my windows as pinholes in cardboard. A pinhole star map. It took ages. I planned to do a time-lapse of the afternoon light pouring through the windows, through the pinholes, onto a paper screen set back from the window. To watch as these points of light rotated with the angle of the afternoon sun. A window-shaped planetarium, powered in light and movement by the sun, and the rotation of the earth.

The result of this experiment was partly what I expected, but with an extra, and formidable, aspect. The distance of the paper screen from the pinholes on the window caused a camera obscura to form. Each pinhole became an aperture, projecting as many tiny images of the outside view as there were pinholes onto the screen. And the resulting time-lapse of this phenomenon, of my planetarium composed of thousands of small pictures, revealed not just the motion and intensity of the sunlight through the pinholes. It also recorded the trees, the mountains and the clouds which passed by in miniature - thousands of small pictures, thousands of small worlds. The passing clouds became nebula, streaming from each sun in each pinhole. The light was in constant flux as the day passed, creating an ever-changing universe of tiny worlds that were by turns bright, dark, sharp and indistinct. Rainstorms came through; further distorting the apertures, as the raindrops on the window were larger than the pinholes they passed in front of. I got my rhythms. And I got new questions to add to my old ones. I sat in the dark room, watching the paper screen in front of my window, watching the outside world in multiple miniatures, arranged into the pattern of the night sky that I knew. I cried a bit. Felt a bit bemused by what it all meant.

Later, talking to Claire Conroy, an Australian artist working with pinhole photography (and whom, incidentally, has also done time at IASKA, where I clarified my concerns a little), she had this to say about light, the universe, and everything - "I love the simplicity of the camera obscura. It’s kind of like light whispering to humans. Telling us that as complicated as we make it by capturing it, storing it, projecting it etc, that its beauty and brilliance is simple and has always been there, presenting images to us. It is the source."

My explorations into landscape so far have taught me one thing primarily. One thing that I thought I knew, but that I am re-learning. And it is that I see nature and landscape in a very certain way. A way of seeing partly given to me by my society, by my ancestors, by my place in the world, by the fact that I'm living now, in a comfortable existence unfettered by the extremes of the human condition. I'm not starving and I'm not sick. I have a bed in an insulated house. I have never hunted for a meal. I have never used my feet to traverse large tracts of country, continuously, for days because I needed to. But these things aside, I hope I can continue to learn how to look, and continue to learn how trace the patterns in the landscapes I encounter.

It seems sometimes that our viewpoints are so entirely clouded by experience (or lack of) and weirdly compacted perception that everything is pretty much a simulation of itself and Baudrillard was right. The map is the territory. The real is not. Wilderness is, at best, a romantic and redundant notion, no longer applicable to this planet. However, I'm beginning to think that it is at this point that our notions of place and nature really matter, because, to come back to natural patterning, it is these codified and intertwining systems that say the most important things about, well, everything. Granted, we as a species have made sure there is much less patterning to perceive nowadays, through the way we have impacted, eaten out, concreted over, cut down and otherwise altered so many ecosystems and places, but that doesn’t mean that there are no patterns left.

How the weather works, how it is changing, why it is changing. How various parts of the landscape, before we flattened, subdivided, trashed, and replanted tracts of it, could be read like a topographical calendar. A calendar that revealed what was coming next in the 200-year cycle of that place. So perhaps, in the history of landscape depiction, we have inadvertently created a somewhat tinted record of this planet as we found it (or parts of it) and also a record of how we changed it. A record which, for all its discrepancies and allowances for perception, taste, fashion and strange ideas, almost accidentally reveals fundamental aspects of our natural world which are very important to keep track of...

So that’s my plan. If nothing else, I will continue to keep track of certain natural patterns, certain relationships, and figure out ways to explain them to myself. Perhaps by re-codifying what seems apparent within nature and landscape, I can begin to learn to see a bit clearer. And perhaps the results that I collate can be useful in some way….

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