Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 11, 2011
Emerging Landscapes: Between Production and Representation.
University of Westminster
London, United Kingdom
June 25–27, 2010
College Art Association.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “emerge” as: “to come forth into view . . . from an enclosed space.” This definition has implications for the study of landscapes, especially those of the productive English countryside. Tidy patchwork fields and hedgerows have come to be regarded as quintessentially—and innately—English. However, what is not necessarily part of this perception (even though it has long been studied by historians, geographers, and archaeologists) is how such a renowned topography quite literally emerged from systematic enclosures over the past few hundred years. In other words, the English landscape as it is perceived today is the direct result of an aggressive and highly politicized parcelling of the land that began in the late medieval period and gained momentum following the Restoration. Until the fifteenth century, much of England was common pasture, fens, and forests; but by the middle of the nineteenth century, with the passing of the parliamentary “Inclosure Acts,” the countryside was wholly re-envisioned as a landscape of enclosures, largely articulated through hedges (W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape, rev. ed., London: Hodder and Stougton, 1955, 143–48).

The medieval and even Roman and prehistoric landscapes of England have not completely vanished, but seeing them requires effort. Advancements in aerial photography and geographic information systems have greatly improved the “visibility” of such topographies. However, observing these landscapes is sometimes a matter of mindfulness. They are present, yet they do not always attract attention. They thus invoke another of the OED’s definitions for “emerge”: “to come forth from obscurity.” Whereas some places are deliberately planned as landscapes, others only emerge as such through a reappraisal or shift in perspective. Increasingly it seems as though what constitutes a contemporary landscape is a mixture of these two orientations—between the calculated and the newly revealed. In light of this, the Emerging Landscapes conference organized by the University of Westminster, London, could not have been more timely.

The overarching theme of the conference was the critical reassessment of the contemporary landscape, particularly in reference to the correspondence or relationship between its production and representation. Initially, the reciprocity between photography and architecture was identified as the main avenue for investigation, but the conference outline eventually widened to encompass many disciplines, from film and fine art to urban planning, geography, and sociology. With so many voices it was often difficult to find a common language for negotiating some key recurring questions: How are contemporary landscapes characterized? In what ways are they inhabited? What might landscapes become? Nevertheless, Emerging Landscapes owed its success to the diversity of its contributions. The wide range and breadth of research presented ensured ample space for these main questions to develop and evolve.

A leitmotif of the conference was margins—of cities and countries, but also of time and even consciousness. In the first keynote address, entitled “Milan,” the photographer Gabriele Basilico discussed his widely acclaimed work on the often overlooked industrial outskirts of the northern Italian city. However, he also spoke at length about war-ravaged Beirut. While his images offer a portrait of the city as a ruin, the series could also be interpreted as an investigation into the condition of aftermath as a situation or episode. Beirut eerily hovers between the raw horror of armed conflict and the imminence of further, undisclosed change. It is left to the imagination whether this change will be slow decay or reconstruction. The subject of outskirts was continued and expanded in the second keynote talk, “The Margins of Vision,” which was given by Christophe Girot (ETH Zurich). Girot confronted the present-day problem of relegating landscapes to the peripheries of the contemporary world. Arguing that the historic models of reference, in particular the Picturesque, are no longer viable in an age of mass urbanization and globalization, he proposed redefining perceptions of nature. How are the margins brought to the forefront? Video is one medium that changes ways of looking at the landscape. Because film and video capture not just images but also sound, social interaction, and, most importantly, movement, they have the potential to reveal “new myths” of the contemporary landscape. Whether or not one shares Girot’s enthusiasm for video as a research tool, his lecture seemed to confirm a collective unease toward the traditional archetypes of landscape design. This was echoed (often indirectly, sometimes more pointedly) in several conference papers, many of which sought alternative ways of perceiving landscape. For instance, the session on “Informational Landscapes” explored how emerging technologies, such as micro-sensors, can not only help record and represent environments but also cultivate entirely new landscapes. Furthermore, many sessions included photographers who offered their own “perspectives from practice.” For some, this seemed literally a case of shifting perspective. In his aerial explorations of development in the U.S. Southwest, photographer Michael Light characterized his approach as “jumping into” the country. Fergus Heron (University of Brighton) also called for a repositioning of perspective, both in a literal and figurative sense. His photographs of (empty) shopping malls are taken from vantage points that are unattainable to the casual visitor, while asking how monumentality can coexist with the “unremarkable.” The images appear to hover, almost like an eye of omniscience—not in the guise of surveillance, but instead as the ability to know the mall beyond its banal typicality. Other papers sought to question or subvert deep-seated assumptions about how landscape is interpreted. For example, Martin Newth (Camberwell College of Arts) challenged the orthodoxies of the English Picturesque tradition by examining the countryside through the “lens” of WWII pillbox bunkers.

When the conference had seemingly reached the point where an obituary for the Picturesque seemed inevitable, Jonathan Hill (The Bartlett, University College London) delivered his keynote address, “Weather Architecture,” in which he called for a redemption of the tradition. Through a considered reflection on John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and J. M. W. Turner’s London studio, Hill explained how the Picturesque attended to important themes, such as mortality, history, and, notably, the environment. Because this tradition aligned with topics such as the seasons and the senses (and hence the weather), the places it qualified were never static, but always emerging and forever changing. From this stance, the Picturesque is seen not so much as a formal model for construction that is fixed to a particular historical period, but instead as a sensitivity toward the surrounding world and its manifold processes—time, temperature, narrative. Is it possible, therefore, to recast the role of the Picturesque within contemporary landscape studies? Can it help the invisible yet constantly present conditions of the environment rise into notice? These two questions formed the crux of the final keynote lecture for the conference. In “Landscape Stories,” Stephen Daniels (University of Nottingham) described how landscape is essentially episodic: it has the capacity to embody a range of stories and encounters imaginary and historical, personal and political. These accounts almost always overlap, and they allow landscape to be participatory. They literally tell-time. Looked at another way, this argument seems to reclassify landscapes: rather than adhering to or following historical design typologies, the places themselves become archetypal narratives. Picturesque conventions, in particular the desire to paint time—of day, of weather, of inhabitancy and industry—can perhaps allow the stories of contemporary landscapes to be uncovered. Judging from the number of papers that sought to characterize and negotiate place through narrative, this (reconceived) historical convention may be gaining currency. In hindsight, narration was another central theme of Emerging Landscapes, informing topics as varied as the indigenous landscapes of Australia and New Zealand (Jillian Walliss, University of Melbourne), to a “walking memorial” in Berlin (Elissa Rosenberg, University of Virginia and Technion University). The paper given by Jennifer Swanson (Syracuse University) explained how one landscape (southeastern Utah) is caught in the crossfire of many competing and often fiercely conflicting narratives, from Navajo origin stories and Mormon scriptures to the appeals of environmentalists.

At times, the sheer diversity of perspectives and topics discussed at Emerging Landscapes seemed to amount to a collective identity crisis. A considerable number of speakers likely left the conference with more questions than when they had arrived. Others were compelled to reconsider ideas they had previously accepted with certainty. It must not be overlooked that the word “landscape” today shoulders a sense of ambivalence. It is as though it has yet to be disentangled from historical precedents and located within the present situation. It was particularly telling that many references were made throughout the conference to Timothy O’Sullivan, the pioneering survey photographer. In addition to addressing different scales of time in his subject matter, O’Sullivan himself also confronted established paradigms, in particular the legacies of landscape painting.

Some participants noted the conspicuous absence of gardens in the conference’s papers as well as in its overall themes. Indeed, there were no sessions dedicated to gardens at Emerging Landscapes, but it is important to mention the inclusion of one particularly iconic garden. Toward the end of his lecture Hill explored the enduring poignancy of the late Derek Jarman’s house and garden. Situated on a shingle bank at the edge of the English Channel in Dungeness, Kent, Prospect Cottage is both a garden and a landscape. Hill at one point described the property as a visual metaphor for anger. On one hand, the garden could be interpreted as a prospect in the sense that it anticipated the death of its owner and creator. This is underscored by both the proximity of the coast and the unstable, even hostile conditions of the land. Yet, Prospect Cottage also affords a view onto a site that is so unprepossessing and threatening it is almost sublime: Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. The juxtaposition between the two is startling. Without any formal limits, the house’s plantings spread into the surrounding terrain, blurring the boundary between garden and landscape, private and public, and tradition and innovation. Consequently, a place like Prospect Cottage is perhaps ideally suited to reassess not only contemporary landscapes but also the many current meanings of landscape.

Samantha L. Martin-McAuliffe
College Lecturer in History and Theory of Architecture, School of Architecture, University College Dublin