A Letter from London

This text was delivered at the Figuring Landscape Symposium accompanying the exhibition at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery in Sydney

Greetings to you all from London. We sincerely wish that we could be with you in person, to take part in what will undoubtedly be a vibrant and wide-ranging discussion.

Can we begin by extending our warmest thanks to Margaret and her team at IDG and everyone at COFA who has helped to stage Figuring Landscapes in such an illustrious setting. The show is still touring to eleven venues across the British Isles and includes galleries and cinemas in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, making it a truly Celtic tour. Many of the venues have staged public discussions and symposia and at Showroom in Sheffield, Figuring Landscapes is being linked to the Australian Film Festival.

At Tate Modern, the screenings drew in the crowds and we were lucky to have many of the artists present including John Gillies, John Conomos, Lyndal Jones and Dominic Redfern who made the trip from Austalia. They envigorated what proved to be a fascinating panel discussion on the final day and we thought it might be useful to pick out just a few of the themes that arose and some opinions expressed in the reviews coming out of the UK tour.


All the Time in the World - Semiconductor

When we talk about landscape in the context of moving image, we reach beyond the visible world. So said Ruth Gerhard from Semiconductor who went on to explain that the landscape of the UK is a phenomenon in a constant state of flux. Through their intricate geomorphic animations Semiconductor reveal geological shifts that take place over very long periods of time. Their work echoes the observations of the geographer Doreen Massey who sees the landscape as mutable and changing both as a social space and a material entity. The migration of populations transform the landscape and as she said, 'even the rocks are on the move'.


Petrolia - Emily Richardson

These environmental mutations are also evident in Emily Richardson's time-lapse studies of a vanishing oil industry in Scotland and William Raban's condensed journey to the coast from the capital.


Lake George (After Mark Rothko) - John Conomos

John Conomos extended the theme of excavating imperceptible aspects of landscape by describing himself as “...a needle, a stylus cutting into the landscape, opening it up and letting a meditative discourse come across, as well as the ideological formations of constructed landscape in the last 2 or 3 hundred years of Australian culture.” When a member of the audience suggested that landscape was an inherently conservative form, tied to Romantic European traditions of painting, Conomos countered that, with what he called a "contrapuntal or marginal sensibility", it is possible to reanimate a moribund tradition and to "smuggle contraband ideas into old-established genres". For him, a new landscape art can act "...beyond the cultivated zone; beyond the law of genre"


Mandu - Jeff Doring

It was important in the context of the UK to emphasise the specific historical and political realities of the Australian landscape in relation to Aboriginal land rights and in the case of Jeff Doring's Mandu, to explain to a London audience that his 'word films' are part of an ongoing legal initiative to establish Aboriginal precedent in contested tracts of land.


Political Landscape - Ann Donnelly

We were able to link these issues of land ownership to Ann Donnelly's work Political Landscape, which traces the history of dispossession of the Irish people by the British and what she called the 'mighty territorial struggles' that have raged for hundreds of years across the water from the British mainland.


Meeting Nude Woman Walking on Balls (after Hans Baldung Grien, 1514) - Bronwyn Platten

It was Bronwyn Platten who made a moving contribution to the discussion of colonialism. In Meeting Nude Woman Walking on Balls (after Hans Baldung Grien, 1514) Platten performed her painful naked walk across what Mary Clare Foa in her Vertigo review described as a "...traumatised Australian landscape". For an Australian of European descent, this symbolic act expressed much of the guilt of the white coloniser. “The landscape was very foreign...” Platten said in discussion “...and the sense of foreignness and not belonging in that landcape was deepened by the injustice which the Aboriginals have suffered.” Platten confessed that she had not sought permission to make her intervention into the landscape but added “I hope the elders will be understanding of my inappropriate behaviour in that it was done with love, to want to improve something of the understanding between us. And also to reawaken the shame I feel and that's a very awkward guilt and shame to hold.”


Divide - John Gillies

The experience of white settlers was raised by John Gillies when he described his film as “...very much a white fella's story...”. Divide, features a group of drovers herding their animals across the country looking for pastures that will bring them in a good yield to feed the burgeoning weaving industries of Manchester in the 1840s. These appropriations of indigenous lands nonetheless left the colonisers in “...an uneasy relation with the landscape around them”.


Noel - Lyndal Jones

Lyndal Jones confirmed that sense of unease and described an ongoing “...struggle with indigenous issues and white issues with regard to the land.” In her case this takes the form of a renovation project that is sensitive to the cultures of indigenous residents as well as that of more recent settlers, whose experiences are reflected in Noel the work she contributed to the show. Jones ended her talk with the more positive view that “...we are at the point of understanding something deeper about the land - that we are all simply part of it.”


Days Like These - Mike Marshall

It was two of the British artists who discussed more formal concerns with landscape. Mike Marshall, whose Days Like These, reveals a classic English garden being rhythmically bisected by a water sprinkler, talked about the flatness of the image that he created. The garden looked almost as if it were stage-lit and, as he said, “...it is the activity [of the sprinkler] that casts depth into space through movement”. Marshall is also interested in the way perception is informed by memory, by remembered landscapes as well as those projected into the future. Marshall believes that we sense depth as well as perceive it and “once we can sense depth in a space and we do sense it, it becomes the ground for action.”


Downside Up - Tony Hill

The ground, or the loss of grounding is a theme that was discussed in relation to Tony Hill, whose Downside Up is a vertiginous journey through a series of English landscapes. Hill reminded us that he made the film some 20 years ago and the work “was more of a perceptual piece as well as a home movie. It was dealing with how gravity influences the way we see the world, landscape in particular.” The work was made by means of a crane that transported the camera smoothly through 360 degrees. In this way, the work “...releases you from gravity and allows you to see this plane that we are stuck to for ever, in a slightly different way.”


Farms of Innocence - Anna Cady

Like both Jones and Hill, Anna Cady is engaged in a home movie landscape practice. She explained that it is through the microcosm of the garden that a wider reading is made possible. Steven Bode spoke eloquently to her video Farms of Innocence: “It is for us to tend our garden” he said “and make our relationship with nature. We can harness that singular mode of address that video possesses. It isn't cinematic, but more domestic and brings with it a kind of virtue, a sensible relationship with nature and landscape.”


Heat - Dominic Redfern

It was here that the issue of climate change and ecology came up and Steven Bode wondered whether this was driving what some have hailed as a resurgence of landscape art, predominantly in the moving image. Some of the work in Figuring Landscapes confronts the issue head on as in Esther Johnson's film essay on coastal erosion in Yorkshire and Mike Latto's recording of night-time dredging and the shoring up of beaches further along the south coast. An example from Australia would be Genevieve Staines' Ruins in Reverse in which she digitally removes Brisbane from its verdant surroundings enacting what David Berridge called “...a form of virtual ecological restoration.” Such direct references to the effects of global warming are rare in this collection of works, but Dominic Redfern argued that “...even if there isn't a direct impetus from climate change in artists turning back to the landscape, then it is at least an effect of it.” He reflected on Miwan Kwon's notion of 're-particularising' the landscape. In his case, by means of a series of close studies of nature with no horizon. At a time of globalisation and what he described as 'a disturbing degree of sameness' in urban spaces, Redfern recommended that we should “...alert ourselves to the importance of places...” and “...learning what is particular to an individual place is certainly one strategy that can be mobilised in an environmental context.” Redfern's view positively reinforces Doreen Massey's insistence on the importance of place because, as she says, “...it is the dimension of the social: it presents us with the existence of others.”


The Ground, the Sky, and the Island - Steven Ball

The existence of those with whom we share the planet is evident in many of the works in the show. Steven Ball mobilised the authorial voice-over mapping a journey across the Australian landscape, which he described as addressing “...the impossibility of the image successfully representing that place and at the same time I talk about the experience of being in that place.” David Berridge contended that Ball and others are portraying ...“an image coming to terms with its own impossibility. In doing so they make an invitation not to read the images but to measure ourselves against then.” Others used what Berridge has identified as a performative strategy. “For these artists...” he wrote, “...conceiving and performing an idea is a laboratory for acting out contradictory tensions in the history and experience of landscape itself. Viewed from an ecological perspective, such temporary labs also emphasize the physical limits and inevitable failure of the human body.”

A member of the audience challenged the panel claiming that the term landscape might be redundant in view of its limited capacity to simulate the actual experience of being in the landscape. He also commented that with the extraordinary diversity of approaches in Figuring Landscapes the term landscape was straining to contain all the work under a single rubric.

Steven Ball replied that it was perhaps as pertinent to focus on the term 'Figuring' as the word 'Landscape' since the show is an attempt to figure out what landscape can mean, culturally and politically in contemporary moving image. The anthropologist Stan Frankland was interested precisely in those signs of strain and tension. “Today I was overwhelmed by the sense of distortion coming through...“ he said “...and hearing everyone speaking, I perceive a sense of unease and a sense of loss and discomfort with the landscape. Everything that I have seen has avoided a standard way of looking at the landscape. What we get are multiple possibilities of the ways we all engage with the landscape around us, continually. And while we live, I can't imagine a day in which the landscape won't be critical to all forms of artistic representation. We have the presence of the Aborigines haunting this exhibition, and their specific engagement with the landscape in very radical ways. Classic ways of relating to land in Mandu, but also Destiny Deacon's very different take on the land, so that it is hard to talk about an aboriginal view of the landscape with any sense of certainty. And this lack of certainty and of being on uncertain ground is something we can take positively from the show.”

We will leave you with these last words from Stan and apologise for only scratching the surface of the discussions that took place in the UK iteration of Figuring Landscapes. We know that many more issues will emerge during the symposium and we look forward to learning more from you all in due course.

with very best wishes,

Cate and Steven