Figuring Landscapes

Article excerpt

'There are no images that can describe the scene,' states Steven Ball in The Ground, the Sky and the Island, 2008, as his video camera bashes against rocks and fleetingly captures a swirling mixture of sky and parched Australian desert. 'The frame is too small,' he explains. 'Take my word for it.' This eulogy to failure, along with many of the pieces shown in 'Figuring Landscapes', a series of screenings at Tate Modern conceived by Ball and Catherine Elwes featuring moving image work from Australia and the UK, is self-consciously placing itself against a prevalent strain in the history of European landscape art that imagined the natural world as intelligible, bounded and ripe for human possession. Thus when Kenneth Clark described Thomas Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750, as an 'enchanting work' with a cornfield that is 'sensitively observed' in Landscape into Art, 1949, in Ways of Seeing, 1972, John Berger countered: the eponymous subjects 'are landowners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions' and, moreover, that this was a view of nature that 'was ultimately determined by new attitudes to property and exchange [which] found its visual expression in the oil painting'.

The most obvious way that Ball sets out to challenge these normative portrayals of landscape is via the simple expedient of selecting a time-based medium. Depictions of nature in painting or print inevitably confer some degree of calm stasis to the setting, while in video everything that was expunged from the original scene by way of sound and movement pours back in with a vengeance; order and certainty are replaced by chance and contingency. The importance of temporality in any experience of nature is emphasised in Scott Morrison's Ocean Echoes, 2007. Created from split-second segments of footage showing swaying grass heads, the movement of the plants is syncopated with a frenetic soundtrack that resembles a mixture of insect and bird calls. As the editing grows ever quicker the images of nature begin to dissolve until all that remains visible is a field of pulsating, abstract blurs.

As Elwes points out in the exhibition catalogue, many Australian artists have eschewed the genre of landscape in recent years since, in a time of continuing legal disputes relating to Aboriginal land rights, non-Aboriginal artists have been hesitant to depict their surroundings lest their gaze is represented as an illegitimate claim of ownership. With this in mind, Bronwyn Platten goes to great lengths to disconnect herself physically from the land in Meeting Nude Woman Walking on Balls (after Hans Baldung Grien, 1514), 2006. She assumes the role of the chastised witch depicted in a 16th-century engraving by the Flemish artist to create a surreal mirage in which a nude white female, supported by walking sticks, teeters awkwardly on balls strapped to her feet while precariously traversing an unforgiving, arid landscape in South Australia. Platten is obviously poorly equipped for the task at hand and her stuttering progress serves as an apt metaphor for the European traditions and taxonomies that proved to be so inadequate in recording and interpreting the Australian landscape.

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Of course not only do the politics of identity and ownership bleed into the aesthetics of any given location, but, increasingly, so do environmental issues as well. …