contextual study: tracing changes in landscape art

(image: “The Nature of Balancing, Port Clyde and Me” 1979, Mary Beth Edelson). researching for my contextual study, i am reading through what Rebecca Solnit has to say about landscape in “As Eve Said to the Serpent” (2001). here she traces the relationship of landscape, gender and art.

“a new landscape” in contemporary art: in her chapter “Elements of a New Landscape” (2001, p.45 – 62) Solnit argues that artists today are reevaluating their relationship to the land and landscape; changing the notion of landscape as an irrelevant and romantic idyll in premodern art, to a place of battle for contemporary artists and times (p. 45). Solnit traces the linking of landscape in premodern art to the female body and nature, as opposed to the linking of men to culture and the mind. modern artists saw the rural, natural landscape as passe and were more interested with urban culture and its social problems. today, contemporary artists view landscape as more than scenery but as the spaces, places of systems we inhabit (p. 47). instead of changing the landscape being explored, contemporary artists change their attitudes to the landscape that always existed – a ‘new landscape’ at both micro and macro level consisting of landscape, nature and biosphere.

landscape and time: landscape always seems to suggest a time past; a lost pastoral ideal, an eden, a time and place before change, a longing, a nostalgia. landscape as pastoral suggests a purity and contrasts urban corruption (p.48). landscape also links to cyclical time, the changing of the seasons against the linear time of progress and modernity. here gender and the female body suggests itself; cycles of fertility, creation and recreation. also suggested is the linking of the female body to things tangible and material rather than ephemeral and cognitive (p. 50). landscape also suggests time of the future; a way of exploring the possibility of life on earth, how it can be controlled and improved for the future, through technology and as a platform for exploring environmental concerns.

landscape and substance: having traced the linking of landscape to origin, material and femininity (p. 51), Solnit argues that these associations assumed a certain passivity in nature, matter and woman as a neutral ground to be inscribed (p. 51). this opens up a binary between passive and active, male and female, body and mind, subject and object (p. 52). contemporary artists, in shifting their relationship with landscape as a system of substances all around, understand substance as the bearer of meaning instead of formed for meaning. landscape as substance has an inherent meaning rather than needing a meaning inscribed upon it.

landscape and gender: feminists have sought ways to challenge the representation of women along binary discussions of subject and object, passive and active, body and mind etc. Citing the work of Ukeles, landscape a system of activity provides a way of connecting and the symbolic and the real; of women, women’s work, women’s place and women’s body (p.55).

landscape and metaphor: we have inherited metaphors that suggest and compound binary oppositions; nature and culture, passive and active, personal and political etc. within all metaphors there are substructures that blur binary divisions leading to assertions, with feminists arguing that the personal is political or that landscape is both geographical and psychological or participation is a form of witness or indeed vice versa (p. 56). Solnit describes how contemporary artists work with landscape and its already existing language of metaphors, sometimes unstable and contradictory rather than imposing and consistant or creating new meaning and metaphor upon it.

landscape, artmaking: in performance art, body is geography/landscape, subject is object, culture is nature (p. 57). in contemporary art, landscape photography has also become more than documentation, image and picture but, instead, has become installation and performance often with the inclusion of a landscape’s substance, thus blurring the lines between landscape as substance and as representation. landscape installation art does not just represent a landscape but creates a landscape of sensations for the body; the language of the real world (p. 61). environmental art also shifts from landscape as representation and about the environment. to quote Solnit “Either way, the art recognises that crucial changes in the landscape begin with changes in the way we think about it – change begins in the mind” (p.62).

further research: Solnit mentions some artists that i am familiar with in relation to landscape and body – Ana Mendieta and Richard Long. other artists that i am not as familiar with include Mary Beth Edelson and Judy Dater which i will look into.

Click to access WomensArtJournalComplete.pdf

Reference: Solnit, R (2003) As Eve Said to the Serpent, On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.







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