Landscape inevitably involves a sense of borderland. That’s the focus of a new exhibition at the Towner. Sarah Handelman visits The Edge in Landscape and reflects on its exploration of the elusive, shifting nature of boundaries.
Situated on Eastbourne’s coast, not far from the dramatic cliffs of Beachy Head, the Towner has often celebrated works and artists, such as John Piper and Eric Ravillious, who investigate and depict the area’s imposing natural landscape. While many of the gallery’s permanent works feature vistas of sea or land, a handful of new acquisitions explore the physical, political and psychological infrastructure of the in-between — the edge where elements meet and all kinds of borders dissolve or take shape.
The Edge in Landscape features the work of four international contemporary artists — Yael Bartana, Mario Garcia Torres, João Penalva and Eugenio Dittborn — and furthers Towner’s ongoing critical dialogue on the transformative power of place.
But new explorations of the changing notion of landscape do not limit themselves to Towner. At Modern Art Oxford, the artist Rachael Champion — who specializes in large-scale constructions — has reframed the gallery café to install an imaginative architectural intervention that illuminates the unseen world of how food is artificially produced. Additionally, Fabrica’s exhibition of basket-maker Anne Marie O’Sullivan’s large-scale hand-woven sculptures highlights the social nuance invoked by environments. Cluster examines how certain landscapes prompt different behaviors among people. And at Turner Contemporary, two exhibitions make distinct investigations of an individual’s place within the natural world: For Horizon (Five Pounds A Belgian), video artist John Smith shot months of footage of Margate’s well known coast from the windows of the Turner. In the forthcoming Marks, Measures, Maps and Mind, choreographers from the Dog Kennel Hill Project will facilitate participatory athletic challenges in the context of a wild forest.
Considering the social context of Google Maps, augmented reality apps and the constantly developing digital paths of social media, the number of current works in the Southeast that explicitly engage with landscape suggest the dramatic coastline is not the only impetus for investigations of environment. Through film, sound, architecture and even the postal service, the works in these exhibitions suggest that globalisation has shifted what it means to understand the reality of place.
Specifically, the works at Towner (recently acquired for the gallery’s permanent collection through Art Fund International) employ a range of media that make sense of landscapes by redefining (and sometimes un-defining) the word entirely. Here, the edge isn’t a place for stopping, but a moment to test limits and jump.
For instance, in conceptual artist Mario Garcia Torres’ My Westphalia Days [Main image, above, 2008. 16mm film. Approx. 15 minutes. © the artist. Courtesy White Cube.], landscape functions as a narrative device that tests limits by actually working within the predetermined parameters of time. The Los Angeles-based Garcia Torres learned that on 21 July 2007, the caravan of conceptual artist Michael Asher disappeared from its space at Sculpture Project Munster only to be found days later in the woods at the city’s edge. Five years on, those AWOL hours have never been explained. Torres’s 16mm film is a studied depiction of what happened, and the actual event’s mystery is replaced by a highly structured filmic landscape within a revisited timeframe. While Garcia Torres “retraces” footsteps, he tells his version. Still, what’s on film is just a possibility — the artist’s take on inscrutable happenings. Westphalia suggests that even when it comes to making sense of true events in real places, landscape on film becomes synonymous with the artist’s point of view. Garcia Torres has written out the route. His camera angles have been planned. He has edited scenes to shrink time, to distort what we see and how we see it: A long shot captures the caravan driving at dusk on an empty tree-lined road towards the curve ahead. For a moment it disappears. Then another edited frame follows, revealing the edge we saw is not the end; The curve leads elsewhere. My Westphalia Days argues that single landscapes bear many truths. Even when the camera isn’t turned on, the edges of our physical and psychological geographies are constantly edited. Ultimately, Garcia Torres’ has presented his version of a story on the edge of a narrative landscape that has been remixed — not for the sake of accuracy, but for the good of a fiction he wants to tell.
João Penalva, The roar of lions, 2007. © João Penalva. Courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London
This mashup of appropriated perspectives drives the two other filmic works on display at Towner. Portuguese artist João Penalva’s The roar of lions is a 37-minute unedited film set on the Grunewald, a popular frozen lake in Germany that doubles as a bucolic leisure spot for the area’s affluent neighborhood. The film captures local residents as they laugh and teeter across the ice. But the friendly buzz of interaction soon meets the voice of a single unknown narrator who leads the viewer into a suspenseful account of his slowly terrifying interaction with local authorities. Overlaid subtitles infuse the otherwise peaceful landscape with an ominous tone. And the purpose-built cinema-style seating conjures feelings of seeing thrillers in movie theatres, where audiences can’t help but watch from the edge of seats. Like Torres, Penalva uses landscape to instigate a narrative, but while Torres’ retracings attempt to add certainty to an uncertain phenonmenon, Penalva’s work employs different media to manipulate a mood: Penalva sets out to prove (and does so) that even things as certain as freezing points are never what they seem. “Everyone is pretending but everyone knows,” says the narrator when he describes an extensive interrogation with the police. “They can’t see it.” Visually, the film depicts life’s simple pleasures; yet those are not what is conveyed. Instead, viewers are left hanging on the subtitles of a dark story rather than the images behind them.
Harvest, Rachael Champion 2010. Copenhagen Place, London. Wheat, barley and buckweat grass, mosaic tiles, oil, tarpaulin.
The roar of lions considers how place evokes seemingly disconnected this’ and that’s — a memory, a history, a story — and what pushes people to breaking points. Words and pictures form a place where nothing can be taken as it is — a sentiment echoed in the other works on display and also in Rachael Champion’s Dual Spectrum Subsistence 2012 at Modern Art Oxford, where an immersive, site-specific experience that investigates food-growth in artificial environments —and fuel Penalva’s masterful of investigation of when we start and stop believing.
Yael Bartana, Summer Camp, 2007. © the artist. Courtesy Sommer Contemporary Art, Israel.
Similar to Penalva’s work, Israeli video artist Yael Bartana’s Summer Camp comprises another purpose-built installation that remixes sound and documentary footage of the Fourth Summer Camp (2006), an effort by the Israeli Committee Against House Demotion to build a house in a Palestinian village destroyed by Israeli forces. Here, Bartana extracts events from their original context to reimagine a charitable event as spectacle. Shots feature majestic orchestral scores of yore alongside rolling cement mixers. Close-ups of muscular men echo the heroic images of early Zionist propaganda. Still, Summer Camp maintains a cheeky edge: tightly cropped frames of men and women smoking cigarettes pulse to the beat of unidentifiable rock music. Summer Camp’s grainy, collaged aesthetic lends it a relatable quality so that the work reads more like a Youtube video gone viral than the failed national project that took place. Through the satire of remixed sounds and images, Bartana suggests that the ongoing political tension — both deconstruction and reconstruction — on the Israeli-Palestine borders is rarely shaped by the people who live there. Nothing is as simple as a good deed, and everyone maintains distinct agendas. Even in the midst of crossing boundaries, borders remain environments for pushing paper, and attempts to abolish the in-between yield more extreme, even laughable, protocols.
It’s impossible to ignore that three of the four works on display use film as a main investigatory medium. Their prevalence suggests the often one-sided nature of interactions with landscape: Technicalities of filmmaking enable the auteur to revisit, retrace and remix contemporary and historic moments to shape seemingly objective geographies into entities of a personal gaze — landscapes and the edges of landscapes become whatever he chooses to make them. Although John Smith’s film Horizon at Turner Contemporary conveys months of surprising changes across the sea’s landscape, the artist still determines how the sea is viewed — even looking out the window at a wild vista states a controlled point of view.
Yael Bartana, Summer Camp, 2007 – installation at Towner 2012. © the artist
It’s impossible to ignore that three of the four works on display use film as a main investigatory medium. Their prevalence suggests the often one-sided nature of interactions with landscape: Technicalities of filmmaking enable the auteur to revisit, retrace and remix contemporary and historic moments to shape seemingly objective geographies into entities of a personal gaze — landscapes and the edges of landscapes become whatever he chooses to make them.
Nine Survivors, Three Stains Airmail Painting No. 182, Eugenio Dittborn 1986 – 2011. © the artist. Courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York
At Towner, however, the most successful work departs from the screen. South American artist Eugenio Dittborn’s work takes the form of three sets of mixed-media panels that the artist mailed from his home in Chile to the curators of Towner. Under Chile’s strict military dictatorship, Dittborn began posting his large-scale works in segments to bypass the authoritarian regime and still gain an international audience. The three pieces at Towner illuminate the levels of landscape that inform Dittborn’s process and subject matter. The works — which Dittborn makes using printing, lithography, painting and sewing techniques — depict Chile’s geopolitical climate through a variety of sourced material. The artist’s personal images sit alongside bureaucratic documents and more general ephemera. Mugshots, self-portratis of institutionalised patients and the drawings of children work in tandem to illuminate the complexities of social boundaries. Displayed alongside the panels are their corresponding envelopes. These packages are as significant as the artworks themselves — in transit, they contain the physically realised desires of an artist attempting to understand, manipulate and at times control his own landscape. Yet they also function as artefacts that have born unknown uncertainties of par avion.
Eastbourne, Harold Mockford 1958. Towner Collection
While the three other works presented in The Edge in Landscape present a trio of well-edited perspectives, Dittborn makes sense of the fraying edges of landscape by relinquishing his control to the countless physical, social, political and infrastructural borders between him and his viewer. In doing so, he embraces the uncertainty of every kind of geography — not to change landscapes for himself, but to participate and play within them. These immersive explorations of known and unknown places also reveal themselves in Towner’s retrospective of the modern Sussex-based painter Harold Mockford, whose works include several abstract birds-eye landscapes of the Eastbourne coast that feature a “Long Man” juxtaposed against the natural elements. In Eastbourne, 1958, Mockford (who has admitted he likes to “know what’s around the corner”) blends the ghost-like figure into chalky white rock. Interestingly, the effect reads as an early supposition of the Google street view guide.
The Edge in Landscape, along with several other exhibitions in the Southeast makes an urgent, relevant argument to not only reflect on the junctions of more conventional geographies but to consider the shrinking space between the digital and physical, reality and fiction. While none of the works on display mention the Internet’s role in border-shifting, the pieces are ultimately contemplative studies on the elusive nature of control. By exploring and often exposing the places that are just out of reach, The Edge in Landscape ultimately suggests that there is no definite end to an environment. The physical cliffs, fly zones and frames per second exist as self-inflicted borders that help, hinder and sometimes completely change what’s out on the horizon.
Harold Mockford, Towner, Eastbourne, 13 July – 30 September 2012
Dual Spectrum Subsistence 2012, Rachael Champion, Modern Art Oxford, 23 June – 16 September 2012
Horizon (Five Pounds A Belgian), John Smith, Turner Contemporary, June 1 – June 17 2012
Cluster, Annemarie O’Sullivan, 7 July – 27 August 2012