Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Return of the Vanishing Spectacular Landscape

Last month, one of the world's most important exhibitions for contemporary art commissioned a stunning installation that brought a new immediacy to the questions surrounding the nature and function of the landscape genre in the 21st century.

The work, titled Fatigues, 2012, by British artist Tacita Dean, consisted of six unframed blackboard panels containing images of mountains in Afghanistan exquisitely rendered in white chalk. The floor-to-celing panels were suspended around a two-story staircase of ornate, antiquated design. It was commissioned by the dOCUMENTA 13 exhibition and installed in a former finance building in Kassel, Germany.

Tacita Dean's Fatigues, 2012, for dOCUMENTA 13.

The title I take to refer both to the fatigues worn by soldiers in the war-torn region and to the contemporary art world's disinterest in anything that smacks of traditional Nature-glorifying picture-making in the grand Romantic manner exemplified by the outsize panoramas of the Hudson River School. When nineteenth-century landscapists Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, or Frederick Church exhibited their majestic renditions of the American wilderness, crowds lined up as if for a blockbuster movie. A small group would be let into the exhibition space, and the silk curtains would be drawn back from an enormous canvas to breathless, admiring exhalations. Fatigues was defyingly reminiscent of such dramatic presentations.

Frederick Church's Heart of the Andes as exhibited in New York City in 1864.

But Dean's work has less to do with the sublime grandeur of transcendent Nature than with the nature of landscape painting and art in general. As documented in photographs proliferating online, her panels deny the traditional function of the work of art as a window opening onto a convincing illusion. Instead of the referential (or reverential) colors of oil paint, these landscapes are drawn in black and white with ordinary schoolhouse chalk. (Though just how ordinary white chalk is anymore in these days of digital whiteboards and video projectors is questionable in itself, I suppose).

The stark whiteness of floating peaks and glaciers and amorphous forms and textures suggesting ice and stone project in unnatural contrast to the ghostly deeps of the surrounding space. Some of the panels contain only traces of line, suggesting the movement of rivers, snow, and the interaction of these elements with sunlight. 

I'd be willing to bet that viewing the work in its intended setting was thrilling. Even in the National Gallery, where there's a whole room devoted to Cole's "Stages of Life" series, you don't get to walk up and down between enormous landscapes as if inside a movie.

In fact, Dean's installation began as a Middle-Eastern film project that failed when she returned from Kabul to find her footage spoiled by technical flaws. Best known as a photographer and filmmaker, Dean began drawing in chalk after painting out the backgrounds of photographs, at first using white gouache, and later using black chalkboard paint.

Dean's use of Afghanistan as her subject adds another ripple to the experience. Like the audience for landscape in the nineteenth century, we are "touring" a natural phenomenon charged with meaning. But these are disembodied images, oddly adrift, otherworldly ghosts of a topography that would be beautiful, even sublime, were it permissible or possible to see it free of the inescapable psychological-historical-political  context in which it's framed.

The use of chalk on blackboard panels, an inherently unstable medium (chalkboards are meant to be erased), suggests to me something of nostalgia, the fragility of experience and immateriality of place, as well as the instability and precariousness of our threatened - and actually vanishing - natural world. The incongruous hand-railings with their Victorian metalwork hint at humanity's at times equally frail structures (not excluding the late nineteenth century's short-lived surge of spiritual naturalism).

Paradoxically, even though the absence of colors other than black and white could be intended to undermine landscape's habit of referring to an actual world "out there," here the white chalk is actually quite appropriate for representing the snowy terrain of the subject matter. At every turn, this work contradicts our assumptions, opening in at least two directions: it speaks both to the emotions and to the intellect, and in doing so, raises anew the "question" of landscape painting in the 21st century.

Dean explicitly disrupts landscape painting's referentiality with scrawled handwriting.

That is to say, despite the "meta" aspects of this work, the images carry resonance in themselves, beyond their ostensible purpose as pointers toward a conceptual formulation. And yet, because of the installation's stacked, "surround-sound" arrangement, one views the images from an unsettling point that suggests both distance and proximity. Fatigues works as splendid draughtsmanship, evocative referentiality, political statement, and postmodern conceptualism all at the same time. 

I find the whole thing fascinating for its boldness and depth of thought, its strangeness and its scale, and above all for its unlikely re-invigoration of the experience of landscape in the grand manner.

There's a page with clear, higher-res images of the entire installation right here.