“Memoria del sublime il paesaggio nel secolo XXI” at Museo Villa dei Cedri, Bellinzona
Part of our natural and cultural patrimony, landscape art tells the story of our time: humanity’s relationship with nature, and how architectonic transformations and technological advances have modified the environment we live in, changing the way we perceive it. Landscape also materializes our physical sensations and our spiritual yearnings.
Artists in both the past and the present have viewed it, more than anything else, as a creation of the mind, a fragment of intimacies. Art’s response to urgent environmental questions has been to return to the Romantic perception of nature and, to a degree, to the sense of the Sublime – that form of innamoramento with the world around us, together with an awareness of its fragility and, at the same time, its disquieting power. In our contemporary era, the sublime no longer speaks to us of elevated thoughts and feelings, rather it sets forth the full extent of the existential threat we face, of the fracture in the relationship between humanity and nature. Landscape becomes pure utopia once again.
What is a landscape? Fundamentally symbolic for the Middle Ages, landscape would become an aesthetic experience in the writings of Petrarch, in 1330. In painting, landscape art gained widespread recognition in the 16th Century with Leonardo da Vinci and the Venetian Giorgione. Having become “classical” in the 17th Century with Nicolas Poussin, landscape acquires a nostalgic dimension in the Romantic period – thereby renewing the poetic tradition of Ovid and Virgil. The perception of nature is not restricted to a here and now, to the representation of a portion of the lived, observed world, but is open to a beyond that transcends all human reality. This is the unattainable horizon before which the solitary traveller in Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818, Kunsthalle Hamburg) meditates. Throughout the 19th Century, accordingly, as the march of industrialization leads to a society avid for entertainment and tourism, this cleft between nature and utopia becomes more apparent: nature is no longer merely a resource but becomes a consumer object – the Swiss Alps, the German forest and, later, the exotic landscapes of South America and Africa. These “icons” henceforth are an integral part of the collective imagination and they remain familiar tropes in advertising and the promotion of tourism.
Contemporary artists have responded in their own way to this historical drift, as we see from the works in Julian Charrière’s Panorama (2011–2012) series, from Christiane Baumgartner’s woodcuts of the German forest (Deutscher Wald, 2007), and from Didier Rittener’s engaging collection of drawings Libres de droits (2018–2019). Here, the erasure of the subjects in exotic or continental panoramas lays bare the landscape’s construction mechanisms, by removing a pirogue on a South American river, the shore becomes an unexceptional European lakefront. Furthermore, these views leave no doubt about how the colonization of nature is to be defined and in this sense they resonate uncannily with the views of the Swiss Alps in Stefania Beretta’s Montagne violate (2012) series or those of the “virgin” forest on the island of Singapore in Monica Ursina Jäger’s Shifting Topographies (2018–2019). Marco Scorti’s infinitely adjustable landscapes, like Christiane Baumgartner’s “scarified” forests, expose the full extent of the existential and cultural fracture in the relationship between humanity and nature.
“What began as a rift, in the early 19th Century, had expanded, by the start of the 20th Century, into nothing less than a radical, irreversible breach in the relationship between human beings and nature, and is today a crisis scenario concerning not only nature in itself but also the possibilities for perceiving and representing it.” (Reinhard Spieler, “L’expérience de la nature entre bonheur pur et scénario de crise [The Experience of Nature: from Rapture to Crisis Scenario]”, in the exhibition catalogue).
Nature and artifice
Today, artists not only perceive and conceive the artifice behind any representation of nature but also make it, literally, their subject. Vaud-born Frédéric Clot’s “biotopes” are an eloquent illustration of this: his representations of fruit and plants, interwoven with computer data and governed by a digital aesthetic, are more evocative of a greenhouse in a strange botanical garden than of nature preserved in the wild. It is from this interaction between the scientific and artifice that the contemporary sublime emerges. The photographs shot in the light of the full moon by British photographer Darren Almond, like German artist Mariele Neudecker’s sculptures with their chemical fog, re-establish via technique a link with the Romantic works of Caspar David Friedrich. The blurs and reflections of Axel Hütte’s digitally untreated analog photographs generate pictorial atmospheres that recall not only Friedrich but also J. M. W. Turner. In the landscapes of Quayola’s digital pictures, meanwhile, the line between figuration and abstraction is smeared by means of image analysis software and manipulation by computer algorithms. Quayola’s landscapes become impressionistic, reminding us that the Impressionists were seeking precisely to represent only the pictorial characteristics of nature, or, in other words, colour and time.
It is time indeed that is at the heart of Annelies Štrba’s coloured flowers, a metaphor for nature and the cycle of life; and, likewise, at that of the almost conceptual landscapes of Janaina Tschäpe’s recent compositions – interiorizations of time spent contemplating a landscape. This malleability of the landscape as matter is crucial to any reading of Ester Vonplon’s photographs. With Andrea Gabutti’s waterfalls and their almost expressionistic strokes, we return to landscape as personal experience, a fragment of intimacy. Claudio Moser’s vistas of the Negev desert under the midday sun reconnect the physical experience of a particular landscape with its representation. Finally, the question of time’s fluidity, of the ephemeral, contained in Alain Huck’s work also holds out hope of a reconciliation, of a return to origins “when all the energy of societies and human beings, their bodies, too, will be immersed in the inexhaustible mineral and vegetal elements, matter and air”. And in among the mysteries of mineral matter is exactly where, via a computer simulation, Alain Bogana allows us to conceive a landscape of our own.
At Museo Villa dei Cedri, Bellinzona
Until 4 August 2019