Landscape Theory

On what grounds do I speak of landscape if the work is not representational? Answering this question might be challenging. I will try to do that using two sources: “Introduction to Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape” by Denis E. Cosgrove and “The Art Seminar” conversation recorded in 2006 at the Burren Cllege of Art, Ballyvaughan, Ireland.

The first work is polemics and response to criticism of the first publication of Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape. While the title immediately positions the book theoretically – “social formation” is a Marxist formulation, this formulation is ”discussed in detail and promoted as a conceptual escape from the tendency within Marxism to subordinate both material and imaginative cultural expressions to the imperatives of political economy” (22). Cosgrove stresses that in all fields of learning the collapse of  confidence in the grand theories or “master narratives” has forced us to recognize that no single, coherent set of theories, concepts and methods can provide a certain and progressive path towards truth.

The author offers a brief glance at the history of the concept of landscape; he attributes the origins of landscape idea to the experience of bourgeois citizens in the Italian city states in relation to land, and to the humanist culture generated out of their experience, paying specific attention to the spatialities connected to new technologies of vision and representation. He also mentions Timothy Mitchell elaborating on Martin Heidegger’s insight that modern societies characteristically represent the world to themselves as a picture and his relating this fact to the West’s “picturing” of other societies and their landscapes. “European male”, the central figure of the progressive narrative of human achievement, was conceived as a universal subject and exercised rational self-consciousness within a ”largely disembodied mind”. The past ”viewers of landscape” were uniformly male, and appear and ”communicate to us as eyes, largely disconnected from any other corporeal or sensual aspects of their being and existence” (24). Changes in the working landscape and in landscape painting … were consistently connected into cultural and economic circuits of the European colonial projects, Cosgrove explains. They may often be read as a cipher for the complex interchanges it entailed. Literary and philosophical debates on landscape mediated individual appreciation. Landscape had “simultaneous appeal” as subjective experience and pleasure and its role in as social expression of authority and ownership. Later on the author mentions “some of the most enduring of Europe’s landscape images … exploring the spatialities and the environmental relations of modern life” (29). 

In the second part of “Introduction” Cosgrove points out that in the book he claimed that from today’s perspective landscape ”resembles a flickering text displayed on a screen whose meaning can be cerated, extended, altered, elaborated and finally obliterated by the merest touch of the button”(32). He says that such virtual landscapes represent the furtherst extension so far of the idea of landscape as a distanced way of seeing: moving beyond even symbolic landscape, in some representations to landscape simulacra. Cosgrove stresses that he is treating “symbolic” iconically, through a Warburgian approach that emphasizes the contextual interpretation of symbolic symbols. “This seems particularly suitable to the idea of landscape as a way of seeing…” (33). Another strong point the author makes further is the connection between landscape and literary hermeneutics: “Various tropes used in rhetoric and literary hermeneutics, such as metaphor, metonym, and simile, are significant not only in understanding literary representations of landscape but in their material construction and their communication of social meaning” (33). Yet another aspect of treating landscape symbolically brought up in this article is treating landscape as a theater. The author insists that “such conceptual elaborations of the relation between landscape and symbolic discourse … indicate the theoretical fertility…of the idea of symbolic landscape”(35). He quotes Kenneth Olwig’s critique of his book which emphasizes the continued significance of landscape as a context for socio-political identity and community action. In the final pages of his “Introduction”, Cosgrove dwells on the social and historical specificities of landscape, touches upon the subject of mythic dimensions of it and explores the concern of rootedness, ideas of home and belonging, of locality and identity, and of the social and environmental dangers of change and modernization.

The idea of ”Art Seminar” – a symposium - came as a realization of the need to have a “cross-section”of opinions, a “reasonable sample, of the degree of coherence of talk about landscape” (88) and its rendering in contemporary society and art. James Elkins and Rachael Ziady DeLue invited a diverse range of scholars and practitioners to take part in the discussion. I will try to  summarize the two discources together in their vision of the role of landscape in life and art and their interconnectedness, the way they appeal to me and to my interpretation of a landscape as I see it in my (still developing and transitional!) practice:

Brief Outline of Various Conceptualizations of Landscape

    1. Landscape as “imbedded ideology”, being “fundamentally engaged with ideology”.

    2. “Body inside landscape” – landscape resists the illusion of an observing subject (69). Like the body, landscape is something we all feel ourselves to be inside (88). + the idea of “scape”, not “scope” – as in German landschaft meaning “partnership”, “collaboration”.

    3. Presence of empathy in landscape: the projection of one’s own consciousness into another being, thing, or place.  

    4. Body and mind: sensuality and desire cannot be ignored in response to landscapes… They are powerful motivation aspects of imagination.

    5. “Rootedness” (38) (and rootlessness) – ideas of home and belonging, of locality and identity, and of the social and environmental dangers of change and modernization.

    6. Myths, aesthetics: the belief deposited deep in myth and memory – that the good, the true and the beautiful, as well as threatening, the awesome and the disgusting, are inscribed in the contours of the land. (37, 90)

   7. Symbolic landscape and treating landscape as theater; conceptual elaboration of the relation between landscape and symbolic discourse. (34)

   8. Landscape as a way of seeing.

   9. Significance of landscape as a context for socio-political identity. (35)

   10. Significance of literary hermeneutics for landscape and its understanding, as well as its material construction.

   11. Significance of new experiences (speed, technology, and aerial view) in an explicit dialogue with the picturesque tradition. (27, 30)

   12. Landscape and identity.

   13. Radical re-conceptualization of the old landscape tradition. (124) As a cure to Romanticism here come:

                                            - indexical abstraction – indexicality and the traces of landscapes,

                                            – installation (presentation)

                                            – land art  (direct intervention in the site)

   14. Landscape in the “predominantly unmappable world” (borderless flow or globalization). (131)

    15. Landscape as “mediated experience” – landscape as “already known”. (137)

   16. Landscape as “animated force”  – cultural or national landscape. (147)

Work Cited:

Ziady DeLue, Rachael, Elkins, James, eds. 2008. Landscape Theory. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.

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