Mark Cheetham, ‘Landscape & Language: from Conceptualism to Ecoaesthetics’ and Mark with Mariele Neudecker, ‘Re-Inventing Landscape Traditions for the Present’

N. E. Thing Co., Quarter Mile Landscape, 1969.

In the late 1960s, the N. E. Thing Co., a Canadian art collective, produced a series of interventions exploring the connection between landscape and language. They set up road signs next to nondescript stretches of countryside with messages like ‘You will soon pass by a ¼ mile N. E. Thing Co. landscape’, highlighting the fact that all it takes to turn mere land into ‘landscape’ is the addition of a short text. Landscape, the signs suggest, is simply where we are directed to look. For Mark Cheetham, speaking on a Monday in early October 2012 in the first of two events on the role of nature in modern and contemporary art, works like these are a stark reminder that our experience of our environment is always culturally mediated. In his talk, he went on to analyse some important recent artworks which approach nature through the medium of language. One early conceptual piece by Richard Long, for example, consists solely of lists of instructions on how to arrange sticks and other natural objects in the gallery. The lists draw attention to the display conventions that ‘tame’ nature when it is brought into the gallery, yet are themselves instances of these conventions (which usually remain unwritten); as such, they reveal the impossibility of capturing nature in a unadulterated form, even when, as with Long’s sticks, it appears to survive the conversion into art raw and unworked.

Mariele Neudecker, I Don’t Know How I Resisted the Urge to Run, 1998, mixed media including water, acrylic medium, salt and fibreglass, 75 x 90 x 61cm (with plinth).

The second event the following day gave us the chance to think further about these issues in relation to the work of artist Mariele Neudecker, who joined Cheetham to discuss the question of how the Western landscape tradition has been reinterpreted in recent art practice. Neudecker began by offering a survey of her career, focusing on particular works which speak to this theme. Characteristic of her thoughtful approach to the landscape tradition are her tank installations: backlit vitrines which contain miniature landscape dioramas submerged in hazy coloured fluid. These eerie, beautiful works reference the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich through their titles and appearance; at the same time, their relationship to this giant of the tradition is not one of straightforward emulation. As Cheetham noted later on, in the way that they demand to be viewed from different angles, and in their refusal to hide their central framing device, the vitrine, Neudecker’s tanks reveal the extent to which Friedrich presents a vision of the northern landscape cut off from time and embodied experience. I agree; but perhaps the tanks’ sensuous and explicitly visual response to Friedrich should also alert us to the fact that – for artists at least – the dialogue with tradition tends to be conducted in aesthetic as well as linguistic or conceptual terms. This can be an uncomfortable fact for art historians, who work within a discipline afflicted by an iconophobia so profound that it often seems more acceptable to look at anything (diaries, archives, inventories, texts, contexts) rather than the artwork itself. Events like this stimulating encounter between an artist and an art historian help us all to see a little further beyond our self-imposed boundaries.



From the very beginning of his lecture, Gáspár Miklos Tamás established that what was to follow would be a stream of consciousness of his thoughts surrounding the abstract question: Can Capitalism Be Pictured? As a key player in the East European dissident movements and currently a professor of philosophy in Budapest, Tamás came across with great humility in his approach.

Having myself attended a discussion dedicated to the memory of a prominent figure in Hungarian politics Václav Havel earlier that same day, one of the key issues that emerged from Havel’s involvement in politics was the issue of time. As a liberal member of the Hungarian parliament during the early 90s, Tamás stepped down from his position in politics in 1994. The time constraints that come with politics were blamed for removing the free time for reading and research, and thus the progression of critical and philosophical thinking. Through quitting politics, does Tamás perhaps feel that he has more time for this mode of thought? It seems clear to me, through his carefully crafted and thoughtful lecture, that Tamás is someone who presents himself and us with a philosophical challenge. A challenge that won’t, or in some circumstances can’t, be answered but instead interrogated with question upon question from all angles.

Tamás attempts to bring to light a crucial problem in art: its attempt to represent capitalism. He argues that ‘bearing witness’ to capitalism has replaced its concept and thus that which operates as abstraction in the real world enters the conceptual. Capitalism becomes a philosophical problem: a concept. Here come the inevitable (and unanswerable?) questions that I promised: ‘Can conceptual entities be reached? ‘and ‘what does picturing them do to them?’ So, can the concept of Capitalism ever be made visible? Tamás uses the (art historically familiar) example of the icon and its issues within transubstantiation: in Christianity, for example, the sign of the cross as replacing the divine and thus its movement toward abstraction.

Tamás says that abstract capitalism is a process, one which operates at the centre of all societies, in that all regimes have elements of capitalism at their core. The difficulty, he argues, is finding its centre and anything structurally that could be used as a tool of repression. This makes it harder to analyse than other regimes such as communism, creating a tension and conflict at its heart.

This lecture is not at all what I expected. I was ready to take clear and concise notes about the relation between art and capitalism. What I got instead was a true insight into the working process of a project from one of the best and most qualified professors in the field and with it an incisive challenge to my own way of thinking. So the question is can capitalism be pictured? Ideally yes, in parallel to itself and to other methods of the conceptual. A difficult and abstract discussion in itself, I can only conclude with the question: can an entire mind-set, a significant element of life, can capitalism be pictured as a piece of conceptual art?