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.
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.