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.

Toshio Watanabe: Ryoanji Garden as the Epitome of Zen Culture

Ryoan Ji, Kyoto zen garden

The final lecture in the 2012 Frank Davis Lecture Series was given by Prof Toshio Watanabe, from the University of the Arts, London. At its centre was an extraordinary object, the Ryoanji Garden in Kyoto, regarded as one of the finest examples of the Japanese Zen garden. As we discovered in Prof Watanabe’s fascinating lecture, Ryoanji’s canonical status is a more complicated affair than the garden’s antiquity might suggest.

I have, I confess, very little knowledge of Japanese dry gardens, and the lecture slides filled me with a mixture of wonder tinged with bafflement. In the everyday meaning of the term, Ryoanji is scarcely a garden at all: it’s a rectangle of raked shingles, in which a small number of rocks have been significantly placed; the only vegetation is small patches of moss forming islands around these mysterious objects. The garden’s history, in Watanabe’s account, only adds to its strangeness: its designer is unknown, and it was constructed at some point between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries (recent scholarship favours the later date). Its austere beauty, as part of the Ryoanji temple complex, clearly suggests a contemplative purpose, though the ritual or symbolic intent of its authors remains a matter of scholarly conjecture.

The subject of the lecture was not the history of Japanese gardens – though I would have been happy enough to sit through that. Watanabe’s theme was the creation of canons, a process that results, in Ryoanji’s case, in 300,000 visitors a year. It turns out that the origins of this pilgrimage are not lost in the mists of time, but can be specifically dated to the inclusion of Ryoanji in guides to Japanese gardens from the 1920s onwards. The key turning point was 1935, when the American author Lorraine Kuck linked the garden to Zen Buddhism in her book One Hundred Kyoto Gardens – previous scholars had been more circumspect in their claims, if they mentioned Ryoanji at all. The lecture then sketched out the progress toward Ryoanji’s present-day mythic status, passing through American transcendentalism (five million copies of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), the Tokyo Olympics of 1964,  and the works of John Cage. At some point along the way, Kuck’s speculative theory of Ryoanji’s Zen credentials became hardened into certainty.

The joy of Prof Watanabe’s lecture was that it spoke, with great clarity, to a fundamental issue in the history of art. How do works of art enter the canon, and what does this inclusion signify? A simple appeal to artistic quality is, clearly, inadequate: works may be elevated or ignored for all kinds of contingent reasons. Watanabe did not suggest that we can do without the canon – it’s basic to cultural value systems, and to the creation of interest groups – only that we should be aware of the complex power relations that underlie them. And that, as the Ryoanji example perfectly illustrated, historians need on occasion to follow received wisdom back to its original sources.

Derek Boshier: From Doris to Chemical Coyboys

A Response

The reason for the sheer enjoyment I find in artists’ talks is that they take you away from your books and remind you about the reality of artwork in the context of the person who made it. Derek Boshier has delved into a huge variety of both ideas and working practises during his career and the presentation he gave to the Research Forum was a whirlwind whistle-stop tour of his life and work. He unfortunately had to begin by apologising for having to squeeze what was usually an hour and a half talk into a mere 45 minutes, certainly not long enough for me who thoroughly enjoyed all of his stories ‘From Doris to Chemical Cowboys’.

Speaking to the audience mainly using anecdotes, he highlighted some of the key themes of a career begun at a crucial point of transition for British art. Coming out of the Royal College in the 1960s (alongside Peter Blake and David Hockney), he insisted that impetus for their Pop Art was that they just wanted to paint the things they knew around them, the things that interested them. As he put it, not wine bottles and fruit, but films, music and sex. This freedom expanded into his subsequent multidisciplinary practise, which took as many forms imaginable, each with a very unique style.

It was his more atypical work that interested me the most. Of his image-based work, one of the projects Boshier discussed that particularly appealed to me is his 16 Situations (1971). This was an intervention into a series of photographs with a pair of repeated sculptural forms, playing with locations and scales from the micro to the macro (figs. 1 & 2).[1] They appear as a departure from the immediacy of his brightly coloured Pop painting style, yet I think they still communicate the continually present playfulness of his work. This was reinforced for me by his lively delivery style, which excited a sense of immediacy on each topic, regardless of which era he was discussing.

His description of a 1968 collaborative happening with Joe Tilson The Smith/Novak Event (fig. 3) had a sort of timelessness, and certainly would not seem out of place if enacted again today.[2] This took the form of a gesture of friendship between the two most common names in the London and Prague phonebooks, put into place through a workshop involving as many members of the public with those names who would take part. His comment on this work being that in the autumn of that year Soviets moved into Prague and as far as he knows most correspondence was halted.

Each slide is an artwork with a strong personal memory attached, meaning that each projected a strong personal perspective on social and cultural conditions, from what was showing at the cinema, to the state of feminism at the time. I would argue this was one of the most compelling artists’ talks I have attended and urge anyone to see him speak if you find an opportunity.

I would also like to encourage you to attend the series of artists’ talks and workshops organised by the East Wing X committee to compliment the Material Mattersexhibition, ‘Material Insights’. We are inviting artists to engage and discuss with us the materials in which they work. The first event is a talk delivered by Tom Hunter, whose Anchor and Hope is on display in Seminar Room 3. This will take place in SR3 on Monday 6th February at 6pm.

Fig 1: Derek Boshier, Situation 1 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 1: Derek Boshier, Situation 1 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 2: Derek Boshier, Situation 15 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig 2: Derek Boshier, Situation 15 (from the ‘16 Situations’ series), photograph, 1971

Fig. 3: Derek Boshier and Joe Tilson, Postcards from The Smith/Novak Event, photograph, 1968

Fig. 3: Derek Boshier and Joe Tilson, Postcards from The Smith/Novak Event, photograph, 1968