Rethinking the landscape in critical terms.

The New Zealand landscape offers blessings and curses in almost equal measure to those who wish to draw upon it for their work.

In particular for a photographer this land sets many challenges: The relentless glaring light, all highlight or all shadow, never both at once. The boundless vistas, constantly reproduced in calendars, postcards, annual reports, Green Party billboards and beer ads. The seeming perfection of its untouched wilderness and the apparent lack of a human history visible upon it. The sheer number of possible visual clichés available.

In simpler times (pre. the billionth upload to Flickr perhaps) a Robin Morrison photograph of a shining wet road, or a Lawrence Aberhart mountain trailing its korowai of cloud could be made; beautiful responses to the impulse to record this landscape via the lens. It is still a hard thing to resist, this framing of the land through the viewfinder, the wait for the good light, that perfect cloud.

The shine’s gone off it though, for me anyway. I still find walking the land in Aotearoa spell-binding, and making images in response to that feeling for editorial stories or for my journal is engaging, rewarding and fun. But it’s not delivering the goods for this project, although the ideas I am working with do inextricably bind me to place and thus necessitate a tussle with these issues.

As a timely signpost to a possible new direction then I have recently been gripped by Emily Apter’s essay titled “The Aesthetics of Critical Habitats”

(October 99, Winter 2002. Pp21-44. © October Magazine Ltd and MIT, herewith referred to as E.A)

It seems to me that in the same way that P.M Lee calls upon artists and art practices to analyse the conveyancing and commodification of art, (P.M Lee, Forgetting the Art World MIT Press 2012) Apter identifies and upholds the “radical pastoral” (John Kinsella, quoted in E.A p22) as a kind of geopoetics. She highlights the morphing of media and environment via globalization, and calls on an “ecologically engaged conceptualism” (E.A p22) that can operate as a “margin of critique inserted in the space where this translation process occurs” (E.A pp23)

Apter defines this critical habitat as “a concept that explores the links between territorial habitat and intellectual habitus; between physical place and ideological force field, between economy and ecology.” (E.A pp23)

I find this proposal hugely powerful and resonant within my own practice; it opens my eyes to the possibility of making work that contains, exploits and critiques the problematic aspects inherent in its own form and content.

Apter goes on to reference William Kentridge, John Kinsella, Andreas Gursky and John Klima in relation to her proposition. Of the four, in relation to this embedding of political critique into the geopoetic, I am most engaged by Kentridge and Gursky.

Kentridge’s works seem to contain the most explicit motifs of political resistance, highlighting as they do the relationship between labour and capital, and pointing out, in his words “the inherent connections between ecology and civil rights” (William Kentridge in William Kentridge London Phaidon Press Ltd 1999 p.108, and extracted from E.A p21) Gursky’s motives seem more opaque; the artist taking a more ambiguous and less overtly critical position in his role as commodity-creator. Gursky’s almost-seamless digital manipulations, Apter suggests, “all serve to intensify the image of nature, and this extreme technological intensification gives nature back an image of itself as visual ideology” (E.A p39)

There are aspects of both positions that I find compelling. While I do not aspire to creating the deadpan poker-face of a Gursky work, I can strongly connect with the way he uses the digital building blocks of the images themselves to subtly subvert their origins, as well as to subvert and mislead the responses of the viewer.

The raw passion and energy in Kentridge’s films are extremely powerful. I enjoy their macabre aspects, the noir palette, the audio and the low-fi aspects of his use of technology. I also relate to the more open and authentic expression of a political position that I think I can access in his works.

I have begun to experiment with some of these ideas and methodologies in my new work. I am already reacting against the more low-fi processes (my slick commercial kneejerk response to anything unresolved getting in the way here) whilst in the other direction I don’t want to disappear into a microcosm of pixel manipulation either. I have a sense that the most useful results will come when I have pushed too far in both directions.