lIt used to be pretty clear what landscape art was. Within the British tradition, it was artists such as Gainsborough, Constable or Turner who provided the standard depictions of rural settings, and a line could be traced to this day with a range of artists such as Paul Nash or Eric Ravilious. It was the generally accepted view well into the 20th century that this tradition—particularly the masterpieces of the 18th and 19th centuries—represented something that was somehow safe, fixed, and broadly reflective of the natural course of life. Affairs.
Radical Landscapes at Tate Liverpool, which true to its title has provided a comprehensive and inclusive look at what landscape art is, unsurprisingly includes the famous 1750 double portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough on their grand estate. But it does include a music video of John Berger critiquing the painting in his 1972 TV series Ways of Seeing.
Essentially, Berger’s argument was that instead of reading the painting as a simple wedding feast with the accompanying cornfield symbolizing fertility, this was a barren celebration of property and private land, and a statement about who had access to it and who did not. it. As Berger points out, the painting was created at a time when a man who stole a potato risked public lash and the penalty for poaching was deportation.
This spirit of questioning ownership, use and access to land animates a show initially conceived at the height of the Brexit debates over identity, belonging and “taking back control”. Administrator Darren Piho was interested in notions of thresholds and boundaries, as well as the reality that large parts of the UK are off limits to most people for a myriad of reasons, ranging from private ownership – including by offshore trusts – to militarization and discrimination.
As the exhibition has evolved, and after several Covid-related delays, it has moved to examine our relationship with land through the lenses of the pandemic, climate emergency and nuclear threat, as well as more mystical and emotional connections to the rural landscape. The links between access to land and class, race, gender and disability are also explored in a specific context of activism and protest.
This broad remit is fulfilled by a suitably eclectic collection of over 150 works, collected largely and imaginatively from the Tate’s collection and supplemented by a number of clever loans and commissions. The result is pleasantly surprising and diverse. Constable’s much-perfected depiction of Flatford Mill can be found alongside banners created at the Greenham Common peace camp in the 1980s. Claude Cahun’s surreal photograph of a pair of arms emerging from a stone monolith is near Festival of Britain catalogues. There is an investigation into the resource-efficient lives of the Roma community and Peter Kennards Haywain with Cruise Missiles montage.
Pih says he wanted to “explore why we have such an emotional connection to land and why we protest when we see it under threat,” and as the show nods to the history of the fencing and clearing of the Highlands in Scotland, his real historical and political premise is the twisting and then transgression movements of the early 1900s, which culminated in the massive 1932 Kinder Scout offense in the Peak District. Led by walkers and young communists, this eventually resulted in the creation of national parks in the UK.
While clearly coming from a line of older rural protests, these massive transgressions were largely attempts by the urban working class to access land at a time when cities were polluted and access to green space limited but essential to good health. The parallels to the pandemic are clear. The violations are represented in the show by press photos from the 1930s. Images taken half a century later by Alan Lodge of the confrontation now known as the Battle of the Beanfield between a convoy of new-age travelers bound for the 1985 Stonehenge Free Festival and the police illustrate how the story continues. goes.
The Battle of the Beanfield’s fictional focus, Stonehenge, reverberates around the exhibit featuring artists – Ravilious, Henry Moore, Tacita Dean and others – drawn to symbolically powerful aspects of the landscape, from henges and geoglyphs to ancient oaks. Jeremy Deller, who has made films about henges and whose neon image of the Cerne Abbas giant can be seen in the show alongside his straw acid house smileys, said: “The great thing about most of these sites is that there is a sense of shared ownership, physical and conceptual. They are this huge, dumb mirror of Britain. Whatever your conceptions of yourself or your country and humanity, you can project them onto these structures. To me, Stonehenge is the most contemporary edifice in Britain, because there seems to be a new story about it every week.”
After the Battle of the Beanfield, the venues for contentious mass gatherings moved into the burgeoning rave scene, culminating in 1992 with the massive unlicensed gathering in Castlemorton (the show features rare footage of the rave), indirectly sparking civil liberties changes through criminal law. But legal battles over disputed sites and access were just one way to restrict who could or should occupy these spaces. Issues of discrimination, exclusion, and erasure are explored extensively in the show.
Ingrid Pollard, whose work has long revealed what in the landscape tradition was hidden in plain sight – the absence of black figures – evokes themes of colonization through family photographs. A film made by the neurodiverse collective Project Art Works explores another group often excluded from the traditional landscape narrative by following a group of neurodiverse artists, their families and caretakers over several days on a journey to a remote Scottish valley, again broadening the picture who has the right to enjoy the countryside.
To access the natural world, that world must be taken care of. The environmental impact in the show includes a new installation commissioned by Delaine Le Bas, an artist of Romanesque descent – another marginalized community often absent from landscape history. Rinkeni Pani (Beautiful water) portrays the artist by using the pictorial conventions of landscape art, explains Pih, “but the work is also about climate change. Le Bas’s grandmother always told her to conserve precious water as part of a nomadic life that was also a way of low-key living where precious natural resources were valued. It’s a different way of thinking about who an activist is.”
Other large-scale installations include a newly commissioned piece by Davinia-Ann Robinson in which she uses salvaged ground to comment on both land art and colonialism, and Ruth Ewan’s Back to the Fields, her reconstruction of the French Republican calendar, in use from 1793 to 1805, in which plants and objects from nature and rural life – rope, a goat’s skull, a tree – represent a single day. A symbolic return from the land to the people, it is also a fascinating challenge for the Tate curators, who must care for the living plants in the carefully regulated environment of a museum.
In terms of the climate crisis, Gustav Metzger, now seen as a pioneer of environmental art, emerges as a major presence on the show with a striking large photo from 1998 of the construction of the M3 used by Twyford Down, Hampshire walks, surrounded by the track of an earth-moving machine. There is also a 1965 liquid crystal display that is powered by ambient heat. A member of CND’s 100 direct action committee in the early 1960s, Metzger’s personal connection to humanity’s propensity for destruction – he was sent to the UK from Germany in 1939 at the age of 13 on the Kindertransport, and most of his immediate family perished in the Holocaust – his concern over technology that has the potential to cause environmental destruction greatly influenced.
The show’s broad canvas illustrates well the endless complexity and interconnectedness of issues related to land and landscapes. Perhaps surprisingly, Derek Jarman is one of the artists who best transcends apparent boundaries. He is represented by work – assemblage, photography, paint, film – made at Prospect Cottage, the location of his seaside garden in Dungeness, Kent. But his career path seems particularly suited to a show where activism and rebellion are intrinsic to the relationship between nature and art.
In the 1970s he had worked in response to Avebury and his standing stones before taking on a more activist and public role to criticize Thatcherism. When he was diagnosed with HIV and fell ill, he retired to his cottage to access nature’s restorative and regenerative properties. While there, he created his now famous garden which, in its philosophy, public setting and beauty, presented itself as a useful example of a radical landscape.