|In Pursuit of the Arcadian
Arcadia, a region of ancient Greece was recognised as the ideal of a simple pastoral life, with its inhabitants living off the land and celebrating nature. This exhibition examines some examples of the use of nature and the landscape within the format of the artist's book. Many artists use landscape and nature as metaphorical carriers, and the 111 works in this exhibition show how these are interpreted and utilised in a narrative format; through the use of image, text, structural and site–specific works in relation to the artist's book. Nature and the landscape has always been a rich source of material for more traditional art mediums, and it is not surprising that this interest has grown in the area of artists' books, indeed some of the artists' books in this exhibition have been created with reference to or inspired by historical landscape paintings and texts. The works range from a celebration of the natural landscape, and contemplations of our relationship to the elements, to exploring the darker side of nature, and despair at our destruction of the global environment.
The physical landscapes represented in these books include topographical references to Japan, Canada, Estonia, Scotland, Norway, Denmark, USA, England, EIRE, France, Afghanistan and The Azores amongst others. Emilie Harrak's I Did Fuji (2003) looks on first glance, to be a book of 1950s postcard images (inspired by Hokusai's 100 views of Mount Fuji) in glorious techno-colour.
On closer inspection, this surreal montage is an idealised, and in the artist's words, “impossible landscape … (which) reflects the impossibility of capturing the physical experience of being in a place, the act of looking and actively connecting with an environment.” Frans Baake's Meer (2002) is a miniature panorama in a similar format, with images taken using a four-shot per frame camera. Baake photographed the seven crater lakes on Flores Island in the Azores, utilising the unpredictable nature of the camera's colour and exposure timing to produce a series of views reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich's romantic landscape paintings from the 19th century. The title is a dual reference, in Dutch; 'Meer' means lake as well as more.
The imagery of Conor Lucey's The Planets (2001) was partly inspired by Malevich's Black Circle painting (1923, Russian State Museum). Lucey has calculated each planet's representational appearance in the book in proportion to its size and distance from the earth. The black circles that represent each planet's location and distance vary enormously; Pluto is off the page, Earth, obviously, fills the space.
The concerns of the enormity of contemplating man's place within a referential framework of infinite space are also apparent in Ken Leslie's Space and Time (2002). This circular book unfolds to show a 360º panorama of the landscape, photographed at the rate of one picture per week in the artist's own garden and carefully measured to close the cycle at the completion of the year. This double-sided book's circular landscapes, offer a year's worth of considered rotation through Space and Time. Lucy Badrocke's A Better Sky (2003) is a collection of renamed constellations from A. P. Herbert's book of the same title, published in 1944. Herbert's proposal for a more relevant naming of the constellations and principal stars was not a great success and not the first time someone had tried to rename the principal stars, attempts have been made to alter them to the names of Christian apostles, slugs, ships and planes.
Kurt Johannessen's Moon (2004) is a record of a live event at Bergen Art Museum, Norway on 20th March 2000. Johannessen directed 24 artists and scientists, whose work relates to the moon, to phone the Museum over a one-hour period and relate a story about the moon in their native language. The book documents and translates the narratives into English. The romance of this event, is in imagining those people, all over the world, making their call, as the stories beam across the sky by satellite from Russia, Argentina, Egypt, Japan, Greenland, China, Tibet… for a single hour, all of the disembodied voices in the dark, relating their stories about the moon.
Johannessen has a natural feel for the ethereal landscape, the mythical, beautiful and philosophical Arcadian dream. And (2004) explores the power of the senses, the very essence of feelings, and these are considered in relation to two discrete entities: what could be more contradictory in living nature than a butterfly and an elephant? The book contains a series of elegantly simple statements - “Discovering the music that occurs in very strong wind, and what happens when two butterflies dream the same dream simultaneously". “The knowledge that you can only sense a microscopic part of the universe and understand even less, and the time it takes before the dust settles after an elephant running at full speed.” Steinar (2002) also by Johannessen, shows a collection of 22 small stones, a record of his two-day hiking trip around the area of Finse, Norway. These stones however are the ones that the artist selected over the two-day period, to tell each one a fairy tale, and each fairy tale was about trolls.
With reference to urban nature, Jane Hyslop's Wild Plants Collected in Midlothian (2003) is part of her ongoing work around the natural and industrial landscapes of Midlothian. Hyslop has documented the decline of the mining industry and railways, and closures of factories, recording the decay of the buildings and sites left behind as nature reclaims and destroys them. The plants depicted here have been hand-drawn at sites she knows, over the course of a year. Each page in the book represents one month, which when fully unfolded reveals a continuous frieze from January to December. Concerns with the destruction of the unseen landscape are found in Susan Johanknecht's Subsequent drainage on folding rocks (2004) which focuses on areas where nuclear waste has been dumped or processed, including Sweden, the former USSR and USA. The book considers the implications both above and below the surface of those landscapes as nuclear waste alters the earth from underneath. The book is viewed alongside a CD ROM, which diagrammatically demonstrates the difficulties of containment and possible leakage. As the artist states “Nuclear waste is reprocessed… then buried where it will be toxic for thousands of years, perhaps beyond future memory, when it could conceivably be dug up as fossils from the past…The plates are to be read as visual strata; draining, toxic, under-landscapes.”
Heather Hunter's Progress (2004), is a fold-out view, miniature set of an idealised and classically ordered landscape The artist took the title from a definition of progress: “n. 1. A move towards or bring nearer to completion, Maturity and Perfection”. She states “Grand parks and gardens of 18th century England can be seen showing the ideals of the countryside as an idyllic place where peasants lived a purer, happier life than city dwellers, an attempt at perfection. The box and the tunnel book within depict this utopia. Human nature unfortunately seems not to be able to allow progress 'as a move towards maturity' to take place. Therefore the view at the end of the tunnel can be a bleak one.” Rather than the expected temples dedicated to Flora, the viewer sees a photograph of displaced victims of the 'war on terror' in Afghanistan. This is no rural ideal; the Arcadian dream here has been lost.
Colin Sackett has been publishing books on reading and the landscape for over 20 years. His typographic works create visual studies of the landscape from text: Hut (1999) Thither (1997) and Ocularo (1997) and image: Black Bob (1989). This book, as with all of Sackett's work, is concerned with the physical act of reading. Black Bob consists of a single image: shepherd, sheepdog and river in a landscape, identically repeated over 63 pages. This repetition subconsciously forces the viewer to read the image as it flows, from top left to bottom right: shepherd, sheepdog and river. Without even realising it, we have read the book in the direction that Sackett intended. On the theme of text as image in the landscape, Simon Cutts A History of the Airfields of Lincolnshire I (1990) and II (2000), use text to create a pictorial vision. The text pattern runs across the top or bottom half of the page throughout, visually reflecting the uncut heads of (red) poppies or (green) flax. His Waterfalls of New Hampshire in Winter (1994) opens to reveal “a perfect bound block of blue paper” printed on each interior sheet.
Graham Fagen's The Forest and the Forester (After Maeterlinck) is also a text-based work. A play is set at the site of Fagen's sculpture at Grizedale, of 12 Scots pines planted within an enclosure overlooking Coniston Water, where Donald Campbell died in 1967. The text is based on the 'Forest Scene' from Maeterlinck's play The Blue Bird after which Donald Campbell's car was also named.
Greetings from Norway (2002) by Imi Maufe is a record of a 10-day hut-to-hut skiing trip, above the tree line in Stølsheimen, Norway. The style of the book is influenced by the Turlag Yearbooks from the 1930s and 40s, which are often left in the mountain ski huts for travellers to read. Andi McGarry's Paddle Notes (2002) forms a shorter memento, that of a day spent boating. He states, “A journey is such a good starting point. The landscape you pass through and the impact of landscape upon you. Paddle Notes is a visual narrative which charts the course of a joyfully crafted adventure in high summer with the family in a rowing boat in the Irish Sea.” His books are visual tales of, a night camping, or a day spent on the river. All of his books are hand made, with the artist often preparing his own papers, hand painting the text and images, to form unique books or small editions which vibrantly encapsulate the short but exhilarating moments of time spent in the countryside.
Whether the Arcadian dream still exists in our contemporary natural world is debatable but these artists' books offer fleeting glimpses of another paradise and some alternative scenes of nature, which show that there is still a vision to pursue within the landscape.
Sarah Bodman is a practicing book artist and Research Fellow for Artists' Books at the CFPR, University of the West of England, School of Art Media and Design, Bristol.
Many thanks to all the participating artists for supplying the information about their books for this project. Particular thanks go to Simon Cutts, for loaning items for the tour, and Ivan Eastwood, Vikki Hill, Paul Laidler and Tom Sowden for all their help with the exhibition, catalogue and website.