REVEALING LANDSCAPE FROM SEA TO SURFACE

 

 

 

 

By Karla McManus

 

 

One of photography’s greatest uses is to reveal the invisible. By invisible, I mean the unnoticed rather than the undetectable; from the everyday to the extraordinary, photography makes us look, and look carefully, if not always to care. Landscape photographs are a case in point: they make us look at something that seems so natural, so commonplace, revealing a level of detail and meaning that might easily pass unnoticed without the careful enclosure that is the photograph’s frame.

The photographs of Jessica Auer and Andreas Rutkauskas capture our uneasy relationship with the landscape’s naturalness as they reveal both the artificiality of the human preoccupation with wilderness and the history of humanity’s shaping of the land. Their joint exhibition, Sea to Surface, reflects on the history of settlement and development of the land we now call Canada, while emphasising the long reach of history that calls into question the foundations of our particular national myths.

As a scholar who thinks a lot about landscape, and about those ambivalent ideas of ‘Nature’ and ‘Culture’, my experience of Auer’s and Rutkauskas’s work is shaped by a desire to strip away the layers of meaning and affect and lay them out in front of me, for deeper contemplation. You may not feel the same urge. Perhaps you believe that overthinking or, worse, critiquing, may destroy some of the pleasure you feel looking at these undeniably beautiful images. With these few thoughts, I hope to show you that thinking through the landscape can only offer more pleasure in the reveal.

Landscape art has long been associated with articulating a sense of social and political identity. Acting as a cultural signifier of greater meaning, whether it be the avarice of “look how mighty is our wealth!” as was the case with the landscape paintings of the British upper classes of the 18th century who consolidated their power with through peasant land clearances,[1] or the more deterministic “see how our sense of self is shaped by our surroundings!” an idea that was promoted by Canada’s own Group of Seven painters whose work was warmly embraced by the national imagination,[2] landscape is never neutral. While in recent years art historians have drawn attention to the ideological values behind such works and their promotion, the landscape nevertheless persists in speaking to viewers as, well, natural. This conflict, between the social construction of meaning and the more phenomenological response that tells us landscape is pure and unaffected, rests partly with the problem of representation.

Representing the landscape may not initially seem a thorny proposition. In fact, it challenges any creator, artist or amateur, to fight against the instinct to make a pleasing, yet ultimately banal, picture. For the landscape, whether it be picturesque or sublime, urban or post-industrial, easily lends itself to being viewed and hence to being pictured. You might say it is unceasingly photogenic. But why, or rather how, does landscape make itself so visually appealing, so readily representable? One answer comes from how we often equate looking at the landscape to looking at a representation of landscape. The easy blurring of reality with representation can occur unconsciously, as when looking at a snapshot of your childhood home, you are driven to say, “that is my old house,” making the picture’s frame incidental. W.J.T. Mitchell has argued that landscape, “is not simply raw material to be represented in paint but is always already a symbolic form in its own right.”[3] Following this logic, we can understand landscape as a medium itself, made up of various elements including trees, moss, water, earth, and sky, as well as buildings, burial mounds and rowboats. Like a picture which expresses its own cultural meaning, landscape itself is “embedded in a tradition of cultural signification and communication, a body of symbolic forms capable of being invoked and reshaped to express meanings and values.”[4] Landscape photography offers us a representational doubling of cultural signification and, in so doing, further naturalizes that which seems inherently natural.

With care and subtlety, Auer and Rutkauskas make this layering evident through their photographs. In Auer’s series Unmarked Sites, she continues her long engagement with modern tourism and cultural heritage, a theme that runs through all her work, especially Re-creational Spaces (2004) and Canadian Canals (2000). Visiting sites throughout Newfoundland and Labrador that once were occupied and now lay fallow, Auer turns her “archaeological eye”[5] on the traces of history, from the ancient to the modern. These marks on the land, scraped away and reworked like an old parchment, only hint at the possibilities of what may have been. From a burial mound excavated and rebuilt in 1974 that once held the remains of the oldest teenager in North America, dead some seventy-five hundred years, to the former soapstone quarry of the Dorset People, who lived across the Arctic for nearly three thousand years, finally losing their distinct cultural identity to invaders around 1000 BCE, Auer’s images remind us of the long reach of human and geographical time.[6] Other works are more enigmatic: In Sod Huts, furrows in the grass indicate a foundation of some sort but built by whom and when? And perhaps more provocatively: does it matter? While emphasising the beauty and wonder of the landscape, Auer makes evident the tragic inevitability of what little remains after we are gone: some scrapings on a rock wall, an indent in a meadow and a bright orange flotsam caught on the edge of the sea. Unmarked Sites offers a challenge to the landscape as wilderness myth, while asking us what we really know about the past under our feet.

Rutkauskas’s Petrolia takes the present landscape as its subject, yet hardly one that you and I would recognize as current. Petrolia explores the history, from the 1850s to present day, of the oil extraction industry of Lambton County, Ontario through its industrial landscape. Oil Springs, Ontario, population 704, had the first commercial oil field in North America and currently houses the Oil Museum of Canada. In exploring Oil Springs and the surrounding Lambton County, including the town of Petrolia, which gives its name to the series, Rutkauskas discovered a landscape caught, visually and economically, between it’s past and future. His images show a place profoundly shaped by its industry, first by oil extraction and later by the chemical industry that became the largest employer of the region. In Sea to Surface, Rutkauskas chose to focus on the historical aspect of this project, editing down the larger series of work to a single photograph and one single-channel video. These works reveal the ongoing use of 1850s technology to do a job that has become one of the most high-tech resource industries in the world. Discovery Well is an image that confounds our sense of time, showing as it does the original pumpjack technology that was used in the 19th century to extract the crude. Located beside a weathered wood cabin, the pumpjack is a relic of a simpler and more rudimentary time. The image seems to represent a historic site, preserved as a form of cultural heritage, a remnant of another era. Yet this temporal freeze frame is contradicted by the video projection Oil! which shows the real-time kinetic action of an old jerker line working a series of pumpjacks to extract oil. There is a hypnotic fascination in watching, and listening, as the creaking line, cobbled together out of ropes, rusted metal, and aged wood, slowly works away through the overgrown bush of some farmer’s land. One cannot help but compare this “human-scale”[7] process to that of the Alberta tar sands where over a million barrels of bitumen are extracted every day, using gargantuan machinery and 21st century engineering. The dissonances in this body of work, between the pastoral and the industrial, the past and the present, makes the artificiality of landscape a central concern in Petrolia and offers us a way to engage more deeply with its representation.

 

By engaging with history and landscape, Jessica Auer and Andreas Rutkauskas embrace the history of landscape, a “way of seeing”[8] the world that has become increasingly significant to communities at the local, regional, and global scale. Landscape and its representation is never neutral but instead incorporates profound cultural and social values about aesthetics, experience, belonging, justice and time. Great landscape photography shows us how entangled we are in these values, and with nature itself. In Sea to Surface, Auer and Rutkauskas show us a way to think through the landscape, exposing us to the power of representation and reminding us of the significance of our place on the earth.

 

 

 

[1] See: Ann Bermingham, Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

[2] See: John O’Brian and Peter White, eds., Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity and Contemporary Art (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007).

[3] W.J.T. Mitchell, “Imperial Landscape,” in Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. Thomas Mitchell, 2nd ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 14.

[4] Ibid.

[5] A term Auer used to describe her approach in email with the author, May 8, 2013.

[6] Jessica Auer, Unmarked Sites (Montreal, Que.: Les Territoires, 2011).

[7] An expression Rutkauskas used in email with the author, May 8, 2013.

[8] A phrase first used by art critic John Berger that was later taken up by cultural geographer Denis Cosgrove in discussing landscape. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1977); Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).

 

 

 

 

 

Karla McManus is a PhD student in the Interuniversity programme in Art History at Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec and a part-time lecturer in the department of Art History.

 

McManus graduated with a BFA in Video and Installation Art from the University of Manitoba in 2004. In 2009 she received her Master’s degree in Art History from Carleton University with a thesis entitled Neutralized Landscapes and Critical Spaces: An Analysis of Contemporary Landscape Photography and Environmentalism in the Art Museum.

 

Her research focuses on the presentation and interpretation of landscape photography as environmentalist and the intersection of meaning and context in contemporary photographic visual culture. Karla is a 2010 recipient of the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.