Turning land into landscape has been an artistic project in the west since the 18th century. Perhaps it was precisely at the moment in which nature ceased to be natural that artists began to appropriate it for art in and of itself, not simply as a background setting for the actions of biblical and historical heroes. The emergence of landscape as a major genre in European painting coincided with the disappearance of actual wilderness, with the enclosure of the countryside in England and industrialisation in all of Western Europe. In art, however, nature is imagined as a source of inspiration and refuge from the wasteland of urban-industrial life. By the later nineteenth century, however, came the phenomenon with which we are now only too familiar: nature increasingly gobbled up by urban expansion, industrial growth and suburban housing developments.
At precisely the moment that artists began to focus on nature as infinite, mysterious and regenerative, nature itself became a source of fuel for the industrial machine or of wealth for the bourgeois property owner. Converted into slag heaps and slums or the privatised paradise of the urban rich, how can nature be the uncontaminated pure realm for authentic individual aesthetic and spiritual experience that it had been for earlier artists and writers? This is a problem for makers of landscape images.
Interestingly, for 19th and 20th century North American artists landscape was constructed as the authentic artistic production, one which can articulate myths of origin, nation and even morality. 19th and early 20th century landscape images, such as those of the American Hudson River School, express an imagined community of nation. The language of the national landscape was universal and mythic, a fiction which answered the call for native themes without, however, the contamination of local, place-specific and hence limited associations.
In “Everywhere and Nowhere: The Making of the National Landscape” Angela Miller notes that the landscapes of, for example, Frederick Church, were romantic, nostalgic images of nowhere, depicting a ready-made land devoid of human inhabitants and available to be exploited . This landscape constituted a community of viewers bound by a shared belief in progress, expansion and manifest destiny. Similarly, in early 20th century Canadian art, the work of the Group of Seven reigned supreme as an articulation of Canadian cultural nationalism. Informed by similar impulses, albeit on a smaller and less pretentious scale, these paintings focus on the wilderness of Northern Ontario as a utopian space of beauty and pristine nature.
D_21 Mountains, figures, pumpkins
Perhaps because in Canada there is so much nature out there, the connection between humans and the natural world has been a fertile source of artistic imaginings. British Columbia, the far west of Canada where I live, is particularly defined by its landscape. Our provincial tourist promotions feature the slogan Super Natural British Columbia as an incentive to potential visitors. Much of British Columbia is wilderness, wild mountain ranges, raging rivers, thousands of acres of forest untouched by human hand, a wilderness that, while unexperienced by most of the province’s inhabitants, looms large in the collective imagination. However, the needs of a resource-driven economy dependent upon logging, fishing and mining, and a tourism industry devoted to super nature often conflict. The pictures of wild and untamed nature that are used to entice tourists to visit our province always show unpeopled stretches of virgin wilderness as our primary attraction; they do not, however, show instances of conflict in the landscape: the ravages of clear-cutting and open pit mining, native land rights, urbanisation. Nor do they advertise the fact that visual protection corridors are utilised to hide unsightly clear cuts and destroyed forests from the eyes of visitors and inhabitants alike.
D_22 Male sculpture, mountains, pumpkin
In early 21st century British Columbia, landscape continues to operate as thematic fodder for artists of the Vancouver School. These photo-conceptual artists such as Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, and Roy Arden use landscape as the material of social and cultural critique. Images such as Wall’s The Pine on the Corner (1990), an image of an unhealthy looking pine tree occupying the front yard of an equally unhealthy looking “Vancouver Special” in the foreground, while in the background the snow-capped mountains of the national landscape seem remote indeed, critique the conditions of the current global historic moment. Rather than offering us an image of redemptive nature, Wall offers an image of a blighted world, one in which human essence is subjugated to economic necessity. However, in so doing, Wall’s images also convey “an aesthetic distancing from the sheer messiness of lived reality, whether cultural or natural” (Vine 88).
D_19 Man Sublime
This distancing is itself a formalism, a domination realised in his exertion of complete control over every aspect of the picture and its realisation. Such control ensures that Wall’s work will be read as the antithesis of nostalgic and sentimental, those twin demons of modernist aesthetic production. This eschewing of nostalgia and sentimentality is characterised by many commentators as the hallmark of an authentic contemporary Canadian artistic practice. For example, in a comment on Roy Arden’s Tree Stump, Nanaimo, BC 1991 Ian Wallace has noted approvingly that, rather than being “nostalgic and sentimental”, it is “relentlessly realistic” (49), a realism evident, according to Wallace, in the picture’s “status as a document” and its “witness to historical experience”. Wallace and others have identified the authentic expression of the “new frontier between the indigenous and the borderless” as that which makes contemporary Canadian art “meaningful to a broad audience that goes beyond regional or national boundaries” (49).
An issue with which these commentators fail to deal is the persistent gendering of nature as feminine and the artist/entrepreneur for whom she is available object as masculine. Historically, nature has almost always been seen in western culture as feminised, virgin land to be deflowered. In The Magisterial Gaze Albert Boime argues that the paradigmatic image of nature in 19th century America, for example, was the landscape view from the heights, a view which sees nature as spread out below it, available for visual and economic consumption . That such a view is gendered, while unmentioned by Boime, should not be ignored. In a neo-Aristotelian view of landscape, nature is conceived of as crude material to be manipulated and given form by the artist and turned, literally, into gold. The connection of women with matter and men with form has been an historical commonplace in western culture since Aristotle; hence, it should come as no surprise that nature becomes feminised and that the body of nature, like the bodies of women, is seen as available for the taking. Nature, like women, is something to be dominated and controlled, subject to the formalist impulse of the artist and the economic impulse of industrial capitalism.
D_ 15 ( MAN_ MOUNTAIN)
Historically, the public world of power and politics has always belonged to men, while the private world of home and domesticity was reserved for women. Throughout western history the male nude has traditionally had a wider range of ideological and philosophical meanings than that of the female and, most characteristically, as seen in Greek and Roman art, the male body has symbolised potency and political power. Similarly, in Renaissance art the male nude signifies public virtues, while the female nude signifies sensuality and the realm of private erotic pleasure. The female nude occupies a purely physical world; although the male nude can also symbolise nature, as we can see in Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, he symbolises nature’s rationality, order and hierarchy. The female nude, in contrast, symbolises earthiness, sensuality, procreation and instinct, all values in opposition to those symbolised by Leonardo’s rational man.
Apollo: frozen beauty, impenetrable, impassive – a blank-eyed stare into space. Apollo’s classical beauty stares imperturbably past the contemporary grotesquery of transformers, boy toys whose animalian forms transmute in an instant into hyper-phallic, heavily-muscled, pinheaded, fully-armed military maniacs. Between these two versions of idealised masculinity – the muscular phallus-in-excess and the rational, self-controlled demi-god – is inserted the image of rotten pumpkins and gourds – an instance of the abject intruding on a masculine fantasy of plenitude. These vegetables, while alluding to the corpse, bodily wastes, and putrefaction, also have their own peculiar beauty of aesthetic form.
Apollo and Dionysos
For the Greeks ideal beauty was embodied in images of young men and gods whose bodies expressed ideas about proportion, ratio and harmony. Where women’s bodies were earth-bound and corrupt, Greek male bodies transcend the boundaries of materiality to symbolise the higher realm of reason or soul. The god Apollo realised in stone represents the Platonic ideal: calm, rational, controlled, idealised. As described by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White the classical statue is the radiant centre of a transcendent individualism, put on a pedestal, raised above the viewer and demanding passive admiration from below. Unlike the grotesque body of medieval scatological drawings or Bosch’s nightmare world, the classical body epitomised by Apollo has no openings or orifices through which this transcendent individuality can seep out. It is smooth, unwrinkled, unaffected by the passage of time and incorruptible. The classical body’s wholeness signifies that it is what Mary Douglas has called a perfect container – it is holy because “to be holy is to be whole, to be one; holiness is unity, integrity perfection of the individual and the kind”.
The western preoccupation with mastery, order, and systematising is as evident in Greek canons of beauty as it is in other social and cultural forms. Anything which threatens the systems we use to order our environment must be expelled; the polluted, the impure, the disorderly and the diseased all become heterogeneous abominations whose expulsion is necessary to maintain the order of the system. Douglas has perceptively noted that “So many ideas about power are based on an idea of society as a series of forms contrasted with surrounding non-form. There is power in the forms and other power in the inarticulate areas, margins, confused lines, and beyond external boundaries” (98). One such form-formlessness dichotomy is that between the individual, conceived of as a bounded kernel of self-contained subjectivity, and anything which threatens that subjectivity – disease, dissolution, and death, for example. Historically, as in Aristotle for instance, the form/formlessness dichotomy is divided along gender lines, with the male as the epitome of form and the female as matter, an undifferentiated heap of stuff upon which the male can act. The connections between this view of gender and the traditional view of landscape should be obvious.
The historical fantasy of (white, heterosexual) masculinity as the self-conscious, self-possessed subject of history and discourse is reflected in images of the body in western culture. Crucial to the discussion of body images has been the analysis of the gaze; the dominant heterosexual optic divides visuality into the active male gaze and the passive female object of that gaze. This model, proposed originally by Laura Mulvey and taken up by many others, establishes voyeurism as the relationship between male viewer and female viewed. While critiqued now as somewhat simplistic by many film theorists, Mulvey’s main point as to the gendered division of the scopic realm can be seen in countless images of the reclining female nude, visually and sexually available to a male spectator, and the free-standing erect male of prowess, worldly achievement, power and honour.
The idealised masculinity of the classical statue is, of course, a fantasy; such masculinity is not naturally given but a construction that must continuously be maintained less the male subject collapse back into a state of primary undifferentiation – that undifferentiated heap which was for Aristotle the condition of women. The threats of the monstrous-feminine to masculine psychic or bodily wholeness are evident in discourses of the female body as an object of abomination and pollution which threatens masculine self-hood, threats conceived of as dissolution of the self, loss of boundaries, and the flowing of masculine self-hood away, threats always associated with the feminine. “The strain, fears and anxieties of the male subject enjoined to produce the masculine are revealed in contemporary films in which actors such as Sylvester Stallone, for example, display the male body as a living phallus: hysterical images of masculinity such as these point to the impossible nature of the phallic ideal, made even more so by the demands of the patriarchal cult of masculinity” (Creed, “Phallic panic”, 133).
My photographs are a meditation on the gendered dichotomy between form and formlessness and the fictitiousness of the unified subject of western cultural history. My images attempt to subvert the dominant visual economy by combining photographs of ideal masculinity appropriated from bodybuilding magazines, images originally produced by men for men, with images of rotting fruits and vegetables, symbols of the abject that threatens masculine selfhood, and the fantasy wilderness of Super Natural British Columbia, ever-beautiful, ever-mysterious, and ever-available.
Albert Boime, The Magisterial Gaze: Manifest Destiny and American Landscape Painting. Washington: Smithsonian, 1991.
Barbara Creed, “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection”, Screen 27.1 (1986).
—, “Phallic Panic: male hysteria and Dead Ringers”, Screen 31.2 (1990).
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
Angela Miller, “Everywhere and Nowhere: The Making of the National Landscape”, American Literary History 4.2 (Summer 1992).
Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16.3 (1975).
Denise Oleksijczuk, Lost Illusions: Recent Landscape Art. Vancouver: VAG, 1991.
Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression. London: Methuen, 1986.
Richard Vine, “Wall’s Wager”. Art in America April 1996. pp. 86-93.
Ian Wallace, “Back to School”. Canadian Art Fall 1996. pp. 48-49.