Landscape—as a genre, medium, or form of representation, as uncultivated or cultivated, formed or farmed, or seen or shaped land—is the product of many contradictions. In politico-economic terms, landscape has to do with the necessity of preserving humankind's relation to its environment (and the semi-fantastic origin of what today we call “nature”) and with an urge (or ploy) to conceal certain injustices, such as the appropriation of land and of agricultural rural labor. In terms of power, governance, and governmentality, landscape has served many masters with seemingly opposite ideological agendas, including both colonialism (the expansion and control of land beyond historical borders) and nationalism (a contraction or consolidation around a core identity, territorial sovereignty, or flag). Some of these oppositions can be translated into formal principles, by invoking the disparity between horizontality—which art history has often linked to landscape, connoting not only spatial expansion or sequential narration, but also traditional inertia or the maintenance of the status quo—and verticality, which in art has been associated with the figure (as in portraiture) or, in broader anthropological terms, with the triumph of the Spirit and the rise of Homo erectus above animal horizontality and the state of nature.
Conceptually as well as etymologically, the word “landscape” is the result of a delicate balance. Tim Ingold tells us, for example, that generations of scholars have been fooled by the resemblance of the suffix -scape to the Greek skopos, skopein, “to look,” when in fact it is more closely related to the Old English sceppan or skyppan, meaning “to shape”—a nuance also preserved in the suffix -ship, as in “hardship,” originally referring to a condition or shape of being.1 The echo of -scape in the word escape—as in to evade or resist—is accidental; but words and meanings live and die in echoes, accidents, back-formations, and reduced and aphetic variations, as do discourses, including the discourse of landscape.
Landscape-as-discourse is thus the product of multiple divisions: between nature and artifice; between “first” and “second” nature (the latter referring to naturalized market relations, or to capitalism as our new environment); between inert, landed feudalism and dynamic capitalism; between imperial expansion and nationalist contraction; between immobile serfdom and the mobility of waged labor; between the horizontal and the vertical; between work and leisure; or finally between scaped or shaped terrain and the distanced, disinterested contemplation demanded by what Martin Jay has called “scopic regimes” of modernity.2 These three echoes of the suffix -scape—scaping, as in shaping (an active meaning that builds upon the word landscape itself); scoping (where the scape is a passive result of looking); and e-scaping (in the sense of resisting or gaining one's liberty)—are the boundaries that delimit the framework for this special issue of ARTMargins.
One point of departure for this special issue was an exhibition organized at the American University of Beirut Art Galleries. Cut/Gash/Slash—Adachi Masao—A Militant Theory of Landscape (2019) reintroduced the Japanese filmmaker and political activist Adachi Masao to the Lebanese public, following his eighteen-year absence from Lebanon (2001–19). Once a member of the Japanese Red Army—a communist group founded by Fusako Shigenobu in Lebanon in 1971—Adachi, along with the group's other members, spent twenty-seven years in the militant landscape of the Bekaa Valley, as part of the Palestinian armed resistance. Here, the Japanese radicals also established multiple connections between activists, artists, filmmakers, and writers active in the “Far” and “Near” East. Along with his political activism, Adachi is also one of the key contributors to what Japanese radical filmmakers and writers in the 1960s such a Hara Masataka, Nakahira Takuma, and Matsuda Masao, among others, called fūkei-ron, which translates as “landscape theory.” Fūkei-ron is a symbiosis of militant cinematic and political practice, and part of the countercultural reaction to Japan's rapid post-World War II economic modernization. It is a form and practice that reflects and combines some of the concerns raised in this issue, namely: shaping, viewing, and escaping against or through landscape. In this special issue, fūkei-ron serves as point of both departure and convergence for several lines of artistic, art historical, art critical, and theoretical inquiry on the subject of landscape.
It is no exaggeration to say that landscape—as a product of multiple contradictions—is a Western (or even Atlanticist) phenomenon. This is evident today, especially for those who must learn the languages and attitudes needed to serve and benefit from the “global paradigm” of art, art criticism, and art history. As part of post-Renaissance humanism, capitalism, and imperial expansion, the rise of the genre of landscape has been explained in light of the emergence of capitalist relations, new modes of production, of land reclamation, the advent of real estate as a commodity (as, for example, in the case of 17th-century Dutch landscape), and the aesthetics of landownership (as in 18th-century English landscape painting). Along with cartography and mapping, landscape was part of the discourse of the colonizer in search of an unexploited “wilderness” (as in Dutch and British maritime imperialism). It was further part of the narrative of the discovery and exploration of new frontier land in North American expansionism (the 19th-century Hudson River School), and also of Orientalist representation (as in 19th-century European depictions of the Holy Land in Palestine, or Egypt and the Levant). At the same time, landscape has been an efficient tool in representing and shaping (that is, scoping and scaping) national consciousness, acting on nativist sentiments and serving the ideology of the modern nation-state.
From the position of its counter-discourses—of what we call here escape—one could say that landscape has its “dark side,” to recall the title of John Barrel's important book.3 Landscape has been denounced, along class lines, as pure ideology concealing economic inequalities and the exploitation of agricultural labor by land grabbers; or as a tool of manipulation linked to false consciousness and complicit in the alienation of the subject in the modern world. Postcolonialism placed landscape at the center of its struggle for political, economic, and epistemic decolonization, revealing the cotton, rice, tobacco, and sugarcane plantations of the Black Atlantic where colonialism was the “natural” condition of progress. In most of these instances, it is the slaves, the laborers, the peasants, the rural poor (the scapers and the escapers)—the anonymous figures in the landscape—who are also positioned as aesthetically impaired and therefore morally questionable for failing to enjoy representations of scaped-land “for its own sake” (as prescribed by the aesthetic ideology of the European bourgeois subject). In the 20th century, landscape was caught up in debates on modernist reductionism (as in the practices of certain mid-20th-century Color Field painters), until finally it seems to have totally dissolved into postmodernist textual practices, or “textual landscapes” constituted (or supplemented) by chains of signifiers. And although Kenneth Clark pronounced landscape art dead by the end of the 19th century, arguing that it had reached its conclusion in pictorial abstraction, the last few decades have witnessed a “revival”—albeit a sad one. Landscape has been ushered back through the backdoor forced open by climate change, the depletion of the natural world, the mass extinction of animal species due to profit-driven technocapitalism, and other tragic urgencies of the “Anthropocene,” a term that today serves to divert attention from capitalism's impact on the environment.
Critiquing and historicizing the “Western-ness of landscape”4 is not the only, or even the most suitable, approach to the genre. The study of “imperial landscape”—to quote the title of an essay by W. J. T. Mitchell—considers, perhaps more productively, the relation of landscape to power and politics. In his text, Mitchell formulates several “theses on landscape,” including the following sequence: “landscape is a medium found in all cultures” (thesis 5), “landscape is a particular historical formation associated with European imperialism” (thesis 6), and “theses 5 and 6 do not contradict one another” (thesis 7).5 The most important thesis, however, may be the first, which states that “landscape is not a genre but a medium.” That is, prior to any act of representation, landscape is already constituted as artifice and in its potential for capitalist valorization. The term “medium” here is not used in the modernist and formalist sense (close to “genre” and “style”), where it denotes the essential material conditions for an artistic form, but more in the mid-19th-century scientific positivist meaning of an intermediary, like a chemical solvent used to dissolve other solutes. The landscape, argues Mitchell, also circulates as a dynamic “medium” of exchange, which “like money, [is] good for nothing in itself, but expressive of a potentially limitless reserve of value.”6 And like money, landscape and its aesthetic ideology extend and expand well beyond regional and national borders, allowing us to think of this medium in the context of a variety of historical imperial projects (for example, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Qing Chinese, or Russian).
Indeed, the “Western-ness” of landscape seems to dissipate when considered from different imperial centers. Take the Russian empire. Here, landscape (peizazh) originates in the late 18th century (along with the so-called autonomous institution of art in Western Europe), but in its early form is used primarily for depicting fantasies of foreign lands, mainly of Italy—the “fatherland of beauty”—as practiced by the travel-pensioners of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts.7 Until the mid-19th century, the Russian countryside was considered unworthy of representation and “valueless” as a medium of circulation. This landscape was considered an uninspiring vision of “Russian backwardness,” with its mushy snow and gray seasonal mud that hindered the advance of Napoleon's troops in 1812 and incapacitated the Wehrmacht's motorized divisions in World War II. (To quote by memory from a cinematic adaptation of Vladimir Voinovich's satirical novel Ivan Chonkin: “Yes, Germans certainly have great tanks, but we have our mud.”) Only in the second half of the 19th century, following modernization, “Westernization,” and the Grand Reforms initiated by Tsar Alexander II—which were marked by economic liberalization, the termination of serfdom and the emancipation of peasants (1861), the dissolution of landed aristocracy, and the construction of roads and railways—was a native school of landscape constituted by the members of the Association of Traveling Art Exhibits, known as the Wanderers, or peredvizhniki (the great precursors of both the Russian historical avant-garde and of Soviet Socialist Realism). Russian landscape here becomes a fully fledged medium of exchange, alongside the historical process of developing capitalist relations of production and the emergence of new social classes across the vast terrain of the Russian empire. Capitalist modernization affects not only the mode of ownership and cultivation of land (the scaping regime) but also its scopic aesthetic dimension and “disinterested” consumption of native landscape (like the rapid development of tourism to view the scenery of the Volga). It also opens up means of escape or resistance to the inequalities brought by capitalist reforms, as articulated by artists and writers pursuing political or social agendas.
The current special issue of ARTMargins addresses itself to the historical, geopolitical and geo-cultural, etymological, and aesthetic tensions that have played out in the discourse of landscape. The writers gathered here conceive of landscape as genre or medium, tracing and questioning the boundaries that separate the two; as class ideology and diagram of power, but also—and most importantly—as index, target, strategy, and site of political engagement in the ongoing conflict between capital and labor. The issue seeks inspiration in existing accounts, but it also aims to both assimilate and transcend the dominant frameworks imposed on the landscape (Western, imperial, nativist, postcolonial, and so on). Today it is the transnational, post-regional, inter-medium landscape of the Empire—a term that, as per Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, must be capitalized in order to express its power to unite the multitude of subjectivities produced by globalization beyond the borders of the nation-state. Though this landscape appears in many new frames and resolutions, following the tools, logic, structure, and rules of a changing world, its forms and modes of articulation and closure preserve the contradictions invested in this genre/medium by the forces of history. And even though the issue does not claim to engage with the latest technologies, to break new ground or portray new vistas—most of the articles included here engage with ongoing debates on landscape and modernism, capitalism, or the problem of representation—the contributors are aware of our shared global condition. The issue follows within the tradition of counter-discourse on landscape: theorizing, historicizing, or critiquing landscape as the ideology of a global corporate order. The landscape of this Empire has its own peculiar elements and balances: commodified “nature” and “weather,” put on display to generate ad revenue; landscape as scaped value extracted from the labor of a migrant multitude who tour the planet in search of low-paid jobs, and landscape as a scopic commodity or byproduct that is translated into code and regurgitated by Google Earth, Instagram, Facebook, or Reddit (as “earth porn”) as well as by the ad industry; and landscape as a site of escape associated with radical artistic, critical, or political practices. Though the new “scoping” and “scaping” regimes of the global landscape may seem to emerge from radically new mediums and materials—bits, bytes, and pixels, or new digital tools of representation and landscape design (for example, the “iSkape” or “Scope View” apps made for iOS and Android)—the contemporary landscape, as a shaped, seen, or questioned social and empirical reality, does not exhaust the original historical contradictions that took root at the dawn of capitalist development.
Critical reflections on landscape have changed along with the new scoping and scaping regimes. In this issue, W. J. T. Mitchell's short intervention “Reframing Landscape” reflects on his lifelong interest in the landscape—an interest that, as he confesses, is coextensive with the reach of the British Empire (from the United States to New Zealand and Palestine). As Mitchell reminds us, landscape as a medium of exchange requires constant escaping and rethinking (as Mitchell himself does with Kenneth Clark's influential but “innocent” view that the landscape is the site of the human spirit's attempts to create harmony with the environment).8 For this issue, Mitchell provides examples of reframing the landscape from the past and present of the British Empire: artists challenging the landscape of the 19th-century colonial Pacific, artists working in a “postcolonial” (Palestinian/Israeli) landscape, and contemporary artists formulating new metaphors of resistance to and through landscape, against both old and new viruses plaguing humanity (from racism to SARS-CoV2).
Inspired by such reflections, we search for new ways to engage with landscape under current globalized conditions. As I have already stated, for this issue we chose a landscape-related critical term that widely resonates with the concerns and the framework presented above—a concept that could be used as a point of amplification for the conditions of economic, political, and cultural production reverberating in, and through, the genre/medium of landscape. Fūkei-ron—developed by Japanese radical practitioners of the 1960s—addresses the landscape of late capitalism in its material manifestation, as an extension of state and corporate power. But in addition to presenting landscape as political and economic, or as shaped or viewable reality, fūkei-ron also proposes ways of escape by developing anti-landscape strategies that could subvert the latest scoping and scaping regimes of capitalism (from cinematic, photographic, and theoretical techniques of intervention to barricading, demolishing, and fencing the landscape).
In this issue, fūkei-ron serves as our punctum, or perhaps as the head of an arrow; it is also where lines and paths originating in other planes of contemporary critical thought focused on landscape come to intersect or refract each other. Julia Alekseyeva's “Fury and the Landscape Film” and Franz Prichard's Document Introduction, dedicated to Matsuda Masao's text “City as Landscape,” structure the coordinates for this encounter, providing us with the conceptual conditions for assimilating different theories in the discourse of landscape. Matsuda's “City as Landscape” emerged as a reaction and critique of the changing Japanese land- and cityscape, which Prichard locates in the context of what for a while now has been called neoliberalism. In comparison to the maritime-imperial, coal-blackened, locomotive-driven early industrial landscape, or to the nativist-nationalist and postcolonial landscapes, the neoliberal landscape has its own signs and symbols: high-speed rail infrastructure and Shinkansen bullet trains, transportation and communication networks, densely packed working-class high-rises, foothills and riverbanks encased in concrete. Such signs in the landscape are the product of a mediation between the interests of state and corporate elites. But the landscape is a totality of forces that accommodates both new and old interests and regimes of artifice and visuality, alongside other traces from the history of capital. As in Matsuda's “City as Landscape,” the genre/medium not only articulates the cartography of the Japanese “economic miracle” of the 1960s and 1970s but also carries traces of the imperial landscape from the time of Japan's colonial expansion, such as the dispossession of the Ainu people discussed by Matsuda.
Radical cinematic forms of resisting landscape have been developed by politically active Japanese filmmakers, photographers, and writers. Julia Alekseyeva examines several films as examples of escaping the landscape. The modernization of Japan and the displacement of an important part of the population from rural to urban environments, along with the changes in scenery that have accompanied these processes (highways, railways, antennas, electric power lines, high density apartments, and so on), have led to a profound homogenization of both landscape and everyday life. Both this corporate-imposed homogenization/uniformity and the forms of cinematic reaction or critique capable of disturbing this monotony have been explored by the theorists and practitioners of fükei-ron, with the most paradigmatic film being A.K.A. Serial Killer. In her contribution, Alekseyeva offers other, lesser-known examples of how filmmakers resisted the desperate monotony of the corporatist landscape of post-World War II Japan. The impoverishment of the landscape of everyday life is not unique to Japan: this violence appears in other cultural contexts of late capitalism (compare A.K.A. Serial Killer to, for instance, Ed Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1963). The monotony of corporate landscape as a product of the absolute, commodifying power of capital is a gradual process that was first registered in the so-called “advanced” or “postindustrial” societies of the second half of the last century and then expanded to other parts of the Empire—such as post-1989 Eastern Europe, where former collective farmland has been splintered into strips that provide brand recognition for major Western agribusiness companies: Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, and Dupont.
This special issue also engages with tensions between the political and the aesthetic. Art history tells us that painters challenging the conventions of classical pictorial form have often deliberately chosen vertically oriented canvases in order to distance themselves from the horizontality associated with the conservatism of landscape or with the realist, sequential narration of landscape and genre painting. The transition to verticality invokes the rising significance of the modern subject as the agent of free will and choice, as well as the human dominance of and release from the fear of nature. In art, the victory over nature and the subject's rational free choice are often associated with abstraction. In the latter approach, the artist creates the pictorial conditions for enriching perception or for including the beholder in a perpetual process of self-re-creation. Like the free market, an abstract work of art invites the beholder to exercise his or her freedom of interpretation and participation in the nonfigurative, nonobjective, nonreferential, constantly changing opera aperta of the late capitalist economy, market, and art culture.
Jaleh Mansoor's “Militant Landscape” engages with landscape in relation to “real” and “aesthetic” abstraction and “first” and “second nature,” or the perceived naturalness of capitalist exchange. From a Marxist perspective, and by drawing on a few emblematic art historical landscapes (from J. M. W. Turner in the 19th century to Hercules Segers and Nicolas Poussin in the 17th), Mansoor puts forward the notion of “militant landscape,” which “at the inception and limit of the genre, at once avows and mobilizes against its own indexical condition”—a project parallel to that of fūkei-ron in the context of cinematic practice. Mansoor places landscape in the historical longue durée and systemic development of capitalism, examining the genre/medium through the dialectical entwinement of nature and artifice, and of time and space, in relation to the circulation of commodities and the establishment of new relations and modes of production. For Mansoor, landscape is an index of new forms of the exploitation of nature and a mark of our changing historical perception under conditions of domination by capital.
Angela Harutyunyan's “Landscape and Its Double: The Technological Sublime” approaches landscape with a broad concern for technē and the manmade environment and in light of the enduring “question of technology.” Harutyunyan considers landscape in terms of alienation from nature and of the decay and transformation of perception through technologies of reproducibility. Bringing into discussion the failure of the human subject to overcome alienation and bring about a new social order, Harutyunyan revisits the landscape of late capitalism armed with the notions of the sublime and of technology, analyzing landscape through the prism of reproducibility, representation, and reproduction, but also in light of the failure to change, or even map, our social condition.
The dialectics of first and second nature, of real and aesthetic abstraction, and of the scoping and scaping regimes involved in the constitution of the genre/medium of landscape are a concern not only for critics and art historians. The Croatian artist duo Fokus Grupa contributes to the issue by “fokusing” on the historicity of the imperial landscape, its continuity, and its relation to the present cultural landscape of the European Union. The artists resort to documentary and other discursive critical practices of contemporary art in order to construct a visual-critical case study showing how imperial landscapes made in the Austro-Hungarian empire of the 18th and 19th centuries translate into the cultural policy of today. It is a project where “contemporary art” looks back at the ideological limitations of its Baroque past—and along the way, also glimpses the colonial residue in the “democratic” European present. The group interprets a series of vedute (cityscapes), restored for the Museum of the City of Rijeka following the city's selection as Cultural Capital of the European Union in 2020 and located in the former corporate headquarters of the Trieste-Rijeka Privileged Company, the corporation that enjoyed a full monopoly over sugar processing in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The artists then launch a postcolonial critique of these vedute, seeking to rescue from anonymity the figure of the East Asian slave and to raise questions about the representation of race and class. Postcolonial approaches are relatively new to the landscape of post-socialism or ex-Yugoslav art and art history, and the group shows how the EU is using an unacknowledged (colonial) “heritage” as a historical base for its contemporary “democratic” cultural policies. As the artists point out, the EU's politics of memory, which mainly revolves around the Holocaust and the critique of “communist totalitarianism,” remains blind to the fact that its “democratic culture” rests on artifacts built on colonial injustice, slavery, racism, and other forms of discrimination.
Landscape, a genre/medium in the global exchange of labor, commodities, and technologies, is today naturalized, unified, and totalized by other forms, materials, and techniques native to corporate technological development. What Harutyunyan refers to as the technologically induced, post-auratic condition of the “sublime” is mediated by other frames: cinematic frames, airplane windows, phone displays, or camera viewfinders. Unlike the rigidly fixed frames of politics, economy, and aesthetics in the colonial, imperial, nativist, or nationalist landscape, the digital frame of the post-auratic terrain of the Empire seems expandable, fluid, decentralized, and flowing. Its codes of representation are equally changeable, zoomable, adaptable, editable, and annotatable. Today horizontality and verticality in art and culture are mediated by the choice of the beholder, easily reset by adjusting the preference for “landscape” or “portrait” in a phone's settings. Technologies of representation (more than art or labor) offer new possibilities for tweaking and adjusting the scoping and scaping regimes that have historically constituted landscape. However, the new formal, stylistic, material, and technologically fanciful conditions of this genre/medium cannot totally conceal its enduring political contradictions, nor should they discourage us from closely examining the theoretical and historical transformations of landscape, or from imagining new ways to escape the landscape.
Tim Ingold, “Landscape of Weather-World?,” in Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description (London: Routledge, 2011), 126. See also Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
Martin Jay, “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” in Vision and Visuality, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988).
John Barrel, The Dark Side of the Landscape: The Rural Poor in English Painting 1730–1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
W. J. T. Mitchell, “Imperial Landscape,” in Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 7.
See, for example, Christopher Fly, “Critics in the Native Soil: Landscape and Conflicting Ideals of Nationality in Imperial Russia,” Ecumene 7, no. 3 (July 2000): 253–70.
Mitchell, “Imperial Landscape,” 6.