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transcript

10 / The Natural World

Romita Ray: Nature is full of hidden surprises and secrets.

John Beardsley: There is a kind of mystery and ambiguity to it. It’s dynamic.

Peter Roe: Animals are born just like we are, age just like we do, and die just like we do. Plants, the same. Rivers meander and move. They flood, they drain. Mountains move. They erupt, they erode.

John Beardsley: You can go to the same place at different times of day, different seasons, and it will be different.

Robert Harris: Art somehow makes sense of this environment. It is a way of understanding the natural world.

Segment Title: Art Shaped by the Environment

Fred Myers: The relationship between the human world and the natural world is constantly one of a kind of dialectic or an exchange, in which we are both part of nature and not part of nature.

Peter Roe: We tend to regard, in the West, nature as a kind of mine or storehouse. We think that we dominate nature.

Fred Myers: That’s one tradition’s understanding of the relationship between human beings and other aspects of the world in which we live. But that’s not intrinsic for all human beings in the world.

In many human societies people do not set themselves up as human as apart from nature. They don’t have a concept of nature as something different from the world in which they live.

Pamela McClusky: In many instances, masks that come from Africa combine human and animal identities.

Many of the masquerade impersonators come out and they are hovering right between being human and being visitors from that forest, that mix animal and human features, and are bringing a message about the ways that we are overstepping the bounds of what is human and animal all the time. And that is a very fundamental difference in the sense that many Westerners have that animals are somehow different.

I think of one mask where the face has totally erupted. It’s completely covered with horns and teeth and tusks from creatures that live in the forest. And it’s from the Wee people. And they bring it out and it becomes like a magnet, they say, for all of the cobwebs that people weave between each other, the nasty things they’ve said about each other that sometimes are hovering in the air. And yet, that mask can suck it all back into their body and return it to the forest and thereby purge the human arena of the animalistic instincts that we know we all have.

So there is that idea that in many African cultures you are not about changing the environment, but learning from it and changing people, changing people’s behavior, and modeling yourself after what are the aspects of animals that are truly admirable and where are they a mirror for something that we’re doing wrong. So the forest is not a place that you use, but it’s a place you learn from.

Peter Roe: In the Amazon, in Amazonian cultures, such as Shipibo or Waiwai, everything that is made and everything that is used is modeled on nature.

Their major culture heroes and gods and spirits are actually half-animal, half-human that occupied a kind of beginning of the first unfolding of the universe that I call Dawn Time.

Art comes from these dawn creatures. So, if you pick up a stacking basket and pull it apart, it forms the jaws of the cayman, the giant crocodilian that it was at Dawn Time. And it consumes and stores our artifacts like the reptile consumes and stores us. Or you look at a pot which is used to ferment beer. In mythic time, they will say the first pots were snakes that followed the culture heroes around. And anytime they wanted anything cooked the snake would curl up into a pot, put water in and cook. And then when he was done, the snake would uncurl and slither away.

So when a woman makes a pot, she’s literally building the snake. Then when you hear the hissing of fermentation, they will say, ‘Listen to the snake, it’s hissing, the coiled snake is hissing.’ And so, literally, those objects are alive. They have soul stuff. Humans have given birth to them through the creative act of art.

In the tropical rainforest there is the belief that everything in the world is animated. It’s like the yin and yang, everything moves, and everything is complementary.

Robert Harrist: I think you could say that it’s one of the abiding habits of Chinese ways of thinking from antiquity on down to conceive of things in pairs, in binary units that are complementary and contrasting. And certainly the most famous and familiar is yin and yang, negative, positive, masculine, feminine.

Early Spring is a large painting on silk. It is signed, dated by Guo Xi, 1072. Now Guo Xi is a painter, he’s not a philosopher. But built into the structure of his pictures, I think, is this enduring principle of complementary relationships—mountain and water.

These two things are in constant interplay. The mountain becomes animated by the water flowing through it. And the mountain affects the water. The water has no form without that given it by the mountain, by the earth.

Once you experience the natural environment in China, it starts to make a lot of sense that the most common Chinese term for landscape is shan shui—mountain and water.

There is the reality of this great mountainous country, crisscrossed by rivers, streams. So you start with, in a way, the raw material of nature in China, which is so spectacular, and the history of landscape is how people have interacted with this spectacular environment.

Segment Title: The Spiritual in Nature

Larry Silver: The thing about mountains for people from the Low Countries is that they were almost by definition imaginary and not the kinds of place where they really lived or had experienced. So mountains provide the place where you can go that is the opposite of ordinary lived experience.

Early on, landscape painting in the Netherlands had figures that were really as important in the picture as the landscape itself, often a saint. The whole nature of being a saint is to get away from the world.

And they were seeing the mountains as the ultimate wilderness, the place that the saint could get the farthest from the city where they lived.

The equivalent in Germany was the forest landscape.

For Albrecht Altdorfer, in particular, wilderness meant forest. Probably the most extreme of Altdorfer’s forest landscapes is the St. George, a very tiny work, actually painted on paper, from the year 1510. St. George as he’s doing battle with a dragon does so in this really thick and remote and forbidding arena.

It’s a place that you go and test yourself away from civilization. The experience of landscape as depicted is really a kind of purification process, a spiritual experience more than just a physical one.

Robin Jaffee Frank: In Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail from the early 1870’s, there is this verdant valley bathed in a divine golden haze. And there is this sense that there is a spiritual quality in nature and particularly in what was known as the sublime, in other words, awesome nature, wild nature.

The Hudson River School artists, like Church, for example, or Cole, were kindred spirits in their passionate love of nature, in their belief in the idea that communing with nature led to a greater understanding of God and spirituality. And in their belief that paintings of nature were, in a sense, an expression of national pride.

Many Americans thought that Europe had this great wealth in its cathedrals, in its castles, in its buildings, in its history, for that matter, in its great art. But America had something that was brought here by God, and that was our mountains and valleys. Yosemite, for example, which was so different in the New World, something that you could never find in the Old World, our treasures, our riches.

Segment Title: The Nature of Nationalism & Identity

Alan Chong: There are these very strong issues of nationhood and patriotism with America. And it has something to do with, whether we like it or not, a patriotic identification of the land with the nation. It’s part of our identity. And the Dutch, in the seventeenth century, I think, felt very much the same way.

About 1607 what we now know as the Netherlands was formed as a loose confederation of seven principalities and cities. This new nation had no precedence really in European history. It wasn’t a monarchy, it wasn’t a linguistic or cultural unity. It was a very diverse group of people.

But what’s clear is that everyone owned landscapes. They are the most common subject in the Amsterdam or Rotterdam inventories of the seventeenth century. And the land, in a funny way, became a means of binding the people together.

The seventeenth-century Dutch had a very strong identification with their land. It’s a continual fight against not only foreign invasions, but a fight against the sea.

Holland is a very flat country. Much of it is reclaimed land. So it was originally under water. The dikes had to be maintained and administered, the drainage canals had to be kept open.

It’s that very strong human intervention that Dutch landscape paintings are concerned with, whether it’s a city or a canal, a roadway or a cottage.

Windmills aren’t just picturesque objects, they are actually pumping water to insure the longevity of the very land that we’re seeing and in some cases, grinding grain for the livelihood of the country.

Landscape is a reminder of where you’re from, you know, that this is your country. And in times of crisis, in particular, there is a sense of place which might be important.

Fred Myers: When Aboriginal people started their paintings in acrylic in 1971, there was very little respect for indigenous culture in Australia, and the use of these paintings to declare themselves and their rights to the country and what it meant to them was a fundamental step in laying claim to that country.

Very widespread in Australia is a notion that the world as we know it is a manifestation of activities or events that happened, that were informed by these beings who had power, more power than we have now, and whose activities left their marks on the land. And the features of the landscape were created, whether they be hills, or creeks, or depressions in the land.

The paintings represent these activities. They don’t represent them in an actual topographic way in the actual physical relationship that they might have in space. But they do indicate key features of the stories in the landscape. But they’re shaped to fit into the two-dimensional space of the painting.

So, for example, in the paintings of the Western Desert people of Australia, a circle can be a water hole. It can be a hill. It can be a circular path. It can be a tree seen from above. A line could represent a path, a linear path of movement from one place to another. It can represent a spear.

The ancestors often wore designs and decorations which had these similar shapes on them. And so, the men will say not only are they telling these stories through the paintings, but the paintings are themselves using, if you will, a visual vocabulary that’s left behind by the ancestral beings.

So, they don’t see themselves as really separate from that. They see their spirits as part of the landscape.

The people that I know might say, “That country is me. That’s my body there. That’s where I was left behind by the ancestral beings and I became that tree.” And so when they’re painting those stories, they’re also in a way painting their own origin.

Romita Ray: We occupy land as human beings, so it is very much connected to who we are not just nationally, but who we are also as human beings who are living in that particular moment in history.

Kay WalkingStick: I was born in Syracuse, raised in a white Protestant culture. My father was born in Indian Territory in 1896 before Oklahoma was a state. And I never lost an appreciation for being Cherokee; I always had that.

I’ve always thought that one of the reasons for doing diptychs is that it brings together two different kinds of views. And that unity is about a human condition. It’s not about being an Indian on the planet. It’s about being a human on the planet. But it is about our relationship to the earth.

I see trips as ways to develop images for myself, my paintings. So I oftentimes take a sketch book. The sketches act as a way for me to remember the place. It’s like a photo album almost, except it’s a little more personal. If I work directly from a photograph it has a higher degree of verisimilitude, but it doesn’t have the kind of personal energy and mood and message that I think it would otherwise.

When I first started making diptychs, they were really about memory in that one was the immediate vision of a place and the other side was the long-term memory of the place, the abstract memory, if you will. And it’s important in these paintings because I think that the filter of memory personalizes a thing.

I think the paintings very much represent who I am and the way my head works and also my own personal history.

Larry Silver: Landscape often is a way of coming to terms with who you are.

Alan Chong: And you could say that an interest in other landscapes and other peoples is a way, indeed, of defining one’s own self.

Romita Ray: The name Company School is associated with the East India Company and specifically was used for Indian artists who are commissioned to paint scenes of India for the British residents there.

They were long-term residents, so there was a long-term investment in these kinds of images, and in a way these images reflect who they are, because over time they would have to adapt to their environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean they become too Indianized, but there is a sense that they now do live in India and that this is where their new home is. So, in a sense, embracing what’s around them would be the next natural step.

One of the most powerful patrons behind the development of the Company School was Lady Impey. She was married to the Supreme Court Justice of Bengal, of Calcutta. And she herself was a great connoisseur of painting. She was especially interested in natural history.

Natural history subjects would range from plants to animals, basically. So you’ve got an interest in specimens of different types and of course, the more exotic they are, the more interesting they are. And it’s a mixture of, shall we say, aesthetic pleasure as well as scientific scrutiny.

These kinds of images of flora and fauna would have been very much about creating an encyclopedia of knowledge. This was also the great era of botany and horticulture as well. There was tremendous interest in one’s surroundings and in setting up botanical gardens. So the transplanting of plants, let’s say, or studying one’s local plants, this goes hand in hand, we find, with the recording of plants.

Segment Title: Art Shaping the Environment

Robert Harrist: Painting is just one form of landscape art. Even before there was landscape painting, there was landscape gardening.

So you can make a landscape both by painting on paper or silk, but you can make a landscape by excavating earth and piling it up to make a mountain and then filling up the excavation with water to create a lake or pond.

Romita Ray: The “picturesque” is a landscape aesthetic that develops, especially in Britain, in the eighteenth century and it’s applied to both painting as well as to garden design. Basically, it’s all about variety. It’s also about roughness, edges, for instance, that needed to be rough and uneven. The more variety, the more disorderly, the more picturesque it was considered.

So, let’s say in the case of a picturesque garden, it would look like, yes, this is natural, this is wild, and to a certain extent it was. But the initial design would have been intended. So a picturesque garden was made to simulate nature, and then once nature took over, it appeared to be that sort of classic English garden that we envision.

John Beardsley: When you get outside you engage light, you engage sound, you engage smell, you engage touch. So, the experience of space in landscape is a much richer palate than the experience of space inside.

A lot of artists in the late sixties and early seventies wanted to engage this idea of physical experience in space. Land Art, or Earth Art, is a good way of suggesting the kinds of transformations that were going on in art at the time. It’s essentially sculpture at an environmental scale.

Spiral Jetty is probably the best known work by Robert Smithson. It’s a coil of black basalt rock and earth that spins about 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake. It’s made in the shape of a spiral, Smithson said, because as he looked at the site it rotated around him like a cyclone. He was drawn to the Great Salt Lake because it’s in a very arid environment, but also because the water is so salty that nothing can grow in it except for colonies of an algae that turns the water pink. So, he was drawn to these extreme environmental conditions with the idea that art could somehow draw you into landscapes that you might not otherwise go to.

Experiencing Land Art is complicated because very few people see the things themselves. Spiral Jetty exists in many forms. It exists as a physical artifact in the landscape itself, it exists as drawings, it exists as a film, it exists as a text, he wrote an essay called “The Spiral Jetty.” And, it’s really meant to be experienced through all those media.

There is something very different about being at the Spiral Jetty than from looking at photographs of the Spiral Jetty. But if you work your way through all the different expressions of the Spiral Jetty, you do come up with a rich understanding of the place, maybe even richer than you could get just by going there.

There are so many artists working in landscape now, some of them on a large scale in ways that seem to disrupt the landscape. Other artists work on a much more modest scale in a way that is intended to be much more cooperative with or harmonious with nature. And ecological art might be that effort to use art as a form of environmental remediation.

Kongjian Yu’s work is an effort to restore urban ecosystems, to unbuild some of the damaging infrastructure that we’ve put in our cities and create places that are more hospitable both for human life and for plants and animals as well.

He’s been involved in projects to remove the concrete that lines riversides and create more functioning ecological systems on riverbanks, rather than channeling rivers into concrete-lined canals, breaking those walls, and allowing the river to spread out in a more natural way.

People have always shaped their environment and people have always created images in the landscape that we assume to be ways of understanding or connecting with the natural world.

Robert Harrist: And representations of the natural world can be a means of understanding forces that control not just the cosmos, but also human life.

Fred Myers: We are the natural world. Everything we do. We are part of nature. Human beings are part of nature. What we do is part of the natural world.

Robert Harrist: And the natural world is the material for art.