Scapescapes


Landscapes without memory, Joan Fontcuberta
[96 pp. Aperture]


I picked this up with an instant sense of dislike which in a couple of minutes was replaced by bemusement, and then a deep sense of appreciation. This is one of those rare books which can change the way you see. Its deepest impact is not conceptual, but visual. The photographer's name being unfamiliar to me, it took me a while to realise what was happening in these pictures. To look at them briefly, on the surface (and this book is about surfaces), they appear to be the kind of kitsch landscapes one is familiar with from album covers and calendars: sheer mountains dropping into fathomless seas, improbably deep fissures and canyons, recursive inlets on endless mountain coasts. We have seen these often, in science fiction movies, screensavers, and dreams. It is no surprise to find that they are not even created by people any more; landscapes like this can be imaged endlessly by computer software designed to create simulacra of real landscapes, following certain algorithms taken from the rules of orogenesis and geomorphology. Algorithms that have surely been tweaked slightly to make the mountains more strident, the sea more profound. Picking up Fontcuberta's book, it seems at first that it is simply a collection of such images, sublime and unpopulated screenshots with the slight rastered quality of the desktop.

Then you look more closely. Each image in the book is accompanied by a smaller picture, a reproduction of an image. In the first part of the book, they are images from the canon of landscape painting, in the second half, pictures of the photographer's own body. You have to read the introduction to see how the images were produced. Fontcuberta is at the conceptual end of photography, almost the opposite of the landscape photographer that you might for a few seconds imagine took these pictures. He fed digital images of these artworks into a software program that was designed to interpret maps as horizontal, persepctival images. Originally apparently from some military source, but now in general use, these programs 'read' the map and produce a landscape image of the relevant terrain.

So when fed an image that is not a map, but a piece of canonical art, the software (presumably with some intervention on Fontcuberta's part) struggles to make sense of it, and comes up with these fantasy landscapes. You can compare the master picture with the digitized and processed landscape, and after some struggle of adjusting perspective you can see how a face, a body, a tree, etc., read two-dimensionally, has been turned into an exaggerated mountain crest or deep crater.

There are a few jokes here. That classic image of the romantic sublime and the individual beholder, Casper David Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, is translated into an unpeopled and barren sea inlet; if one could view the image from above, the shape of the sea and headland would be the imprint of David's silhouetted wanderer. In Henri Rousseau's The Dream, the reclining nude figure in the jungle turns into a barren rock island.

Sometimes they are extremely 'plausible', and this should not be surprising. Any landscape is firstly a human creation; the word landscape came to us through the Dutch via their tradition of painting pleasant and bucolic outdoors scenes, a tradition which really arose after the development of perspective, as a way for the Dutch bourgeoisie to enumerate their possessions. As the cult of sensibility grew during the eighteenth century, prefiguring romanticism, the ways of seeing changed to accommodate the idea of visual pleasure from viewing the outdoors; in particular, and increasing into the nineteenth century, these were the rugged and mountainous landscapes of the sublime, the chasmic, the fearsome. The usual way of telling this is to say that as the industrial revolution spread, people yearned for a 'nature' that they felt sundered from. I often suspect there was an aspect of this change in sensibility that was caused also by changes in technology. We learn to see in a manner that mimics the things we have made: painted landscapes, telescopes, cameras.

There are no landscapes in nature, only objects and living beings. As viewers, even when looking at a real mountain, we take pleasure in the view, and we often imagine that this is taking us closer to nature, when the opposite is closer to the truth. Landscape is a kind of nostalgia for a closeness that we imagine we once had with nature. Fontcuberta in these pictures shows how deeply constructed this nostalgia is.

It is interesting that we have started taking this 'scape' suffix and adding it to anything else that is visually pleasing or interesting; a cityscape, a seascape, now even a thoughtscape, a bodyscape. These are scapescapes, landscapes processed from previous landscapes. Fontcuberta seems to be saying: the more highly processed, kitschy, and exaggerated (and hence further from 'nature') a landscape is, the more we enjoy it in this romantic way that is now so thoroughly manufactured. Hence we cannot look at these pictures without a bemused double-take, the kind of questioning that conceptual art is meant to initiate in the viewer.

Some people may find this a bit too tricky, as if it is making one conceptual point, and so therefore why do we need a whole book? The answer seems to be in the second half, in which Fontcuberta uses images of his own body. My favourite image is one that he took of his temple. In the computerised image, a mole has become a single black island. In the distance, his eyelid appears as a mountainous mainland. In another picture, his nipple transmutes into a huge mountain peak surrounded by ice. In another, his penis is a lake fringed with fairy-tale mountains. Clearly, there is a relation to the surrealists here, and Breton or Dali or Magritte (perhaps Magritte in particular) would have enjoyed doing this, if they had had the technology.

Surrealism started as a movement as political as it was artistic (they knew how linked the two are). They knew the world would change if people change the way they look. Fontcuberta almost goes further. The act of appropriation that this book is, says we can all change our way of perceiving the world. Enough of picturing things like a painter, or even more passively, like a camera. Why not start to process our images as a computer can do, why not endlessly re-imagine the images we are receiving; or even transmute our own bodies into the islands and mountains and snow we are made from.

My only grudge with this book? I wanted a copy of the software he was using.


         Giles Goodland 2005