Articulating the Earth

Articulating the Earth

Landscape into Eco Art opens with a quote from Philippe Descola’s The Ecology of Others (2013) – “One does not have to be a great seer to predict that the relationship between humans and nature will, in all probability, be the most important question of the present century.” It’s a powerful statement that points to the Anthropocene – a controversial term given to the current geological epoch in which human activity has been a major influencer in altering the planet and its environment. But Mark Cheetham does not dwell on the climate crisis: instead, his 239-page volume seeks to broaden our understanding of what “contemporary eco art” is by opening up previously dismissed dialogues.

Throughout the first chapter, Cheetham’s initial agenda is laid bare: 1. to clarify how eco artists interact with landscape and 2. how landscape, land art and eco art inform each other. The reader is given a summary of recent landscape and eco-criticism to help position themselves within an ongoing discussion on what eco art is or isn’t. In the first few pages, he builds a case for landscape (or landscape depictions) being very much a part of eco art despite artists (notably Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson) and art historians dismissing it as an “exhausted medium” (from W.J.T Mitchell’s Thesis on Landscape).

Cheetham clarifies early on that he does not attempt to “revive landscape [..] but to remember it.”  Still, Landscape into Eco Artis far from nostalgic: it is forwarding-thinking in building a case for the connection between eco art and landscape and land art across eras. Eight case studies, spread across five chapters, detail the connections and incongruences in examples from the 19thcentury to the present day. However, rather than a linear narrative or chronological storytelling, Cheetham’s writing remains fresh and dynamic as he weaves together landscape depiction in the West with contemporary artworks which promote ecological thinking. 

The content is explorative as he also draws on examples from all media – painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, film, video, sound, installation and animation are referenced throughout. In Case Study 1, he explores the tree as an age-old synecdoche for nature and life, as well as common practices of tree-manipulation with reference to Carl Wilhelm Kolbe the Elder’s (1759-1859) anthromorphised trees. These landscape depictions are married with contemporary examples like Robert Smithson’s Dead Tree –an intact uprooted tree – and Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium (2007) – a naturally fallen Western hemlock turned ‘nurse’ log. Cheetham explains that the latter of the three is connected to its counterparts through its shared focus on deracinated trees, but differs in its conscious, ecological thinking.

As we read, Cheetham continues to clarify the nuances between landscape painting, land art and eco art through new points of discussion: chapter two, Beyond Suspicion: Why (Not) Landscape?, delves into our suspicious approach to landscape painting and proposes that the genre is integral in the articulation of eco art. A further chapter spends time comparing and contrasting the site-specifity of the land art of the 1960s and 1970s, questioning its accessibility in remote places along with trends which see work returning to the institution. Cheetham lists examples of this fashion of bringing ‘nature’ to the gallery, notably Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Projectat Tate Modern.

Cheetham concludes his writing with a chapter on borders. Bordering the Ubiquitous: The Art of Local and Global Ecologieshighlights how ecological thinking can transgress borders – how it enters into dialogues on climate science, politics and government policy, and how it can take us beyond the anthropocentric and reconnect us with the planet’s materiality. Landscape into Eco Artis an engaging and theoretical read, which systematically analyses contemporary eco art. It draws on key examples of the genre while reflecting on former land art legacies and paying homage to the forgotten art of landscape depiction. Ultimately, Cheetham expands our understanding of contemporary eco art by taking its heritage – along with its current condition – into consideration.

Landscape into Eco Art: Articulations of Nature Since the ’60s, Mark A. Cheetham. For more information, click here.

Selina Oakes

1. Olafur Eliasson, The weather project,  2003. Installation view: Tate Modern, London, 2003. Photo: Tate Photography (Andrew Dunkley & Marcus Leith) © 2003 Olafur Eliasson.