There is nothing more unsettling in our tumultuous times than images of nature appearing to act naturally. In the age of the Anthropocene, a trip to the Somerset countryside no longer has the same picturesque, nostalgia-inducing appeal that once enticed caravaners and watercolourists out of the suburbs. Landscape is no longer witness to the dream of reason. Sublime and technological sublime are now entangled in the romantic embrace of the slow-death; locked in the mutual chokehold of the forever undead. The hills really do have eyes, but this time not those of alienated savages but of an alien landscape – the nature once feared before it was tamed and refashioned in the 18th and 19th centuries. Or perhaps these are the eyes of surveillance, following us from the city. A gaze that tracks us from within and without our bodies, oscillating between perceived unity and abject thingness, as we peer from behind ourselves.
Hidden in the foliage the gaze that watches identifies both with the unknown threat of horror cliché and Benjamin’s camera operator, but never with the zombie actor whose sightseeing corpse is framed. It is the familiar yet unidentifiable gaze that surveils us in our endless work lives as we chase the next project or tweet another opinion, and as we check-in with our fictions of how best to promote ourselves online or how the world perceives us. It is the blind reptilian gaze of neoliberalism, which doubles as our own, dreaming our dreams and enabling the reconfiguration of power and control around our CV careers; tightening around everyday life with every breath – every blog post – like a vast boa constrictor. It watches us mockingly as we hopelessly try to reconcile the rift between self and world with the sheer will and conviction of our Gore-Texed rural perambulations. It is the GPS that pinpoints our exact location as we scan the view for signs of life.
Approaching Hauser and Wirth Somerset by car is a reminder that middle class mythologies still hang like an opulent damask veil over our disquieting new landscape. My friends and I debate whether or not wellies will be needed for the short walk from the visitor car park to the lavishly refurbished farm buildings. We glimpse the bistro in which we have a table booked for lunch. We peruse the selection of art theory books including, unironically, Clare Bishop’s critique of participatory art, ‘Artificial Hells’. On entering Qwaypurlake, a group exhibition curated by Simon Morrissey, what strikes you is the apparent tameness, even conservatism, of the works included. The seeming mundaneness of some of the photographic images, for example, and the reassuring familiarity of the landscape images, lull us into a false sense of security. Look again. These are not the landscapes you’re looking for! The works here are representations of an older landscape – the pagan landscape of soil and life-cycles, geology and ‘deep time’, pantheism and animistic energies – that is hidden just below the aberration we call capitalism. The strange resonances that come from many of the works are like clarion calls from our planet, not in the egotistical sense of it asking us to save it but a deeper tone. The voice of landscape as a primordial echo – a shrug of knowing acceptance or an earthly stirring to shake off the sedimentary scar tissue we call human culture.
The landscape of Qwaypurlake, a title taken from the road leading out of Bruton in the direction of Frome called Quaperlake Street, is a sentient one. The exhibition most obviously draws inspiration from Stanislaw Lem’s novel ‘Solaris’ (1961), which is centred on a conscious oceanic planet. As global sea levels rise, this vision offers a glimpse of a very possible dystopian future. Indeed, the first work we encounter is a film by David Wojtowycz that depicts a familiar yet alien seascape centrally divided by a pier. At first, the scene seems oddly mundane, until the viewer becomes aware that the waters on either side of the pier behave in strange and unnatural ways. To the right the sea is choppy and convulsing, as if broken by jumping fish, and to the left the water surface is still as a pond, pulled flat as if by some unknown force.
A sonic resonance burrs from the well-like forms of Kit Poulson / Alex Baker’s ‘transmitters’. Jem Southam and Aaron Scuhman’s sparse, bleak landscapes focus on dew ponds, and smouldering wood and ashes, respectively, to produce eerie post-human narratives of absence / presence. The tree spirits are tangibly present in the dense boscage of James Ravilious’ black and white photographs and Ben Rivers’ mud-daubed pagan ancestors watch us from the undergrowth. An undercurrent of primitivism runs through the exhibition, witnessed in Michael Dean’s large standing forms, Elizabeth Frink’s mutant creatures and Han’s Coper’s Cycladic shapes. Likewise, Daphne Wright’s workaday beasts echo both the harsh realities of our rural past – enclosures, hunting rights, poaching – and the neoclassical spender of the landed gentry. Indeed, ‘Stallion’ (2009) is a particular startling sculpture, whose grandiose classicism, fuses power and status with the brutal realism and mundane functionality of an equine autopsy. Heather and Ivan Morison’s sculptures play in the archetypal landscapes of British surrealist tradition, mixing Nash’s rural ‘equivalents’ with monstrous sublimatory forms.
Ian McKeever’s thingly paintings have a presence reminiscent of Rothko’s Seagram Murals, and are slightly menacing. The interplay of light and dark dances on the canvases like daylight from a rock crevice catching the torrential flow of an underground river. The thickness and darkness of the paint is deceptive as there is a gentle melancholy to the gesture and movement of the paint. There is a filmic quality to these paintings. As my eyes panned across their huge surfaces and inky root-like forms, I was reminded of the murky painted backdrops for the subterranean scenes in the 1978 animated adaptation of Watership Down. Of course, the inclusion of Frink and Coper, together with Peter Lanyon and Richard Deacon, remind us that British modernism has always looked beyond the human and engaged with the affective nature of landscape: attentively slowing down human temporal experience to the ‘deep time’ of geology and nature, and listening to animistic objects and sentient landscapes that speak to us from a time before we were here to listen, and will continue to resonate long after we are gone.
Qwaypurlake, until 31 January, Hauser and Wirth Somerset, Durslade Farm, Dropping Lane, Bruton, Somerset BA10 0NL.
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1. David Wojtowycz, The Lake, 2012. Film still. Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth.