Within the State of Flux

The importance of artistic perception in the anthropocene

By Francesca Howard

In 1959, Cornish painter Peter Lanyon first took to the skies in a glider with a desire to experience the land from a new perspective, as he explained: ‘to get a more complete knowledge of the landscape’. Thrilling and highly charged, Lanyon’s paintings hold the viewer in a state of flux, with no obvious sense of direction or horizon line within the chaotic blue hues, blurring the boundaries between land, sea, and air. This new and extended aerial perspective of Cornwall gave him a unique vision and informed his paintings right through to his death in a gliding accident in 1964. Lanyon made a total of 385 flights in his six years of gliding; his lifelong ambition to understand and document his experience of the landscape as completely and as truly as possible became something close to an obsession.

Yet in the solitary isolation of the cockpit, Lanyon was not alone in his attempts to find a new way of seeing the post-war landscape, and to re-establish a shaken identity in a world that had been fundamentally changed by the ravages of war. The devastation of the First World War revealed a darker side to humanity’s progress, which was drowned out by the voice of purism in the inter-war period. Artists including Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson called for constructivist philosophy, concrete architecture, and whitewashed walls, and this mode of thought took artists to placeless realms as they bid goodbye to earthly associations. Lanyon moved from his exploration of constructivism to become an advocate of Abstract Expressionism, a movement which marked a shift towards a more introspective reflection on the natural world. Peter Lanyon realised he did not wish to disconnect himself from the broken landscape that surrounded him, but instead searched for an alternative way of looking at it. In his paintings, Lanyon reveals a sense of his own private meditations on life and death; he encourages us consider our own place within the world and arrive at a much deeper understanding of ourselves and the environment that we navigate our way through.

Following in the footsteps of Peter Lanyon, many artists have also demonstrated an incredible capacity to establish new connections with the natural world, in its constantly shifting state, through their personal experiences and committed observations of the landscape. The environment has always been a subject of our curiosity and through many different art forms this complex relationship has been expressed through the centuries. In an environment that is changing at an ever-increasing rate, artists visually documenting the impact of human activity on our planet is vital to sustain public engagement and instil a deeper sense of connection to the ground we stand on in an increasingly (and rather ironically) disconnected, urbanised population. We are living in an age where communication through painting, sculpture, land art, and other art forms could be a potential lifeline in the way it can transform attitudes, specifically towards climate change, and the way we connect with our surroundings. And as such, we should not underestimate the role of art as a powerful force for change, and its ability to condition our vision of the world for the better.

Unlike the disillusionment of Lanyon and his contemporaries, land art offered a strong sense of purpose as an increasingly defined movement with a growing concern for the environment.

The Land Art and Earthworks of the late 1960s in the United States demonstrated just that. The movement marked an important change in the way artists saw themselves in relation to the environment and contributed to a further rejection of outmoded forms of landscape art. During this time the human environment seemed to be expanding rapidly and it appeared to many that there remained no part of the landscape that had not been touched by man. These new forms of art were responses to a landscape almost entirely transformed by human activity. Works were often site-specific structures in remote places, employing natural materials which were then documented using photographs. The famous Spiral Jetty (1970) by Robert Smithson sought to challenge the constraints of the gallery space on an immense scale. Like Lanyon, Smithson attempted to test the limits of human perception, not only scaling great heights in his search for potential installation sites, but in the scale of his work and their remote locations. Unlike the disillusionment of Lanyon and his contemporaries, land art offered a strong sense of purpose as an increasingly defined movement with a growing concern for the environment. Rather than offering a meditation upon human experience through projecting emotions and desires onto the landscape, as reflected in Lanyon’s post-war work, land artists were conscious of their growing responsibility and began to offer a restorative solution to the impact of man on the environment. They recognised that the human and natural are not separable from each other but are interwoven. Though the early land art works cannot be considered strictly ecological, Smithson, Walter De Maria, Nancy Holt, and others paved the way for a more ecologically conscious kind of art.

The work of Lanyon, Smithson, and others is more poignant than ever as we find ourselves in the wake of an environmental crisis. We are today more conscious of humanity’s capacity for violence and destruction in a profit-driven economy, and the catastrophic impact that human activity is having on the environment. The role of the artist as explorer, pilgrim, activist, witness, and storyteller has never been more crucial in order to counter a rhetoric found in the media which distances us from the environment. In his book <