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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 Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today, Professor T. J. Demos highlights the dangers of a visual culture controlled by elite groups in the ‘new geologic epoch’ that we have entered: ‘one defined by our own massive impact on the planet’. From the manipulation of mapped scientific data to the aestheticising of industry, the imagery of the Anthropocene in the media often (directly or indirectly) serves large profit-driven corporations rather than the individual or local community. ‘Anthropocene visuality tends to reinforce the techno-utopian position that “we” have indeed mastered nature, just as we have mastered its imaging’, Demos argues, ‘—in fact the two, dual colonisation of nature and representation, appear inextricably intertwined’.

Following in the footsteps of Smithson, the internationally renowned British environmental artist Chris Drury is one of many artists exploring new ways of interacting with the landscape in the wake of the technological age, facilitated by scientific advancements. Unsurprisingly, the recent decades have seen dozens of artists travel to the ‘untouched’ far reaches of the earth, specifically Antarctica, a place which Drury described after his two-month residency at Sky Blu in 2007 as ‘where human beings should not be: it is no country for men of any age. But for the artist it was strangely exhilarating’. Chris Drury and Emma Stibbon are among those artists successfully undermining this master narrative in their portrayal of some of the most magnificent and remote landscapes. Their committed documentation of these regions reminds us that these places are vulnerable, temporal, forever-shifting, and adapting environments. They have both undertaken extensive research into scientific studies of these areas as a way of comprehending the extent of climate-driven shifts and cycles on every level. In attempting to navigate the complex relationship between art and science within the climate discussion, we have witnessed the most important shift in environmental art and our perception of ‘nature’.

The product of Chris Drury’s journey was a collection of photographs capturing the ethereal vastness of the Antarctic landscape including Wind Vortex (2007), followed by a second group of works made months later, using imagery from Global Positioning Systems (GPS), meteorological wind tracking devices, satellite imagery, and echogram imaging of the ice cap. Explorers at the Edge of the Void (2007) contains handwritten words which follow the strata lines of echograms. He became acutely aware of the weather changes and seasonal shifts within the landscape on a macro- and microcosmic level, expanding his depth of perception and understanding of the human condition within the environment and their unyielding interdependence. Art historian Mel Gooding described how Drury ‘realised that the human organism, and the social systems that sustain human culture in every sense of that word, and which are served by instrumental science and technology, constitute a reality continuous with the wider ecosystem of the earth as a whole’. Drury rightly acknowledges that the most ‘complete knowledge of the landscape’ we can find, in Lanyon’s words, is through our constant interaction with our environment and its processes. The most complete and truthful view of nature is the most subjective. Drury contemplated that ‘our analysis is a part of the process of nature […] The process of nature must include the actions of man whether or not they are destructive’.

Drury believed that the dynamic relationship between culture and nature renders the two inseparable, much like other artists of his time such as Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. Perhaps in Lanyon’s attempt to see the landscape from above, he inadvertently found himself in a similar position to Drury and the earlier land artists, witnessing the powers of nature whilst being entirely consumed by them. It was only after he came to land in his glider and reflected on his experience that he was able to stand back and view it from a certain angle in his studio. Even then, Drury’s work seems to present something ahead of his time: an ability to portray his experience within an environment. The yearning to understand our natural surroundings has now taken us into new realms of knowledge and scientific exploration, placing us within the ecological system rather than simply as outside observers.

Royal Academician Emma Stibbon took a similar, research-led approach to her artwork as she set out to document the remains of summer Alpine glaciers in 2007. It is through the act of drawing that Stibbon was able to make a connection with the landscape, but she carried out her work with the assistance of a number of glaciologists. Like Drury, Stibbon believes that art informed by science can offer us an enlightened understanding of the impacts of the Anthropocene on our climate. She takes this a step further in likening her committed study of glacial shifts to studies carried out by scientists: ‘recording has always been an important part of science and many expeditions augmented early scientific mapping methods by including an artist’. Despite this traditional role, the dynamic qualities of the extreme Alpine environment led her to reassess her role as witness and observer. In a statement for the exhibition, Stibbon expressed that ‘location is a central concern in my practice. I often make my works in response to sites that are in some kind of dynamic flux or change: I am interested in landscapes that put a perspective on the viewer’. The precision, accuracy and sheer volume of scientific data detailing the shifts in the glacier has opened up new questions about relativity and how to conceptualise our place within the wider ecosystem.

Nevertheless, science has its limits. Stibbon argues that ‘whilst this data based scientific research gives critical evidence of how our planet is changing it is interesting to see how we may also perceive and visualise our environment in other ways’. To lose this sense of active critical engagement and inquisitiveness would endanger the very future of our planet, and a stance of neutrality or complacency is to be complicit in this. T. J. Demos believes ‘what we need urgently is more activism […] to rescue the democratic political process from corporate oligarchs’. Documenting change from new viewpoints, whether it be the cockpit of a glider or Stibbon’s remote studio in the arctic, encourages us to test, rethink, and challenge existing preconceptions of the Anthropocene thesis. Such an approach is perhaps the most valuable form of communication in the climate change debate.


Francesca Howard is a Vice Chancellor Music Scholar and English Literature undergraduate at Hatfield College, Durham University. She takes an interest in the visual arts and is committed to foregrounding the importance of different modes of communication in the climate change debate.


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