Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Landscape and interpretation

Which comes first, the artist or the landscape? I remember being profoundly disappointed when I went to Aix-en-Provence and discovered that the countryside looked exactly like a Cezanne. Damn! He just painted what was in front of him--although he did elaborate a bit on Mount St. Victoire, which was punier than I expected. And Venice looks just like Canaletto, Paris like that rainy day Caillebotte at the Art Institute in Chicago I've always loved, and while I haven't been to China, a friend told me that the mountains and mist look just like--Chinese paintings. So now that I live on the edge of the Hudson River Valley I think a lot about the painters of the Hudson River School and how they, too, were painting just what was in front of them. Or were they? Perhaps I see it the way I see it because I've been shown it through their eyes.

I thought about this a lot on our trip to Iceland, where we were shooting background landscape for our film about Olafur Eliasson and Einar Thorsteinn’s collaborations. Terry, who did his Ph.D. thesis on Olafur’s work, was visiting Iceland for the first time, and when he got there exclaimed, “Olafur is just appropriating the landscape!” Not that Olafur pretends to do anything else—it’s possible to trace almost everything he does back to Iceland in one way or another—but this time it was even more clear to me. Þingvellir is that most famous site in Iceland where the Vikings established their parliament back in 930 A.D. Now a national park, it is edged by a wall of black rock interspersed at intervals with waterfalls of various size and looking at it on this visit it was easy to imagine the black rock as the New York City skyline as seen from the East River, where Olafur placed his waterfalls. Americans expect waterfalls to be spectacular, but in Iceland, while of course some are spectacular, many, as in Þingvellir are simply columns of water whose movement animates the otherwise static rocky landscape.

I get annoyed when people apologize for photographs, but this is the best I have of the cliff line with waterfalls at Þingvellir, taken around 11:00 at night with an overcast sky. At least you get the idea. I haven't yet got the hang of taking photographs in Iceland, but it's something I look forward to working on.

Readers of this blog know how passionate I am about keeping the art experience free from any interference that attempts to interpret the work for viewers or bombard them with information that gives the impression that art is about, well, information. This is a philosophy I share with Robert Irwin and Olafur, who was greatly influenced by Irwin (did I get the idea from them or was I attracted to them because of it?—another question that can never be answered). No wonder I’m so comfortable in Iceland, because here is an entire country that appears to share my aversion to signage. The first time I went to Þingvellir I drove right past because there was a road sign but no more. No WELCOME TO ÞINGVILLIR, HOME OF THE PARLIAMENT, or its equivalent in Icelandic, not even a billboard with the park’s name on it. I also drove past the visitor’s center because there were no signs, no advertisements, nothing. The only way you’d know that the building, which appeared commercial, housed hospitality facilities would be to go look in the window. I love that. Because of course it is the Visitor Center--it's the only building within 50 km and it's where Þingvellir is on the map, but my American brain has been conditioned to look not for places, but for labels. And once you get into the park there are no plaques explaining what you are looking at here and there. You can have your own experience, and if you want to know something you can get a guidebook. Anyway, it’s an essential philosophy that Olafur seems to share with his favorite country, something to ask him about one day.

The only sign I saw at Gulfoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. The cloverleaf symbol indicates an official site of natural or historic interest.

And now I’m off to California, causing a friend to grumble something about my carbon footprint. Well I don’t know if it fully absolves me, but I do grow all my own vegetables.

I am proud of my garden but all I did was put in some seeds and keep the weeds out. I find it difficult to take credit for nature.

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