The history of the representations of landscape in Australia was complex, if not contradictory, given that landscape is a contested term, meaning very different things to different people. The modernists, for instance, held that landscape was an anachronistic genre, part of a old, privileged gum tree tradition ‘overthrown’ by Modernism. Landscape as a term should be abandoned it was held. Currently, landscape is often viewed in the art institution to be of little or no relevance in our overwhelmingly urban, more or less progressive, global culture.
On the other hand, the view that the visual representations of landscape (the bush) were deemed to be old fashioned and irrelevant only lasted until various modernists — such as Nolan, Boyd, Williams — turned to representing the landscape after stepping outside the capital cities into what they called the Outback or the dead centre. Then the visual representations of landscape became okay and their representations were not ideological ie., it was not embedded in ideology. Landscape is the framed view whose paradox islandscape is that it is both what is other to the human subject: land, place, nature; and yet, it is also the space for projection, and can become, therefore, a sublimated self-portrait or a field of dreams.
This contradictory history of modernism has dissolved in three ways. Firstly, is the idea of topographics as a ‘man-altered landscape’ that emerged after the influential New Topographics exhibition in 1975 at George Eastman House. Secondly, we can understand the representation of ‘landscape’ as the means by which artists engage with issues of place, with questions about our location in the world – a location which is always, as Merleau-Ponty made clear, originally grounded in our immediate bodily location.
We were on the return leg of the roadtrip and stayed a couple of nights with the standard poodles at some upmarket seaside cottages near Johanna Beach that overlooked a farm. It was a short walk through the campsite and the sand dunes to the surfing beach, and a small drive across the Great Ocean Road to the edge of the forest along the Old Ocean Rd.
The insistence on medium-specificity in the visual arts arose in the era of modernism has become associated with the art critic Clement Greenberg’s commitment to medium-specificity as a condition of artistic value. This was spelt out in the aesthetics essay in the Adelaide Art Photographers c1970-2000 book published by Moon Arrow Press (Adelaide, 2019). With postmodernism (1980-1990s) and the anti-aesthetic environment the idea of a specific medium became akin to toxic waste, and it was seen as just too ideologically loaded.
Yet photographers continue to make photos in the 21st century, and see themselves as working in a specific photographic medium. Is it then possible to still speak of photography as a medium after the demise of modernism? If so, how can we understand contemporary photography as a medium?
The concept of the artistic medium can be traced back to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1766 essay, Laocoon. Lessing dismantles Horace’s famous claim “ut pictura poesis” (as is painting, so is poetry), arguing that these media are inherently different, because while poetry unfolds in time, painting exists in space. He refers to the media as two equitable and friendly neighbours who should not overstep their respective domains. Lessing contended that an artwork, in order to be successful, needs to adhere to the specific stylistic properties of its own medium.
Clement Greenberg’s influential co-opting of Kant’s aesthetics to buttress modernism in the face of influence of Duchamp and the emergence of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual Art picks Lessing’s idea of medium up and linked it to taste, aesthetic judgement and value. Modernism, for Greenberg, is a heightened tendency towards aesthetic value. He states that medium-specificity is a characteristic which distinguished Modern Art from the previous art forms. Modernism consists in the emancipation of art from its classical role of pure representation.
Greenberg then defends and celebrates abstract painting as achieving the perfect expression of medium-specificity and purity — purity being the ideal state of medium-specificity, the work as uncontaminated by the influence of other media. By escaping from the chains of recognizable subject matter, the abstract painter became free to focus on the materiality of the medium. Thus, painting became an autonomous force that communicated nothing outside of its own self-contained properties. Greenberg’s general idea is that it is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself, and that an artwork is defined by the qualities of the materials used.
The Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to my planned travels to both Lorne and the Great Otway National Park with the Friends of Photography Group in April, and to Melbourne’s CBD to continue working on the drossscape project with Stuart Murdoch in June. I found it astounding that a neo-liberal government committed to austerity and financial orthodoxy locked down whole sections of economic activity knowing that this turn to public health restrictions meant jumping over the cliff edge of the sharpest recession in modern history.
Melbourne has become a no go destination due to the city becoming a hotspot with an outbreak of community transmission in a number of suburbs; those areas in Melbourne with high rates of household overcrowding, homelessness, housing affordability stress and financial hardship. A crucial source for the community transmission of Covid-19 was the security guard fiasco at the Melbourne quarantine hotels for those Australians returning from being overseas. The public health response to the failures in hotel quarantine infection control protocols was to reimpose restrictions on family and outdoor gatherings; a widespread testing blitz in the hotspot suburbs assisted by Australian defence force personnel; then a stage three lockdown of Melbourne itself.
I am currently reading Rebecca Dagnall’s practice based research PhD entitled, Landscape photography and the imaginary of an Australian Gothic. It was done in 2017 at RMIT, and consists of three photographic projects: In Tenebris, The road trip, and Absence and presence: states of being in the Australian landscape. This blog post refers to Dagnell’s research around Australian road trips.
Dagnall starts the research part with David Campany’s recent The open road — photography and the American road trip; a book that provides a history of photography on the road through featuring the work of twenty photographers to document how artists have pictured America since the decisive work of Robert Frank in the 1950s. She then turns her attention to road trips and photography in Australia.