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GaoBo (I) (Bomu)


Wondering in the Land of the Lost (The Art of Critical Landscape).



‘Abode where lost bodies roam each searching for its lost one. ‘

(Samuel Beckett, ‘The Lost Ones’)





Bones, like a curtain, overlay a landscape photographed, documented, then painted, a cleared ravaged land - overlaid by bones, attached by a web of wires and numbered. The art work, ‘自然安 魂曲寻找潘神’ (2011) ,which includes the handwritten words, ‘En Cherchant Pan et Faune’ (In search of Pan and Fauns), offers Nature as despoiled… with the concomitant inference that the Culture that does this is to be put in question. Because a culture that does this is itself despoiled.



Sometimes it is necessary to return to basics in order to analyse the impact of emotionally-moving and thought-provoking art works: genre is most basic element in the recognition and evaluation of any given cultural artifact; in all the arts we look to the genre for guidance and a prepared lexical field. If the physical and institutional framing of an art work is the source of its first definition or recognition as such, then genre is the first key to meaning - its semantic frame. Landscape is one such a repository of meaning, provocation of significance. (When the Landscape in question includes elements that may be considered as Found Objects, so offering a sense of installation, then we also access the range of responses we associate with the Still Life, genre of the transfiguration of the everyday, sometime bearer of the gift of luminescent sacrality).


The history or tradition of the Landscape charts a course from religious and mythical content to a record of possession (a witness to wealth) to (as an echo of the first stage) a representation of the ideal (Landscape as desired place of beauty, desired heavenly dwelling place, vision of heaven on earth). The second phase of the Landscape reappears now as returning us to our ‘possession’ as a record of our possession (what we have done with our ‘birthright’) with the associated religious and mythic force now found to be criticizing this ‘possession’ – criticizing our record of stewardship. The ideal Landscape returns to us only in its negative guise, as a belated awareness of the lack of manifestation of this ideal.


Furthermore in an updating of two key terms inherited from art history, ‘the Beautiful’ and ‘the Sublime’ may now be read as including, not only an appraisal of our stewardship or relation with Nature, but also increasingly of the ‘landscape’ of culture, of the mindset and actions that produced this landscape, so of our history. The critical Landscape becomes the critique of culture, of human history. Yet, in turn, recent history provides us with the background to landscape; the new context on which we situate the modern day genre of landscape - the ‘landscape of landscape’ so to speak. (This background is perhaps most in-formed by the post-war landscapes of Anselm Kiefer). Such landscapes are not beautiful. So in a revived use of ‘the Sublime’ we are offered the predominance of the negative or the ironic. Nature (actually presented as a product of agri-culture) is presented as a critique of culture (so of the culture that made it) as dystopian; our cultural landscape is seen as not living-up to our ideals or, more realistically, to our potentials. Nature is no longer the scene of authenticity (unless that of an ‘authentic’ wound) much less the backdrop to moral regeneration and the renewal of potential. An Anti-Pastoral. Art work in which only a trace of a reminder (of the original Pastoral vision) remains… We are left with a deictic indicator, a ghostly indication of pastoral remains, what remains of the utopian, of ideal remains; there remains only enough to motivate a ghostly contrast, to criticise the present.


If the Modern(ist) landscape was the continuation of the Romantic landscape (‘by other means’) then it continued the critique of the urban, of industry, technology and scientific or utilitarian reason (as well as the tradition of a standpoint which was anti-mass culture, anti-mass society  and anti-mass democracy, which later aspect was taken over by the neo-feudal responses to the crises of industrialization and nationalism). In the later half of the twentieth century, the Modernist landscape was subsumed by the Post-modern; continuing the force of critique, but now shorn of its anti-democratic elements (rather celebrating aspects of mass culture). Yet still continued is the element, taken over from modernism, of experiment and difficulty (albeit on differing grounds). Yet critique and experiment in Post-modern form, as evinced in the ‘combine’ and installation element (formal) together with the lack of backward looking indexes as the cure for the Fall (content), all suggest that the simple solutions touted in the past have all been eschewed. In terms of moral propositions we find we inhabit a negative landscape. A landscape of problems. A landscape of the lost…


As once we searched for the Grail that would provide the answer to the question of meaning and value amid the depths of the forest, searching for the glimmer of light that would lead the way to a clearing; so now amid the ravaged remains of the cleared forest we discover that the glimmer was something that we always carried within ourselves. A Manichaeism stripped even of its distant and absent God. Leaving us alone and lost in the deforested spaces of the soul.


Found Objects, when they appear against the background of a Landscape, may suggest yet another genre, another field of meaning. In the work in question these (the bones carefully arranged upon the face of the canvass) amount to a 3-D reference to the realm of the ‘Still Life’, accessing its lyrical power and appeal to beauty as residing in the object itself and in its relations within a formal arrangement. A tradition dating from the earliest Christian art as representing symbolic (religiously-charged) objects gathered together, initially appearing in church walls (7th-8thc, echoes of the frescoed decorations of Classical society) to its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries whose significance included possession and beauty, objects and their interrelation as form, the transformation of the everyday (but also included carcasses etc, echoing the meanings accreting to the momento mori, the death’s head Vanitas of the Baroque, itself a feature of the Still Life of the period). The current meanings of Found Objects and the Still Life are often more ironic, more iconoclastic, than beautiful - so more useful for conceptual ends. Now, as incorporated into a Globalised Post-conceptualism, the hybrid heir to sculpture as ‘combine’ or ‘installation’, offering a celebration and critique, a presenting and questioning of modern society, whose jumble it re-presents, as a cut-up, or found object poem, at once a lyrical elegy for what might have been, and a carnivalesque affirmation of (post)modern identity.


So Nature is represented by bones, by dead things, matter that still remains, signs of previous life… (prosopoeaeic evocation of an absent or lost life) and their arrangement into a Still Life, (nature mort in French). But here the Still Life is still indeed, is dead, mere index of a former state; in the subjunctive mood only is future ‘life’ again possible. Art is memory work. Indeed in another work, ‘献曼达’(2009) we see a collection of stones, each with a face (echoing the memorialising works of Boltanski); we witness the superimposition of an image upon a stone for the remembrance of a life; ’head stones’ in the graveyard of memory. Found Objects and the Still Life in this sense are religious ‘fetishes’ - with the word ‘fetish’ used in the proper sense of the word, as something, precious, profound, sacred, so to be protected, remembered (and not as used in its Enlightenment-rationalist, or intellectual neo-colonialist, form as a put-down, or negative comparative, for the religious -non-rational- beliefs and practices of other social forms; whilst remaining blind to the beliefs implicit in modern forms of identity, or denouncing all non-rational elements of human culture). If the celebratory end or appropriation of cultural objects offers a cultural landscape as collage as collection, as fragmented modern experience as positive, as pleasure, as jouissance, then the more thoughtful end of this appropriation, through its lyricism, points to something absent or lost, conjures up other modalities of reflection and feeling, pointing to a ritual of ‘remembering’; remembering what is important… asserting an identity focused upon reflection and value (also reflexivity and value, with the paradoxes of ironic self-consciousness and the necessary performative assertion of value(s)). Performing a quest (ritually, as art only can): searching for (and in so doing, creating) meaning (as humans only can).


Still Lives: Found Objects. Lost; what is lost? Lost object(s). Replaced by found object(s)…so ‘found objects’ represent what is lost, lost objects, symbols of what is lost… Or what is to replace what is lost?










In, ‘迷失者的岸’ (2010) we experience Beckett as ‘Beckett’; the Proper Name as a cultural referent which includes the impact of his works, as a lost self as existential uniqueness and isolation, existential ‘thrownness’, as well as dilemmas of moral choice in a post-foundational world: asking the question: whence value, whence morality? Unfounded but necessary. Inferred in art. (Since Romanticism offering art as a source, or interpretation, of value in the world – at once symptom and diagnosis; an alternative source of the sacred). A ‘thrownness’ applicable collectively to ourselves as a species (as in Beckett’s short prose work, ‘The Lost Ones’). We have found ourselves as lost; are ready therefore to found ourselves anew, to reinvent values - to discover (to assert) values where we no longer can support beliefs…


The presence of water in the Beckett installation also taps into a history of symbolic significance. Water (apart from its conjunction with ‘Earth’ as an element of landscape), more precisely the view across water, connotes ‘the other-side’, and ‘crossing’… as well as the open space of light that seems to hover above it. The sense of ‘crossing’ carries a ritual sense, suggesting the image as capable of holding ritual force, and so of the consideration of landscape as ritual, as a means of purification (again via Nature, in tradition of Pastoral from Theocritus through the Romantics –climaxing, in Wordsworth’s ‘epic’ ‘The Prelude’, with Nature as final cure for all ills, intellectual and moral, individual and social- to William Empson and D.H. Lawrence and taking a last gasp in the counter-cultural authenticism of the 1960s). Today’s Post-modern pastoral is, however, ironic, a negative pointer back to a lost former ideal (the naiveties of the Culture and Nature, town and country, opposition have been surpassed, and are employed with an awareness of their limitations). (Chinese equivalents of this, pro-Nature, moralist, authenticist, tradition, would begin with Daoism (Yang Chu, Laozi, Zhuangzi) and extend through Wang Anshi and Dai Zhen to the 20thc philosophy of Jin Yuelin). Such scenes again access ‘the beautiful’ in art. Deploying sensuous pleasure as calming, reflective and orderly, whilst suggesting something else, something absent, wistful, even melancholic (so not a ‘pure’ or ideal classical form of beauty). Something we can find in many water scenes; poignant, with loss…inviting, or suggesting, redemption. Cross the water.


Landscape in one of its related forms, the Pastoral, here as always connoting Nature, appears in a ‘beautiful’ form as loss. And in ‘sublime’ form as an anti-pastoral; the pastoral lives on as Complaint, itself damaged by the very culture it would denounce, present as a wounded scene calling forth an absent cure…


Or a fertility rite… a rite of Spring. Rite of rebirth.








Genre as a marking-of, a re-framing, an intensification of meaning. (Art as ritual. The ritual face of art.)


Installation: a machine for making meaning (for making feelings). As with the frame of the picture (augmented by the gift of time of the viewer), so to the framed space of the installation offers the significance only available to ritual. Most basic function of ritual: our recognition of ourselves.



To be lost in the world; to be at a loss before the world. To be at a loss before a world… to be lost to another world…









Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2013