As the world’s gaze turned to the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday, our attention was drawn to the nineteenth-century shift from the rural to the industrial, and its eventual culmination in today’s urbanised, post-industrial society. While Danny Boyle’s spectacle naturally drew upon the particular impacts and subsequent effects of these changes upon Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it is of course a socio-cultural transition familiar to countries far beyond the UK.
With an increasingly urban outlook, our collective perception of the natural landscape has undergone dramatic changes over the past two centuries under the direction of artists contemporaneous to each age – from the Romantics’ fervent reaction to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, to the Neo-Romantics’ portrayal of the countryside in the aftermath of the Second World War. We now exist in an era characterised by digital symbols and new media-produced representations of reality, and it is within this environment of coexistence between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ that today’s artists, designers and architects are operating. It was with this in mind that my attention was drawn to American photographer Mark Dorf, who presents typical scenes that one might encounter whilst walking in the woods, yet with subtle alterations; digital and scientific interpretations of the trees, rocks and lakes are interposed within the familiar, romanticised portrayal of the landscape, blending the realms of the material and the digital.
His ‘Axiom and Simulation’ series prompts an awareness of the schema that lie behind our everyday perceptions, which force us to understand scenes, spaces or objects in prescribed ways, depending on the context in which they are presented to us. By merging the different schema – the ways in which we perceive an actual forest, a scientific specimen and a digital representation on a computer screen – he destabilises these prescribed perceptions, creating strange, hybrid landscapes that defamiliarise the most familiar scenes. “As a developed global culture, we are constantly transforming physical space and objects into abstract non-physical thought to gain a greater understanding of composition and the inner workings of our surroundings… As a result of these changes, we can lose all reference to the source,” the artist explains.
The ways in which artists and architects are responding to Nature in the digital age are as wide-ranging as they are fascinating. Recall the works of David Benjamin Sherry with his intense, dreamlike hues immersing wild landscapes, and Matthew Day Jackson’s huge anthropomorphic rocks resurfacing to claim the earth after millennia of human destruction; Alex Hartley’s Nowhereisland, which confronts our obsession with land ownership and control of the natural world; and Peter Zumthor and Piet Oudolf’s encapsulation of the wilderness in the Serpentine Summer Pavilion. Then there are the emotive, indefinable images of Mica de Ridder, depicting clusters of trees fading into abstraction, and Brooklyn-based artist Letha Wilson, who interpolates three-dimensional, man-made objects like cement, styrofoam and cheesecloth into c-print photographs of wooded landscapes, at times interjecting the architecture of the gallery space itself into her photographs.
The fact that over half a million people flocked to David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy this year is testament to our longstanding fascination with this subject matter. The landscape will always be a uniquely human concern – after all, a landscape only becomes a landscape when framed by the human eye – and its changing appropriation in art and design is a continuous and vital reflection of the evolution of our relationship with the environment that surrounds us.