Artists’ Research Centre (ARC)

Essay: The Landscape Within

A new text by Julie Jones, commissioned to accompany Alexandra Leykauf’s exhibition Caprona.

How do we look? Who is looking? From which perspective? Alexandra Leykauf’s work proceeds from an obsession with the mechanics of perception, space, and their temporality. Working with existing spaces and places she begins by studying their physical characteristics, history and geography to fully inhabit her chosen subject before searching for images of them, published in books, held in archives or libraries, photocopies, scans and / or re-photographing the locations themselves. These found images are reproduced further; filmed, or significantly enlarged, sometimes glued to elements of architecture, and refracted in mirrors or prisms as installations. The spatialised images, now seen in perspective, disrupt not only our eye, but all our senses. This borrowing and re-reading process enriches both the intimacy[i] Leykauf shares with the image, and the original space. Ultimately this approach calls into question the specificities of the art work; challenging both the concept of originality as much as the use value of photography and reproduction as an essential function in the history of art[ii]. As Leykauf explains it:

In a way, there wouldn’t be any tradition and there wouldn’t be any progress if an author’s invention was considered untouchable. Misunderstandings about the original and its context are probably a major force in the creation of new work. [iii]

The connection between the idea of landscape and its representation is central in Leykauf’s work, seeming to embody her fascination for the image’s multiple identities – a physical representation, a space, a mental projection – and its key role in the constitution of memory. During her eight month Artists’ Research Centre Research Fellowship in Essex, in collaboration with Focal Point Gallery and the Southend Libraries and Museums, Alexandra Leykauf was provided with the opportunity to pursue her exploration of the landscape and its images: how do these representations of the landscape – paintings, maps, literary or cinematographic narratives – determine our perception of nature and our position within it? How do landscape and its representations enable scientists, archaeologists, writers or artists to reveal and to make sense of our common history? The cultural wealth of Essex, in particular of the Southend region, open to the sea, provided Leykauf’s investigation with a fertile ground; she physically explored the region, on foot and by bike and gathered visual, literary, geographical and historical material on these different spaces.

In her exhibition, Caprona, at Focal Point Gallery, which marks the culmination of her fellowship, one can discover a selection of her finds from Southend museums, libraries and archives. All of these fed her thoughts and artistic creativity: the reproduction of an ancient road strip map, originally drawn by John Ogilby during the 17th century, showing “ The Roads from CHELMSFORD in Essex to {[MALDON RALEIGH in Essex] GRAVESEND in Kent}” (Beecroft Gallery), recto-verso landscape paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) (Munnings Museum of Art),[iv] and an annotated map by J.A Baker showing the author’s sightings of birds in his travels across the county. (J. A. Baker Archive, University of Essex).[v] The presentation of these documents is supplemented by the inclusion of several texts selected by Leykauf: Death of Naturalist by Seamus Heaney (1966), the enigmatic Urien’s Voyage by young Symbolist André Gide (1893), the hallucinatory Voyage to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864), and The Peregrine by J. A. Baker (1967) amongst others. These representations – visual images and literary accounts – complete the exhibition alongside new film and photographic works by Leykauf. Taken together these works provide an insight into her critical approach to landscape.

Philosopher Anne Cauquelin reminds us in her study L’invention du paysage [the invention of landscape] (1989) that the birth of landscape – word and notion – is commonly dated from the beginning of the 15th century. Landscape as a concept, came to us from Holland, then transited through Italy, to definitively settle in our minds with the long elaboration of the perspective’s laws. It knocked down all obstacles when, existing for itself, it escaped from its decorative role and took centre stage’, as a genre in its own right. The landscape, this “image, elaborated on the illusion of perspective” then rapidly became confused with nature itself, i.e. with what it would be the image of and so nature could only be perceived ‘through its picture’. Cauquelin continues:

‘The aforesaid nature formed itself before us in a series of pictures, artificial images, put in front of the confusion of things; it organised the diverse and changing substance following an implicit law, and while we thought to be immersed in the truth of the world as it presented itself to us, we in fact only reproduced mental patterns, armed with a distant foregone conclusion and with thousands of previous projections. This constant reduction to the limits of a frame, placed there by generations of looking, weighed upon our thoughts, and imperatively oriented the latter.’[vi]

In recent years, social scientists have, as landscape historian and theorist Jean-Marc Besse reminds us, “added a few additional characteristics to this bourgeois institution that would be European landscape culture”. This culture is mainly European, occidental, white, and masculine; “the representation of landscape tallies with the implementation of a military-type control space”. The iconography of landscape plays “a key role in the constitution of national, even nationalist imagery” as “in the naturalization of colonial enterprises”. Finally, this culture puts “the eye and the vision at the centre of the landscape’s perception process, to the detriment of the other senses.” On this last point in particular, Besse calls for (following landscape theorist John Jackson Brinckoff and anthropologist Tom Ingold) a new definition of landscape that would challenge its common and occidental understanding. According to them, landscape must not be understood as a mere representation, exterior to the individual. It is not only ‘an object to look at or to transform’. Landscape is ‘an element’ of the individual’s being. It swathes them. The individual lives in the landscape much more than he simply observes it. “We could even say that it is this contact, or rather all of the contacts with the surrounding world, i.e. this physical experience, that makes the landscape. Landscape is a haptic space, rather than an optical space.” [vii] It is exactly this process of physical involvement in the landscape, or more precisely, the individual’s absorption in it, that Leykauf seems to be working on. Besides pointing to the eye’s omnipresence in the assessment of landscape, she proposes, using varied manipulations, an understanding of landscape as a space to inhabit, more than a space of quiet observation.

The origin of the video work aerial (2018) is a selection of anonymous bird’s eye view photographs showing crop marks and estuary coastlines across Essex, discovered by Leykauf as reproductions in history books in the Forum Library. Leykauf says:

Essex is full of castles, monuments and archaeological sites. But most of the county’s history is underneath, invisible within its physical geography: crop marks which appear fleetingly over the summer and can only be seen from the air. The appearance of these traces depends on the time of the year, and on the growth of vegetation. It’s all about cycles. Here we may see a relationship with photography, where traces also appear on a surface.

Leykauf then reproduced these aerial views using a pocket scanner, commenting:

The scanning process shows images of the pages’ reverse side bleeding through, creating layered images which themselves reflect the historical layering in photos of crop marks where it is possible to see Neolithic, Bronze age, Roman and Saxon traces in a single image and landscape. A vertical stacking up of periods instead of the horizontal timeline.

Here, the alleged objectivity of a map’s aerial point of view, theoretically omniscient, is being challenged by the blurriness of the reproductions as well as by the unveiling, without any visual hierarchy, of several historical strata. Using a movie camera, Leykauf slowly explores these reproductions, zooming in and zooming out on parts of them. Landscape, presented here as a pli [fold], is being reinvested of with its temporality. Landscape is, ultimately, no more than an overlapping of traces, representations and of points of view. It is a hallucinatory journey within the depths of time and the Earth, as within the depths of one’s self-awareness. It may also be a reminder of the upheaval elicited by the emergence of new technologies on our understanding of space: this process of image wandering used here by Leykauf can indeed also recall the basic principle of Google Maps. This application has revolutionised the classical image perspective: the beholder is not necessarily at the centre of the image any longer. He/She goes forward, backward, as to find his/her way, discovering places from all angles. The whole world is available, here, through a cache: the computer screen. ” (A.L)

The screen, understood as a necessary requirement for the appreciation of space and time, is essential in Leykauf’s artistic approach. One can find obvious uses of the screen process in her work aerial, but also in another set of works exhibited here Cliché Verre (2018). The technique used in their production is a hybridization of photography and engraving, that would have appeared around 1853, thanks to the collaboration between the landscape painter Constant Dutilleux, then close to Camille Corot, and the photographer Adalbert Cuvelier, also famous in the history of art for his representations of landscape. The original technique is based on the following method: a glass plate is covered with a light-sensitized substance, and is then developed after having being exposed to light. This plate can then be engraved with a steel point. The drawing is not created in the darkroom, but directly by the hand. The scratched matrix is put into direct contact with a photographic paper that will produce a reversed image. The name cliché-verre refers to both the original matrix and to its result.[viii] This technique has been constantly re-actualized until today: the matrix can be equally transformed by a dabbing or a painting process, with a brush, or even manipulated directly by hand. It is this last option that Leykauf chose to explore here. She covered the windows of the exhibition space with black gouache paint, and then wiped it partially away with her hands.

A sort of negative painting where the surface is covered entirely first and the “motif” evolves through subtraction.

From this matrix, Leykauf made negative reproductions of the structures on the window by briefly pressing light-sensitized paper against the windows’ screens, from the inside. These interventions and visual works raise several issues. Firstly, they catch us in state of flagrante delicto: conditioned by our viewing habits, we read the seemingly abstract forms as natural elements – clouds, sea, vegetation – and the horizontal separations that often appear on the images as horizon lines. The landscape appears, naturally.

I was so surprised to see how easy it is to create something that looks like a landscape (painting). All you need is one line, for the horizon and a horizontal format. These works investigate the image space, and our relationship to it. The landscape is, definitely, the ultimate image space.

Secondly, these works appear to explore the key role of the window, the frame, i.e. the limit, for the emergence of a landscape. The observer, the painter, the scientist, the geographer, the travel agent, all have to construct limits to vision as to make nature understandable and liveable. As Cauquelin puts it: “the frame chops and cuts out. It defeats all by itself the infinity of the natural world, and pushes back the over-flow, the too-diverse. The limit it sets is essential to the constitution of a landscape as such. […] A piece of paper, a canvas on an easel, this sketchbook or this travel guide, are strong conscious defences ‘not to see’. If it (the frame) lacks, if we don’t succeed in adjusting our gaze within the fictive limit of a complete frame, we then back up […]: ‘I don’t see anything, it’s disordered.’ And we blink, we put our hand as a peak above our eyes to shrink our vision, we use lorgnettes, and cameras. […] All is good to enclose the landscape, to finish it.”[ix] How not to see, in that light, the pictorial and photographic use of the exhibition space’s windows as a metaphor for the eye? An articulation of the limits put down on nature, and finally, for the challenging of these limits?

The physical body of the individual is nowhere to be found in the works’ iconography. It is nonetheless at the centre of each of them. The exhibition appears as a re-enactment of the individual’s mental and sensory relationship to the landscape, that he creates and inhabits, and more broadly, to the space in which he evolves. This interaction between nature – made landscape – and the individual finds other echoes in the texts selected by Leykauf.

They are vivid descriptions of how nature affects us, of what it can expose us to. The Heaney poem I liked in juxtaposition to the frosty, stern, lonely air in Gide’s and Baker’s texts. The slightly ridiculous spectacle of force in Verne, desolation and abandonment in Gide, patience and empathy in Baker and abundant growth, seedy bubbling, in Heaney. They also explore the idea of ‘travel’ in several and complementary ways.

These texts, the selected documents and archives, alongside the works, offer all together a personal interpretation of the relationship between humans to nature, of the conditions of our understanding of nature, of our potential communions with it, as of our inescapable rejections of it. A constant back and forth between the interior and the exterior, between the vertical and the horizontal, between space and time.

Julie Jones is a curator at Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Notes

Unless otherwise specified, all quotations by Alexandra Leykauf (A.L.) are drawn from conversations with the author (2017-2018).

[i] Cf. Robert Barry, “The Territory Of The Book: An Interview With Alexandra Leykauf”, The Quietus, March 5th, 2016. http://thequietus.com/articles/19828-alexandra-leykauf-interview
[ii] “As someone who works ‘with’ photography, I think the main question today isn’t what photography is, but rather how we use it.” (A.L), interview with Caroline Soyez Petithomme, in Alexandra Leykauf, Roma Publications, 2016.
[iii] (A. L.), interview with Robert Barry (2016).
[iv] “Munnings was famous for his horse paintings. He did something that I like: he used the reversed side of the painted cardboards or wood panels. He would do oil sketches, then turn the panel and use the reversed side. This was to save material probably. But this process also matches two views of landscape on one object. ” (A.L.)
[v] “Baker wrote The Peregrine. This fiction book is almost like a collection of poems. You can pick up a page, start reading it, and read it again some other day. The writing is beautifully dense. Baker was not a hunter, he was not taking photographs. He was not shooting in any way. He was not a scientist, he searched for no conclusions. He was just happy observing life, to see the birds. ” (A.L.)
[vi] Anne Cauquelin, L’Invention du paysage [1989], Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2013, pp.17, 20, V, 8.
[vii] Jean-Marc Besse, “L’espace du paysage. Considérations théoriques”, in Toni Luna ; Isabel Valverde (dir.), Théorie et paysage : réflexions provenant de regards interdisciplinaires, Barcelona, Catalonia Landscape Observatory, Pomeu Fabra University, 2011, p. 9-24. 
[viii] Christine Barthe, “Cliché-verre” in Le Vocabulaire technique de la photographie, Anne Cartier-Bresson dir., Paris, Marval, 2007, p.368.
[ix] Cauquelin (1989), p.104.

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