The Landscape, a Counternature: An Interview with Anne Cauquelin | esse arts + opinions

The Landscape, a Counternature: An Interview with Anne Cauquelin

  • Isabelle Cornaro, Paysage avec Poussin et témoins oculaires (version VI), 2014, installation view, M-Museum Leuven. Photo: © de kunstenaar & M-Museum Leuven / Dirk Pauwels
  • Isabelle Cornaro, Paysage avec Poussin et témoins oculaires (version II), 2010, installation view, Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw. Photo: courtesy of Kasia Prokesz

The Landscape, a Counternature: An Interview with Anne Cauquelin
Par Nathalie Desmet

Philosopher, art historian, and artist Anne Cauquelin has been thinking about notions of landscape, nature, and site for many years. In L’invention du paysage (1989), she describes how perspective has significantly conditioned our ways of perceiving the landscape, to the point that we see the world “as a landscape.” Therefore, according to the author, art has oriented our perception of nature. Her interest in cyberspace and its new spatiotemporal devices has led her to examine the relation between site and landscape (Le site et le paysage, 2002). She has also analyzed the characteristics of the garden, which she defines as a finished, fragmented, and laboured space as compared to the landscape, the image of a distant region suggesting infinity (Petit traité du jardin ordinaire, 2003).

Nathalie Desmet: As you discussed in L’invention du paysage, landscape is a constructed form, an analogue of nature. Has this artificiality transformed nature and landscape into two completely distinct concepts?

Anne Cauquelin: Landscape is a construction, it is taken as an analogue of nature, but this is an a posteriori substitution, an addition or derivation, if you like (I would even say an “app”).

I tried to show that the birth of landscape originated in painting (or rather the work of geometry and mathematical physics applied to painting): how to depict the various aspects of what we see in a comprehensive view? The answer, developed over a long period of time, was: by calculating the “right” perspective. No nature whatsoever here. The issue was not about representing nature, or alluding to something like “nature,” or even having any interest in doing so (a few miserable, spindly trees form a kind of “background” in three paintings supposedly of Urbino, Berlin, and Baltimore).

There is some confusion around the term “nature” and the relation between landscape and nature — sometimes wanting, sometimes not wanting one to refer to the other and vice versa. A profound and enduring misunderstanding. I would like to do away with both “nature” and “landscape,” to stop discussing them, or at least to completely separate them. I have attempted to do this several times, unsuccessfully! The nature/landscape confusion is so ingrained in our ways of thinking and perceiving that it is difficult to sweep it away with words.

ND: Have new political and ethical conceptions of landscape, related to environmental concerns, been developed without regard for the symbolic approach to landscape? What values does the term “landscaping,” for example, which is used by landscapers, convey?

AC: How did landscape come to represent, to “say,” and above all to “be” nature itself? I would argue that it was through a “bourgeois” application of the principle of perspective, and the “landscaping” term you mentioned indicates exactly what I mean by this.

All too often, we forget that the invention of landscape is an accomplished invention, in both senses of the word: accomplished in the sense of perfectly achieved, fully realized; and accomplished in the sense of completed, finished. In such a closed system, any extended meaning comes across as an “added value,” in the sense that it raises capital by enriching its producers. Landscaping belongs to this cate-gory. The act of landscaping a place (even a garden, which is subsequently called a “landscaped” garden) refers both to the aesthetic “painted landscape,” related to the history of Western art, and to the “environment,” a contemporary political-ethical concept related to the environmental movement and sustainable development. Being a “landscaper” and landscaping means being part of the current trend to live better, be healthier, and share natural resources better (which is ethically beyond reproach); and, at the same time, it also means perpetuating a system in which the landscape is an elitist symbol, an assured cultural “value,” an “enhancement” to any place, garden, architecture, or project. It means participating in the exploitation of this value by accepting what comes along with it: conforming to the stance of contemplative enjoyment created by the “model landscape.”

ND: You have written that the awareness of an infinite extraterrestrial world marked the end of knowable nature. Are digital applications like Google Earth, which use systematic grids to represent space, a means of making nature knowable? Are we dealing with an everlasting reinvention of landscape or with its end? Or is the site in the process of supplanting the landscape? Is the digital “site” in some way indebted to the landscape from which it took a lexical term?

AC: Yes, in terms of the mindset it creates in people: in landscape thinking, which represents the common way of thinking about these matters, a site is a known place, a stronghold, a territory. And the digital site is often seen as an individual, personal site that one owns, monitors, and secures.

No, because the digital “site” belongs to a system that is still in development. In this regard, it is non-territorial, intangible; it is defined and grasped through computation, and its perspective is not visual, but only conceptual. Entirely adaptable and renewable, it lacks depth and duration (it must be constantly “refreshed”).

And if we had to compare a site to something in the natural world, it would be a garden, which requires constant upkeep, resources, pruning, rather than a landscape set in its frame, imposing its historical legitimacy.

The advent of digital technology will not cause the disappearance of landscape. Its disappearance will be caused by its closed system, its accomplishment, even as it still overshadows or overruns most contemporary practices (artistic or otherwise) that object to it.

ND: Some current art practices, such as Isabelle Cornaro’s work (Paysage avec Poussin et témoins oculaires, 2008 –), express the landscape in a refined form through sculptures and compositions of fragmentary elements. How would you interpret this?

AC: In this regard, Isabelle Cornaro and her Paysage avec Poussin et témoins oculaires fits perfectly: there is no nature here, only perspective. Successive and tiered planes suggest depth of field: the exact definition of the so-called legitimate perspective. The various planes are not isolated fragments, but elements of a comprehensive construction, a perspective. The installation deals with space and ways of representing it (perspective, from perspect-, something akin to a tracking shot encompassing a whole).

And of course, Cornaro’s reference to Poussin is not only meant as irony, but most certainly as a critique of him and all classical or impressionist “painted landscapes”: all deception!

ND: Is the tradition of landscape painting in some way responsible for distancing us from nature, for making us forget that nature is an experiential place? Might we imagine, taking it to an extreme, that the history of Western art has played a part in environmental degradation? In other words, have artistic and theoretical representations of landscape had an effect on our sensory experience of nature?

AC: To follow up on what I said earlier regarding the bourgeoisification of landscape — its belonging to art history and the impact its shift in meaning had on our mindset — I would like to mention the role that the “landscape-system” plays in how we relate to our surroundings. Contrary to the aim of landscape to be a friendly “environs” for all living things, to become a staunch environmentalist, the “landscape-system” seems to serve as a barrier erected against a lack of culture or barbarism, against unkempt and dangerous spaces. It acts like the “No Trespassing” signs hung on the gates of large estates. It keeps out the untamed and draws a circle of good behaviour and refined manners. Whatever happened to those undefined and uncertain distant regions, separated from the Park of Versailles by large leafy trees and marble statues?

And when you ask if Western art, with its history and burden of propriety, could have been the one to sever our relation to nature, you would not be far from speaking a truth that remains, at least for now, unbearable.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

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