A Row of Trees
The Journal of The Sonic Art Research Unit
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched on Christmas Day 2021, with NASA releasing the first image just under seven months later on 11 July 2022. NASA described the image as a “landscape of ‘mountains’ and ‘valleys’ speckled with glittering stars”, but in reality, it was the “edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula”.[i]
This image, and the subsequent ones that the JWST is transmitting back to Earth, records light emitted from stars and galaxies as they were formed shortly after the Big Bang – light that has taken billions of years to travel across the universe before being captured by the telescope’s cameras. The technology enables us to see back in time to a period around 250 million years after the Big Bang, or 13.5 billion years ago. The JWST and the images it captures communicate the physicality of spacetime and puts one in mind of the geologist Marcia Bjornerud’s description of geologic time as a way of seeing Earth as a “world made by, indeed, made of – time”[ii]. One of the most celebrated images transmitted by the JWST is a section of space called SMACS 0723, which shows a galaxy cluster in finer detail than had been possible before its launch. Where our ancestors drew constellations of stars, we are now able to imagine constellations of galaxies, such is the scale and depth of the universe. Whilst most of us no longer look to the heavens for divination and prophesy, the notion of the constellation can be approached as a device for thinking about landscape as a manifestation of time (evidenced through the accumulation of material, both natural and cultural) that can be experienced in the spatial present.
This essay asks how an artist might approach landscape in such a manner; that is, as a temporally and spatially interrelated form where connections can be made materially, economically, ecologically, politically, and environmentally. I provide three examples of how such a constellated approach to landscape has previously been used as both method and material, focussing on practices that work across disciplines and disrupt canonical approaches to the subject. The works discussed, including Patrick Keiller, W.G Sebald, and the RESOLVE Collective, unearth the origins of social and political dysfunction and present ways in which we might attend to these histories: haunted by the past; to illuminate the present; and as a means to project our thinking into the future.
Patrick Keiller’s Robinsonism
The architectural historian Jane Rendell writes about the constellation as a configuration that provides “both a map and a calendar” and, in relation to the curation of contemporary art, poses the question: “[h]ow does one curate across, through, and in time rather than as well as (or even as) space, place, site and location?”[iii] One possible answer to this can be found in Patrick Keiller’s The Robinson Institute, an exhibition staged in the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain in 2012. The exhibition invited the audience to trace the last known journey of the Robinson character Keiller had introduced in his trilogy of films: London (1994), Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins (2010). It featured over 120 exhibits including artworks from the Tate collection, historical documents (such as the 1795 amendment to the Settlement Act, which instituted a change that increased rural migration to the city and supported the development of industrial capitalism in England), and the Wold Cottage meteorite that fell to earth the same year. When asked about the “volume of interconnectedness” in his Robinson series, Keiller referred to an image of a constellation inspired by John Berger’s 1967 essay ‘A Changing View of Man in the Portrait’. In this text Berger draws parallels between portrait painting and the “crisis of the modern novel” which, he argued, required a “change in the mode of narration”.[iv] In Keiller’s reading of Berger the story is no longer read “as a line, or a series of points, but as a line that is continually intersected by other lines, so that it’s not a series of points, it’s a series of stars”.[v] This image of a constellation was used by Keiller as the basis for The Robinson Institute, with the exhibition curated around a series of seven clusters. Just as the interrelationship of imagery and narration in Keiller’s films makes spatial connections across different locations and time periods, the exhibition presented the audience with an invitation to read artworks and artefacts across historic, political, economic, ecological, and spatial points in time.
The exhibition, together with Robinson in Ruins, formed part of ‘The Future of Landscape and the Moving Image’, a research project set up in 2007 to explore “received ideas about mobility, belonging and displacement, and their relationship with landscape and images of landscape, in a context of economic and environmental crisis”.[vi] A co-researcher on the project was Doreen Massey, a geographer who has written extensively on the conception of space, particularly how, by approaching it as a product of interrelations, we can conceive of a future that is decentred, anti-essentialist, and “radically undecided”.[vii] Notably, Massey approached Keiller’s Robinson films, and The Robinson Institute, as ways of reconceptualising landscape, not as continuity but as being “punctuated by a multiplicity of stories”.[viii] She described Robinson in Ruins as a journey that can be read as the chapters of a book, but not one that follows a linear structure, and observed that the viewer follows Robinson through a “constellation of locations within a larger landscape”, one that presents a “simultaneity of stories-so-far”.[ix] Keiller’s landscapes act as a repository of cultural memory that can be archived, excavated, deconstructed, and fictionalised. The ‘stories-so-far’ are used to illuminate our current condition and make visible the mechanisms and accumulative events that form the backdrop of our everyday lives.
W.G Sebald and The Quincunx of Heaven
A similar approach to storytelling can be found in W.G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995), which also combines an expanded field of geography with the new modes of narration Berger discusses in the 1967 essay. Sebald’s narrator walks the reader around the coastal area of Suffolk, building up an assemblage of landscapes. He reaches into the history of various locations and relates them to an international terrain, traversing time, people, and event. A pervasive sense of memory, belonging, and alienation from the land recur throughout the book – from Roger Casement’s reports of human rights abuses in the Congo, to the decommissioned nuclear site of Orford Ness. Personal and cultural narratives are always intertwined with the histories and landscapes that both form and contain them.
In the first chapter of the book, Sebald introduces the image of the constellation through reference to Thomas Browne’s The Garden of Cyrus (1658), in which the image of a quincunx is described. Browne uses the quincunx as a visual metaphor for the interrelatedness of form, demonstrated by its recurrence across both natural and human-made structures, from the seed husks of the sunflower to the garden of King Solomon. Sebald concludes the related passage by referring to Browne’s likening of the geometric configuration to the constellation of Hyades – just one of a handful of star clusters visible to the naked eye, thought to have formed around 625 million years ago, as the planet was emerging from the so-called ‘snowball Earth’ glaciation of the Cryogenian period. The literal and methodological constellation offers Sebald a way to think about landscape as a multiplicity of interconnections, as a way of seeing, and again offers an invitation for us to do the same, perhaps even to expand upon it as both method and material for making.
The RESOLVE Collective, or What the Wild Things Are
In a landscape as specific as the chalk Downlands of West Sussex, a material such as flint can be used to embody this idea of landscape as both method and material. The Cretaceous is a geologic period whose name is derived from the Latin for chalk [creta], owing to the sedimentary deposition over millions of years of marine organisms whose skeletons accumulate to create the white rock for which the region is known. This chalky seabed was burrowed into by larger organisms and the volumes they left behind then collected further sediment. Over time (and space) this sediment transformed into quartz nodules which assumed the shape of the burrowed volume – resulting in flint. These nodules were foraged and subsequently knapped to form tools by prehistoric cultures, and the material continues to be used in building construction, dressing the walls of local towns and villages with the vestiges of its geologic origins.
Flint, and particularly the knapping of flint, formed the basis of LIDO, a recent commission in which RESOLVE, a design collective based in London, were invited to respond to the geographical, political and ecological contexts of three commissioning partners, the Wellcome Collection (as ‘The City’), De La Warr Pavilion (as ‘The Coast’), and West Dean College (as ‘The Countryside’). Following a period of research at West Dean – located within the South Downs and featuring a flint-dressed manor house – RESOLVE focused on the knapping of flint as both a process of research in itself and as an exhibition material. It was used as way to think about, and enact, the shaping of the social.
The commission, devised under the title of ‘What the Wild Things Are’, culminated in the creation of an open, public space inside the galleries of the De La Warr Pavilion, tying in with the venue’s origins as an experiment in democratic social enterprise during the 1930s. Presented as a civic space rather than as a conventional exhibition, LIDO extended the landscape of Bexhill into the gallery, visually, socially, and politically. RESOLVE discuss their use as flint in terms of interrelated scale:
Flint works on a macro and a micro scale. From a macro perspective it’s a good example of the proximity that we have made with nature, or within nature, for a long time. It encourages us to think about historical processes and how they can raise serious questions about the times we look back to and how we might think about that as a critique of rewilding moving forward. From a very specific point of view, flint knapping involves striking and pressure acting on the flint. Each time you strike a flint you open up a new page in the investigation – it becomes a way of seeing as well as a way of manipulating material.[x]
LIDO engages with ideas of a contingent landscape that both forms and is formed by culture, presenting a spatiotemporal assemblage that is interrelated, multiple, and open – one that is actively forward looking. It asks how we forage our experiences, forge our memories, and develop our attachment to place.
Nostalgia for the Future
Approaching landscape as method takes Massey’s idea of spatial practice as radically open and anti-essentialist, and asks who the landscape is for, how we navigate it, what we call it, how we can change it, who and what we share it with, and how our conception of landscape enables us to project new ways of thinking through possibilities. The image of the constellation is used here to present a view of the landscape as always in the process of becoming, as a multiplicity that deconstructs a nature/culture dichotomy – a process that underpins cross-disciplinary approaches. As an approach to arts practice, landscape as method combines materials, people, and duration and the image of the constellation recurs in collaborative works, as conversations, and within practices that actively promote interdisciplinarity. Rachel Pimm’s Quinqunx, for example, takes the form of a collaborative research project between the artist Lilah Fowler, composer Holly Márie Parnell, poet Daisy Lafarge, and chef and designer Peiran Gong, with each contributing a different perspective intended to decode, or perhaps simply to celebrate, a constellation of modernity and its entanglement with nature. Sophie J Williamson’s Undead Matter is similarly research based and takes the form of a series of conversations with artists, poets, dancers, writers, musicians, paleogeologists, geographers, and mineralogists, amongst others, with each compiled as constellation of podcasts, snippets, and artworks offering perspectives on past, present and possible states[xi]. Both Pimm and Williamson’s projects reference the land and employ an appreciation of time, as human and geologic, rhythmic, deep, and ancestral.
Landscape might seem an interloper here – something that has its own history, and is always, inevitably present, and therefore seemingly forced into what would be a neater analogy of the constellation. Yet somehow it feels a necessary intrusion. Landscape as method could be described as a nostalgia for the future, a glimmer of optimism found through constellated practices, an appreciation for the complexity of our engagement with the spaces we inhabit, and an acknowledgement that whilst history is linear, time is not. It embraces and celebrates matter, so whereas the constellation lends itself to the interrelationships of points, landscape as method embeds these points and offers a material density to the skeletal image of the constellated form. The points are still visible, capable of being read or excavated, yet under a weight of time, compressing, pulsating, folding, eroding, shaping, and forming anew.
Region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula (NIRCam Image). Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Patrick Keiller, The Robinson Institute at Tate Britain, 2012. Installation view.
Thomas Browne, The Garden of Cyrus. 1658.
RESOLVE Collective, LIDO at the De La Warr Pavilion, 2022. Installation view.
Screen shot from Undead Matter, Constellation No. 11 Mimicry, Stillness
[ii] Marcia Bjornerud. Timefulness. Princeton University Press. 2018.
[iii] Jane Rendell. ‘Constellations (or the reassertion of time into critical spatial practice)’, conference paper. 2009.
[iv] John Berger. ‘The Changing View of Man in the Portrait’. Collected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things. Pelican. 1972.
[vii] Doreen Massey. ‘Philosophy and Politics of Spatiality: Some Considerations’. The Hettner-Lecture in Human Geography. 1999.