[The] Thameside region proved to be the site for a succession of artists and designers, the narrator informs us, to make ‘the first attempts to transform the world by looking at the landscape.
How can our imagining of the landscape inform, change, or even create an understanding of ourselves? How does our relationship to ‘place’ change in an increasingly ‘place-less’ world? Can art and writing help redress this new imbalance? For the past dozen years, my work as an artist, writer and freelance curator has revolved around variations on these questions. In the upcoming five-week course Wanderlust: Imagining the Landscape, I’m excited to explore these questions with fellow travellers after-hours amongst the unparalleled collections of Tate Britain.
There’s an imbalance to today’s world: technology gives us an overwhelming quantity of information about where we are, coupled with an increasing separation from a sense of place. One method of redressing that imbalance is by, as Keiller says, attempting ‘to transform the world by looking at the landscape.’ But by looking deeply at the work of artists who have made these attempts, we see that the problem isn’t new at all. What Keith Arnatt or Jock McFadyen do with their images of liminal urban landscape isn’t as different as we may think from Constable’s cornfields or Turner’s ruined arches.
Our compass to help us search for balance comes from a loose-knit group of writers whose work approaches ‘place’ with a kind of poetic non-fiction. Writers such as Iain Sinclair, Rachel Lichtenstein, and Robert Macfarlane give a narrative to our surroundings that goes beneath the surface of our malleable modern maps. Having had the privilege of working with many of these writers as curator of an American exhibition of artwork by London writers The City & the City, I feel a particular passion for writing that delves into the space between the city and the countryside.
My own work has been inspired by the crossover between these writers and visual landscape art. In the project Public Record, I’ve made poems from 19th century newspaper reports and placed them as audio pieces in the locations where the events transpired. In a poem-film based on Anglo-American folk songs called Fourth River, a new myth of urban America is set against an English country cadence. And in my ongoing book project, The Old Weird Albion, a series of walks across theSouth Downs become a landscape-driven guided tour of alternate visions of ‘Englishness’.
If in Keiller’s words we ‘attempt to transform the world by looking at the landscape’, we have a unique opportunity to reimagine the amazing place in which we live. That helps us understand not just where we are, but, indeed, who we are.
Justin Hopper is a writer, artist, and curator living and working between Sussex and London in England, and Pittsburgh in the U.S