Bird's-eye view of the rising sea levels in Sydney.
Steven Ball and John Conomos, Deep Water Web (2016). Courtesy of the artists.

This circular argument and ethical panic about conserving the countryside conflicting with saving the planet brought me back to a conundrum that bedevilled the writing of my Landscape book. On the one hand I worried about the environmental impact of extracting lithium and cobalt in order to manufacture the vision machines that artists use today and the CO2 emissions from all those air miles they consume when travelling to wild places. On the other hand, I celebrated moving image artists, beginning in the 1970s, who displayed a sensitivity, a horror even, in the face of the slow-motion ecocide our patterns of consumption was unleashing. I applauded works that exposed the depredations of the Anthropocene either by overtly addressing environmental issues as do Steven Ball and John Conomos in Deep Water Web (2016), a work that highlights the dangers of rising sea levels in London and Sydney, or by implication in more lyrical or conceptual approaches such as Katie Paterson’s Vatnajökull/The sound of (2007) in which spectators listened to the drip-by-drip death throes of an Icelandic glacier beamed into the gallery. But there was another issue: I struggled with the fact that, whether deliberately or not, these artists traded in both the surface beauty of nature and the allure of moving images and sound to make their eco-critical points. Even when works made a direct appeal to our conservationist convictions by showing us the destruction of our planet, they still channelled a captivating aesthetic of ruin, decay and loss. The destruction caused by rising water levels in India featured in Ranbir Kaleka’s House of Opaque Water (2019) had a terrible, abject beauty. The instrument of vision could also be drawn into the picture of nature’s Armageddon. R.V. Ramani’s My Camera and Tsunami (2011) was filmed in 2004 when the tsunami hit the beach he was strolling across, and the gnarled and blackened remains of his camera took on a kind of antique nobility, as if it had just been fished out of the sea and was being appraised as a museum object. Kaleka’s black-and-white cinematic elegy of a drowned village and Ramani’s fossilised camera demonstrated that landscape retains Jean Epstein’s Photogénie whatever its condition, especially when supported by the illusionism of the moving image, the visual pleasures engendered by cinematic verisimilitude. 

R.V. Ramani, My Camera and Tsunami (2011). Courtesy of the artist.

[Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NTkW8UnLHw]

I came across other artists who quite deliberately adopted decorative, even sublime imagery to critique not only the impact of climate change but also the eradication of indigenous cultures by colonisers from the West. Lisa Reihana created In Pursuit of Venus (2015), a 26-metre video installation in which a scrolling frieze featured the invasion of Australasia and Polynesia in the 18th century and featured actors in vibrant native costumes, palm trees and fathomless blue lagoons. A kitsch aesthetic collided with a shameful history of murder and exploitation. It left me wondering whether the sumptuous visuals in the work eroded the radical politics of its conception. 

Lisa Reihana, In Pursuit of Venus (2015). Installation view. Photo: Catherine Elwes

Back in the 1980s, I used to think that early landscape works by artists such as Bill Viola and Mary Lucier harnessed the attractions of nature to appeal to our protective instincts, to our sentimental attachment to the land. They showed us what we stood to lose if we did nothing to halt the decimation of the natural world. In recent years the more enchanted I became by landscape works the less I felt the power of their politics because the natural beauty of their images had been co-opted by the agents of consumerism and normalised in the wider media landscape. Every day I was exposed to marketing images of exotic holiday destinations, of eye-wateringly expensive hotels set in tropical locations. Friends on social media were constantly posting selfies against breathtaking scenery overseas or some notable feature in the British landscape. I did it too.

In spite of what I knew to be the reality of the climate crisis, I could feel the gravitational pull of an irrational counter-conviction: that these landscapes were eternal, that no harm could come to such sublime places. Even the most urgent natural history programmes fronted by David Attenborough and escorted by atmospheric musical soundtracks began to dissolve into the wall-to-wall images of countryside carpeting the media. Was I becoming desensitised to the urgency of global warming through landscape habituation; was I gradually more accepting, fatalistic, unquestioning? 

Two white women posing together on a cobbled pathway in front of the coast.
Ros and Catherine Elwes posing on the Breakwater at Bude, 2020.