Sarah Dobai, Nettlecombe, (2008). Courtesy of the artist. 

Empathic, phenomenological works led me into a category I called “Performing the Landscape”. I revisited Guy Sherwin’s Paper Landscape (1975-2015), a live performance in which the artist as a projected figure in a bucolic setting was set in tension with his physical presence, separated from the audience by the fragile membrane of the screen and from his youthful image by decades of ageing. My interest evolved into works that staged actions in the landscape engaging physically with the substances of nature. For instance, the Garinyian elder Paddy Neowarra demonstrated how to make a Mandu from the entrails of a freshly hunted kangaroo, the video standing as witness to the centuries of Aboriginal husbandry of the Australian continent. Others intervened directly in the environment, like Sarah Dobai who agitated elements of the landscape with hidden ropes and wind machines, giving bushes and trees the shivers to create a counter-intuitive weather system. It reminded me of a passage in Virginia Wolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927) in which a young girl creates a world within a world in a small sea pool. “Brooding, she changed the pool into the sea, and made the minnows into sharks and whales, and cast vast clouds over this tiny world by holding her hand against the sun, and so brought darkness and desolation…”[9] Dobai’s playful interference in the manicured nature of the gardens at Nettlecombe is a similar performance of landscape by means of mechanical artifice and imagination, one that does as little damage to the environment as blowing a light breeze across the shrubbery or passing a hand over a pool to briefly effect a change in the weather.

A black and yellow cottage in the seaside surrounded by rocks, driftwood, and plants.
Prospect Cottage and Derek Jarman’s garden, Dungeness in 2006.
Photo: Catherine Elwes.

 [EXTRACT] Derek Jarman, The Garden (1990).

Courtesy of James Mackay and Basilisk Communication Limited.

While parks and gardens are often fashioned to reflect power and property, I found many other artists who trained their lenses on domestic landscapes where individuals and nature have engaged in a pas de deux of small-scale cultivation.[10] Nina Danino and Anne Charlotte Robertson made films in worked patches of land, municipal in the case of Danino and domestic in Robertson’s, her own garden providing a living canvas for the elaboration of her internal turmoil and her creativity as both a plantswoman and filmmaker. 

Derek Jarman shot many of his later films in and around his famous unfenced garden of rocks, driftwood and seaside vegetation in the desert landscape at Dungeness. As the garden grew organically, the border between human intervention and the forces at work in the natural environment became ever more ambiguous; as the artist wrote, “my garden’s boundaries are the horizon”.[11] It is this lightly modified desert landscape that provided a setting for The Garden (1990) a film in which Jarman and his friends created a queered space of elliptical play and wild invention – in costume. Allegorical sequences of young lovers and comically menacing schoolmasters are interspersed with close-up studies of melancholy evening skies, rough seas and wind-whipped grasses suggesting a darker mood in the shadow of the Dungeness B nuclear power station and the AIDS epidemic that was claiming the lives of so many of Jarman’s friends.

[EXTRACT] Barbara Hammer, Women I Love (1976). 

Along similar lines, Barbara Hammer combined bucolic footage of her women lovers in joyful congress under the pine trees with outrageously tacky analogies between vulvas and vegetables. While the body-landscape metaphor was later reclaimed by eco-feminists, Women I Love (1976) satirised the essentialist alignment of women’s bodies with the contours of nature, and protested the concurrent exclusion of femininity from the realms of culture. And yet, I didn’t read the succession of cabbages, lapping shorelines and tight flower buds as entirely tongue–in-cheek. I recognised in the work a simultaneous search for the lost one-ness with nature we imagine our ancestors enjoyed. This was not just a hippy dream of getting back to the garden but a radical unleashing of erotic and creative energies in nature, far from the constraints of the city and its conventions, free from a homophobic patriarchal western culture that circumscribed the everyday lives of Hammer and her friends.

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea (2015), three channel HD colour video installation, 7.1 sound, 48:30 min.
© Smoking Dogs Films. Courtesy of Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery.

I discovered further works that made filmic assertions in landscape of “other” marginalised subjectivities, moving image practices that embraced the changeability and ambiguities of the natural environment as proxy for their own turbulent realities. 

For instance, John Akomfrah found in the Romantic landscape tradition and its pursuit of the sublime a surface on which diasporic subjects might assert their presence in an ocean of symbolic whiteness. In Vertigo Sea (20015) Akomfrah re-enacted, with actors in costume, the semantic disturbance caused by the freed slave and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano seen wandering the West coast of Scotland. The frontal Rückenfigur figure of Equiano set against the jagged Scottish coastline embodied not so much the eradication of African cultures under slavery but what Paul Gilroy identified as the “cultural mutation” that occurred when Africans found themselves in European dominated environments.[12] In Akomfrah’s films, diasporic creole subjectivities have been made manifest in the whitest of landscapes, sometimes literally when he set his films in snow-bound arctic regions. 

Akomfrah and Hammer, alongside Jarman, Danino and Robertson ruptured landscape traditions and in the cracks made visible those sensibilities to which patriarchal western traditions in art had been structurally closed. A queered landscape could speak what had been silenced, giving voice to burgeoning alterities that found echoes in the flux and cycles of nature, the flow of the moving image, the uncertainties of our future here on earth – something growing in a world unfixed.

While I appreciated Akomfrah’s radical strategy of making visible the hidden history of colonialism in Britain through filmic inscriptions of the countryside, I still worried about the use of well-worn landscape aesthetics favouring sublime imagery that harked back to the imperial gaze of Caspar David Friedrich as well as the high production values of contemporary wildlife programming – in fact, passages in Vertigo Sea are drawn directly from the BBC natural history archives. I wondered whether the adoption of a theatricality redolent of the Fêtes Champêtre of 18th Century painters such as Watteau and Poussin traded on the familiarity of Arcadian scenes in nature and there was a danger that in so doing they could elicit the spectatorial complacency that had so troubled me. And yet, I told myself, Akomfrah and Hammer’s work, alongside that of Jarman and Robertson diverged substantially from the mainstream narrative traditions that underpinned the televisual sublime of natural history programming and those Hollywood movies that spun their dramas of love and conflict against a backdrop of exotic locations. Many of the artists adopted the anti-narrative strategies of structural film that emphasised the constructed nature of the cinematic illusion using layering, repetition and image distortion to undercut any Arcadian aesthetic conventions. For his part, Jarman employed a blend of allegorical lyricism and unfettered camp performance, which prevented the image from settling into a timeless prospect of nature, in this best of all possible worlds. But the balance between the narcotic lure of landscape on film and its own political deconstruction remained a delicate one.

[9] Virginia Wolf ([1927] 1964), To the Lighthouse, Middlesex: Penguin Books, p. 87.

[10] For more on this topic, see Catherine Elwes (2022) ‘Modelling Nature: Parks & Gardens in Artists’ Film’ in Colin Perry (ed.), Art and the Rural Imagination, New Forest: More than Ponies, pp. 25-41.

[11] From Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature (1991), read by Rupert Everett, BBC Radio 4, 25 June 2019.

[12] Paul Gilroy (1993), Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London: Verso, p. 2.