Pam Skelton, Ponar (1995), featuring Itzak Dogan, video. With the kind permission of the artist.

Where Akomfrah and Jarman disrupted the Romantic landscape tradition with innovative approaches to the visuals and with non-linear expositions of events in the editing, many others altered the meaning of the view with voice-over and narrative, dipping their toes in the documentary genre. The videomaker Tom Sherman noted that a shot of a forest glade on a sunny day would look much the same whoever was behind the camera. But the addition of the voice “particularizes the medium” and imbues the view with significance that without words would remain latent or opaque.[13] This is evident in works that reveal historic events whose tracks have long been covered by time and natural regrowth. Pam Skelton’s Ponar (1995) is an example in which the ravages of war on both the environment and humanity are recalled by a witness, whose reminiscences transform an innocent woodland glade into a killing field where thousands of Jews were murdered and incinerated in WW2. The trembling of a leaf in the breeze echoes the cognitive dissonance we viewers experience when our appreciation of natural beauty is burdened with horror, like a stain that cannot be removed from a roll of silk. 

Catherine Elwes, Pam’s War (2008), video. Courtesy of the artist.

Closer to home, my own Pam’s War (2008) overlays a series of coastal views with my mother’s voice talking about her experiences during WW2, casually reducing her work at the War Office during the Blitz to an opportunity to have fun and admitting to her unpatriotic objections to my father’s pursuit of glory overseas with the SAS. The gap between the insouciance of surfers and walkers and my mother’s narrative, and indeed my own unspoken grieving since her death, testify to the layers of meanings that can co-exist in the eternal return of waves breaking on a short stretch of the English coastline. Doreen Massey conceives of place as the sum of the tales we share about any given location. “If space is […] a simultaneity of stories-so-far,” she writes, “then places are collections of those stories”. [14] These voices pull into distortion the meaning of landscape in the same way that in Magnet TV (1965) Nam June Paik bent and stretched the analogue video signal by applying a powerful magnet to the top of a TV set. But I remained uncertain that this stratification of subjectivities through narration was enough to trouble the sounds and sights of European country views that are a feature of every comfortable travelogue around the continents in the company of an ageing star or celebrity chef. And does this focus on human dramas obscure the effects of tourism and rising sea levels in a seaside town, or the impact of acid rain on a forest in Lithuania?

[13] Tom Sherman in-person conversation with the author, London, 2005. Accurate to my memory.

[14] Doreen Massey (2005), For Space, London: SAGE Publications, p. 130.