Godfrey Reggio, Visitors (2013), featuring Triska. Reproduced with the kind permission of the director.

I realised that many of these works were funnelling through images of landscape the topographies of the artists’ interior lives as well as the social and political circumstances in which they found themselves. While not convinced of the legitimacy of such strategies, I started to look for more evidence of anthropomorphic projection. I reckoned that cross-identifications should operate even more overtly when artists turned their lenses onto our nearest relatives, the non-human creatures with whom we share the planet. Humankind has from time immemorial represented the beasts of the fields and the birds of the air as kindred spirits, and maintained what Jung called a “mystical identity” with animals, weaving them into human myths of origin.[15] I discovered a plethora of moving image artists investigating their own wildness by making films with and about animals. First, I looked at works that featured live animals: Douglas Gordon brought a circus elephant into the gallery, Lea Capaldi tracked a saddled mare and Godfrey Reggio went in pursuit of a gorilla. Reggio stared into the eyes of Triska the female gorilla, imagining the gaze to be reciprocal, seeking to reverse what John Berger called the “new solitude” of humankind that befell us as we became separated from animals with the advent of modernity.[16] I found that the appeal of these works began to fade when I considered that Triska was behind bars at the local zoo, the elephant was forced by her keepers to lie down for the camera and the horse similarly compelled to assume an unnatural prone position by her cowboy handler. And this casual cruelty highlighted the continuing exploitation of animals by humans, although I am not aware that the films were designed to expose these abuses. While Giovanni Aloi has argued that the works “simply show us what society does not want to see”,[17] the debatable ethics of causing suffering to animals in the name of art or even animal welfare, left me literally and metaphorically running for the exit. 

Andrew Kötting, Klipperty-Klöpp (1984). Courtesy of the artist. 

I felt on safer ground when I turned to artists who practiced what Deleuze and Guattari termed “becoming-animal”, that is, submitting to creaturely possession and shape-shifting into beasts, whether mythical, extinct or still roaming the earth. In Finfolk (2003), Marcus Coates, a modern day shaman (or charlatan, depending on your point of view) rose dripping from the sea, and personified fabled amphibians by barking gibberish at the camera; Cauleen Smith embodied the Yoruba Egungun emerging from the sea like Neptune covered in shells and seaweed; Lucy Gunning documented the self-empowerment of women who imitate horses and Rose English choreographed female dressage events, her “hyppodramas” of “coercion and obedience” performed with consummate skill by troupes of equine impersonators.[18] My favourite animal mimic was Andrew Kötting, who in Klipperty-Klöpp (1984) donned a baggy coat and horsed around in a muddy field with what Jonathan Romney described as his “mock primitivism”.[19] This travesty of a dressage event recalled Monty Python’s silly walks and satirised the daily grind of production-line labour under Capitalism to which the average worker must submit in order to earn a crust. Kötting refused to behave, and made an unbridled bid for freedom by becoming-artist-horse. And no animals were harmed in the making of his film.

So, where did that leave me? While I applauded the performative madness of Kötting’s equestrian efforts in a grainy monochrome landscape that would never make the cut in a travel documentary, I still felt that landscape traditions in art, adapted and mass produced in cinema, online and in broadcast television, developed a language that had calcified our aesthetic sensibilities; as T.J. Demos said recently, “aesthetics have been captured by institutions”.[20] While I didn’t consider the institutional stranglehold on the beauty of landscape to be total, I felt that the power of the mainstream to interpret reality remained undimmed. I worried that when those formal devices, those high-gloss images of bucolic scenes were uncritically reproduced, they could sedate and soothe rather than challenge and transform. As Mark Cocker suggested, they ran the risk of producing an “art of consolation”, one that “distracts us from the truth of our fallen countryside”.[21] Any eco-critical message, however baldly stated on the soundtrack and in surrounding contextual materials, however emphatically intersecting with campaigns for social justice, as Demos has advocated, could become diluted in the visual spectacle. 

This line of reasoning led me to the dead-end of what Robert MacFarlane called “inertial thinking”.[22] So rather than dismiss all landscape works as inherently conservative and terminally polluted by a commercialised Romantic sublime, I needed to resurrect my long-held belief that language is not fixed; it is malleable and fluid. I decided that the final book should celebrate the variety and ingenuity of the strategies filmmakers have adopted to modulate modes of representation for the purpose of communicating their visions in and about landscape. So, I applauded those Sarah Ahmed dubbed “space-invaders” who trespassed their non-conforming, “other sensibilities” onto private land.[23] I delighted in their queering of the landscape with exuberant theatrics in the wilderness. I sharpened my muscle memory, retuned my mirror neurons and empathetically experienced in my own body the plight of artists who sustained “injuries of the weather”.[24] I agreed with John Akomfrah that although there are no innocent places, Romantic landscape traditions could become a zone of contestation in Afrodiasporic art and I celebrated the re-inscription of colonial history into lands purloined from indigenous peoples. I recorded the re-configuration of territories that were conventionally marked as exclusively white by practitioners like Black Men Walking, Vernon Ah Kee and Ingrid Pollard. I discovered artists such as Jenny Okun who in COWS IN THE GATE (1977) paid court to a herd of cows by serenading them with her flute, her playing briefly inspiring their curiosity before they returned to their grazing. Okun’s musical overtures constituted what Richard Mabey has called a “wondrous attention” to non-human creatures and embodied a sense of “neighbourliness”, a being-with animals, which I came to interpret as a symbolic act of reparation.[25]  

I extolled the virtues of luring the elements into non-invasive collaborative works on film, creating analogies for, and enactments of, the one-world vision of climate activists. Finally I commended artists such as David Critchley and Pierre Huyghe who avoided burning fossil fuels by making armchair journeys to landscapes unvisited. I recognised that the environment was at the core of all the works I was drawn to and like Chris Welsby the artists experienced a “deep sense of loss and personal grief” when confronted with climate change, with species extinction and ecological ruin.[26]

George Barber, Withdrawal (1995). Courtesy of the artist. 

George Barber’s Withdrawal (1995) seemed to encapsulate that sense of loss. A classic Alpine landscape in summer with a green hill girdled by a stand of trees and overlooked by mountains beyond is the setting for the progress of a family walking past the camera, their everyday conversations tossed into the air like so much confetti and quickly vanishing. The sequence repeats like a groundhog day but on each pass, another member of the family is missing. Although the video is an allegory of the inevitable loss of friends and family as life unfolds, the setting of a computer-generated pastoral scene anticipates the day when the only landscape that may remain will be one we create digitally, until we as a species have disappeared and survive only as a thin layer in the geological record of the planet.  

To me, Withdrawal exemplified Richard Mabey’s belief that we should “let ecology and feeling work together”.[27] Barber’s gentle evocation of mourning was one of those moving image works that reinvented and revitalised landscape traditions through disjunction and the uncanny as much as through lyricism, reverie and humour. I came to read all the films I wrote about as a totality that might offer if not a blueprint then an array of alternative maps for the future. But I confess to retaining elements of that initial unease. 

So where does that leave my dilemma about the proposed solar farm on Hinksey Hill that threatens to obliterate an idyllic, pastoral view Constable could well have admired, one that Turner actually painted only a few hundred yards along the track? Suppose the Oxford Preservation Trust forms an alliance with Cumnor Parish Council and launches a campaign to stop All Souls College from leasing the land to Solar2. If they draw up a petition, will I seek to preserve the landscape aesthetic that has given me such pause for thought in the writing of this book? Will I sign my name on the petition?

[15] Carl Gustav Jung ([1964] 1974), ‘Approaching the unconscious’, Man and his Symbols, London: Aldus Books/Jupiter Books, pp. 18–103, p. 45.

[16] John Berger ([1977] 2009), ‘Why Look at Animals?’, in About Looking, London: Writers & Readers, pp. 3–30, p. 11.

[17] Giovanni Aloi (2015), ‘Animal studies and art: Elephants in the room’, Antennae, Special Editorial, pp. 1–31, p. 7.

[18] Rose English (2018), interviewed in Artist Profile: Rose English (dir. David Bickerstaff), Accessed 15 May 2021, n.pag.

[19] Jonathan Romney (1996), ‘Andrew Kötting’, in David Curtis (ed.), A Directory of British Film and Video Artists, Luton: John Libbey Media, pp. 98–99, p. 99.

[20] T.J. Demos speaking at the launch of MIRAJ 10.1/3 and Landscape and the Moving Image, Ambika P3 gallery, London, 19 May 2022. Accurate to my notes.

[21] Mark Cocker cited in Stephen Moss (2016), ‘The best nature books of 2016’, The Guardian, 3 December, p. 12.

[22] Robert Macfarlane (2019), ‘What lies beneath: Robert Macfarlane travels “Underland’”, The Guardian, 20 April, Accessed 16 May 2021.

[23] Sara Ahmed (2017), Living a Feminist Life, Durham and London: Duke University Press, p. 8.

[24] The original definition of distemper, from a lecture by Erin Lafford speaking at The Weather and Our Emotions seminar St. Edmunds Hall, Oxford, 4 March 2017.

[25] Richard Mabey cited in Patrick Barkham (2021), ‘Andy Goldsworthy: Branching Out’, The Guardian, 4th August, pp. 32–34, p. 25.

[26] Chris Welsby (2018), e-mail to the author, 13 May.

[27] Richard Mabey (2021), interviewed by Alexandra Harris, Lives of Naturalists, Oxford Centre for Life-Writing, 4 May, Accessed 18 May 2021.

With thanks to all the artists who have generously loaned their works for this online exhibition and to the agencies that have acted for filmmakers who are no longer with us. And a special thanks to Ben Cook, Seonjoo Park and LUX for hosting the event.

Landscape and the Moving Image by Catherine Elwes is published by Intellect:


Catherine Elwes in conversation with James Campbell at Intellect Books, publisher of Landscape and the Moving Image, interviewed on 15 February 2023.

Topics of Conversation: 

0:00 – In Conversation intro 

00:10:49 – Catherine’s thoughts on Art school in the late 1960s compared to present day 

00:13:48 – Yoko Ono story 

00:20:18 – Catherine shares how working as a make-up artist for BBC made her a feminist, this led her to using moving images as an art form 

00:23:44 – what drew Catherine to moving image art 

00:25:44 – Comparing UK and US video art 

00:29:11 – inspiration behind Catherine’s video art piece ‘Myth’ 


00:38:42 – Catherine’s thoughts on present day art school 

00:46:08 – How the MIRAJ journal was founded 

01:01:42 – About Landscape and the Moving Image 

01:14:21 – Catherine’s favourite chapter of Landscape and the Moving Image 

01:22:46 – Catherine’s final thoughts on the book 

01:26:15 – Catherine’s experience working with Intellect.