Mapping is a theme that has been present in my work for many years. The idea of representing a landscape on a flat surface fascinates me, as does the history the features can reveal.
Mark Butler, Conistone, 2016 and Howgills, 2016
Through working on a series of map based sculptures, the subject of place came to the fore. I produced sculptures that started out by depicting the topography accurately, before adding found objects or more abstract marks. They were successful, but they might benefit from concentrating on the emotional response the landscape evokes rather than any accuracy to the terrain/features being depicted. Researching this subject will help me to decide on the future direction of this body of work.
What does ‘evoke a sense of place’ mean when it comes to sculpture?
Evoke means the appearance of feelings about something, to ‘bring or recall (a feeling, memory, or image) to the conscious mind’ (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2017).
Place has many meanings, but it does seem to imply a specific location. A sense of place is ‘hard to define with any satisfaction’ (Dean and Millar, 2005, p.17), but means a location which has a feeling of being special in some way, it is an emotional response.
So evoking a sense of place involves triggering an emotional response and will therefore be different for each individual. Tacita Dean says ‘the artist can evoke a place that will always only exist as a memory of another place in the mind of the viewer’ (Dean and Millar, 2005, pp.182 – 192). In sculpture this might take the form of a large scale installation which places the viewer in a new special place, possibly also evoking memories of similar locations from the viewer’s past, or smaller works to which the viewer would travel in their minds eye which might be more in the realms of the imagination.
Why do I want to examine work in a ‘gallery environment’?
White walled galleries are used to provide a blank canvas, a void like atmosphere in which no distractions are present (Zimmerman.co.nz, 2017). Brian O’ Doherty (1999, p.15) describes the design purpose of the modern gallery spaces is that ‘The outside world must not come in’.
Bringing the outside into a space specifically designed to keep it out is an interesting and challenging idea.
On the other hand, an outside location already has its own sense of place, so using the vacuum of a gallery environment allows the viewer to focus purely on the sense of place the sculptor is trying to evoke.
I will examine two artists: one who uses installation to bring the outside environment into galleries and another who produces landscapes on a smaller scale.
A number of artists import natural materials into the gallery environment to blur the lines between outside and inside. An early example of this is Walter de Maria’s, ‘The New York Earth Room, 1977’ (Foundation, 2017) where Maria imported 197 cubic meters of earth and spread it evenly over the floor of a white walled gallery space.
More recently the work of Olafur Eliasson brings elements of the outside into the gallery environment and creates a sense of place within them. ‘The Weather Project, 2003’ consisted of a giant ‘sun’ made out of hundreds of mono-frequency lamps, a mirrored ceiling, and haze machines producing a fine mist atmosphere. Over ten years later, ‘Riverbed, 2014’ created a rock landscape and stream inside a gallery.
Olafur Eliasson, Riverbed, 2014 (changeorder, 2015)
Eliasson’s work considers what is ‘natural’ and how our experience of nature, natural phenomena and landscape is actually cultural. To engage viewers with this question, his installations are created in a way that enables people to see the construction techniques used. ‘The Weather Project’ allowed viewers to walk behind the ‘sun’ and see how it was made (Tate, 2003); ‘Riverbed’ was obviously a built landscape because of its setting in a gallery. He wants to make it clear how his installations are made so the viewer can question what they are experiencing (Collins, 2014).
Both pieces invite more interaction than purely observation, with the visitors having an impact on the work as they pass through it, or actively interacting with it. Many of the reviewers point towards the freedom in this work from the usual rules of engagement in a museum environment. The installation removes the ‘rules’ of a gallery experience and ‘there is no expected way to act within or experience the space, allowing for freedom of reflection, thought, sensory experience, and sense of self.’ (Quddus, 2014), others find ‘something disorienting about a piece that so openly invites intervention’ (Secher, 2014). These reviews were about ‘Riverbed’, but looking at the videos of ‘The Weather Project’, the same seems to be the case for this installation.
‘Riverbed’ can be seen as contemplative in a similar way to the layout of a Japanese garden, it is monochromatic and simplistic, with a peaceful stream flowing through it. Conversely it can also be viewed as sinister and destructive, the barren and lifeless landscape imposing itself on the gallery like a scene of devastation or ‘a post-apocalyptic environment’ (Coghlan, 2015). Eliasson is interested in how people can shift between the two perceptions dependent on their mood and the impact of the people around them (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2014).
It is hard to know what my response to this work would be without being able to experience it, but I think I would find it oppressive. The sterile nature of the landscape in the equally sterile gallery environment would find me relieved to escape into the outside world. However I experienced it, both ways of viewing it detailed above are strong emotional responses, so would therefore evoke a strong sense of place. Interacting with and contemplating the meaning of the installation would create a strong memory and opinion of the work which would not be quickly forgotten.
The installations accentuate elements of the natural environment we might not pay attention to normally. Voon (2014) puts this down to ‘the role of the white cube in creating more alluring environments.’ These installations certainly couldn’t work in the same way anywhere else but in these gallery environments because their isolation from the real world is a necessary part of the work. Eliasson does not see the gallery environment as a vacuum as discussed in the introduction, rather he sees it as an environment that should amplify what we know about the world. Whether it succeeds depends whether there is trust – if visitors experience an exhibition where they are trusted, they then have trust in themselves to interact with the art (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2014). From videos of viewers interacting with his installations, I would say that this trust has been achieved.
Smaller scale landscapes
In this section I will look at the work of Mariele Neudecker. The works she creates appear like fantasy landscapes, but they are actually based on romantic paintings where the artist (Friedrich) adapted the landscape to suit what he wanted to show. Neudecker recreates these landscapes and immerses them in tanks with dyes and salts which react over time to create different atmospheres, simulating the effects of fog or sunsets on the scenes. The highly detailed landscapes are crafted in great detail to give the illusion of reality, with the aim of being able to transport the viewer into the scene in their mind’s eye (Cumming, 2000).
Mariele Neudecker, Heaven, The Sky, 2008 (Jeffery, 2011)
‘Heaven the Sky, 2008’ consists of two large glass tanks housing cropped mountain ranges made from cast and painted fibreglass, filled with water and a chemical solution. This piece addresses a number of different issues:
The chemical reaction which takes place in the tanks results in a change in the environment, simulating snow forming on the mountain tops and fog around the base of them, similar changes to those which take place in our own environment.
The scenes are also animated by the viewer moving around them, through refraction from the water in the tanks, reflections off the glass walls and changing views as foreground becomes background and vice versa.
The scenes Neudecker depicts are based on romantic paintings and she is interested in how these paintings and any view of a landscape are always a crop of reality. This is depicted by cutting the sides of the mountains to leave flat planes where they meet the edge of the tank.
Containing the mountain ranges in tanks captures a piece of the outside for the viewer, bringing it to them. Placing them on plinths at or just above head height makes them still inaccessible though and distances the viewer from the landscape in the same way we view mountain ranges in reality.
The artist Friedrich, on whose work many of her tank pieces are based, ‘demonstrated a strong conviction as to the enduring identity of place’ (Dean and Millar, 2005, p.17) by using images of people in his landscape paintings. Neudecker has removed the people, but left evidence of man’s impact on the environment, be it a cairn, or a pathway, or a tower. This evidence of mankind’s impact will help viewers to project themselves into the landscape and bring about that sense of place. However, due to the bright lighting and reflection in the tanks, we are always reminded of the gallery space in which they are placed. The glass tank is used to remove the scene a step further, to displace it from the everyday world (Searle, 2000), the viewer is acutely aware that they are on the outside looking in.
Neudecker’s works are described as ‘captivating’, they have a ‘reverence and mystery’ (Jeffery, 2011) or a ‘religious majesty’ (Artforum.com, 2009). They certainly appear intriguing and provide a realistic (yet obviously cropped and contained) landscape in which to lose yourself in your mind’s eye. The cloud-forming chemicals add a sense of time passing as well as another layer of realism to feed the imagination. I imagine these evoke a strong sense of place, even if that place is definitely contained and outside of reality.
Evoking a sense of place in sculpture is possible in many different ways. The only requirement to be able to do this is for people to be able to be in a landscape, either physically or in their imagination.
Triggering the memory of a real place can be achieved through almost any means (even smell), but that memory is dependent on the viewer in question, whether they have visited that site and the experience they had of it when they were there.
It is much easier to create a new sense of place in a sculpture. Doing that through installation or in smaller works would seem to require a degree of realism, not necessarily relating to a real location, but in how they depict a chosen location. Placing yourself in a location would require a belief in that landscape. In developing my map tile work this is an important consideration to keep in mind as I move towards more abstract work – if the sense of landscape is lost by abstracting too far, then so is the sense of place.
The notion of time is also embedded within place (Dean and Millar, 2005). This can be depicted through movement in installation work, either within the landscape or the viewer’s movement through it. In smaller pieces this could be achieved through the viewer’s ability to move around a piece, or through evidence of occupation in a landscape, providing a ‘route’ for the eye to travel through the work.
Whilst a ‘sense of place’ can be hard to pin down, the key to its success in sculpture appears to be creating a believable landscape, introducing a sense of time, and producing an emotional response in the viewer.
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