I picked this up with an instant sense of dislike which in
a couple of minutes was replaced by bemusement, and then a deep sense of
appreciation. This is one of those rare books which can change the way you
see. Its deepest impact is not conceptual, but visual. The photographer's
name being unfamiliar to me, it took me a while to realise what was happening
in these pictures. To look at them briefly, on the surface (and this book is
about surfaces), they appear to be the kind of kitsch landscapes one is
familiar with from album covers and calendars: sheer mountains dropping into
fathomless seas, improbably deep fissures and canyons, recursive inlets on
endless mountain coasts. We have seen these often, in science fiction movies,
screensavers, and dreams. It is no surprise to find that they are not even
created by people any more; landscapes like this can be imaged endlessly by
computer software designed to create simulacra of real landscapes, following
certain algorithms taken from the rules of orogenesis and geomorphology.
Algorithms that have surely been tweaked slightly to make the mountains more
strident, the sea more profound. Picking up Fontcuberta's book, it seems at
first that it is simply a collection of such images, sublime and unpopulated
screenshots with the slight rastered quality of the desktop.
Then you look more closely. Each image in the book is accompanied by a
smaller picture, a reproduction of an image. In the first part of the book,
they are images from the canon of landscape painting, in the second half,
pictures of the photographer's own body. You have to read the introduction to
see how the images were produced. Fontcuberta is at the conceptual end of photography,
almost the opposite of the landscape photographer that you might for a few
seconds imagine took these pictures. He fed digital images of these artworks
into a software program that was designed to interpret maps as horizontal,
persepctival images. Originally apparently from some military source, but now
in general use, these programs 'read' the map and produce a landscape image
of the relevant terrain.
So when fed an image that is not a map, but a piece of canonical art, the
software (presumably with some intervention on Fontcuberta's part) struggles
to make sense of it, and comes up with these fantasy landscapes. You can
compare the master picture with the digitized and processed landscape, and
after some struggle of adjusting perspective you can see how a face, a body,
a tree, etc., read two-dimensionally, has been turned into an exaggerated
mountain crest or deep crater.
There are a few jokes here. That classic image of the romantic sublime and
the individual beholder, Casper David Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea
of Fog, is translated into an unpeopled
and barren sea inlet; if one could view the image from above, the shape of
the sea and headland would be the imprint of David's silhouetted wanderer. In
Henri Rousseau's The Dream, the
reclining nude figure in the jungle turns into a barren rock island.
Sometimes they are extremely 'plausible', and this should not be surprising.
Any landscape is firstly a human creation; the word landscape came to us
through the Dutch via their tradition of painting pleasant and bucolic
outdoors scenes, a tradition which really arose after the development of
perspective, as a way for the Dutch bourgeoisie to enumerate their
possessions. As the cult of sensibility grew during the eighteenth century,
prefiguring romanticism, the ways of seeing changed to accommodate the idea
of visual pleasure from viewing the outdoors; in particular, and increasing
into the nineteenth century, these were the rugged and mountainous landscapes
of the sublime, the chasmic, the fearsome. The usual way of telling this is
to say that as the industrial revolution spread, people yearned for a
'nature' that they felt sundered from. I often suspect there was an aspect of
this change in sensibility that was caused also by changes in technology. We
learn to see in a manner that mimics the things we have made: painted
landscapes, telescopes, cameras.
There are no landscapes in nature, only objects and living beings. As
viewers, even when looking at a real mountain, we take pleasure in the view,
and we often imagine that this is taking us closer to nature, when the
opposite is closer to the truth. Landscape is a kind of nostalgia for a
closeness that we imagine we once had with nature. Fontcuberta in these
pictures shows how deeply constructed this nostalgia is.
It is interesting that we have started taking this 'scape' suffix and adding
it to anything else that is visually pleasing or interesting; a cityscape, a
seascape, now even a thoughtscape, a bodyscape. These are scapescapes,
landscapes processed from previous landscapes. Fontcuberta seems to be
saying: the more highly processed, kitschy, and exaggerated (and hence
further from 'nature') a landscape is, the more we enjoy it in this romantic
way that is now so thoroughly manufactured. Hence we cannot look at these
pictures without a bemused double-take, the kind of questioning that
conceptual art is meant to initiate in the viewer.
Some people may find this a bit too tricky, as if it is making one conceptual
point, and so therefore why do we need a whole book? The answer seems to be
in the second half, in which Fontcuberta uses images of his own body. My
favourite image is one that he took of his temple. In the computerised image,
a mole has become a single black island. In the distance, his eyelid appears
as a mountainous mainland. In another picture, his nipple transmutes into a
huge mountain peak surrounded by ice. In another, his penis is a lake fringed
with fairy-tale mountains. Clearly, there is a relation to the surrealists
here, and Breton or Dali or Magritte (perhaps Magritte in particular) would
have enjoyed doing this, if they had had the technology.
Surrealism started as a movement as political as it was artistic (they knew
how linked the two are). They knew the world would change if people change
the way they look. Fontcuberta almost goes further. The act of appropriation
that this book is, says we can all change our way of perceiving the world.
Enough of picturing things like a painter, or even more passively, like a
camera. Why not start to process our images as a computer can do, why not
endlessly re-imagine the images we are receiving; or even transmute our own
bodies into the islands and mountains and snow we are made from.
My only grudge with this book? I wanted a copy of the software he was using.
© Giles Goodland