By Paul Collinson
Radical Landscapes is an exhibition at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool. In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue the Tate Liverpool Director describes the exhibition as ‘an exhibition that explores our individual and collective connection to the rural landscape.’ (page 9 Radical Landscapes Tate Publishing 2022). The rural has been a valid subject for artists since it evolved from the more ideal landscape painting of late 16th century painting. The term ‘landscape’ itself evolved from the Dutch term for paintings of countryside scenes- lânskip. Since then, artists, predominantly painters, have avoided the reality of the countryside they portrayed due to market demands. A John Constable painting gets the obligatory reference due to its ‘quintessentially English’ (and therefore conservative) scenery. But let’s not forget that Constable was determined to be recognised as a painter first and foremost and not as depicter of the reality of his family business reliant on the (child) workers depicted in the painting. It is only in literature that a reality of the historic rural scene is presented: think of Tess Durbeyfield’s toil and drudgery as she is forced to earn her living by traveling the Dorset countryside; or John Clare’s poetry lamenting the trees and hedges being grubbed up for the enclosing of land and subsequent political turmoil.
The Radical Landscapes exhibition shows how artists have recently, at least since the 1960s, taken on the role of illustrating the political, economic and social issues at hand in the countryside that have always been present. Land is a political issue, and with that the environment also becomes political. So how does the ambition of the exhibition, of exploring how ‘we’ connect to the rural, manifest itself? It is a collection of historical artworks (with two new commissioned works) that is curated into chapters such as trespass, identity, and climate crisis. Each of the chapters delve into subjects such as colonialism, access, activism, queerness, feminism, folk tradition, ritual, counter culture, and hope in the face of the climate crisis.
By being situated in a legacy of colonialism there is a sense of the exhibition still subscribing to the demands of the artworld status quo rather than the task at hand – of being ‘radical’ in the face of this apparent ‘connection’ we have to the rural. The exhibition does recognise the excluded and dispossessed who do actually live in and work the English countryside as well as those who are still not accepted as having legitimate access (whether through race, gender or class) and belonging to our countryside. Yet they are absorbed into the competitive contemporary artworld through their documentation, as anthropological artefact or as evidence of historic activism. Collecting past opposition to political, social and economic transgressions is all well and good but a contemporary reliance on what is seen as pure (the rural) is not good, especially as the rural has always been a site of economic activity, whether agrarian (stuff that grows or is bred for our food), industrial (extraction and production of raw material and energy) or tourism (the aesthetic and the recreational).
It is only now that nature, in the true sense, has become of interest and has to be something worth saving for its own sake rather than something for human exploitation and consumption (and this includes consumption as art) that there has to be a radical connection. The section of the exhibition Art in a Climate Crisis is a sadly brief section within the exhibition. The interview in the catalogue with Youth Climate Justice Activist Daze Aghaji addresses many of the current issues on climate change and climate justice that artists now have to tackle, especially when she states that she feels that many [art] institutions have conversations on these issues ‘just to show they’ve had the conversation’ and that conversation is not just about the ‘carbon’ (greenwashing) but more related to existing and ongoing systems that are the cause. Aghaji promotes the role of self well-being that communities can engender, especially when linked to greenspaces. But these links have to be practical and contemporary, as the World Health Organisation report of 2017 Urban Greenspaces Interventions and Health already recommends. Any connection we have in England to the rural is a mythical one and one that is exploited politically for toxic and oppressive purposes through nostalgia and nationalism. There may be tradition and folk ritual but they are now often the result of interested adaptation and playful superstition.
The exhibition Radical Landscapes may be about a connection to landscape, which is the land we merely dwell on and, if lucky, can call ‘home’ (with all the political baggage that that word carries), but I see that it is a connection to nature itself, with something beyond our control but beneficial to us as individuals and communities, that will preserve and improve our well-being and secure any future humanity may have.
Radical Landscapes is at the Tate Liverpool until 4th September 2022.