The fact that the picturesque city of Innsbruck, with its impressive mountain backdrop, provides the perfect setting for a group show of landscape painting is a coincidence that has little to do with the conceptual approach of Yuki Higashino and Elisabeth Kihlström, the artists who curated to take a landscape from. Instead, their point of departure was the research they conducted for their own work A Celebration of Love and Life (Noon) (2013), also included in the exhibition. For this slide show, they photographed a painterly mountain landscape near Murnau in Bavaria. In the sequence of over- and under-exposed pictures, the scene becomes increasingly unrecognizable until the projection shows nothing but a black or white rectangle – the picture of Murnau’s mountain landscape is literally blotted out. As an accompanying text revealed, this setting holds specific art-historical significance: in the early 20th century, Murnau was a popular destination and motif for painters associated with The Blue Rider group. By extinguishing this vista, the work attempts to symbolically reverse the visual appropriation of Murnau by these modernist painters. However, why special attention is paid to Murnau and The Blue Rider group in an exhibition wishing to deal with art’s appropriation of landscape is a question that remained unanswered.
A clear, art historical coherence was similarly sidestepped in the curation. In their accompanying text, the curators state that their point of departure was the concept of the picturesque as used in the 18th century, understood as an attempt to reduce nature to its image-worthiness. On this basis, they develop the theory that throughout art history, pictures of landscapes have always had an inherent element of appropriation and control. As a screen for the projection of economic, political and personal interests, a distinction must be drawn between such images and ‘nature itself’. But the historical frame of reference was so broad – from the landscape painting of the 18th century to Land art of the 1970s – that their argument lacked an clear foundation. As a result, visitors were also left to guess how the curators understood the critique of landscape pictures supposedly formulated by the mainly contemporary works in the show.
In spite of this lack of a strong conceptual line, however, it was possible to make links between individual works and trace themes through the exhibition. In an approach resembling Higashino and Kihlström’s own, Michael Part applied the technical possibilities of photography to images of the landscape for his slide projection Untitled (2014), subjecting black and white pictures of an idyllic Alpine scene to chemical and manual image-processing techniques that emphasize the abstract forms of nature, lending the pictures a graphic quality. And with Martin Beck’s double projection Scenes (half modern, half something else [Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta]) (2002–03), which deals with modern and postmodern concepts of space in relation to the American desert, and Amy Croft’s video grey sky blue (2012), the exhibition examined the relationship between nature and architecture. Croft’s piece also showed that the concept of the picturesque can be rendered productive beyond the context of landscapes. In a double projection, her video shows the interiors of a design hotel juxtaposed with the view of the sky from one of the hotel’s windows. The architecture frames the sky, turning nature into picture, just like a classical landscape painting. Perceptions of nature recurred in Joyce Wieland’s 1967 structural film Sailboat (one of two historical works in the exhibition). The work which depicts a sailboat in a seascape features the art-historical motif of a figure seen from behind – a lone visitor to the beach.
In terms of showing how pictures of landscapes in general have shaped and continue to shape art history, this show worked precisely thanks to the range and quality of the assembled works. But what the promised critique of the ‘aesthetic conventions’ of landscape art might look like, and what its current relevance might be, are questions that to take a landscape from did not answer.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell