Dulness as a quality of landscape aesthetics

photo by INKONIC (22 April 2011)
photo by INKONIC (22 April 2011)

The visual genres to explore landscape, such as painting, photography, cinematography, illustrations and digital gaming, include an unmistakable distance between the eye and the rest of the body. Visual compositions can be perfected to guide a precise aesthetic appeal. This has a great advantage because it increases the certainty to create an intended effect, i.e. the artist can master the transmittance of an aesthetic effect. This will help the artist to build an oeuvre and guarantee the audience a certain experience.
The dominance of visual arts in landscape genres are not that advantageous. Outdoor landscapes may offer occasional spots that appear perfect in their compositional unity, yet the larger parts of landscapes do not. For instance, as I make my occasional walks I have the opportunity to be conversant with myself or others because I do not have to be flabbergasted by continuous push announcements of perfected views on landscapes; fortunately not! Still, landscapes are famous for such flabbergastnes. Just type in ‘landscapes’ in any picture viewer on the web and you will see my point proven.
This discrepancy between a visual oeuvre and the everyday presence of mere things is also an issue in a very recent project by Olafur Eliasson. It is an installation in one of world’s most beautiful museums: Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. A Dutch art critic reviewed this work and thought it both magnificent and dull. Why it is magnificent is obvious; it is considered dull because nothing happened and you would get used to any initial estrangement within a minute or two. I consider this review an example of a tough misunderstanding of land-art and landscape aesthetics. Somehow a rigid mismanagement of expectations is cultivated when considering landscapes. When landscapes are visually dull, they are more often critized, certainly when they are artworks or designs. What a drôle (French). I believe that a distinctive (physical) type of dulness is what makes landscape aesthetics different and intense.

I will try to explain this

In the work of choreographer Pina Bausch, sand, earth, water and stone (and fire) regularly form the elements of landscapes that are part of the performance. These exert on the dancers an act of resistance; by ploughing through, throwing, crawling and sliding underneath or beating against. The elements offer a clear opposition against the fluent and flexible bodies that somehow, will find a way to resist present limits. Up to the point of leaving a stain on the weak tissue of the flesh and in return shape patterns by and on the elements. Like sheep rubbing against a hawthorn, leaving behind a cloth of their own wooly skin, the dancers waggle in the mud and sand or get totally soaked in the rain and water on the floor, or get tormented by the rope that holds them but cannot leash their dance. On the contrary, the resistance is reason for the moves and forms that are performed as a dance. This is not dance with pirouettes and long laced toe shoes, this is dance with bare bodies, bare feet, long hair and simple long dresses.

It was Jay Appleton who introduced the ‘prospect-refuge’ theory to indicate that human behaviour within landscapes is related to a biological system for survival (1975). To be in a secluded position (being a refuge) providing an overview across a wide field (gaining prospect) allows to overcome initial lack of understanding of the movement of animals and atmospheric changes. One can study what might appear an erratic behaviour of animals and find the right moment to make a kill and feed yourself. All the while you are relatively safe from any sudden attack by the thickness of the bushes or height of the tree. Preferences for certain landscapes are according to Appleton related to primordial senses for orientation, hiding and hunting instincts. This notion has become of significant importance for a specialised field of environmental psychologists (Kaplan, 1979, Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989, e.g. Berg, 2005, Gibson reviewed in Heft, 2005, Bourassa, 1991). It is now widely acclaimed that we both ‘read’ the landscape and are ‘involved’ in landscapes according to biological instincts. Walking in the landscape using muscular power and hand-eye coordination is as much part of the aesthetic experience as looking and daydreaming. They cannot be separated. Their combined effect is what constitutes an aesthetic interaction that is by James Gibson referred to as ‘affordances’. These are situations that are provoked by natural features such as topography or objects and cause humans to grasp possibilities for interaction (in: Heft, 2005). For example a natural staircase formed by the roots of trees that hold on tight on the side of the mountain. Besides possibilities, limitations are introduced that block certain types of interaction. Such as swimming in dredge or moving through thick snow. Affordances are not completely deductible from the formal aspects of objects or topography and neither can they be predicted by the human mind alone. They naturally arise when circumstances are present and the mind-body is operative. Affordances are discovered by the act of engagement and this is also exactly how Pina Bausch creates her pieces, by watching the dancers handle and resist certain situations.

Exploring such affordances by means of dance, reveals rare movements or seemingly illogical interactions and counterintuitive responses with an extraordinary flexibility. The artistic expression of the body by means of dance allows to be reflective on the habitual, biological normalisation of mind-body interaction. Pina Bausch explores the full exposure of the anatomy of aesthetic sensations by advancing on the interaction between the body, the elements and rhythmic or melodious music. One of her last works ‘Vollmond’ (Full Moon 2006 and she died in 2009) is most exemplary for this ambition. This two hour endurance performance containing a rock, water, rain and various types of music and equivalent human interaction is recited in the movie PINA by Wim Wenders (2010).

Choreography in general, is at once visual and musical. It is the composition of a sequence of steps and movements that relate to position, speed, interaction and timing. In Vollmond the music is varied. There is no exclusively written music for this dance, it is a collage of existing tracks, both classical and contemporary. This is a relevant detail because it reminds of the contemporary situation in many, mostly urban, environments that are full of musical fragments that drift along as you find your way. The music itself is like an element that is simply present and responded to. Vollmond is not a meaningful ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’, or a whole of creation that has been mutually perfected to convey a meaning. It is a collage of elements and tracks that have been selected, but could have been different as well. Rather than to distance oneself by the exceptional perfection that can be created by an intensely rehearsed and muscular performance, Vollmond offers proof of everyday possibilities by inventive and dramatized interactions. A human being is capable of so much flexibility and immersion amongst and against the elements. Even dulness makes inventive.

Should we be proud of our human flexibility and respectful distance towards the elements as Kant suggested by his Moral Law in his idea on the sublime (Kant, 1790)? In some ways there is an obvious respect for the giant rock that lies on stage because it is illuminated by soft, blue grey light that creates the typical dignified and reflective atmosphere of moonlight. The rock is like the moon itself or a stone from the moon and the impression that this dance is performed at night enhances mythical associations of premodern animalistic rituals. An atmosphere that is more often present in the work of Pina Bausch as it was more often present in landscape paintings that include the moonlight or sunrise and sunset. At the same time, the composition of the various scenes within the dance does not conclude towards a worship of the rock or the rain, nor the surface of water. There is rather an occasional ‘worship’ amongst the dancers, in between two man, a man and a woman, a group ‘sniffing’ at an individual. The humans are among themselves and the elements are simply present and opportunistically included. Respect occasionally comes and fades away into a solitary dance that is sad and full of sorrow. Loneliness, love and pain, beauty, boredom and joy are the affections that are continuously interchanged as the music changes, the lightning or the amount of dancers on stage. There is no reference to any Moral Law or any other ethical obligation underlying the performance as a whole. They are simply facets, fragments, pieces of a collage that are true the moment they are performed and denied the next moment. A result of the acceptance of dulness and not to feel obliged to be in constant awe.

I believe that in this seemingly casual mix of expressions there is one aim that is continuous: the saving resistance that humans are capable of, even while only brief moments of a sensational drift are present. The variety of aesthetic sensations that are possible, both due to and despite landscape elements, is expressed by embodied capacities. At one moment a solitary dancer can be joyous and that seems logical and even beautiful and at another moment the same dancer is a seeking and fragile individual. The continuous movement and flexible responses to situations that one gets caught up in, is the dance that is performed. A striking choreographic element is the presence of repetition and the almost instinctive patters to equal each other. One individual starts a movement and soon others appear and repeat it in an organized and completely synchronic manner. Suddenly the singular expression becomes a collective symbol of some sort. It gains in meaning in only twenty seconds of time interval. Another scene may be that an individual is caught up in a personal drift that it does not seem to control and a few other dancers come to either aid the continuously falling individual or clean up the mess that the neurotic repeating movements create. Once a movement is repeated it often becomes a matter of pure exhaustion before it is over and this can create such an enormously eery drag that the audience is effectively challenged to sit and watch without the possibility to intervene.

All the while these interactions are being reflected by the audience and as such the performance is like a lucid dream. The dream is however not a purely positive dream of sugar sweet discriminations, it is a dream of a complete spectrum of aesthetic interactions that bear the recognisable stain of enlightened dulness.


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BOURASSA, S. C. 1991. The aesthetics of landscape, Belhaven Press.
HEFT, H. 2005. Ecological Psychology in Context: James Gibson, Roger Barker, and the Legacy of William James’s Radical Empiricism, Routledge.
KANT, I. 1951 (1790). Critique of Judgement, New York, Hafner Press.
KAPLAN, S. 1979. Perception and Landscape: Conceptions and misconceptions. National Conference on Applied Techniques for Analyses and Management of the Visual Resource. Incline Village, Nevada.
KAPLAN, S. & KAPLAN, R. 1989. The experience of nature: a psychological perspective, CUP Archive.