Imagined Landscapes

Exhibition essay for Imagined Landscapes at RWA, 2015

Remembered, mapped, collaged, woven, catalogued, re-materialised, marked, colonised, appropriated, navigated, excavated, narrated, visualised: imagined.

Imagined Landscapes presents the work of a multidisciplinary group of contemporary artists, featuring transitional topographies, ancient sites and appropriated spaces. It suggests that the role of the artist is also that of storyteller, cartographer and cultural geographer. However, putting disciplines aside, if landscape provides us with “a way of seeing, a way of thinking about the physical land” [1] what then does it mean to ‘imagine’ a landscape?

In Imagined Landscapes the answer to this lies in a number of responses conveyed through a variety of media. Here, landscapes are remembered (looking back) and imagined (looking forward), then re-imagined, mapped and collaged back together. Places are charted, catalogued and ordered; emptiness explored and colonised. Traces, marks and pathways materialised. The landscape is resurrected through stone and chalk. Boundaries are drawn, spaces narrated and histories revealed.

But whose history is it? Imagined Landscapes makes reference to a number of different places and spaces, creating a contrasting perception of landscape to that experienced through the very specific locale explored in Inquisitive Eyes: Slade Painters in Edwardian Wessex, seen in the adjoining galleries. Yet it is worth remembering that the Wessex in this title is also an imagined place – a literary landscape which shifts and mutates to allow room for new narratives, characters and twists in plot, including Inquisitive Eyes’ own ‘lost chapter in British art’.

As a geographical region, Wessex most closely mirrors our contemporary concept of the South West, stretching from Wiltshire in the east to Cornwall in the west and fleeting north on occasion to encompass the urbanity of Bristol. In contrast, Imagined Landscapes moves across the British Isles, from north to south, beyond barrow and bluff, to headland and edge-land. However, the importance of place is still paramount for many of the artists represented – even more so than a concern for landscape itself.

Scottish artist Eileen Lawrence RSA for example does not see her work as being ‘about’ landscape. Instead her interest lies in “marking, recording or capturing a sense of having been there.” [2] But where is there? The works in the exhibition are titled Monadhliath Mountains, referring to a range in the Scottish Highlands, also known as ‘The Grey Hills’. Lawrence writes by way of accompaniment to the work: “It has been dark for some time now. I am standing on the Caithness flagstones outside my house. The dark night sky holds the even darker shapes of the surrounding trees, Norway Spruce, Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine. The first owl call comes from within the woods to the east of where I stand, a few moments later and another owl calls from the more distant direction of the Monadhliath Mountains that stretch southwest from here.” [3]

The specificity to which this passage alludes is not however evoked through the pristine camera lens or laboured in paint, but instead is conveyed through the tactility suggested by the use of natural materials, which in Monadhliath Mountains includes feathers collaged upon the paper’s surface. Lawrence’s practice involves the collation of materials from within the landscape, returning with them to her studio. Here they are ordered and catalogued, creating a collection of ‘traces’.

With interests ranging from ancient architecture, mythology and ancestral history, one can see how these objects begin to represent not just ‘the’ landscape from which Lawrence has extracted them, but the strata of landscape stretching back over centuries. Specificity of place therefore becomes blended with something more fluid to create a “form of visual poetry” [4]. This rather romantic reading of the work chimes with the approach of landscape historian William Hoskins who suggested that “poets make the best topographers.” [5]

This relationship between poetry and topography or in fact and fiction weaves its way throughout Imagined Landscapes. It can be encountered between works, such as the stark contrast of Jem Southam’s large-format photographic series The Pond at Upton Pyne, which faithfully documents the same changing locale over a number of years, and Stephen Felmingham’s discursive landscape Ida and Dactyl – rendered in charcoal so that even its material is inherently fragile.

And it can also be seen within works, such as Paul Gough’s ‘edgelands’ which find their inspiration in the genius loci (spirit of place) – a notion commonly associated with the artist Paul Nash for whom Gough looks to for inspiration – yet from here expands to create overlapping narratives incorporating multiple sites, memories and places.

Another interesting iteration of this tension lies within the intrinsic factuality of cartography, a practice explored by a number of artists in the exhibition. Maps suggest the concretisation of knowledge. They provide us with a way in which to negotiate the landscape, creating borders and boundaries. Topographically their purpose is to describe with accuracy: to ‘make known’ particular places. However, they also create pathways and spaces between.

Iain Biggs’ work uses the process of deep mapping to interweave various disciplines and practices together. By finding the middle ground he creates what he refers to as a ‘conversational space’ suggesting an alternative use for mapping that deflects its traditional tendency towards separation. [6] His work Severn Waterscape (for Owain Jones) is an example of this weaving technique. Its unframed, wall-based presentation shares a history with the hanging maps produced by 17th century Dutch cartographers, which were hung alongside landscape paintings. [7] Its layering of different source materials creates multiple readings, in essence ‘imagining’ a new landscape out of many.

This idea of assemblage and appropriation shares similarities with Rae Hicks’ approach to the construction of landscape within his brightly coloured abstractions. City Slickers was made after looking at the work of British artist John Piper. Inspired by the flatness of Piper’s buildings, Hicks set out to create a ‘fake landscape’ with shape and form reflecting the redevelopment architecture of London. In other works he plays with Western landscape traditions, dislocating natural forms from their beginnings.

Also existing somewhere between the real and the imagined is the work of Gill Rocca, who appropriates existing imagery to create liminal landscapes that rely on the notion of anonymity to draw us in. We are not meant to ‘place’ these landscapes. They are deliberately ambiguous in their origin. Imagined Landscapes contains a number of Rocca’s miniatures and smaller works from various series aptly titled Nowhere and Elsewhere (other series not in the show include Somewhere Here and Somewhere In Between). They are imagined landscapes in as much that they are a combination of references, causing one to wonder where is Nowhere?

Rocca borrows references from photography and film to create the starting point for her work, creating images that are both filmic and familiar. In most of the works a road winds off into the distance leaving an expanse of empty space in the centre of the image upon which we can project our own memories and narrative. Displayed as a group they also create spaces between, moments of stillness within which to rest and re-imagine.

The notion of stillness and movement within the landscape, or to put it another way stability and fragility, is also addressed in Imagined Landscapes through a number of works that engage with environmental issues. More specifically, for the most part, coastal and inland flooding, imbuing traditionally dry landscapes with a waterlogged history.

Bristol based multi-disciplinary artists Jethro Brice and Seila Fernández Arconada have adapted the community based art project Some:when for this exhibition by projecting images of the landscape, and the community which inhabit it, onto the interior surface of a traditional Somerset Flatner. The boat was handmade as part of the project which sought to reflect the ingenuity of the community at Langport in dealing with the devastating flooding which hit the area in 2013-14. In the gallery context a vessel used for traversing the landscape becomes a backdrop for the landscape itself, creating a static canvas upon which to tell this story of change.

Similarly Veronica Vickery’s work Poniou 25/5 considers the effect of coastal flooding, moving the focus to a stream in West Cornwall. The work has been revisited since it was last shown so that rather than a series of canvases snaking across the wall it is now cantilevered across a steel structure. Whereas previously the work reinforced the swollen waterway as a boundary, it now creates a transparent border with its grid like structure allowing for multiple viewpoints through and between the work. In much the same way that Biggs’ work alludes to the conversational capacity of borders in mapping, the physical display of Poniou creates conversations between other works within the exhibition whilst still physically dividing the space.


This materiality is an important concern, one that returns us to the notion of place. Perhaps commanding the largest physical presence in the exhibition are Tim Harrisson’s monolithic stone sculptures, carved from sedimentary stone aged between 100 to 200 million year’s old. Each derives from a specific location, imbedded with an affiliation to place. In their solidity and the organic nature of their forms they seem to embody the notion of time and place. The intimacy of their textured, tactile surfaces contain both myth and memory – much like we imagine that the light touch of a feather in Lawrence’s Monadhliath Mountains might transport us back to her doorstep in the darkness of night.

The interweaving relationships between memory and imagination, place and space, and materiality and content within the landscape evokes the question “If a place is defined by memory, but no one with memories is left to bring them to the surface, does a place become a no place?” [8] The artists within Imagined landscapes all deal with memory in some way (whether that be their own or that of someone else). We could just as soon ask what does it mean to ‘remember’ a landscape as to ‘imagine’ it, yet perhaps the answer would be a combination of both, of looking back and looking forward, of ‘having been there’ – wherever there might be.

[1Johnson, Matthew, Ideas of landscape (Oxford: Blackwell publishing, 2007), Page 4
[2] Lawrence, Eileen, quoted in , ‘Reading the Fragments’ in Eileen Lawrence, Paintings 1977-1992 (Usher Gallery, Lincoln, 1992)
[3] Lawrence, Ibid.
[4] Kent, Sarah, ‘Reading the Fragments’ in Eileen Lawrence, Paintings 1977-1992 (Usher Gallery, Lincoln, 1992), Page 9
[5] Hoskins, W. G, The Making of the English Landscape (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1955) quoted in Johnson, Mathew, Ideas of Landscape (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007). Page 35
[6] An idea that Lucy Lippard alludes to in Notes From a Recent Arrival in Situation, Documents of Contemporary Art (London: Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press) where she suggests that “boundaries originally meant bonds rather than separations.” Page 155
[7] Andrews, Malcolm, Landscape and Western Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), Page 82
[8] Lippard, Ibid, Page 155

Image Credit: Nowhere I, Gill Rocca, oil on wood, 2012. Photo © Gill Rocca.