Nature as Artifice: New Dutch Landscape in Photography and Video Art
presents us with a sad and startling new environ. The rolling hills of yesteryear have given way to rows of identical houses running across plains of pavement, the flossy clouds of van Ruisdael’s The Jewish Cemetery have been displaced by plumes of industrial smoke pouring hot and heavy from smoke stacks, and the automobile has replaced the once prized Dutch cow as subject. While curator Maartje van den Heuvel describes this new Dutch landscape as having “distinct visual appeal,” it is nearly impossible to see past the destruction that brought about this cold, modern aesthetic. The exhibition largely ignores the nation’s agrarian past and the environmental ramifications of suburbanization. The futuristic beauty of this collection is inhibited because it never acknowledges, let alone attempts to answer, the questions it provokes: what is the true nature of this new landscape? What does it mean for the country’s future?
The works of Jannes Linders
and Gerco de Ruijter
contrast the few organic, undeveloped regions left with the new symmetry of the modern Dutch landscape. Linders was commissioned by the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam to document the changing face of Holland as the nation raced to convert from an agricultural country to a suburban one. Landscape in the Netherlands
(1988-90), a collection of black and white images, is the result. The photographs range from surprising to pedestrian. A wide view of sheep grazing on a narrow strip of grass situated directly across a river from an industrial park effectively communicates the social and physical changes the landscape has undergone. Metal bicycle racks on a cobblestone sidewalk, a view of a highway, or a portrait of a factory, though, have little to say as more than documentation, pure and simple. These photographs could have been taken anywhere in the developed world; nothing differentiates them as Dutch.
De Ruijter’s images, however, have distinctly more appeal due to his unorthodox approach. De Ruijter attaches his camera to a kite that he allows to ascend until the image will appear as an abstract pattern rather than an aerial view. He then takes the photograph via remote control. De Ruijter chooses sites in which undeveloped areas abut developed ones to better highlight the differences between the past and present. Named for the areas he is photographing, the images are a compelling contrast between natural disorder and the angular regularity of civilization.
’s Permanent Daylight
(2004) series stays within the theme of environmental control with his large, fuzzy images of greenhouses. So fascinated by the way natural elements such as light, humidity, and temperature can be constantly regulated in a greenhouse, Osz converted a trailer into a modern day camera obscura and allowed the greenhouse to photograph itself. Osz parked a trailer outside of the electrically lit greenhouse in the dark of night and allowed the light to enter the trailer through a small opening. The light hit a piece of light sensitive paper hung in the trailer, thus creating a photographic image of the greenhouse. The implications of the method are evident: it evokes the idea of artificial intelligence, a machine replicating itself of its own will. Even more eerie, the photographs are totally unique in that they don’t have any negatives or digital origins. It is as though technology has conjured something tangible out of nothing but light.
’s series of photographs entitled Poisoned Landscape
(1988), while not the perfect antithesis to this fascination with environmental manipulation, at least recognizes the consequences behind the artificiality. In 1983, the Interim Act on Soil Decontamination mandated that the areas with the highest levels of soil pollution be documented and named so that the public health risks could be assessed. Berger photographed these sites in objective, wide-angle shots. The most unsettling of these is a flat, treeless expanse of land carpeted in brown and orange brush, punctuated intermittently with bristly clusters of blue flowers. Berger’s landscapes have a stark, almost spooky beauty; they either appear alien and unexplored, or deserted after a quick and harsh exploitation. Even so, the viewer may wonder: “Why am I looking? Is Poisoned Landscape
more art or social criticism?” Without a definitive answer, the photographs seem almost inconsequential.
Conversely, Berger’s "Roadside Flowers" (1988), a close-up photograph of wild blooms growing thick in sandy soil, is a joy to take in. A riot of color and texture that appeals to the most basic tastes, it is evocative of Holland’s bucolic past. However, the image’s meaning changes immediately once the viewer learns that it is not an accident of nature at all, but an (albeit successful) attempt by a Dutch governmental agency to replicate the once wild beauty of the roadside by re-planting the wildflowers that had previously disappeared due to soil pollution.
What Nature as Artifice
lacks in provocation, it makes up for in artistic innovation. The new and interesting ways that artists like Osz and Ruijter take their photographs make for, at the very least, a pleasant viewing experience. While the images please on an elemental aesthetic level, the exhibition lacks a voice and any real connection to the Dutch past. Lacking context and direction, Nature as Artifice
falls as flat as Holland’s new panorama.
According to the Aperture Foundation’s current exhibition, the classical Dutch landscape is dead, both literally and in relation to contemporary art.