Song of the Earth: European Artists and the Landscape By Mel Gooding and William Furlong. Thames & Hudson, 2002. 168pp. £32
This book explores a phenomenon that has quietly risen to significance during the past 40 years - the use of landscape settings and materials in European art. There is no claim, nor could there be, that this is a coherent movement. So on the face of it, this book is a curious project, focused on a medium of expression - landscape - not on the artistic message.What gives it interest is the diversity of artistic perspectives it reveals, in what for many will be relatively unfamiliar territory.
The book is in two parts. A long essay by Mel Gooding attempts to group the methods and intentions of artists in the field in a critical state-of-the-art. Then William Furlong presents extended interviews with five diverse landscape artists - herman de vries (sic), Chris Drury, Nikolaus Lang, Richard Long and Giuseppe Penone. All this is integrated with excellent illustrations.
Gooding can point to few common threads among these artists beyond their landscape focus. They do all tread gently on the earth; they have no truck with the bulldozer sculpture of the American land art movement. And they are low on irony (an urban attribute), though they all have a critical edge that would deny they are romantic escapists.
Gooding sets out five critical perspectives, one or more of which may characterise a particular artist. The first two focus on artists who express themselves through reportage such as photography, but rarely intervene by making artworks, and those who have specific methods of collecting objects. Both are problematic. They are characteristic of many artists, not just landscape ones.And while the first focuses on the message, the second focuses on the medium.
Yes, message and medium are linked, but overall it is a contradictory approach to try to characterise artists in both ways at once.
The other three perspectives are more particular to landscape, focusing on working with nature (such as training plants or intensifying sunlight), intervening in manmade landscape (say, through sculpture), and exploring 'living at one'with nature - an ecological consciousness (often using traces of ancient, more holistic, cultures). Here Gooding tries hard to find patterns among the ways landscape artists express themselves. Then follow Furlong's interviewees, who sit uneasily in these frameworks, resisting hard, as artists do, the idea of being classifiable in words.
Furlong's interviews are more successful, because less ambitious. He simply talks to the five artists about what they are doing and why.
To give a flavour of their variety: de vries, described by some as part of the PC tendency, is in awe of nature and records it through photography, but feels artworks have no place in his near-wilderness; Drury makes small artworks such as cairns, which he photographs, and has a website to help you find them.
Long paints with earth, and is also famed for his walks, bringing photographs and descriptions of them to the gallery (in passing, he describes Andy Goldsworthy as a 'second-generation decorative artist'). Lang traces fading, ancient ecological ways of life for what they can still teach us; Penone uses landscape materials but does not want a sharp divide between urban and non-urban views - it is all man's nature.As a sculptor, he needs to do some substantial making for the gallery, and he emphasises the Modernist approach of beginning with an idea, whereas others look into landscape and respond more intuitively.
These interviews are informative fragments, as are Gooding's attempts at a more structured analysis of the field. As work in progress on understanding landscape artists, Song of the Earth is revealing.