Subjective Formations

Jacques Abelman, Amsterdam Academy of Architecture

jacques.abelman [at] gmail dot com

A response to Competing Communities in the “Great Bog of Europe”: Identity and Seventeenth-Century Landscape Painting by Ann Adams

In this paper, Adams describes how the development of landscape painting in Holland paralleled the building of a sense of national identity among Netherlanders. Enormous shifts in politics, economics, and religion were assimilated and reflected upon through the depiction of landscapes and different scenes which expressed key concepts in the development of the Dutch nation. I was surprised to learn that the scenes artists depicted were not accurate portrayals of a scene in the world, much as one assumes from the traditional image of the artist standing in a field before an easel. Rather, scenes were often geographically fictitious and constructed from several elements to communicate a specific idea or even political or religious concept. The arena of painting is where these issues were symbolically worked out and represented for the first time. For instance, in contrast to other European nations at the time, The Netherlands was not a monarchy, but a collection of individual land owners. Nor were they were not beholden to a supreme religious leader in the Vatican, as they were mainly Protestant. Instead of paintings of Kings, Queens, or the Pope, what is pictorially focused on is the land itself, source of wealth and pride for a people.

According to Dennis Cosgrove, “Landscape is an ideological concept, a subjective formation. It represents a way in which certain classes of people have signified themselves and their world through their relationship with nature, and through which they have underlined and communicated their own social role and that of others with respect to external nature.” Following Cosgroves’ thinking, my question upon reading this essay is whether landscape representation today also reflects a symbolic construction of our current relationship to the world we live in. Representation now includes all the different media capable of transmitting an image – from painting and photography to video and multi-media installations, with innumerous hybrid forms in between. As we have seen in previous writings in this series, the basic approaches of representing landscape have remained essentially unchanged since the Renaissance. We have been actively and continuously been using the formats of plan, perspective, and scene for over six hundred years. There are still landscape painters and photographers and artists whose work revolves around depicting landscape.

I propose that in order to attain a more progressive stance in the Building arts, we must clarify the elements of our “subjective formation,” and integrate them into our modes of representation. An engaged mode of representation that evolves past its historical origins is an essential design tool to engage with the future of a world that never ceases to evolve. We live in a more complex world than the Italians in the Renaissance or the Dutch in the Enlightenment. Unprecedented levels of population, urban development, environmental pressures and scientific advances have shaped a radically different world than the ones our ancestors knew – and it seems that this is not being reflected in the way we depict our world visually. We live at a different speed, and with a different set of problems. French philosopher Paul Virilio even speculates that we need to “speed up” the way we see in order to perceive landscape in the way we currently experience space and time because of technology. It is not a question of depicting the world accurately, but rather integrating new ideas into the visual framework that will allow us to express an actual relationship to the world as we experience it now, in the 21st century. What would landscape representation look like if it included not only Virilio’s idea of speed, but a networked world of transient populations, global capitalism, and climactic shift? Moving from the Dutch golden age to thinking about the current day, Adams’ historical investigation inspires me to point a finger at a territory waiting to be fully explored.