It used to be pretty clear what landscape art was. Within the British tradition, it was artists such as Gainsborough, Constable or Turner who provided the default images of rural settings, and from them a line could be traced to the present day taking in a range of artists such as Paul Nash or Eric Ravilious. It was the accepted view well into the 20th century that this tradition – especially the masterpieces of the 18th and 19th centuries – represented something that was somehow safe, fixed and broadly reflective of the natural way of things.
Radical Landscapes at Tate Liverpool, which, true to its title, has adopted an expanded and inclusive view of what landscape art is, unsurprisingly doesn’t include Gainsborough’s famous c1750 double portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews on their grand estate. But it does include a video clip of John Berger critiquing the painting in his 1972 TV series Ways of Seeing.
Essentially, Berger’s argument was that rather than reading the painting as a simple marriage celebration with the accompanying corn field symbolising fertility and so on, this was a bald celebration of property and private land, and a statement about who had access to it and who didn’t. As Berger points out, the painting was made at a time when a man who stole a potato risked a public whipping and the sentence for poaching was deportation.
This spirit of questioning the ownership, use of and access to land animates a show that was initially conceived at the height of Brexit debates about identity, belonging and “taking back control”. Curator Darren Pih was interested in notions of thresholds and borders, as well as the reality of large areas of the UK being off limits to most people for a multitude of reasons, ranging from private ownership – including by offshore trusts – to militarisation and discrimination.
As the exhibition developed, and after several Covid-related delays, it has moved to examine our relationship with land through the lenses of the pandemic, the climate emergency and nuclear threat, as well as more mystical and emotional bonds to the rural landscape. The links between access to land and class, race, gender and disability are likewise probed in a specific context of activism and protest.
This wide brief is fulfilled by a suitably eclectic collection of more than 150 pieces of work, largely and imaginatively gathered from the Tate’s collection and augmented with some astute loans and commissions. The upshot is pleasingly surprising and diverse. Constable’s much confected depiction of Flatford Mill is to be found alongside banners made at the 1980s Greenham Common peace camp. Claude Cahun’s surreal photograph of a pair of arms emerging from a stone monolith sits near catalogues from the Festival of Britain. There’s an examination of the resource-efficient lives of the Romany community, and Peter Kennard’s Haywain with Cruise Missiles montage.
Pih says he “wanted to explore why we have such an emotional attachment to land and why we protest when we see it being threatened”, and while the show nods to the history of the enclosures and Highland Clearances in Scotland, its real historical and political starting point is the rambling and then trespass movements of the early part of the last century, which culminated with the mass Kinder Scout trespass of 1932 in the Peak District. Led by ramblers and young communists, it eventually resulted in the establishment of national parks in the UK.
Although clearly from a lineage of older rural protests, these mass trespasses were largely urban working-class attempts to access land at a time when cities were polluted and access to green space was limited yet essential to good health. The parallels with the pandemic are clear. The trespasses are represented in the show by 1930s press photographs. Images from half a century later, taken by Alan Lodge, of the confrontation now known as the Battle of the Beanfield between a convoy of new-age travellers heading to the 1985 Stonehenge free festival and the police, illustrate how the story continues.
The notional focus of the Battle of the Beanfield, Stonehenge, reverberates around the exhibition with artists – Ravilious, Henry Moore, Tacita Dean and others – drawn to symbolically powerful aspects of landscape from henges and geoglyphs to ancient oak trees. Jeremy Deller, who has made films about henges and whose neon depiction of the Cerne Abbas giant is in the show alongside his acid house smileys made of straw, reflects that, “The beauty of most of these sites is that there is a sense of shared ownership, physically and conceptually. They’re this huge, mute mirror of Britain. Whatever your views about yourself or your country and humanity, you can project them on to these structures. For me, Stonehenge is the most contemporary structure in Britain, because every week, there seems to be a new story about it.”
After the Battle of the Beanfield, the venues for contested mass assembly moved to the burgeoning rave scene, culminating in 1992 at the huge unlicensed gathering at Castlemorton (the show features rare film footage of the rave), which indirectly led to changes to civil liberties via the criminal justice bill. But legal battles around contested sites and access were only one way of restricting who could, or should, occupy these spaces. Issues of discrimination, exclusion and erasure are widely explored in the show.
Ingrid Pollard, whose work has long revealed what has been hidden in plain sight in the landscape tradition – the absence of black figures – evokes themes of colonisation through family photographs. A film made by the neurodiverse collective Project Art Works explores another group often excluded from the traditional landscape narrative by following a group of neurodiverse artists, their families and carers for several days during a trip to a remote Scottish glen, again expanding the view of who has a right to enjoy the countryside.
For there to be access to the natural world, that world needs to be cared for. The environmental strain in the show includes a newly commissioned installation from Delaine Le Bas, an artist of Romany heritage – another marginalised community often absent from landscape history. Rinkeni Pani (Beautiful Water) produces a sense of the artist using the pictorial conventions of landscape art, explains Pih, “but the work is also about climate change. Le Bas’s grandmother always told her to preserve precious water as part of a nomadic life that was also a way of low-impact living that valued precious natural resources. It’s another way of thinking about who is an activist.”
Other large-scale installations include a newly commissioned piece by Davinia-Ann Robinson in which she uses salvaged soil to comment on land art as well as colonialism, and Ruth Ewan’s Back to the Fields, her reconstruction of the French Republican calendar, in use from 1793 to 1805, in which plants and objects from the natural world and from rural life – twine, a goat skull, a tree – represent a single day. A symbolic return of the land to the people, it is also a fascinating challenge to the Tate curators, who have to look after its living plants in the carefully regulated environment of a museum.
In terms of the climate crisis, Gustav Metzger, now seen as a pioneer of environmental art, emerges as a key presence in the show with a striking, large 1998 photograph of the construction of the M3 carving through Twyford Down, Hampshire, surrounded by the caterpillar track of an earth mover. There is also a 1965 liquid crystal display powered by ambient heat. A member of CND’s direct action Committee of 100 in the early 60s, Metzger’s personal connection to humankind’s propensity for destruction – he was sent from Germany to the UK in 1939 aged 13 on the Kindertransport, and most of his immediate family perished in the Holocaust – strongly influenced his concerns about technology having the potential to bring environmental annihilation.
The show’s broad canvas well illustrates the endless complexity and interconnectedness of issues related to land and landscapes. Maybe surprisingly, one of the featured artists who best straddles the apparent boundaries is Derek Jarman. He is represented by work – assemblage, photography, paint, film – made at Prospect Cottage, site of his seaside garden in Dungeness, Kent. But his career trajectory seems particularly apt for a show in which activism and rebellion are an intrinsic part of the relationship between nature and art.
In the 70s, he had made work in response to Avebury and its standing stones before adopting a more activist and public role to offer a critique of Thatcherism. When he was diagnosed with HIV and became ill, he retreated to his cottage to access the recuperative and regenerative qualities of nature. While there, he created his now famous garden that, in its philosophy, public setting and beauty presented itself as useful an example as any of a radical landscape.