Visual art has seldom confronted the examination of place from a phenomenological viewpoint, that is to say: artworks that are based in environmental phenomena – that avoid anthropocentrism. During the 20th Century and in more recent years, many artists have been working with various approaches to notions of ‘environment’ in their practice. In this short essay I show how the featured works of each of the following artists: Smithson, Marshall, Sonfist, and Eliasson contain an essential anthropocentrism.
In the video work ‘Asphalt Rundown’ (1969), Robert Smithson gives us an interaction with the landscape which calls into question the aspirations and values of the culture that prompted Smithson. It is a trashy and ruined vision that re-presents a culture that separates itself from a given and naturally occurring environment. This is an eco-critical example Smithson gives us of humanity’s impact upon the earth, and represents the view that there exists a separation between humanity and the ‘given’.
In the series of work ‘front garden’ by Mike Marshall (2004), photography is employed. The camera is focussed in the middle foreground of an indigenous woodland garden, this has the effect of drawing us in to a (seemingly) natural scene, pregnant with energy but frozen, and produces a halting meditative quality. The image gives us pause to examine the act of looking and holds our attention in an area that the artists lens has fixed; this is an eco-phenomenological work of remarkable simplicity as it invites us to take possession of the space as if we were there, just as we extend our perception into an environment whilst inhabiting it.
Neither of these images, while produced for very different reasons, can avoid an anthropocentric view of an environment. In the case of Marshall, the woodland appears as a foil for the extension of the self, similarly in the Smithson piece, which is bound up with a critical view to which all of culture is responsible, a notional human position is reflected.
In the work of Alan Sonfist the natural is memorialised and eulogised in public parks and monuments especially in ‘Time Landscape’ (Sonfist, 1978) in New York: a pre-colonial plantation has been sanctioned by the city. Sonfist advocates “as in war monuments that record the life and death of soldiers, the life and death of natural phenomena such as rivers, springs and natural outcroppings need to be remembered”, (Sonfist, Natural Phenomena as Public Monuments, 1968). Time landscape convokes a real, physical landscape and an imagined, projected one. The area is off limits, thus any environmental interaction proposed by the piece is that of transposing an identical (mental) representation on to the urban, surrounding space.
This inaugurates simultaneity in that the temporal aspects of change in the landscape are assembled, not by the stages and ages of planting within the project; but by the proposed deterritorialisation of the pre-colonial and the presumably original provenance it references by human co-habiting. It is reified – both real and representation. Sonfists’ eulogy and remembrance romanticises this imagined ‘given’ realm and experience of it is limited due to its enclosure by a fence. The enclosure of Time landscape™ introduces a separation between it and us, this further reinforces a dual otherness in terms of the temporal remove this eulogy requires and of humanities separateness. It is a perceived distance between man and nature that Time landscape™ monumentalises.
A separation also exists within the work of Olafur Eliasson. Eliasson introduces natural phenomena to civic space, and nature is represented within cultural forms; this finds its ultimate expression in ‘The weather project’, (2003). A multi-faceted mirror spans the ceiling of the giant turbine hall of the Tate Modern building in London. At one end a semicircular orange disk is intersected and illuminated from behind. The reflection forms a whole-intended sun-disk, when viewed from the floor of the space. Here Eliasson illustrates a view that there is no nature outside of humanity’s perception of it: a tacit inculcation of human subjectivity in the formation of the sun. This notion is however concurrent with a binary dialectic of person-as-part-of-nature versus nature-as-object. A modality expressed by Eliasson in ‘The Weather Project’ as nature-as-self. Here, the self has become the horizon of effects. This epitomises a phenomenological approach but dissolves the intellection that phenomena exists without humanity. The work literally holds up a mirror to us as a species and mitigates the possibility of nature-for-itself, for an anthropocentric nature-as-self. What none of these works demonstrates is a sense that the environment as itself, either built or wild, exists, phenomenologically on its own terms regardless of the orientation of our perception or values.