Sense and Sensibility, Landscape the Contemporary Romantic

Catalogue essay 2013

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Hardly any epoch has been marked by so many misunderstandings and contradictions as has the ‘sentimental’ Romantic era, just as hardly any epoch has so shaped our Northern European relationship between nature and the individual. Emerging in the late 18th century at the time of the Industrial Revolution, as a movement it is commonly described as a reaction to Enlightenment thinking; shifting interest from reason to feeling, objective observation to subjective perception, from computation to intuition. Although Romanticism took on many different guises, pervasive motifs included the liberation of emotion, the quest of discovery and a deep longing for connection with a sense of that which is ‘beyond’ both literally and metaphorically. The Romantic was not only heavenly and beautiful, but encorporated subversive experiences; artists such as Delacroix and Goya presented scenarios of unbridled emotions in all their capacity for horror, whereas Caspar David Friedrich and William Turner both invoked the power of nature to regain civilization through dark images of ruinous decay. Predominant, however, was the depiction of immeasurably more uncivilised lands, whose idealized grandeur expressed the indissoluble relationship of man to nature. Awe-inspiring and terrifying at the same time, the viewer was confronted with the question of their own position in the universe: the outer landscape serving as a metaphor for an inner experience.

Dualism ran throughout the movement; between distance and proximity, essence and substance, immanence and transcendence, however it could be said that Romanticism set up the oppositions that it wished to transcend by creating a differentiation between ‘us’ and ‘nature’… Furthermore conflicts within the movement extended into the ideological realm: seen in the contradiction between the sense of national identity celebrated in the Romantic landscape and the holistic view of dissolving boundaries in a quest for new frontiers. These problems of contradiction continue in our representations of nature today, as ecological theorist Tim Morton points out;

‘Since the Romantic period, nature has been used to support the capitalist theory of value and to undermine it; to point out what is intrinsically human, and to exclude the human; to inspire kindness and compassion, and to justify competition and cruelty’.

Now our relationship to nature has changed irrevocably, the threat of ecological disaster drawing ever closer. Recently science has revealed that, unbeknown to us, the Industrial Revolution not only inspired us to romanticise nature, but as we began to emit huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere we also gave birth to a new geological age. Where Romanticism glorified nature’s sublimity as transcendent, now we are living in ‘the age of man’. Nature is no longer the gaurdian of metaphysical truths with which we seek to connect- we are the nature we are shaping.

So, does Romanticism still hold any relevance in our ongoing search to articulate our relationship with ‘nature’ and the environment?

While on one hand works in the exhibition dialogue with Romantic motifs which now appear comical; the artist as heroic genius mediating nature’s truths in scenes of rapturous emotion… Other artists explore more enduring Romantic conditions; yearning for a sense of universality and the quest for expanded horizons continue to inhabit contemporary art as vehicles to understand the self, in the widest sense. The search for new frontiers can be seen in works which look to the limits of the known universe to find the poetic space that was once an earthly landscape. Arguably these dialogues are re-emerging with a sincerity that postmodern critique thought it had done away with… artists not only appear to ‘mean it’ but this is wedded to a sense of critical distance that encorporates the contradictions and uncertainties of our time. Contemporary artistic dialogues are extending to disciplines normally outside of cultural critique; the ever expanding field of art and science collaboration, though not always perfect bed fellows, enable both disciplines to ‘think outside the box’ expanding intellectual boundaries much the same way our Romantic predecessors endeavoured to do.

In the works shown in Springhornhof the Romantic is incorporated through a variety of strategies of appropriation, continuation, critique and transformation, employing a diverse range of media. The works inside the gallery can also be read in connection to the works outside, located within a ten-kilometre radius in the landscape of the Lüneburger Heide. The context of Springhornhof is important to this exhibition not only due to the location, but also for the history of Land Art which is inseparable from Romantic dialogues. When in the 1960’s and 70’s artists such as Michael Heizer and Richard Long left museums and galleries to use remote territories both as the site and material for art, this happened also out of a critical distance; as the critic George Seeßlen said; ‘Nature is the artist’s ally against false reason and order – and also against the common cult of art’. Land Art’s connection to Romanticism was also influenced by an awareness of the ecological crisis, many artists tried to create images of the vulnerability of nature, such as Nils-Udo who in 1978 crouched like a young bird in a huge nest woven out of thick branches in a forest near Springhornhof. Such works expanded the Romantic repertoire by creating the possibility of an immediate physical experience, as well as the medial representation of these works through film and photography.

Today’s Romanticism could be considered as a Metaromantic. Cultural theorists, Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen recently defined the post-Postmodern condition as Metamodern, described as;

a continuous oscillation, a constant repositioning between positions and mindsets that are evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them: one that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand and an (a)political relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.

It is this complexity that is at the heart of Sense and Sensibility: Landscape and the Contemporary Romantic. The participating artists explore not only melancholy and strong sensation, but also a distance that manifests itself in ironic reflections, playing not only with the notion of romantic yearning for nature-idyll, but also with the circumstances of this escapism. Behind the search for the paradisical and the beautiful, the knowledge of failed utopias remains ever present.