Till we have built Jerusalem

What are we to do with landscape? For so long turning land into a view was what landscape art was about. Artists in recent decades have often been more inclined to make art from the land itself offering, interventions and repurposings, documenting the experience of being in a location and their own relationship to it. Even the term “landscape” has become ambiguous, having slipped between reference to place and ideas about its representation. Tate Liverpool’s Radical Landscapes exhibition occupies that ambiguity, pushing the bounds of what landscape art might be while also exploring the British countryside as a setting for concerns about heritage, nationality, race and belonging. In ditting any purely decorative or complacent associations with landscape art, the curators have prioritized political statement and engagement: landscape art intertwined with and contributing to trespass, protest and change.

The first object to greet the viewer is a faux road sign: a work from 2019 in which Jeremy Deller offers no destination to the traveler, but simply a road number – A303 – and, instead of a place name, the statement “Built by immigrants “. Roads, and the building of roads, feature prominently in the exhibition as do questions about who lives in these landscapes, and to whom those landscapes belong. The exhibition was developed during the pandemic, when concerns about access to open space became urgent; themes of access, control and use of land, and the relationship between landscape and identity, provide an interpretative framework for works dating largely from the twentieth century to the present day.

This is scarcely a new approach to looking at depictions of the landscape. On one wall early in the exhibition, John Berger expounds his ideas on how messages about private property and ownership underlie seemingly straightforward landscapes, as illustrated in his analysis of Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of “Mr and Mrs Andrews”, posed amid their rolling acres. Berger presented this way of seeing in his landmark television series in 1972, but it still stands up as a radical reading, and no one has articulated these ideas more forcefully. More recently the landscape has been mined for hidden narratives about race and colonial exploitation, rather than for stories about class and landed privilege. Ingrid Pollard’s “Oceans Apart” (1989) assembles family photographs of seaside holidays alongside documentary material on the history of slavery and migration. In “Whop, Cawbaby” (2018), Tanoa Sasraku films herself on the wilds of Dartmoor with a flag drawing on her Ghanaian heritage. Some of the most striking works in the exhibition are those that reflect on the merging of culture and identity. In “Double Grille” (2008), Hurvin Anderson overlays a rich green ground with ornate patterning that evokes security fencing in his parents’ homeland, Jamaica. Traditions in Islamic art are referenced in Anwar Jalal Shemza’s “Apple Tree” (1962). Anthea Hamilton adorns a Japanese kimono with pictures of native British grasses (2015).

There are some new works included here, among them Delaine Le Bas’s spectacular photographic self-portrait, “Rinkeni Pani (Beautiful Water)” (2022), in which she depicts herself in woodland, in a glorious multicolored hooped dress. But one surprising feature of the exhibition is that some of the best-known examples of historical landscape art in the Tate collection fade into the background. It is not the well-known and often reproduces landscapes by Constable or Nash or Ravilious that immediately catch the eye, but the banners from the women’s camp at Greenham Common, Deller’s neon take on the chalk-cut giant at Cerne Abbas, or his smiley emojis drawn on hay bales, and Tacita Dean’s vast black-and-white oak tree (“Majesty”, 2006). Some of the installations literally cry out for attention, as house music blares from blurry film montages about rural raves. In the midst of so many bold statements it is sometimes the quieter pieces that intrigue: the morphing colourscapes of Yuri Pattison’s “sun[set] provisioning” (2019), that tracks levels of pollution in the air and transposes the information digitally in a vision of sea and sky; the slow rotations of a silver birch trunk in David Medalla’s “Sand Machine Bahag – Hari Trance #1” (1963-2015), forever drawing circles through fine white sand.

Barbara Hepworth said that there is no landscape without the human figure, and embodiment and the process of inscribing oneself in the landscape feature prominently in the later section of the exhibition. Connections between the land and gender and sexuality are traced through works such as Claude Cahun’s photographic self-portraits and Gluck’s painting “Flora’s Cloak” (c.1923), in which a naked figure leaps wide-mouthed over curving green and gold fields, a dense fabric of flowers at its back. Stonehenge, Cerne Abbas and Avebury recur as sites that resonate with ideas about spirituality and connection to place. But more than anything the exhibition revels in the visual sense of people’s engagement with the strange countryside. A group of photographs by Homer Sykes from the 1970s document idiosyncratic English local customs: the King on horseback at Garland Day in Castleton, Derbyshire, is almost entirely obscured by flowers as his mount is led down a wet country road by a man in a macintosh smoking a pipe. In newly invented rituals, costumed kinsmen of the Kibbo Kift were photographed by Angus McBean in 1929, processing up the slope of Silbury Hill as if scaling an Egyptian pyramid.

The sheer variety of the selection makes for a stimulating and thought-provoking show. But Radical Landscapes is a complicated exhibition, and it is not always clear how all these works belong together: strange, vibrantly colored papier-mâché botanical models from the beginning of the twentieth century, and a mesmerizing and mysterious set of black-and-white studio photographs of Fruit and vegetables, resonate visually with the surrealist statements around them, but it is difficult to view them as part of an art of landscape or of radicalism. The Victorian Marianne North’s exquisite illustrations of exotic flora in their native settings also sit uneasily as art that celebrates empire rather than offering a critique of it. The activist artist Gustav Metzger’s “Liquid Crystal Environment” (1965) occupies an entire room, but its projections of shifting color patterns take us into very different landscapes of science and flux: his “Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land” (1998), with its dramatic frame of caterpillar tracks, fits much more directly with some of the exhibition’s dominant themes, alongside documentary photographs of photographs against the building of the M3 through Twyford Down in the early 1990s and more recent images of activism in the face of HS2.

Cabinets filled with displays of archival material offer a social history of engagement with the countryside, complementing the artistic explorations of trespass and belonging. The first part of the show, meanwhile, relating to the protests around Greenham Common, often strays into a history of the women’s movement and a survey of the atomic age, rather than questions about land. Contributors to the accompanying book have taken their cue from the objects on show, but the personal and fragmented nature of the commentaries tends to reinforce the impression of a project that is trying to encompass many different things.

The final room, in a section on “radical gardening”, creates the sensation of walking out into an open courtyard. Ruth Ewan’s “Back to the Fields” (2015 and 2022) represents radical gardening indeed: a living installation that illustrates the revolutionary calendar created under the French republic in the 1790s. Each day of the reimagined twelve months has its own object attached, a peach or turnip, a shovel or sieve, a lettuce or moss, all set in borders around the room. The whole display is an entrancing diorama, a product of ingenuity and some careful tending. There is a feeling of calm, despite the crowded juxtaposition of the symbols of these republican days.

Clare Griffiths is Professor of Modern History at Cardiff University

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