Nature is shrinking, but the signs of nature and the natural are multiplying, replacing and supplanting real "nature" Henri Levebvre
The transition from agriculture to industry, from rural living to urbanization, brings a chronic shrinkage of nature, and, at the same time, a proliferation of images of nature. Advertising sells cars, deodorant, detergents, air travel and financial services by associating products with spectacular mountainscapes, natural springs, animated swarms of petals, montages of sea, dessert, sky and forest, and lush green fields. The TV schedule is peppered with documentaries of everything from deep sea creatures to storm chasing, printed textiles are almost synonymous with pictures of flowers, and nature is treasured in the backgrounds to millions of selfies, postcards, jigsaw puzzles, greetings cards, and website stock images.
Lynn Dennison’s new work for Sculpture Shock, Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, divides up the surface of the Rotherhithe Shaft, an impressive underground monument to Brunel’s engineering prowess, with large video projections of the river looking like a calm sea. Nature is restored to the industrial setting, here, but it is not only nature that has been reduced to an image: at the Brunel museum heavy industry itself survives only as a sign. Buildings, bridges and tunnels continue to be constructed on an ever increasing scale, of course, but the classic opposition between industry and nature, captured by Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the ‘dialectic of Enlightenment’, has been replaced with ecological crisis and ecodesign. If Dennison’s work is a eulogy to nature, a paean to the river under threat, then it is equally a eulogy to its old adversary, the industrial.
The transition to industrialization is mirrored in a fetishism of nature: the sentimental love of nature in modernity is an effect of the industrial revolution and an expression of it, insofar as it results from the rift between city and county, progress and tradition, work and leisure, that capitalism unbuckled. Romantic artists such as Friedrich, Constable and Wordsworth, on the cusp of industrialism, modernised culture by drawing on the semiotics of nature. Realism opposed elite cultural codes of meaning by asserting that ‘the forms of Nature speak directly’. At the end of the eighteenth century, coinciding therefore with the period of the bourgeois revolution, nature appeared as the uncoded code of emotion and feeling. Not only could a painting of leafless bushes in the snow signify death in an apparently immediate, unlearned way; the experience of nature itself, in hillwalking, hiking and mountain climbing, for instance, became one of the central modes with which the bourgeoisie learned to feel deeply.
Nature was the centrepiece of the modern concept of aesthetic experience. Whereas the classical theory of beauty had modelled itself on the bodies of beauties and secondarily on artworks that replicated their proportions, the revolutionary bourgeoisie turned to nature as the basis both of its theory of judgements of taste and its theory of the sublime. Nature is the utopia specific to industrialisation. This is why, like Dennison’s videos, nature was projected into the very heart of modernity by radical romantics, both as a corrective to its instrumental, calculative and exploitative industry, and as a confirmation of its democratic, subjective and expressive freedom. One of the first things that William Morris says about industry in a future Socialist society, in his essay 'A Factory As It Might Be’, is that the factory should be surrounded by vast, beautiful gardens. Each room, we might add, should look out to the river or have the river run through it.
Landscape painting has traditionally inserted simulated windows into domestic rooms so that the interior can be blessed with views unavailable though the actual windows. Dennison’s digital installation is scaled-up, like the spectacle of an aquarium in which visitors stand face-to-face with sea creatures. Facing the wall, looking at the river, the viewer is momentarily a figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting, turning her back to the world in order to face nature and thereby to feel. One of the most profound legacies of romanticism is the belief that this encounter is the paradigm of feeling, or at least of refined aestheticised feeling. It is the experience of nature modelled on the experience of Greek statues ripped from their original architectural, cultural and religious setting. The modern love of nature is the result of a cut, which is both a spatial dislocation from nature and a framing of nature dislocated. Putting nature in a dirty industrial setting, albeit one as refined in its own terms as the Rotherhithe shaft, is to experience that cut as an embrace.
In the era of regeneration, Brunel's shaft seems as endangered as the Thames. The shaft itself will remain in place but its setting is likely to be gentrified, as no areas of London appear immune from this monetising and cultivating process. The industrial is to be nothing but a tourist attraction and its architectural relics are bound to be repurposed for the leisure of the incoming tide. Dennison’s lapping water of the Thames will be followed up, it might be assumed, with a flood of fashionable events. Modernization eats itself, naturally, and at the moment between one crisis and other it is only proper that we should contemplate, reflect and try to feel something. Regret, perhaps, or hope, might be acceptable responses, but then so is anger, fear, love, resignation or delight. Aesthetic experience, heightened by the yoking of industry and nature, is a realm of freedom only if we can feel pleasure in the vicinity of threat. The sublime was an aesthetic experience invented by the bourgeoisie in its revolutionary phase in order, primarily, to address the pleasure felt by those protected from the deadly effects of nature or the unnatural deaths of others.
Dennison’s work is not sublime. Can nature be sublime in the era of ecological disaster? Nature is no longer conceived primarily as simultaneously the source of life and harbouring the forces inimical to human life; nature today is conceived primarily as a victim. The closest we come to a contemporary sublime is the image of total ecological collapse that brings all human life to an end in a narrative in which technology reaches a limit in its destructive exploitation of the world. Nevertheless, Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song, despite the title being taken from a line in TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, is not a modernist grievance against modernity. Nature, here, is not a ruined, barren place. The river is soft, relentlessly soothing or even happy. Dennison has created an oasis.
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song is utopian in Henri Lefebvre’s sense, which he ascribes to parks and gardens: ‘they refer to a twofold utopia: absolute nature and pure facticity’. He explains, ‘they suggest an absolute and inaccessible nature - grottos, wind, altitude, the sea, islands - as well as facticity - the trimmed and tortured tree that serves as pure ornament’. Absolute nature is made possible by pure facticity: only when nature is cut off from use and other meanings (food, farming, real estate) and is therefore conceived as pure facticity (water, field, hill) can it be fully enjoyed aesthetically, that is as nature in the abstract. Utopia, therefore, is the experience of dislocation, like Greek statues which appear freer and more beautiful when they are carried off from the Parthenon to the museum. Nowadays the cut of utopia doesn’t require chisels and a fleet of ships, only a video camera. Utopia has been let loose: nowhere is everywhere, and it still calls on us to make the world anew.
By Dave Beech