So Easy to Look At, So Hard to Define

SITES UNSEEN: Landscape and Vision
edited by Dianne Harris and D. Fairchild Ruggles
(336 pp, $26.95, University of Pittsburgh Press)

Our fascination for the landscape is dependent on both constancy and change. With each passing moment of seasonal light and weather, we desperately hang onto our sense of what is familiar about a place. We all think we understand what links us to a particular landscape - the terrain we inhabit and travel from, each place we move through and arrive in - and yet, what is it that is informing such an illusive and one-sided relationship?

Many of the contributors to Sites Unseen: Landscape and Vision believe they can answer this question. As academics in the field of landscape history, they find rather elaborate ways of explaining how these connections are formed through our sensory, conceptual and emotional experience of landscape. Despite the aspirations of the editors Dianne Harris and D. Fairchild Ruggles who are responsible for three of the eleven essays, this idea of the landscape as a spatial, psychological and sensory encounter seems to have been with us for decades, mainly through the voice of the Land Art Movement. The sheer scale and monumental quality of works by artists such as Robert Smithson and Christo have given rise to new theoretical ways of thinking about how both we see and negotiate the landscape. Likewise both Richard Long and Hamish Fulton have re-emphasised the implication of movement, making work simply about the significance of the walk in constructing our 'sense of place'.

In an attempt to get beyond this expansive approach, most of the authors of
Sites Unseen have chosen to focus on particular elements. They interpret the everyday features of landscape such as gates, walls, windows, doorways, paths and corners as not only human attempts to shape out experience but as both metaphorical and literal instruments of ideological power. Their arguments are concerned with how our environment is 'framed', so that our movement into the landscape can be restricted to 'a staged experience that may carry an aesthetic experience or a socio-political agenda'.

Each writer takes a different perspective to demonstrate how human activity provides the landscape with meaning and definition: Diane Favro concentrates on an Ancient Roman vision of landscape; D. Fairchild Ruggles describes the framing devices adopted in the construction of an Islamic palace; David L. Hays offers aspects from late eighteenth century France. In a more contemporary context, W. J. T. Mitchell contrasts the Gilo Wall in Jerusalem with Christo's
Gates in Central Park, New York, while Dianne Harris addresses the domestic situation of post-war America. However there is a consensus that we should see through these historical surfaces, to discover the existential truth of a place through our senses - touching, seeing, smelling and hearing - to evoke an overall 'vision' of landscape.

The cumulative effect of these cross-disciplinary essays is to constantly remind the reader that everywhere in the landscape we are faced with some form of human presence that colours, if not interferes with 'direct' experience. Throughout this worthy exploration of how this experience is mediated through gardens, parks, buildings, villages, towns and cities, I was reminded of the justification Christo gave to an interviewer (in 1993) for his enigmatic interventions into landscape: 'When we feel the real wind, the real sun, the real river, the real mountain, the roads - this is reality, and we use it in our work.' Landscape is subtly formed by human process and
Landscape and Vision shows how this constant reinvention informs all our actual connections to a place: ingredients that are essential to orientating any kind of reality for ourselves within the flux of a twenty-first century environment.
         Peter Gillies 2007