This text originally appeared in the publication by the Market Photo Workshop on Landscape and Photography in 2012.
Where to begin? I suppose for this dropout Christian there is no better place to start than in the Garden of Eden. This founding narrative of Judaism, Islam and Christianity already implicates the land, read as the Garden, as a place where the contest between good and evil is played out. From it springs the idea of purity and contamination, knowledge and innocence, pain and suffering, nakedness and shame. From it also comes notions of labour in both senses of labour as in work: “you will work hard all your life to make it [the land] produce enough food to eat.” but also the punishment that Eve gets for having tempted Adam into eating the fruit is that women must suffer pain during childbirth. And from there also the notion that woman is lesser than man.
What are some of the ways in which landscape can express the moral order of a particular time? How is this moral order represented in images? Perhaps it might be worthwhile to begin this discussion by recalling two artistic movements that might illustrate different ways in which representations of the landscape can be said to reflect moral and aesthetic concerns. The Rococo period was characterised by excess and the images of the landscape of the time reflected this tendency. Nature was overgrown and untamed. This conflation moral decadence and landscape is most aptly depicted in Fragonard’s painting The Swing.
By contrast images of the neo-classical period exemplified the spirit of their time which was the Enlightenment that promoted restraint and clam which was perceived as consistent with the age of reason.
In the 19th century while European society was reeling from the devastation brought by imperial wars and increasing industrialisation and urbanisation drove many painters to seek in landscape painting an expression of a simpler time and more genteel time. Again the countryside, in the case of painters such as Constable embodied a moral counterpoint to the degeneracy of the city. Others such as Turner and Friedrich valorised the power of nature over civilisation. A theme that portrayed in poetry such as Shelley’s Ozymandias and literature such as classics like Moby Dick. The binary between nature and civilisation was also played out in the struggle between “man” in the masculine sense and nature. In other formulations such as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the landscape in this case the jungle represents literally and figuratively Darkness lack of reason and civilisation.
As Gabeba Baderoon has shown in her essay Ambiguous Visibility: Islam and the Making of a South African Landscape the depiction of Malays in landscape in painting of the Cape Colony in which the Malay is often positioned at the edge of the painting marking the edge of the civilised space of the colony and the uncivilised and hostile interior. On the other hand the Malays are also shown in various types of labour which is in contrast to the depiction of the settlers in a state of leisure in a way that betrays and erases the slave revolts and the violence of slavery.
Morality is represented the labouring and compliant Malays also stands in opposition to the “kaffirs” of the interior who are seen as idle and unproductive. Baderoon makes a vital connection between the perpetuation of the notion of black idleness and the notion of empty land “terra nullius” thus making it (the land) available for settlement and exploitation and for the moralising benefit of cultivation.
Similar tropes can be seen in some of the work of Guy Tillim especially in the series Leopold and Congo and in the series Johannesburg. Whereas the Leopold and Congo series is not so much a comment on Belgian colonialism as the title suggests but on the devastation that was left in the wake of the civil war that finally saw the ousting of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
In this series of images of a failed state a degraded landscape misrule excess, brutality, ungovernability, poverty and idolatry become recurrent themes through which morality or lack thereof is figured into the landscape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not unlike Conrad’s novella the jungle that has reclaimed parts of the homestead that was once the palace of Mobutu represents a failed society a failure to live up to the standards of human civilisation. The failing is not Mobutu’s alone but that of the whole society.
That the images by Tillim are decontextualised in the sense that they are largely absent of any visible perpetrators, only victims, thus lend themselves to be read that it is not just specific individuals that are responsible for the state of decay but a whole society, a nation condemned by its own excesses and uncontrollable power of destruction.
In contrast to the visible and overt correlation between civilization and decay as portrayed by Conrad and Tillim, Antije Krog and before her Santu Mofokeng implicate the landscape, in this case a seemingly ordered and sedate land and cityscape of Europe in the greatest mass murder of Western Europe, the Jewish Holocaust.
In her recent book Begging to be Black, Krog juxtaposes three narratives, that of a murder in Kroonstad, in the Free State, the story of King Moshoeshoe and the time she spent at a post-doctoral residency in Germany. What unites these narratives are questions about what would be a fair moral framework to apply in a context where the very model of morality we use is based on violence, intolerance and exploitation. In one scene she describes a vision that came to her while returning home from a New Year’s party where the dead of the holocaust appeared in the streets. By so doing she refuses to see Germany only in terms of its present image as a progressive society and brings the past to bear on the present.
Similarly Santu Mofokeng’s series Chasing Shadows presents seemingly genteel and peaceful landscapes. It is only in the titles that one becomes aware of the horror that these landscapes embody. Through the tension between the apparent seductiveness of the landscape and the crimes that were enacted on it the presumed binary between purity and contamination, good and evil, order and chaos is shown to be, at best, both contingent and relative.