Much has been written about the body in art, it’s political meaning and the gaze capturing it in painted, photographed, and moving portraiture. Performance art uses the body and very often talks about the body as a subject matter; politics of flesh, politics of self through body, politics of moving. Feminist work that depicts women’s bodies is often a political statement of ownership over who is looking at us and why.
The politics of land and landscape makes a significant portion of history, being defined by social and religious views, wars have notoriously been about occupying and owning land. However wars are not the only the only kind of politics of land. Occupying land also takes more mundane forms like agriculture, urbanism, and landscaping. Though both women and men are involved in these acts, in the most parts it feels like it is men who engage most directly with the land to change it, to politicise it: ploughing, construction, mowing a lawn are all viewed in the mainstream as masculine roles.
In the most part when talking of land artists the names that come up in a book or an article are Smithson, Goldsworthy, Christo, and Heizer. Of course, there are women land artists such as Nancy Holt and Alice Aycock for example. For this article I chose to discuss two artists who reference landscape through the socially-viewed un-performative nature of women’s relationship with landscape.
Ciara Callinan, a lens-based artist and photography student based between Clare and Dublin, deals in her work with self portraiture through photography and video. Her ongoing series Untouched Landscape (2018), which currently includes a moving image piece and a series of photographs, shows her native landscape and comments on the female identity in relation to this landscape. In two of the photographs a woman’s body is present in what seems like a process of delivering the fabric and floating it above the landscape. There’s no change to the land as Callinan’s woman is placed on top of it. In the accompanying moving image piece of the same location the woman is not present but it is clear that she is not simply absent, she is missing.
In the video, a one-shot piece without camera movement, the conflict exists from the first to the last moment. The landscape is freshly wet by the weather and is composed of still rock and tight dried vegetation, barely moved by the wind. Above them floats a light white fabric, fiercely moving in the wind like a banner to the person who set it up on location. Is she behind the scenes holding the cloth? We have no real indication of it. When looking at the the entire series of photographs and moving image, we are looking at the story of the woman missing in the video.
In the photographs the landscape remains “untouched” as in the title and takes on body shapes with the rock and puddles taking over dried branches. The story told is that of place and of those who step in it and become part of the still landscape, frozen or rotten. Callinan understands something that is difficult to see for outsiders: her relationship with the landscape can remain meaningful without competing over who can shape it first or shape it more. She offers an alternative to the engagement with lens to that of land artists or even landscape painters, her lens captures it and offers commentary. The narrative is manipulated through the lens and the objects’ performative nature (objects being the rocks, the wind, and the fabric).
“Is it possible to confront nature with a real purity of vision? The Sky on Location is a personal meditation on the landscape.” Babette Mangolte about her landscape film The Sky on Location (1982)
At first look it Callinan’s comment on femininity in the Irish West may appear as a softening element but a further look allows an understanding of what the artist is proposing. This series is about claiming a stake in the spirit of the landscape. Women’s presence and absence is the centre of the narrative, and their activities become more apparent. Her series brings to mind the work of Belfast-based artist, Lyndsey McDougall.
Both artists place work on top of the landscape, not interfering with it but complementing it, and by that creating feminist symbolic portraiture of body and place. McDougall’s practice uses the idea of the symbols more specifically in her embroidery work where she recreates natural shapes of corals, plants, and eggs. In her work during her residency in Mexico the artist embroidered a number of Irish Linen sheets and installed them outdoors. This piece works as an introduction of the material and the detailed craft to the raw landscapes encompassing her residency studios.
In the work done in Oaxaca, Mexico an embroidered fabric was installed as a counter to the mountains in the background. The shapes and textures in the work resonated with the textures of forests and mountains, and at the same time juxtaposed the natural density. In the still images from Mexico the white sheet with colourful stitching was installed with back sunlight, giving the linen canvass an almost transparent quality that made the piece shine against its dark background. The installation is passive and unchanging of its environment but plays a role in responding to it. The photographic aspect of work does not create softness or refinement in the landscape but indicates work and attention directed at it.
In both McDougall and Callinan’s projects the artists take time in the landscape and respond to it with a portraiture-oriented creation. Both artists work in what seems as a calculated insolence, bringing a traditional view of “women’s work” into a context of a traditionally male field of land-responsive artwork. They do not work as activists or present a tour de force, but explore what might evolve into fierce comments in cloth. This isn’t necessarily work men cannot do, but it’s great to see women artists develop new ideas rather than focus on competing for attention within fields that have been male dominated for decades.