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waiting time

Waiting time - Mathenesserdijk, Rotterdam

Seen at a Rotterdam tram stop: "Waiting takes 73 seconds per minute" ("Wachten duurt 73 sec. p/min.").

the philosophy of landscape

A very different exhibition in Brussels this summer is the BOZAR's 'Sense of Place - European Landscape Photography', which shows a range of creative strategies of photographers trying to steer clear of the cliches of landscape photography.

Included in the exhibition is a reprint of German sociologist Georg Simmel's 1912 essay 'The Philosophy of Landscape'. Simmel, now somewhat forgotten but once considered one of the founders of sociology, wrote about subjects as diverse as money, cities and strangers. His 'Philosophy of Landscape' offers an interesting exploration of the concept of landscape as constructed in the eye of the beholder, and as a "protoform" of a work of art.

Andreas Gursky - Rhein II

First of all, Simmel notes, a landscape doesn't exist except on a conceptual level when humans perceive a piece of nature as such. He compares it to a library, which also merely denotes the conceptual unity that we perceive in a shelf of books. A landscape is thus a human construction, existing only in the eye of the beholder. But this doesn't tell us yet what it is composed of.

To talk of a 'piece of nature' is in fact a self-contradiction. Nature is not composed of pieces. It is the unity of a whole. The instant anything is parceled out from this wholeness, it is no longer nature pure and simple since this whole can be 'nature' only within that unbounded unity, only as a wave within that total flux.

Simmel spends much time on the implications of this act of "parceling out" a landscape from the whole of nature, which is essentially a modern act. In religious terms, it is the act of desacralizing a piece of the sacred whole, rather in the way that taking a photograph of a person is said to steal their soul. On a more basic level, it is modern man's distinguishing at all between the sacred and the profane which makes it part of the post-medieval process of culturalization. Or to put it the other way around, from having been being holistically part of nature, modern man started seeing landscapes.

The easiest way to explain what a landscape is, is through an artistic medium - a painting, film or photograph. This gives shape to the perceptual act so that we can say, a landscape is framed, it is seen from a particular vantage point, and these elements determine its composition. But Simmel is careful to distinguish a landscape from its artistic representation - a distinction that might seem outdated in our age of ubiquitous and thoughtless snapshots.

But it leads Simmel to define a landscape as "a work of art in statu nascendi".

...in this very act of beholding, the artistic form that is alive within us, however embryonically, has come to realize itself. While not endowed with enough creative capacity itself, it at least vibrates in the wish for it and its internal anticipation.

In other words, a landscape painting or photograph is the most explicit and fully realized form of a creative act of perception which we all perform when we see a landscape. Our current instinct may be to grab a camera, but Simmel rightly points out that the essentially creative part lies in the observation.

Photo: Andreas Gursky, Rhein II (1999).

the africa museum

The Africa Museum in Tervuren, just outside of Brussels, houses a gigantic collection of ethnographic and zoological artifacts from Belgium's former colonies in Central Africa. It is also an offensive anachronism, chock-full of colonial loot, moldy Western superiority and faded textbook examples of 'africanism' - if that's the right term for the sub-Saharan variety of Edward Said's orientalism.

After offering a unique chance this summer to see the palace cellars, the museum is closing for renovation later this year, and scheduled to reopen in 2015 - hopefully with a bit more sense of 21st century political, cultural and ecological reality.

Its collection, which is undeniably impressive, could be put to good use illustrating the dark pages of Europe's colonial past, as well as the future challenges in wildlife and nature preservation. But it should take care to eradicate its condescending tone posing as science (along the lines of "Exhibit A: wildlife of the savanne, Exhibit B: the negro making fire") and be more honest about how all those stuffed animals and masks and spears got there.

So, with a disclaimer of questionable taste, here are some photos of the Africa Museum anno 2012.

Africa Museum - 1

Africa Museum - 2

Africa Museum - 3

Africa Museum - 4

Africa Museum - 5

Africa Museum - 6

Africa Museum - 7

Africa Museum - 8

Africa Museum - 9

the cyclops

In a striking departure from his early works in charcoal, French artist Odilon Redon began producing colorful pastels and oil paintings later in life, replacing his former nightmarish visions with more beatific dream images, including a 'Beatrice' and 'Buddha'.

One of his most intriguing works of this later period is 'The Cyclops' (1914), which can be seen at the Kröller-Müller Museum.

Odilon Redon - The Cyclops

In Greek mythology the cyclops - the one-eyed giant - is usually portrayed as a dullwitted brute. Odysseus, for instance, was able to trick the man-devouring Polyphemus by telling him his name was No Man. And in the tale's modern rendering 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?', Big Dan Teague was a gluttonous Bible salesman.

Redon, however, presents a more ambiguous cyclops. Gazing down on a flower-strewn garden encapsulating a nude female figure, he seems a pitiful creature shamed by his own monstrous appearance. The composition heightens this by isolating both figures, the woman enveloped in colors, the cyclops contrasted against the pale sky. The bright, colorful landscape curiously clashes with his sad, appealing look.

Perhaps Redon's cyclops reminds more of Ovid's version of Polyphemus, who was in love with Galatea and sang to her, comparing his one eye to the sun. (Of course the cyclops also has phallic connotations, along with his archetypal male gaze.)

To be sure, this Polyphemus ended up brutally killing Galatea's lover Acis with a rock. And perhaps Redon's cyclops would also be capable of violence, but judging from his gentle appearance it would be the kind of clumsy and unintended force of Steinbeck's Lennie.

Or, in a different interpretation, is the female figure not asleep but dead, victim of the cyclops' primitive violence? And is the garden really a deathbed, like that of 'Ophelia', and his pathetic look one of guilt?

Redon's Symbolist image creates empathy for a mythological monster, connecting it with the age-old theme of the Beauty and the Beast, and resulting in a delightful tension of sympathetic and horrific elements - somewhere between a nightmare and a dream.

impossible memory

He wrote that only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory, Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'. In the spiral of the opening titles he saw time covering a field growing ever wider as it moved away, a cyclone whose present moment contains the motionless eye.

In San Francisco he'd gone on a pilgrimage to all the film's locations. The florist Podesta Baldocchi, where James Stewart spies on Kim Novak, he the hunter and she the prey - or was it the other way around? The tile floor hadn't changed. He'd driven up and down the hills of San Francisco, where Jimmy Stewart - Scottie - follows Kim Novak - Madeleine. It seems to be about pursuit, mystery and murder, but in truth it's about power and freedom, melancholy and dazzlement, so carefully coded within the spiral that you could miss it and not immediately notice that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.

He'd followed every trail, even to the cemetery at Mission Dolores, where Madeleine prayed at the grave of a woman long dead whom she should not have known. He'd followed Madeleine - as Scottie had done - to the Museum of the Legion of Honor, before the portrait of a dead woman she shouldn't have known. And on the portrait, as in Madeleine's hair, the spiral of time. The Victorian hotel where Madeleine disappeared had itself disappeared. Concrete had replaced it at the corner of Eddie and Gough. But the cross-section of redwood trunk was still in Muir Woods. On it, Madeleine traced the short distance between two of those concentric lines that measure the age of the tree and said, "Here I was born, and there I died." He remembered another film in which this passage was quoted. The redwood was in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and the hand pointed to a place beyond the tree - outside of time.

From Chris Marker's timeless film essay 'Sans Soleil' (1983). That other film the narrator remembers is of course Marker's own 'La Jetée', made twenty years earlier.

More about 'Sans Soleil' in the essay 'Chris Marker: Memory's Apostle'.