Landscape: ‘that which the gaze embraces’. While a landscape is always a place, a place is not systematically a landscape. It only turns into one when a gaze rests and lingers on it, a gaze that designates, appreciates, valorises and magnifies it. The gaze of a tourist, a photographer or a painter who studies it, contemplates it, immortalises it and, in the end, transforms it into a spectacle. Often a stranger’s gaze – because for those who work there, any place, no matter how enchanting, is merely the space of a practice. They cultivate it, preserve it or enliven it without seeing it as a landscape. The sociologist Raymond Williams thus affirms that ‘a working country is hardly ever a landscape’.
Paul Hart’s photography partakes in this new vision of the English landscape. His images incorporate the social, historical and political dimensions of the rural landscape – dimensions long ignored in one of the world’s most industrialised and urbanised countries. They materialise the dialectic of nature and culture, of the individual and the collective, of the real and the symbolic. A dialectic the photographer wholeheartedly embraces, as evidences his choice of a historically and politically emblematic subject: the Fens, these literally “denatured” marshlands converted into fertile and profitable fields over the centuries.
According to historian Eric Ash, ‘the drainage projects were always a political issue (…) redeeming the Fens would require not only draining the land, but also civilising the fenlanders in order to bring both into better alignment with the orderly government and market economy. The land and people of the Fens were indeed transformed in the end, but the transformation had unintended ecological consequences that created at least as many problems as were solved’. Therefore, to photograph the Fens meant to exhibit a controlled nature, ordered and reasoned to excess, a landscape created from scratch in the manner of a garden, with the major difference that here, man’s appropriation of nature by means of work and technique is pervasively apparent.
Hart’s landscapes create a dialogue between art and document, lyricism and storytelling, the sublime and the ordinary. Almost everywhere, rectilinear and regular shapes unfold, impeccably drawn furrows responding to rows of trees, industrial constructions and metal structures. Vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines multiply across the pages, occasionally disrupted by an incongruous curve. They remind us that man’s ambitions for the domination and exploitation of nature and all things living have been fulfilled, as once dreamed of by Descartes, who wished to ‘render ourselves the lords and possessors of nature’.
These divided, squared and geometrical landscapes look as though caught in a cage – hence the impression of immobility or near-paralysis they convey. No movement animates this nature morte, no bird awakens these low and heavy skies and endless horizons. This frozen and silent, almost unreal atmosphere is further reinforced by the monochrome palette. Encompassing a thousand shades of grey, from the darkest to the most iridescent, its manifold melancholy nuances reflect Hart’s disenchanted vision. Characterised by a partly crystalline, partly spectral clarity, these images of tragic beauty invite meditation – albeit a very different kind of meditation from that which befell the Romantics in front of untamed and grandiose natural landscapes.
We are not looking at Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime and his ‘delightful horror’.There is a feeling of danger in Hart’s landscapes, but it does not trigger ‘the sort of mixt passion of terror and surprize’ invoked by Burke. Here, there is no rapture or violent emotion, but rather an impression of uncanniness that insidiously caresses and envelops us. No aesthetic of shock, but rather an aesthetic of disaster in the making or already accomplished: the emptiness, absence and loss that infuse and implicitly connect all of Hart’s photographs reflect the contemporary eschatological imagination. Rural or urban, deserted and depopulated spaces serve as a pivotal scenery around which revolves the visual language of current post-apocalyptic narratives. After becoming a recurrent and emblematic motif of this type of stories, its function, according to historian Dora Appel, is to illustrate ‘the fear of a dystopian futurity’ and encourage us ‘to ask whether the empire of capital represents lasting progress or the road to decline’.
Choosing as a theme lands disfigured by brazen productivism, translating them into landscapes of crepuscular beauty in order to underline their tragic arrangement and stark austerity, as Hart does, raises similar critical and political questions. Unlike the sort of landscape photography that long incarnated the collective and historical body of the nation, Hart’s images take on a universal value: the battered and exhausted Fens resonate like a subtle metaphor for what humanity engenders and inflicts on itself. The delicate blackness of his images shatters the serene belief in a world in progress, the legacy of a century of Enlightenment which, caught up in its optimistic dynamics, forgot the fatal implications of greed. These are landscapes whose pathetic and ill-fated powerfulness fascinates us, like a mirror of our alienation, a perfect illustration of what the philosopher Slavoj Žižek intimated at the turn of the millennium: ‘The paradox is that it is much easier to imagine the end of life on earth than a much more modest change in capitalism.’
By Isabelle Bonnet
Isabelle Bonnet is a photography art historian, writer and curator based in Paris. This text is an excerpt from the original published in Paul Hart’s book, Reclaimed.
Paul Hart, Reclaimed
Published by Dewi Lewis
Book available here.
Paul Hart is represented by Joseph Bellows Gallery.