Tate Liverpool, until 4th September, £13.50
What do I expect from a show called Radical Landscapes? I want it to have something significant to say about the ways we interact with the natural world in our day-to-day lives, and how both the requirement to save it and steps to do so need to be drastic in nature. Crucially, I want it to feel as viscerally powerful as nature already does by itself to me, to have moments of revelatory healing and tear-inducing beauty. This is not quite the same as what Tate Liverpool’s latest exhibition sets out to do – it’s more academic than that – but I strongly feel that to work, it has to do this. And it does in moments: but only in moments, of what is overall an exhibition which gets so caught up in what it could say that it loses any profound intent.
It’s most confusing at the very start. Immediately after the synopsis, the exhibition launches you into the Greenham Common protests and nuclear terror. All well and good, and yes an example of demanding a better nature – but why now? I feel adrift in the wrong story, an effect only heightened by the bulk of this material leading me into the ante-room space, turning it into a kind of show-within-a-show. And what is WWII imagery doing here? There’s little connection to protests of any kind, least of all against nuclear arms, in a Land Girls image. It feels careless.
I keep going, and after a while I at least maybe understand why they’ve started with what they call “trespass”. If they mean this about fighting for access, then likewise its messiness at least makes you appreciate the room to breathe which comes as the works begin to show more of their rootedness to the land. I’m very taken by Davinia-Ann Robinson’s some clay, which evokes the sense of healing which the land can deliver, the comfort which can be taken from grounding yourself. Perhaps in a place such as underneath a tree, such as that in Tacita Dean’s Majesty on the opposite wall. It’s nice.
It’s a sense I get to feel for real next door, taking in Gustav Ketzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment. I sit on a beanbag and flow with it, getting grounded, feeling the difference between the frantic and smooth paces, like rhythms of life, changing in response to the conditions. Tate have used it to open a section on ‘Art in a Climate Crisis’, which isn’t the vibe I get but maybe that’s just me carrying a hangover. But the rest isn’t it, either. Or rather: is this it? I look at the photos of HS2 protests and of power stations and really, is this the best we can do? I very often get frustrated at art “about climate change” for being weak and/ or hypocritical and this doesn’t really change my mind.
It’s not that there’s not some interesting work here. I especially love John Latham’s Derelict Land Art: Five Sisters’ conclusion about making coal bings a memorial, keeping an imposing and constant reminder of the ways we impact the environment. But one of the biggest problems with Radical Landscapes is that there’s too much. It dilutes the power of what works, to the detriment of the whole endeavour. For example, there’s a lot of black and white photography throughout this show. And a lot of it is of bodies in the landscape, acting in the landscape, acting to represent their place in the landscape and the world as a whole, and their relationship to it…you get the idea. I see the Jo Spence works at the start and then the Claude Cahun works later on and I feel like both are nice, but that we’re going around in circles a bit with what they’re being used to say. It feels unfair to the individual artworks. And to come back to my central gripe, when one thing so strongly echoes one thing which relates to yet another, how radical can any single one of them be?
The other thing that I end up feeling about a lot of the photography here is that it’s ultimately not telling me enough. This is surprising – I thought I was coming here for the communing-with-nature, folk-horror aesthetic which comes increasingly to the fore as the show progresses. But what I actually find is that this isn’t relatable. It doesn’t get me thinking about the strange and mysterious power of the landscape as an experience, but rather about how I’m an outsider to what’s being shown. It’s the curiosity of a documentary, but nothing more. Especially after I’ve experienced one of the few corners here where I do, truly, get it.
Stories from the news of all-night raves in the countryside made a strong impression on 5-year-old me. Even so young, there was a thrill in the idea of these secret, unknowable (at least to me) gatherings in fields, which as far as I understood were all about music and dance. And in one corner the juxtaposition of works leads me to recall this sense of wonder. It’s guided by the soundtrack to Alan Lodge’s slideshows, with the rave’s connection to these places celebrated directly in Jeremy Deller’s sculptures. But it’s how these come together with two other works in this corner, by Derek Jarman and Barbara Hepworth, that completes it. They both evoke standing stones, which in the hands of artists so skilled at subtle narratives is managed perfectly. They hint just enough at that folkish sense of power and mystery, imply it rather than make it the main story. Altogether, my mind travels to some field where all these things – music, history, people – come together and that feeling of commonality between people in a moment of time feels really real. After having felt so disconnected from this story in general for so much of this show, it’s a great feeling to finally get to experience this.
I’ve never made a secret of my opinion that as a rule, I dislike landscape painting. It’s so often a poor substitute for the real thing – image as signifier, with few shared properties with the signified. Here I’m reminded that this doesn’t apply to all landscape painting – and also, not only to painting. I’m very taken by an Eric Ravilious painting in which he uses perspective to put us in the landscape as we are, rather than as we might wish to dominate it. I’m not, however, overly inspired by Ruth Ewan’s enormous Back To The Fields. The final room of the show, she’s collected every organic reference made in the French Republican Calendar into one garden. Though abundant, the effect is as rigidly organised as any calendar needs to be. On its own this isn’t revolution, but co-option. Nature ordered according to yet another arbitrary human design. And I ask again – what’s radical about that?
Like many others, I became newly appreciative of nature over lockdown. I’ve always been a fan of visiting grand landscapes and feeling small in nature’s power, but that period got me to look with fresh wonder at the smaller elements. Nature can be beautiful and admirable at any scale. So too can exhibitions – and I really feel as though Radical Landscapes would have hugely benefited from being smaller, maybe half the size. While there’s great moments that do get towards capturing what there is to love in the wild, they’re diluted by the ineffective feeling of unnecessary-ness that reoccurs too frequently around this show. If you want to be radicalised by the power of nature, spend your time in the real thing.