Is it possible to understand landscape as both a place and a way of seeing

Landscape is an ambiguous term that has many meanings, the art historian W.T.J Mitchell (1994) summarises the complex meanings that make up the term: “Landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both represented and presented space, both signifier and signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and a simulacrum, both a package and a commodity in the package” therefore landscape is both a place and a way of seeing.

Landscape is a complex term yet in a broad sense can refer to the general look of a place, it can also be used to indicate the solid form of the built environment and as I have already mentioned it can be a form of representation, in the way it may “represent” some history, control, development or decline of an area or region. The term “landscape” is most often associated with the countryside and is therefore also linked with ideas of nature, the environment and ecology. Landscape is a natural scene, mediated by culture; it is both a real place and an illusion.

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If landscape can be in a sense understood as a geographical area, then it is important to remember that during the transition from feudalism to capitalism a “landscape” was a particular kind of area. A landscape was understood to be “an area carved out by axe and plough, which belongs to the people who carved it out”. Therefore landscape is a place, but also functions as a relation between people and a portion of the natural world they are tied to by their labour.

Landscape is seen as both a work (it is the product of all human labour while also encapsulating all the dreams, desires, and all the injustices of the people and social systems that make it) and something that does work (it acts as a social agent in the further development of a place). Landscape is not static; it is constantly changing and is an ongoing relationship between people and place.

Landscapes as a product of human work is rather like a commodity, and as Karl Marx says; nothing in the form of the commodity reveals the conditions that govern its production. One cannot see in landscape representations, those social conditions and struggles that were put into the making of the landscape. Landscape is made to appear as natural rather than social. Ultimately landscapes hide the relationships, be they economic, political or social issues that go into their making. Take for example St. Stephens Green, one may think of it as a very ‘natural’ place however much work has to be put into it to make it appear natural, consequently the effects of labour is neutralised.

Furthermore, to understand the concept of landscape as “a way of seeing” it is important to analyse the different representations of landscape, in other words analyse landscape as a “scene”. Central to this concept is the development of the linear perspective during the Italian Renaissance. The linear perspective was involved in creating a “visual ideology” of realism, an ideology that suggested that perspective and landscape was not just a way of seeing but rather the true way of seeing. And as landscape was and is a particularly bourgeois way of seeing, it became a means of depicting their control over space and property while also a means of representing their status and wealth.

Landscape is therefore made to represent the supposedly “natural” order but this can only be made possible in the commodification of land and labour that came with the rise of capitalism in Europe. When a worker is represented in landscape painting if they are represented at all, they are more often than not either at repose or if they are at work they are distant and scarcely noticeable figures. If they become too dominant the work ceases to be landscape. This shows that landscape representation is essentially about defining society and promoting ideologies.

Another way of reading landscapes is examining the way one apprehends, takes meaning from and ultimately consumes landscape. The degree to which landscapes are made and represented indicated that landscape are in a way “authored”, therefore landscape can be read as a kind of text.

An author-text-reader model can be applied to landscape. We can be both the authors and the readers; different people will read the landscape and interpret its meaning in different ways. The landscape can also be seen as a metaphor of “theatre” or “stage” within and upon the spectacle of life plays out. We are all actors in the drama of landscape, yet it is someone else who writes the script. Our movements, experiences and even emotions are scripted for us by and in landscape.

Landscape can be seen as “expectation” where one can transform oneself into anything one pleases. This is especially the case with malls in America, and to a lesser extent in Dublin, in places like St. Stephens Green Shopping Centre or the newly renovated Roches Stores. These places are an elaborate system of signs; they are essentially texts to be read. This kind of shopping centre serves to actively mask its very function, which is to make money.

They are carefully designed so as to lure the customer into the different shops. Take for example Roches, if a customer decides to have some food of a coffee they must venture up to the top floor where at the top of every escalator there are carefully constructed displays which tempt the consumer into looking at those sections, before they realise it they have wandered the full way around that floor, this is due to the open plan layout, there is no obvious division between the different shops. These places are machines for shopping and as such the built environment is physically persuasive and compelling.

Landscape symbolises the “entire panorama of what we see: both the landscape of the powerful (- cathedrals, factories and skyscrapers) and the subordinate or powerless (- village chapel, shantytowns etc.) Landscape acts as a site of social integration on the one hand, and as a site of social control on the other. Even without us realising it we are directed through the landscape in certain ways, take UCD for example; this has been a carefully constructed landscape to prevent revolt and protests. There is no central meeting point, so as masses of students do not congregate in the same area, even the steps are constructed in a particular manner they are wide which ensures that students cannot run, they have to tread on each step.

Landscapes are natural and built environments; they are also systems of representation and have the power to regulate. They are in fact both a place and a way of seeing.