About the Author
Glen Coutts is a reader in art and design education at the University of Strathclyde.
Timo Jokela is professor of art education at the University of Lapland.
Read an Excerpt
Art, Community and Environment
By Glen Coutts, Timo Jokela
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2008 NSEAD
All rights reserved.
A Wanderer in the Landscape: Reflections on the Relationship between Art and the Northern Environment
The landscape of identity
I am an environmental artist and places affect me perhaps more than people do. I was born and have lived most of my life in northern Finland. Being a Laplander is one of the stronger aspects of my identity. This identity is not static; I consider it a dynamic whole that is constantly being reconstructed and comprises many other identities. Identities are located in symbolic time and space – in an 'imaginary geography'. They always incorporate a feeling of home, the 'landscape of the identity'. It is precisely in the landscape that my art and my identity as a Laplander converge and form a leitmotif for my most salient work as an artist. I recognize myself in the following text, where Tournier describes the bond between person and place at its strongest:
... individuals become attached to their place and merge with it; they associate their place with their image of themselves; they locate themselves there wholly, so that no one can touch the place without touching them.
In territorial terms, the landscape of my identity is extensive indeed. It ranges from the forests and rivers of Lapland to its fells and the shores of the Arctic Ocean. I have worked in this landscape since the mid-1970s. Before starting my formal education as an artist, I made drawings and paintings. What interested me were the marks people left on the landscape: reindeer fences, lumberjacks' cabins, villages along a river and fishery buildings on the Arctic Ocean. I could experience the narratives infused in these objects and feel how people had found their place amid nature, on this planet, and under this sky. In my eyes, these structures erected as part of the workaday world were manifestations of commercial history and of a material cultural heritage, and, yet, at the same time, reflections of how people conceived of themselves as part of the universe. Later, on reading the work of Norberg-Schulz, I came upon the name for this aesthetically and cultural-historically coloured experience, a term familiar in the phenomenology of landscape and architecture, genius loci. I also came across the concept later when I became involved in environmental art.
I received a modernist art education. This dislodged my local identity, questioning its significance. At that time, art was seen as a universal phenomenon, with no real place for the voice of local people. Good art was independent of its surroundings. The basic tenets of modernism – the individuality of the artist, the autonomy of art and its emanation from centres towards peripheries – now, seen from a postmodern perspective, smack of colonialism. Modernism subjugated art to the point where landscape art, as a tradition for depicting 'localness', came to be seen as the preserve of the dilettante. When I was a student, and for some time afterwards, I felt doubly marginalized by modernism. I had taken an interest not only in the Northern periphery, but in landscape as well.
The way back to the Northern landscape and its essential elements revealed itself to me during my travels in Europe. People's natural and everyday links to the landscape had been broken in the big cities. The exposition in Paris of the Italian Arte Povera movement opened the way for me to go back to the materials and traditional methods of my own environment. When I returned from my journey, the fish dams, hayricks and woodpiles where I lived took on a new aesthetic significance. I began to think about making the work, the methods and the skills which these objects embodied, and which I knew well, part of my art. The MA space-time exhibition, which illustrated the influence of Zen on the arts in Japan, provided me with a new perspective on how I might work in the landscape. The way I experienced space and time and my interaction with nature – fishing, hunting, picking berries and cutting firewood – found their counterparts in the meditative and holistic sensitivity to the landscape found in Zen art. The coordination of body and mind, and the aesthetics and essence of moving around in a landscape, began to coalesce into artistic activity. It was only later that the examples of American and English environmental art signposted and reinforced a strategy which enabled me to approach my own environment as art. A common basis for making and conceptualizing art began to take shape and became a permanent facet of my existence.
Since finishing my formal education as an artist, in addition to making my own art, I have worked at the University where I have focused on developing art education and teaching in that field. Today we have rediscovered the bond between art and the environment in which it is realized, and marginality now has a place of its own in discussions about art. For me, the way my art addresses the North has become something which I use to model and develop not only my art itself, but also pedagogy dealing with the relationship between art and the environment. The fact that I know the North from within helps me to assess the impact my art has on the environment where it is located and created.
There are many issues connected with the interaction between art and environment. Firstly, the relationship between localness and being an artist always entails the dilemma of colonialism and emancipation. Secondly, I must ask myself what makes me think I can offer something through my art that surpasses the local people's everyday experience and knowledge of a place, and how I can incorporate into my art my own life experience, conception of art and what I think is of value in art without colonializing local people and places. Thirdly, how can I give my work a form that will allow the environment and community to be a productive and constructive element of its artistic content? And, fourthly, how might I guide future art educators to plan and realize emancipatory processes without colonializing the communities in which they will work? These questions are basic methodological and philosophical considerations in environmental and community art – choices about the way art is done. They also underscore the relationship of art to our cultural heritage and the values it embraces.
The ways of art and science
Artists often find it difficult to talk about their works and the experiences associated with creating them. The creative process is an intense, experience-directed and often confused one. Art involves a great deal of tacit knowledge. Making art does not require the same verbally articulated basis as academic research does. Researchers follow a particular path, which they define in theoretical terms and try to adhere to in the hope of reaching their goal. Artists fumble about and do not always know what their goal is; when they reach it, they cannot necessarily describe the path they took to get there. However, I can try to understand my art by assuming the position of a researcher and observing my work as a product of the culture to which I belong. I can also toy with different perspectives by venturing into the no-man's-land between art and science. This liminal space is very often the site where concepts and experiences exert complementary influences on each other, and this is what interests me most.
This path leads into the realm of phenomenology and to an attempt to understand phenomenal experiences, of which the works I create and their sites are examples. According to Arnold Berleant, a phenomenological description produces an effective and direct presentation. Description of the environment requires the same sensitivity as the description of art, because as well as the outward appearance of the landscape, it must depict the actions and reactions that are connected to it and the meanings associated with them.
Common filters for studying landscape and art
The basis for my art and for my understanding of it is an intertextual weave comprising a discourse born of localness, 'differentness', marginality and otherness in the postmodern sense, rather than an account of my art in theoretical terms or a practical description of my work. Moving away from the conventional modernist perspective, I am looking outside the world of art for appropriate interpretative models. Taking my lead from environmental aesthetics, I have made a close study of phenomenal, culturally bound environmental experience, and my guide to the textuality of landscape and a multidimensional reading and interpretation of it has been the tradition of humanist geography. A search for beauty is central to the humanistic study of landscape and is something it has in common with the world of art. My approach has also been greatly influenced by Yi-Fu Tuan's study of topophilia (the feeling of belonging to a place, love for a place) and Edward Relph's studies of place, which look at the bond between person and place, local identity and its converse, placelessness. 'Landscape' and 'place' are, in fact, often used as overlapping concepts, although 'place' has wider social implications. I have also drawn on postmodern art research, including the work of Lucy Lippard and Suzanne Lacy, which reflects a shift of interest away from modernist thought towards the relationship of individuals and communities to the environment, landscapes, places, localness and their own life worlds. Similarly, in their environmental and community art, Suzi Gablik and Irit Rogoff offer new interpretations of the relationship of art to place, to landscape and to the work and leisure activities that are carried out in them.
One of the principal challenges of postmodernism has been to question the long-standing convention of emphasizing the separation of people's everyday activities, such as their work, from their aesthetic experience. As Esa Sironen puts it:
The subject of a landscape is not the farmer, just as the subject of water is not a fish swimming in it. To be such a subject, a person may not naively be part of nature but must comprehend him – or herself as standing opposite to nature, distinguished from it. Landscape is a relational concept. It requires mowing hay, cutting down trees, stopping one's mushroom picking, straightening one's back and putting oneself for only a moment beyond the confines of work and productivity – looking at things as a child, artist, philosopher.
The background to this is the assumption by Kantian aesthetics that when we are inside a landscape we are unable to recognize its aesthetic aspects. As Kari Väyrynen explains, Kant sought to demonstrate the superiority of moral consciousness to sensuality and physical human frailty. This, in turn, is underlain by a Cartesian dualism which divides the world into reason and feeling, subject and object. But it is precisely corporeality, and, in particular, the relationship between the work that human beings do and aesthetic experience, that underpins the new paradigm of art and the environment and provides a direction for my personal art practice. In striving for experience that is not divided crudely into subject and object, I am adopting the existential-phenomenological position of Merleau-Ponty, who believed that embodiment in the environment is the elemental condition for all thought, and that no thought can originate from pure consciousness.
Our bodily relationship to the environment has changed since the times of Descartes and Kant. In general, the amount of physical work we do has decreased dramatically, and it is to counterbalance this that I have made an effort in my art to transform traditional working methods into methods for experiencing the environment and creating environmental and community art. This turns upside down the Kantian relationship between acting in and aesthetically experiencing the environment. What was previously referred to as 'work' (routine activity that stifled creative thought and aesthetic experience) now becomes 'stopping in the landscape' (a physical experience which makes thought possible). Physical work becomes a type of meditation in which the body opens pathways to sensation, to the environment's stream of consciousness, and disengages for a moment our dualist Cartesian brains. This releases creative potential, engenders aesthetic experience and restores the link between body and mind in a way that resonates with the fundamental Heideggerian concept of 'beginning thought from the beginning'.
When I work in the Northern landscape, I would argue that I am continuing the tradition of landscape painting. As active subject, I am not the ideal, free individual, but a social being conditioned by culture. Clearly, the landscapes that form the starting point for landscape art, whether in their natural state or shaped by people, are always products of a culture and defined by it before they become themes for a work of art. The way I conceive of the Northern landscape is simultaneously guided by two models: the relationship to nature that forms part of my Northern identity and the tradition of visual art. I have, however, moved a long way from landscape painting, the traditional means of depicting and imparting value to the association between environment and culture. I do not place myself before a landscape as a visual observer, nor do I frame what I see; rather, I try to discover the landscape from within, using all the senses that enable me to experience it. I try to work with the materials of the place and with the stimuli and content it offers. I call myself not a landscape artist but an environmental artist.
In making this statement I want to shift the focus from an external view of the landscape to its 'flow', which goes through me in the form of material, observations, experiences, meanings and values. The environment flows not only through me but through the entire community in which I am working at a particular time. My observations and experiences are my own as an individual, but I interpret and understand them as a member of the culture of which I am a part. It becomes difficult to distinguish the environment and the community from one another – the concept 'North', for example, defines both location and community simultaneously. The North is a network of different places and the communities living and working in them. Looked at in this way, my environmental art has affinities with Suzanne Lacy's 'new genre public art', in which public participation and commitment are the basis for and the objective of making art. New genre public art is defined not only by its environment but, also, by its public. The focus is not merely the specific place or area where the art is located, but also the aesthetic expression of the values it activates in its human participants.
My aim is that my art should form part of the cultural practice in which landscapes and the values they incorporate are produced and renewed. My works reflect the concept of landscape in Lapland by being at the same time products and constituents of it. My preference for the term 'environmental art' over 'landscape art' can be attributed not only to the fact that my art emphasizes community and ecological values but, also, to my interest in detaching it from a historical tradition with unwanted overtones. There is nothing revolutionary about this, it is more a subtle shift of perspective, or even a shuttling between mainstream 'high art' and local art culture – a moving about in the reality which I am constructing for myself and in which I construct my identity. As a product of a western artistic education and a native of a northern village, I try to place myself between the two, looking in two directions at the same time from a single point. I try to examine the North – my own phenomenal world – as an intertextual narrative in which western art and science are interwoven with the stories, meanings and truths of the local people.
Excerpted from Art, Community and Environment by Glen Coutts, Timo Jokela. Copyright © 2008 NSEAD. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction Glen Coutts and Timo Jokela,
Part One: Environments,
Chapter 1: A Wanderer in the Landscape: Reflections on the Relationship between Art and the Northern Environment Timo Jokela,
Chapter 2: Developing an Environmental Aesthetic: Aesthetics and the Outdoor Experience Angus McWilliam,
Chapter 3: Strategies for the Convivial City: A New Agenda for Education for the Built Environment Malcolm Miles,
Part Two: Communities,
Chapter 4: Beyond Process: Art, Empowerment and Sustainability Mark Dawes,
Chapter 5: Community Art Projects and Virtual Learning Environments Maria Huhmarniemi,
Chapter 6: Community-Based Art Education in the North: A Space for Agency? Mirja Hiltunen,
Chapter 7: Crossing the Line Sarah Bennett,
Part Three: Education,
Chapter 8: Art and Design Education and the Built Environment Eileen Adams,
Chapter 9: Connections between Public Art and Art and Design Education in Schools Eileen Adams,
Chapter 10: Art, Design and Environment: A Programme for Teacher Education Eileen Adams and Tony Chisholm,
Chapter 11: Training Community Artists in Scotland Julie Austin,
Chapter 12: Community Art: What's the Use? Glen Coutts,
Chapter 13: Collaborative Project-Based Studies in Art Teacher Education: An Environmental Perspective Timo Jokela,
Chapter 14: Hard Lessons: Public Sculpture and the Education System in Nineteenth-Century Glasgow Ray Mckenzie,
Chapter 15: Living City: An Experiment in Urban Design Education Les Hooper and Peter Boyle,
Chapter 16: Using Multimedia to Teach Young People about Public Art in Glasgow Glen Coutts,
Notes on Contributors,