Uncommon Ground

Landscape on Fire by Anthony McCall

On a visit to Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979, currently on show at Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I was reminded of the work of Keith Arnatt. On show are his works ‘Liverpool Beach Burial’ and ‘Mirror-lined pit (grass bottom)’ (1968). I recall seeing a similar piece of Arnatt’s work ‘Self Burial’ a few years ago at the Henry Moore Institute, although don’t remember if these two pieces were included in that exhibition too.

Exhibited alongside Arnatt was John Hilliard’s ‘Across The Park’ (1972) – a series of 4 pairs of photographs. The top image in each pair showed a man (presumably the artist) walking across the park. The bottom photograph was the same image but now with a wider crop, so the broader scene is revealed. The artist is following someone, holding a balloon or about to be hit over the head with a piece of wood.

I like both Arnatt’s and Hilliard’s work for its sense of humour. It documents slight or somewhat mundane actions (although burying lots of people, or yourself many times is perhaps not that slight if you think about the process!) The works are playful and they play with our perception. ‘A Walk in The Park’ demonstrates the limits of photographic truth and both artists explore the relationship between performative actions and documentation. I do like work by more ‘serious’ land artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, who are also represented in the exhibition, but I find them a bit earnest. So the daftness of Arnatt and Hilliard is appreciated.

Another piece in the exhibition that employs quite a dead-pan, repetitive structure but tinged with risk, is ‘Landscape on Fire’ (1972) by Anthony McCall. People in white boiler suits walk around the landscape setting fire to a series of bowls/mini beacons that must be filled with petrol or similar, arranged in a grid shape. They intermittently set off loud hailers and flares. Filmed in the darkening dusk, it is quite evocative with the smoke filled atmosphere, flickering light and noise making me think variously about camping trips, burning moorland, industrial landscapes where you might see chemicals being burnt off from chimneys and of light formations used to guide planes to land. It also brought to mind a more recent film work by Sutapa Biswas. ‘Magnesium Bird’ (2004). Filmed at Harewood House, it shows pieces of magnesium being ignited in series. My overwhelming memory of the film is of the light and smoke and the camera movement as it panned across the scene at an angle low to the ground. I had forgotten the soundtrack of children playing and feint figures in the background evident from a clip of the work available online. (N.B. clips of both ‘Magnesium Bird’ and ‘Landscape on Fire’ can be viewed on the www.luxonline.org website using the links above. Clips are in the right hand menu).

I don’t think Biswas’ work was specifically devised in relation to its being filmed in a Capability Brown landscape, but it leads me to mention that over the summer I will be making a landscape intervention work with Pavilion at Whitley Beaumont in Kirklees. This is a landscape with equivocal attribution to Capability Brown and forms part of a series of commissions exploring lost Brown landscapes. Although I haven’t started working on it yet, the question of what I might do is sitting in the back of my mind. So the exhibition of land art was perfectly timed to spark some ideas.