Landscape Indoors

Alexandra Lange’s recent update on the Lowline reminded me of one of the odder pieces of recent landscape fetish show (landscape being our sex and all). Proposed for Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Lowline has over the last few years periodically rumbled a bit to make itself known. In that it markets itself as (sorry!) a one-liner – an inversed High Line, doing it one better and lying underground, memorializing Loisaida’s, LES’s, subterranean past – it is hard not to take as a joke. It gets at a question of definition that has always interested me, though: is it possible for landscape to be indoors, out of open air?  

It depends on what you are willing to count as family, or rather, as a family resemblance. There is no strict in/out division in considering what is a landscape and what is not, I think. If we try to make a test where, say, any five elements out of a list of 15 would do, we will probably end up forgetting that some of those elements are more fundamental than others. To further muddy things: the sense of what element is fundamental will change with time, and items will on the bottom of the list will be periodically promoted or relegated.

We can always, of course, squint past the constituents to look at the arrangements behind them - at the risk of believing in some or another half-mythical crab behind the constellation. The idea of landscape, or something close enough to it, has constituted itself more or less independently in a few different cultures – all of them imperial ones, if Denis Cosgrove is right. The Chinese way of making and seeing landscapes, having persisted and passed through the eye of the Cultural Revolution, is today primed to hybridize with the Western tradition through the importation of our schooling. That same Western tradition was itself constituted from scraps, its framers unwittingly reproducing the Roman tradition sealed beneath their feet. And as far as I can tell, they all share this character – they place value in a view of reasonably extensive land, one populated with detail and dominated by natural materials. This land’s features can be at once taken in at a glance, it grand, articulated shapes, or perused for further detail. People, if not absent, are heartily deemphasized, placed aside from the focus of the view. The view takes place with respect to human vision; even if it is not constructed through a single cone of perspective, it serves the motions and capacities of human eyes.

All of that is too much for a dictionary entry – and furthermore does not get us closer to an in/out criterion. Being an imposed category of experience, metaphors of landscape (“surveying the landscape of contemporary finance”) and physical, undesigned landscapes fundamentally share a continuum.

This is a long way around – a garden path – back to the idea of an indoor landscape. Given sufficient volume, such a thing seems possible, as long as something can spur plant growth – the innovation of the Lowline being a system of solar conveyance sufficient to grow plants underground. But this is only the first criterion that springs to my head, where others might hold it to tighter or looser standards.

Relativism is, along with its other sins, a boring thing to propose. So we must launch relativist propositions with due reference to where we feel the solid ground is, a ground plane to read their branching from. One is that landscape itself is a bundle of rods, a law, a fasces; a construct more convenient to assemble than to dismantle.

In considering an indoor landscape, we should consider the very indefinite thing being lost, the sense of a lack of ends; that even boundaries of the outdoor landscape reflect back, or reflect into the sky. We may suspect that a landscape like the Lowline is driven indoors specifically to be controlled, to not be liable to alteration. It seems significant that once placed under a roof, collections of plants lose most of their interest – why do we never talk about office plants? – because they lose their necessary conditions, of deep volumes of soil, of endlessly seeping water, of shifting climate.

I take the view that this definition of landscape is nowhere necessary or rational; but I am happy that it exists, since it gives me the license to ramble in this general vicinity, in these several vicinities – which are, all things considered, spacious and pleasant.

Is James Rose’s house, or the Winchester Mystery House for that matter, a landscape? In any case, they push forward something difficult to remember about landscape-making – the sense in which it tunnels space to occupy and think through into what was previously a featureless block, peopling it with little lives as it goes. In that sense, landscape can, with effort, be thought into any assemblage, with the distinction not being is/is-not but more/less easy-to-think.

(August 2016)