From the Gesture of Breathing to a Mathematical Dead End. On the Incarnation of the Landscape in Axel Antas’s Art
Text by Hanna Johansson
There is a familiarity in watching and moving in a landscape, while the landscape also embodies certain shared emotions and values. We may ask, however, what do we see when we look at a landscape? Where do we walk, when we walk in a landscape? Do we have access to a landscape as it is, or does the landscape per se even exist?
For years Axel Antas has explored the landscape in his art using various methods: walking, drawing and taking photographs. Although he seems to believe in the landscape, his works suggest that he is filled with doubts concerning both the landscape and his belief in it.
Antas’s relationship with the landscape is obviously contradictory, a circumstance he transforms into art. Perhaps it is precisely the tension between belief, doubt, enchantment and renunciation that makes him work within the landscape again and again.
Looking at Antas’s work retrospectively, I realise that even the early series Breathing himself invisible (2001–2002) belongs to his landscape series. Inhaling and exhaling is a humble, inconspicuous, repetitive and necessary gesture that connects our interiority quite physically with our environment. For us to become more graceful, the French philosopher Luce Irigaray has recommended that, instead of representations and discourses, we should develop our breathing. It seems to me that even in his very first series, Antas takes us into this Age of the Breath, communicating it to us in evidentiary representations in which the image is in the process of becoming invisible, along with the artist himself, as if the picture and the artist were both exiting the stage of representation.
The connection between the landscape and the disappearance of the artist-as-subject is clearer and more pronounced in the series Obstructed Views (2009–2011). At first glance, Antas seems to be repeating the hallmarks of romantic art in a way that is almost painful: foggy pristine landscape views, a lonely human figure with his back to us, an artist experiencing his existential insignificance in the face of the immensity of nature. That is indeed what Antas does in his pictures, for he has sought out classical scenic spots and high vantage points: cliffs, treetops, taking a photograph of himself at the very moment that his head and face become lost in the fog.
Looking at his output more broadly, however, the meaning of these pictures changes. Antas has already practiced breathing: he enters the landscape, looks at it, breathes, and disappears into the light or the fog, that is, into the air. Any possible allusions to romanticism in the pictures are cancelled out, and the breathing and the loss of the self become paramount.
Created a few years earlier, Whiteout (Fence) (2005) features the same event, but here it is offered for us to experience, as if Antas were offering me, or you, an opportunity to learn to breathe and thereby to vanish into white air. The pictures in this series consist of panoramic views of rural landscapes. The exposure times are so long that the pictures are almost white, the landscape almost invisible. I have discussed before about the series as containing a tension between pictorial illusion and abstract surface. The whiteness can thus be seen either as a milky surface or as fog floating in the pictured landscape, underlining the essence of air that penetrates everywhere, but rarely becomes material or visible.
The exploration of gaze-obstructing fog continues in Low Lying Cloud Formations (2006–2007). Here the clouds are emphatically not part of the ‘natural order’ of the landscape, but artificially produced. These airy, white, surfaceless billows of vapour impart a breath-like mood to the park-like setting. At the same time, they create a kind of rift in the unbroken experience of landscape viewing, not unlike the white, milky veil in the Whiteout series. Clouds like these are not part of the unbroken landscape experience, they seem to be technically created non-human actors in the landscape. Artefactual natural phenomena!
The clouds in the pictures are put there by the artist with a smoke machine. The large pencil drawings entitled Tree Structures (2008) seem to depict similar parks. In the drawings, the surroundings are reduced to a minimum, and only the massive tree trunks with tiny details that specifically refer to human action are presented prominently.
The same method is used in the installation Untitled (Sketch of a Tree) (2010), which depicts the oldest tree in the world, growing in Sweden. From a projector on the floor, an 8 mm film runs up to the ceiling and back down again, creating lines in the gallery that would seem to represent the film’s duration. The film is projected on the wall, and close to the floor, just where a tree should grow. In the film, we see a muted image of a small tree and its sprawling offshoots. A similar picture but this time a pencil drawing hangs on the wall of the gallery. Antas shows us the tree as he sees it, thus establishing an intense mood in the gallery, where we are enchanted by the strange tree precisely because it is simultaneously shown and concealed.
The inexplicit film and the drawing serves as proof that the artist has witnessed the tree on-site. Similar eyewitness evidence is found in many of Antas’s works. It is as if his entire artistic output relies on the idea of seeing as evidence and on gestures that he uses to confirm this; building dwellings for birds, taking photographs of them, drawing tree trunks, and so on. Here Antas makes a sophisticated return to the beginning of modernism in art, to the idea that “[t]he arts require an eyewitnesses”, an idea that reached its pinnacle in video and land art of the 1970s – yet Antas adapts the concept to his own purposes.
Antas’s art seems to be proving things not only to the viewer, but above all to himself. As if his scepticism regarding the landscape demanded, almost forced him to demonstrate repeatedly and in different ways that he was there, on the mountain, in the field or park, and that he has seen. Such an obsessive need for validation produces a titillating repetitiveness in these works. But it is repetitiveness that does not repeat the same thing. It is this small distinction that is crucial both between and within the various series.
Antas approaches the landscape by sensing, moving and constructing bird houses, as in Structures for Birds (2007). In the series Geometry of Place (2010), Antas attempts to seize the reality of the landscape in a very different way, by drawing mathematical coordinates in the landscape and taking photographs of the resultant structures of lines. He borrows the scientific method only to show how random and imprecise the geometric measurement of the landscape is. Cartesian coordinates cannot decipher the landscape, nor reveal anything else except the inadequacy of the method. The coordinates and the landscape are incommensurable.
In his latest series, Monuments for the Unseen (2013), Antas reveals his scepticism towards the seen, experienced and measured landscape even more directly. In these pictures, he comes close to the same method that he used in Whiteout. He has bleached the picture, but now the air or the surface of the photograph has acquired a pallid, technical hue. Enveloped in a pale green, grey or blue mist, we seem to glimpse a sea view, or something? Is that the last piece of a melting glacier or a temporary dwelling built in a flooded landscape? The answer changes from one picture to the next.
The landscape seems to be at its most real for Antas when he recognises the fact that the perfect sea view which he observes daily, conceals another one, an invisible reality, where icebergs melt and waters rise as a result of our technological world.
1) From the 1980s, researchers have emphasised that the landscape is a construction, a representation which cannot be accessed directly. See e.g. Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Landscape and Power. University of Chicago Press.
2) Irigaray, Luce 2004. The Age of the Breath. In The Key Writings. Continuum. 167–169.
3) Johansson, Hanna 2013a. ‘The Disappearance of Gravity. Airy Spaces in Contemporary Art.’ In Saija Isomaa et al. (ed.). Imagining Spaces and Places. Cambridge Scholars Publishing; Johansson, Hanna 2013 b. ‘Valon näkemisestä, ilmasta, tuulesta ja painovoimasta.’ TAHITI. Taidehistoria tieteenä. 4 / 2013.
4) Virilio, Paul 1994. The Vision Machine. London: British Film Institute. 1–2.
5) Wagner, Anne 2000. ‘Performance, Video and the Rhetoric of Presence.’ October 91. 59–80.
6) The series can be seen as a comment on the scientific method. Such a view would seem to embody a critical philosophical comment on mathematical modelling. See Lynch, Michael 2008. ‘The externalized retina: Selection and mathematization in the visual documentation of objects in the life sciences.’ Human Studies 11: 201-234, s. 217–219.