Monday, April 20, 2009

The transformation of space into place and land into landscape - week 12

In Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent William L. Fox explores how the "human mind transforms space into place, or land into landscape." In this article Fox concentrates on large, unfamiliar, empty spaces/environments where we have difficulty understanding our personal scale in space and time. He is also interested in the larger topic of "how we use cultural means to augment our neurobiology in order to overcome the perceptual difficulties we experience when exploring large spaces." 

How does the human mind transform space into place and land into landscape? Fox begins by discussing the basic rules of visions, in which our "visual sensory system (eyes, optic nerve , and various portions of the brain) parses information through a series of steps meant to eliminate most of what we see, arriving at a small set of patterns such as lines, edges, and contrast." Fox suggests that it is these visual rules that force us to distinguish figure and ground, this is done through mentally constructing continuous lines, or contours, which are assembled into basic geometric shapes. Therefore we understand a place on our familiarity with these contours. However Fox raises the question of what happens when these visual cues do not exist in a space, for example during the white-out conditions of the Antarctic? Fox states, "In the Antarctic there are no familiar salient features in the landscape and your eye simply wanders, looking for something, anything, that your mind can recognize." He uses to terms to explain this experience the first being visual dissonance described as something that we didn't expect to see which leads us to have to stare at the unexpected sight for a long time in order to "believe our eyes." The second term he uses is cognitive dissonance which is when we see something we don't understand and then act inappropriately in response. Fox raises the question, "What happens when we enter a place lacking the visual cues to which we have adapted ourselves, such as the Antarctic? He answers simply, "we get lost." It is this disorientation/ lack of visual cues within the landscape, as well as our visual inability to take all of the landscape in at once, that has lead us to create maps. We view the landscape as a set of grids that "reduce the world by formula to a common space." 

What is the relationship of mapping to landscape art? Fox asserts  "landscape art is itself a mapping activity, a way of getting us from the familiar "here" to the unfamiliar "there." In contemporary photography and art the "ariel view" has become a huge a fad, which I didn't quite understand beyond its aesthetic value and thought was getting a bit overdone, however I think Fox puts a new perspective on the ariel view.  The grid that is created through the ariel view both familiarizes us with the landscape because it breaks it down into a set of geometric patterns that we understand (making it universal), but also makes the place completely unfamiliar because we cannot discern what/where the place is. I think that it is this tension between the "familiar" and the "unfamiliar" that I find most interesting and can be applied to any genre, because it speaks of how we experience things.  

A grid of the ariel photographs of Terry Evans, Subhankar Banerjee, David Maisel, and Edward Burtynsky

When I reading this weeks Fox's article I kept thinking about the work of Mark Bradford, who collages found materials from the street, creating a map like grid of the landscape. 
Bradford's use of gesture and mark-making encapsulates the dissonance and excitement of a metropolitan landscape, and creates a tension between the familiar and unfamiliar. 

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