The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek criticises the liberal view of ecology as something harmonious which we threaten to disturb through our effect on the environment. He does so on the grounds that nature has always contained a great deal of destruction and it makes little sense to hold it as sacred in such a romanticising way – whatever actions we should be taking to protect the earth. That feels pertinent to the atmosphere conveyed by Tyneside-based Canadian Kelly Richardson’s manufactured video landscapes. She blends filmed footage with computerised intervention in a way which knits the two together to emphasise how little of the world can be seen as unmediated by human presence.
Richardson seems to operate under the slogan ‘not a pixel unaltered’, and that high rate of intervention gives her large-scale installations – typically in 5:1 aspect ratio rather than the 2:1 of mainstream film – their peculiar combination of real and artificial. It’s also consistent with her training as a painter. Given that background, she’s grown used to comparisons with the ‘Group of Seven’, whose landscapes are the most famous from her country of birth; but her approach is closer to that of the Hudson RiverSchool’s scaling up in search of the sublime, or Barnett Newman’s strategy of making colour fields big enough to engulf his viewers – Richardson in turn hopes hers will ‘feel consumed by the landscape’.
Eastbourne’s recently renovated Towner Gallery shows four big video installations. Leviathan (2011), derived from a Texan lake, presents a flooded forest with an ominous soundtrack. The lake contains, in Richardson’s own description ‘swirling ribbons of yellow light that may indicate some kind of toxic spill or, as they move independently of the water’s movements, some form of life currently unknown’. Have we travelled back to the birth of life, or forward to its post-apocalyptic end?
Twilight Avenger (2008) casts the viewer as privileged onlooker as a stag emerges from the forest and looks our way – a romantic image, but the cervid is surrounded by a vaporous green irradiance which suggests contamination rather than a halo.
For The Great Destroyer (2007-12), Richardson suspends seven double-sided video screens so the visitor can weave in and out of their depictions of a Canadian forest. Uniquely in her work, the footage is shown as shot, for here it is the sound which reveals an intervention of sorts: the expected calls of birds are interrupted by a chainsaw, camera whirrs and a car alarm. These, we learn, come from lyrebirds mimicking the sounds of their own territory being destroyed – a striking encapsulation of how fully the human has penetrated the apparent wilderness.
Both Eastbourne (over tree screens totalling 42 x 8 feet) and London (in a reduced version, together with still images) feature a blue lunar-like landscape populated by spectral pines set against a sky of moving stars. The trees bend in a fictional wind, shudder and suddenly disappear in turn, making a crackling noise suggesting a computer error; others then spark into semi-existence. This is an eerie vision of nature as malfunctioning software, leaving us unsure whether the trees were once here or are yet to come. The title The Erudition (2010) suggests that someone knows, but it isn’t us.
How should we look at these films, which are typically quite long non-narrative loops? As if, perhaps, we’re watching a seascape and our thoughts move with it: to the world’s changing relative proportions of natural and artificial wonders; to Umberto Eco’s notion, which Richardson cites, of the ‘authentic fake’; to how our perception of real space is influenced by our growing engagement with virtual space, which the films integrate. Or, perhaps, to Žižek and Richardson’s both dramatising the complexities of how we influence and are influenced by the environments we inhabit. I don’t think either are principally concerned to propose solutions (though Žižek does advocate a communist approach to tackling global warming) so much as provide a framework for a more balanced way of thinking: Žižek gets us there through provocative rhetoric, Richardson through the accumulations of her hypnotic sublime.