jean-marie bytebier

Shaping the Land

The land is there. It only came when the primeval forests were cut down, tundras dried up and peat bogs burned for fuel. Primeval forests that concealed a Darwinian teeming. A dark density of Acheiropoietos. By which the Greeks meant ‘made without human hands’. What hasn’t been touched by those hands. What hasn’t been created by them belongs to that other. That ‘forever alien’. Where there has been no intervention. Where the ungrasped resides, the untransformed. Toward which human beings have a dual attitude. In a gulf, often opposed and intrinsically hard to bridge. Fear and attraction. A step up: anxiety and fascination.

The eighteenth-century Sublime. The fatal double. The end makes eyes at me, but malicious ending is in me. I choose. But I am fearful of the choice. Of my own choosing. The threshold experience of looking into the abyss. On the edge of that abyss. I am fearful of the other in me, which really does want to jump. But which simultaneously makes me experience the keenness of my survival.I want to see-know-feel-experience what I don’t know, but which makes me shudder. I want to look fear in the eyes. I inquisitively want to experience what there is in that threshold zone. Will it carry me away? Devour me? Is it out to get me? Or couldn’t it care less?

The primeval forests. Their edges, their boundaries were pushed back relentlessly. Rolled over by clearance. With a designated use in its wake. The landscape was inverted. What was once forest, became a dark cheese, its holes inhabited. And then an open expanse with towns and cities. And ultimately a single conurbation: a ribbon of building with woods and open fields the exception.

To designate is to know. What is known is designated. Coded. Named too in that same act. If it embodies any fear at all, it can be bounded. Neutralized. To bound is also to contextualize. The gaze is poor at bounding. The cone of vision is haunted by its edges and offers no protective frame. Georg Simmel called it the ‘noise of nature’. Which is invisible, but which makes itself heard ‘outside’ that cone.

The gaze seeks an appropriate frame within its boundaries. A frame that reassures it. That mediates its shelter. That guarantees its ostensible security. That allows it to anticipate looming potential danger. That permits it a focus. An inspection of the framed plane. Probing the what and the how, influenced by all manner of projections. Varying from anxiety to opportunity.

A forest edge is impenetrable to the gaze. That forest edge has a breadth and a dark depth, both of a scale that eludes the gaze. Framing occurs with a fatally indifferent arbitrariness, embodying a threat-slash-curiosity. The forest is silent. It suggests things. If one is open to suggestion. European predators like wolves and bears, which once had it in for people, have been wiped out. Cut down by their visibility. But meningitis-infected ticks inhabit Czech forests in countless numbers. Danger has become invisible. Danger has become ultra-small. A darkness and a compactness hold sway. Impenetrability.


Hacking alone would grant a way through. Clearance would grant something. Grant what the forest keeps silent about. But nothing is told. The beholder tells himself what his projections hold out to him. The silence, the dark silence, was seized on by mankind, that projection machine, to fire narrative loads at. Fairy-tales, theories, exaggerations, self-deception, enchantments. The dark forest was and is charged with a mythical content. Until science demystified the forest by chopping the Magic-Gestalt into countless little pieces. Forest of little bits. Forest of ultra-little bits. Dissection of the myths. Myths do not of course allow themselves to be dissected.

That biotope that is the forest. The coexistence of living things said to mutually benefit one another. ‘Said to’. You can take that hopefully or negatively too. From parasites through epiphytes to predators. The mechanization of the forest. Reason and its blades. That reason which reduces everything into separate little bits.

But the forest just went on haunting. Its silence persisted and it continued to invite projections. The Blair Witch Project. The film where students from the digital era enter the forest and lose their way in it. And encounter Evil there. In an age of satellite navigation. Satellites graze even above the silent forest. So.In Fire Walk with Me, David Lynch makes the forest edge the entrance curtain to a blood-red here-after or here- adjacent. Trunks as curtains. Hazy crowns that are barely lit. The forest edge as the wings of a stage.

But there is an entrance in that edge. And that suggests a boundary, a difference. The edge is only the edge if the necessary void is there to perceive it. The condition of the edge is the landscape. Where the land is shaped. Or geslecht as an old Dutch word puts it. Made ‘level’ for cultivation, with a hint of slecht, bad. Not-forest is created at the edge. The space located before the edge is that of the beholder. The land that is shaped. Where the forest has been flattened. The deforested space. Cleared or tree-less. Where people have arranged the space conveniently, for utilitarian reasons. Up to that boundary where blindness and muteness begin.

Through the centuries, the edge has often been used as fond de décor by the likes of Nicolas Poussin, Thomas Gainsborough, Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorrain and Caspar David Friedrich. Not just the edge, but the inhospitable depths within the landscape too. For a variety of referential stagings. Often as a menacing undertone. An undertone that keeps silent but which nonetheless sets the tone of the projection. The protagonists in these stagings all too frequently show evil. Poussin and Rosa especially articulate that aspect. Or man’s impotence in the face of that evil. With the woods or the physiogenic landscape, arisen through nature, as complicit spectator. Silent, darkly approving as, and from within, the background. Physiogenic, as the landscape in which human hands have never intervened. As authentic evil. Or the authentically unknowable.

The protagonists in those works frequently mediate the catastrophe, doom or the unavoidable. Make the spectator a beholder at a safe distance.It is a postponed, vicarious, but mediated confrontation. Like a newspaper full of gloom and doom glanced at with a raised eyebrow over a fragrant morning coffee.

Canetti isn’t far away. Elias Canetti, who saw in the report of the calamity an antagonism of the pleasure of survival. The greater the catastrophe read at the safe distance of newsprint or screen, the greater the safe pleasure of survival nestles within the reader. The sense of security. Far from, and not involved in, the calamity. Frequently stylized too in disaster movies. The essence of catastrophilia. Why people eagerly consume misfortune at a mediated distance.

Just as the picture of unspoiled nature was already being mediated in Van Ruisdael in the seventeenth century. And a half-century earlier, Hercules Seghers and Joos de Momper already presented landscapes in which the untamable determined the picture. The Acheiropoietos landscape remained rare in painting. It only became a central issue in the eighteenth century. When the bifurcation, the split, between De Sade and Rousseau on the image of nature took hold in earnest. According to Simon Schama (Landscape and Memory, 1995), this was based on a double myth, which had already appeared a century earlier in its dual guise. The Arcadia One myth of Claude Lorrain on the one hand which, a forerunner of the ecologists, speaks of a paradisiacal authenticity of the idealizing intercourse between man and nature. In the footsteps of Virgil’s Bucolica. From which Rousseau made his living. In the beginning, nature was supposedly well-intentioned toward humanity. The noise of the Fall put paid to that idea. And on the other hand, there is an Arcadia Two myth of the god Pan, from whom the word panic derives. Which actually tells a precursor story that paves the way for Darwin. Of a nature that displays a deadly indifference, in which the fight for survival and the triumph of the fittest sets the tone. To which De Sade alludes. De Sade, who drew pleasure from blaspheming against that indifferent nature. Nature, the untamed kind especially, thus becomes an issue as such. Becomes the protagonist as such. Or is represented as disproportionately ‘above’ man. We need only think of Caspar David Friedrich with his little shepherd, his impotent daydreamer above the clouds, or the depopulated shipwreck scene with the ice floes. The protagonist in this case is pantheistic Nature. Fascination for the untamed receives on the one hand a metaphysical projection, which on the other is demystified by Darwin.The Hudson River School, with the likes of Thomas Barker and Thomas Cole, returned to the theme in the nineteenth century. The American wilderness was plastered with European-looking ruins. Something that the American public, with its conservatism of identity, did not always appreciate.The wild enticed. And continues to entice. It embodies a longing to return to the state of sovereignty to which Bataille refers. The state that transcends interhuman moral codings. La transgression. A state of wordlessness. Where the snip between signified and signifier is a dark gap.

And then all at once the protagonist falls away. The canvas becomes texture. Referential texture. The figuratively representational is challenged. With the edge as silent transgressor. There is only the edge. Or only the tops of the edge. Where crown stands out sharply against sky. The edge as silent texture. Standstill edge. The slowly swaying larches in David Lynch, which charge the silence with impending doom. Evil shimmers. Silence is frozen here too. The hush and the freeze-down oppress. What is motionless and kept silent, oppresses all the more.

The edge becomes a mute but charged actor. This edge that is purely vegetative. The vegetation, this green mass of leaves with its unfathomable depth. But also with its unfathomable tension.The confrontation, in the representation of the work, positions the viewer. The beholder who stands in the ‘cleared’ place. The reassuring frame of his gaze, which he has to choose himself, is tampered with.

The would-be protection, of the shutter, of the frame, of the windowsill as suggestion. Of the light beam. The spotlight. Casts light ‘onto’. They don’t help at all in the reassuring mediation. They articulate the silence all the more. The protagonist, the edge, has become a flat, mute texture. The muteness gives nothing away. It is a flat slap in the face. Deceptively aided, in cut-outs. In frames-again. Sometimes as a frame within the frame. The canvas appears as canvas. But the reference to the mute forest continues to threaten and disturb the beholder. The effect of the viewer’s analysis is negated. He who analyses thinks he knows because, by naming, he demystifies the mute. Here naming has become impossible. Referring to the Acheiropoietos in the landscape manifests itself here in its ultimate form. The reassuring mediation via the frame is mere appearance. The painter refuses the reassuring mediation. The frame within the frame is tricky.

However, the silence of the canvas remains as signifier. Looking through to the sky is anything but reassuring. The texture of the unknown continues to bounce the tension back. Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole staged a coded landscape space in which the threat could be ‘situated’ in time–space. There was familiarity. Placability. Evil, the inhospitable, danger. It could be situated. It was given a ‘place’. An identifiable place. That could be recognized. And through its situating, bounded and rendered harmless.There is no longer a place here. Place is mercilessly 19 Denis Dujardinbounced back along the axis of the figure beholding it, who looks at the canvas. From his cleared, his geslechte place. The confrontation is dull and ponderous.

The work oscillates here between figuration and abstraction and does not allow itself to be situated anywhere. It seems thematically serial. The haze of doubt between abstraction and figuration doubles the unease. The silence of the Acheiropoietos world was already oppressive. That oscillation now turns back entirely on the beholder. Like a repetition of a malicious thematic attitude.The sucking monochrome of Rothko is here turned around, as hard as steel. It is a ricochet. A ricochet that leaves the beholder with no room to be non-committal. There is seemingly a malicious unwillingness to mediate. The sucking depth here becomes a flat hand, bulging out. That of the slap in the face. There is no longer any depth. Depth is to be avoided, but leaps out, like a predator toward its prey. Attacking the beholder defencelessly in his cleared, unprotected place.

Nature with its situated doom has always been mediated in the history of landscape painting. Placed and neutralized. Flat indifference becomes an imminent inversion here via the canvas. The beholder is watched and has to find an attitude within that confrontation. Where once the beholder could remain reassuringly non-committal, he must now assume a stance. Disconcerted as he is in the unprotected place of the cleared landscape, in which he cannot fall back on any form of remote mediation nor any narrative support. The supplementary insertion of frames can do nothing to rectify this and seems only to put off the confrontation. The beholder now stands alone. Alone. In his narrative void.

Denis Dujardin