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)