Notes On Grotesque Landscape

There is an allure to heaps of things, and a dif­fi­cul­ty in draw­ing them. Junk­yards, auto sur­plus yards; con­struc­tion sites; sac­ri mon­ti and Splash Moun­tain. Most often I find this allure in long dai­ly walks through urban neigh­bor­hoods, where dec­o­ra­tions and suc­ces­sive lay­ers of plant­i­ngs grow to frame door­ways. These walks sug­gest to me a prob­lem of land­scape aes­thet­ics. What gets expe­ri­enced in snatch­es as pic­turesque, as rough and pleas­ing, becomes some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent when tak­en in long draughts. Such a land­scape lacks hier­ar­chy, and lacks prop­er par­al­lel stages and wings, being only a con­fu­sion of ele­ments. If the Amer­i­can res­i­den­tial land­scape is sup­posed to work as a com­mon estate, as the city ages this land­scape has become vis­i­bly sub­di­vid­ed, as with an impru­dent king who has divid­ed his king­dom equal­ly among his chil­dren. It flips between channels. 

I rec­og­nize the char­ac­ter of my walks in Geof­frey Galt Harpham’s study of the grotesque, in what he calls a qual­i­ty of cor­rupt­ed or shuf­fled famil­iar­i­ty.” This grotesque land­scape refus­es to set­tle or turn into soil. It is a heap.

You would have seen the same thing if you had fall­en through a hole while pok­ing around the weeds that rise across from Rome’s Caelian Hill. You would have land­ed in heaps of rub­ble that didn’t quite fill a sub­ter­ranean build­ing; and there­in, upon the walls, draw­ings of fur­ther bric-à-brac, of stray pieces of received mythol­o­gy, bud sports, assort­ments. Maid­ens grow­ing from acan­thus sprigs, shocked faces, dropped fish; among this, lit­tle blue land­scapes fad­ing in from noth­ing, or hang­ing framed in the midst of noth­ing, lit­tle blue land­scapes where shep­herds wan­der blankly in front of bat­tered nymphaea. All this worked as crawl­ing bor­ders around stark expans­es of sin­gle col­or. Why don’t these land­scapes, the land­scapes of Nero’s buried Gold­en House, count to Ken­neth Clark as he seeks to chart a gen­er­al his­to­ry of land­scape? They are, he says, back­grounds” and digres­sions;” they start at the mar­gins and not at the center.

This space formed an ingrown hair curl­ing below the skin of the earth – soon enough cut out and freed. 

If peo­ple find them­selves with a gar­den plot and the will to main­tain it, with­out hav­ing been endowed with an inher­i­tance, they will lay by pos­ses­sions as they come by them, mark­ing around the square of the space they have: wheels, fig­urines, cutouts, lit­tle hous­es. A whirligig, an orb, and a bath­tub vir­gin, which is noth­ing more than a great grot­to pro­gres­sive­ly shaved down. Through these mag­i­cal means, they trap bare space inside. Such grotesque is noise hedged to con­tain a void. It is a var­i­ous skin over the homogeneous.

Here’s Harpham again: Grotesque is a word for that dynam­ic state of low-ascend­ing and high-descend­ing.” The grotesque is one cross­roads of class­es and cul­tures, as they pass along and change. These zones of descent and ascent through social class­es, tra­jec­to­ries cross­ing in an ever-nar­row­ing mid­dle, are man­i­fest­ed as much in a super­abun­dance of polit­i­cal para­pher­na­lia as in a tan­gle of bird­hous­es and windchimes. 

The grotesque, maybe, is a rever­sal of the pic­turesque along an axis per­pen­dic­u­lar to that which oppos­es the sub­lime and the beau­ti­ful. This cat­e­go­ry screens, instead of reveal­ing; it makes depth flat; it is not respectable; it is mis­cel­la­neous. Noth­ing seizes you all at once. But every­thing is faced; that is, its ele­ments have ori­en­ta­tion, which need not match the over­all trend of the over­ar­ch­ing form. You walk by, and you are thumb­ing through an old note­book. Every project is half-under­tak­en, in tran­si­tion between one state and anoth­er. Tremen­dous care sits along the for­got­ten, the void­ed. Each piece is sep­a­rate and sen­si­ble, but has been seized upon and brought to the wrong place. It is rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al; it refers to what is out­side it. In that sense, it is the pres­ence of the untime­ly, the unearthing of what shouldn’t be there.

Every­thing is vis­i­bly set­tling in the grotesque land­scape. When habit­u­al con­di­tions made by peo­ple lapse sud­den­ly into cross-con­nec­tions – when a truck over­turns on a high­way and spills its car­go onto the road – the grotesque land­scape results. Noth­ing is where it came from. 

Grotesque land­scapes at once call out for expla­na­tion and seem to promise that no expla­na­tion will be forth­com­ing. The com­mon con­di­tion of the land­scape under archae­o­log­i­cal exam­i­na­tion is grotesque. Imag­ine an exca­vat­ed con­struc­tion site sur­round­ed by signs of its future char­ac­ter – in this sense, a con­struc­tion site is an explod­ing and rever­sal of an archae­o­log­i­cal site. Like the Gold­en House, the grotesque land­scape unfolds from an over­ac­cu­mu­la­tion of wealth. It unfolds and unfolds; the end is nowhere in sight. It is the sum of its parts. 

(October 2017)