Some twenty years ago, Armando completed a series of drawings and paintings of ‘guilty landscapes’. They were sketches, notations of landscapes, in a few whimsical lines. It was the landscape of war, as Armando explained, the bearer of the abuses that man had inflicted on it. It seemed as though the artist blamed the landscape for the suffering that had been caused and saw it as an accomplice in the crime. In his eyes, the landscape was marked for life. He showed us the scars.
The Post St. Joost photography exhibition at the MK gallery in Rotterdam presented a contemporary version of Armando’s guilty landscapes. Photographer Casper Rila (b. 1982) brought together landscapes in which horrific war crimes had taken place. There are photographs of landscapes in Iraq, Ivory Coast, Bosnia, Kuwait, China, Rwanda en Nicaragua. Each is more beautiful than the next. But something is wrong. The surface is disturbed, the composition falters. At crucial spots in the image, usually at the front, where something normally happens in a photograph, the image shakes, the result of a computer manipulation. Rila has deleted, erased something, covering it over with patches copied from the area around it. The camouflage disturbs the eye and gives the landscapes a disconcerting scar. Something has been removed from view.
In the catalogue, also produced at Post St Joost, Rila mentions how viewers become accustomed to images of war, to the point that the part of the world where it is happening doesn’t even register any more, no longer makes any impression. We have become desensitized to images of war, in part because the truly horrible images are being kept from us, en masse. Everything that finds its way into the media has been aesthetically filtered, weakened, neutralized. Rila wants to point out this censorship, following an age-old principle: whatever impedes our vision attracts our attention. His digital disruption of the surface of the picture is extremely effective. His photographs are as beautiful as they are disturbing.
Still, his story about censorship sounds a bit perfunctory. What seems to me more interesting than the predictable, moralistic criticism of censure in the media is the unintended relationship that these images have with Armando’s definition of the guilty landscape. Aren’t Rila’s images equally viable examples of guilty landscapes? Doesn’t he also put his finger on the phenomenon of the tendency of landscape to mask suffering behind a stunning decor? And isn’t it the artist’s task to expose the suffering behind the idyllic scenery, in order to reveal the true identity of the landscape?
Just across the street from Rila’s show at MK is the Don Quijote exhibition at Witte de With. In these various definitions of Utopia, we are inundated with landscapes that have something to hide, masking their secret, while nonetheless playing the sweet and innocent. The most amusing is the confrontation staged by Richard T. Walker between a hiker and his landscape. ‘Yes’, says the hiker to a breathtaking valley, ‘you are beautiful, gorgeous, I know. But you are not behaving very sociably. I feel you do not understand me at all. You just go about your own business without a care for me. What am I supposed to do with that?’ Our relationship to landscape is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. It was a subject for Armando and for Walker and, even if by accident, it is exactly what makes Rila’s photographs intriguing works of art.