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Zheng Bo, 'Pteridophilia 2', 2018. Courtesy the artist.

Point and unveil. The first observation burnt onto photographic plate by the lens of a camera obscura is a landscape: rooftops seen from the upstairs window of inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s estate in the Burgundy region of France in 1826. From the beginning, the mechanical image is sutured to the landscape, to the most immediate environment of the image-maker. The poetic and allegorical potential of the landscape certainly predates its transferral to plate, paper, then celluloid, but the enduring attention of lens-based media towards this subject has cultivated unique systems of meaning and metaphor. The landscape is a body, a palimpsest, an index, a conduit for existential meditation. The landscape contains whatever thought it needs to.

In its infancy, photography was also couched in a specific language of interpretation, one which described the mysterious phenomenological experience of being in and of the modern world: the Neo-Gothic. A system for seeing, the Gothic revival formed at the intersection of late Romanticism—with its fixation on poetics, the sublime and the uncanny—and industrialisation, which instigated an abstraction of governing economic forces in the ‘vampire-like’ [1] capitalist Global North. Perhaps symptomatically, the first vocabulary of film arrives through this macabre interzone. The camera obscura translates eerily from Latin as the dark chamber, whilst the moving image’s prehistory is laden with Gothic conjuring, in the magic lantern, Pepper’s ghost, or phantasmagoria. This suggestive language testifies to the two potentials of the mechanical image: description and deception, perhaps mixed in the medium’s origins as part science, part illusion.

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Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 'View from the Window at Le Gras', 1826. Creative Commons.

These twinned traditions collide repeatedly in what might be understood as the Gothic landscape, an enduring motif in the history of the mechanical image and through its evolution as film and video. Set apart from historical genre or epoch, the Gothic is manifest as perpetually shifting: a sensibility or mode. The Gothic landscape similarly shapeshifts, captured in Henry Fox Talbot’s calotypes of Lacock Abbey, in the jagged backdrops of cinematic German Expressionism, or in Andrei Tarkovsky’s sentient Zone in Stalker (1979). It bends and reinvents under presiding dominant critique, offers a visual description of our human imprint and helps imagine alternative futures. In recent years—with renewed cultural interest in the anthropocene, after Donna Haraway, and hauntology, after the late Mark Fisher—the Gothic landscape has entered the field in a multitude of forms, as diverse as its contemporary practitioners.

A number of repeated styles have crystallised into a visual language for the Gothic landscape. These works often trade in slowness, in languorous and painterly shots; they embrace sparseness and ambiguity, inviting in murk and uncertainty; and perhaps most identifiably they make the figure strange or vanquish them altogether. Habitually narrative-evasive, the viewer is an outsider asked to explore, to decipher a series of clues and traces.

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Emily Richardson, 'Cobra Mist', 2008. Courtesy of the artist.

Few filmmakers embody this approach as completely as Emily Richardson. London-based Richardson creates film portraits of diverse sites, loosely connected as hosts to the debris of modernity’s architectural campaign. Capturing their seeming animism on celluloid, her cartographic practice often uncovers uncanny forces. In Nocturne (2002), Block (2005), and Petrolia (2005) 16mm time-lapse and long exposure techniques reveal the ghostly choreography of east London streets at night, a 1960s tower block, and huge drilling rigs in North Sea oil fields respectively.

In Cobra Mist (2008), we visit the eerie site of Orford Ness, Suffolk, marked by its unsettling abandoned military architectures. Classified as top secret by the Ministry of Defence until the mid-1990s, it played host to a century of military experiments in radar, aerial photography, bomb ballistics, and nuclear weapons. In the work, the shingle landscape of contemporary Suffolk becomes an archive of scars, clues, and residues. Richardson’s landscapes echo with the presence of multiple pasts and in doing so are easily framed by Fisher’s definition of the eerie: a sensation which ‘occurs either when there is something present where there should be nothing or if there is nothing present when there should be something.’ [2]

Whilst Richardson wholly erases the human figure—refusing their depiction as subject and even reducing their faculty as apparatus through the mechanised time-lapse [3]—the Gothic landscape can implement a variety of treatments on the body. In the literary Gothic, a recurrent scenario is the loss of a unified human identity and its replacement by the chaotic abhuman, or that which is only vestigially human: Frankenstein, Mr Hyde, Dracula. [4] The Gothic summons a pre-Enlightenment binary between the natural world—as a realm of mystery, underdevelopment, and pre-evolved Otherness—and the modern man. The bleeding of one into the other becomes a tactic of the Gothic text, realised through the co-operative notions of the sentient landscape and the azoic human.

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Willard Maas, 'Geography of the Body', 1943. Courtesy The Film-Makers Coop, New York.

These notions are eerily mixed in American filmmaker Willard Maas’s influential art film Geography of the Body (1943). Extreme close-ups posture as aerial shots, transforming the human figure into an unknown continent. The contours of the flesh are deserts, canyons and mountains. A voiceover text by poet George Barker, a member of the anti-realist New Apocalyptics group, unfolds a loose narrative of exploration. The silhouette of a woman’s breast announces: ‘Evening, I came to a North African village.’ Her navel later becomes a cavern ‘in which a single jewel reminds us that anatomy also has its prizes.’ [5] The surreal film has an uneasy proximity to the Imperial Gothic subgenre, [6] with its apotheosis in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and the propagation of a Social Darwinist vision of straight white male supremacy. The body, and specifically the disembodied feminine one, is here an uncharted territory, a Gothic landscape to be conquered.

Commercial filmmaking from the same era is also a powerful exponent of this problematic subgenre. In the fictional Caribbean island of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and any number of Universal Studios productions (Transylvania in Dracula; Egypt in The Mummy; the Amazon rainforest in Creature from the Black Lagoon) the Gothic landscape—always markedly foreign and pagan—and the Other body are entwined as the subject of colonisation by a white male protagonist.

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Barbara Hammer, 'Dyketactics', 1974. Courtesy the artist and EAI, New York.

In more recent moving image, the body within and as the Gothic landscape appears again with new agency, reconfigured for celebratory feminist, queer, and anti-colonial expression. Barbara Hammer’s landmark Dyketactics (1974) presents a vision of utopian lesbian desire, where the feminine form inhabits and is inhabited by the landscape. Images of flourishing ecology are overlaid with vignettes of lesbian intimacy and liberation. The landscape imagined is surreal and ephemeral — not particular to any actual place but rooted firmly in the classical primavera. Like its predecessors, the work embraces an ambiguous geography where sinuous female bodies meld with the ground. Hammer’s dream is psychedelic and feverish whilst being firmly engaged with the politics of representation and empowerment.

Where Hammer exposes the gendered history of the Gothic landscape, recent work by artist-filmmakers including The Otolith Group’s Hydra Decapita (2010), Eric Baudelaire’s Also Known as Jihadi (2017), and Paul Maheke’s Tropicalité, l’île et l’exote (2014) have sought to address its racialised past. Maheke’s silent video confronts the Imperial Gothic by reappraising exoticism and its associated strangeness. The work is an anthology of eerie island topographies: paradisiac waterfalls, forests, and aquatic scenes, intercut with sequences of Maheke dancing in the basin of an empty skate park, referencing styles including dancehall and vogue. The work ties the colonised black body to the symbolic island, speaking through the landscape to challenge neo-colonial discourse, its subtitles declare, with tongue firmly in cheek: ‘I agree to call “Diverse” everything that until now was called foreign, strange, unexpected, surprising, heroic, and even divine, everything that is Other.’ [7]

In Hong Kong-based artist Zheng Bo’s ongoing video series Pteridophilia (2016–), currently on display at the Taipei Biennial 2018, the body and Gothic landscape unite in an intimate proposition of affective environmental relations. Seven young men enter a dark, otherworldly forest in Taiwan dominated by pteridophytes (ferns), slowly they foster an erotic relationship with the living landscape. The work is twofold: it challenges the racial desexualisation of East Asian men; and, with reference to the wooded spaces of cruising, proposes a subversive utopian future, reimagining the Gothic landscape as a space for a queer erotic reunification of man and nature.

The Gothic landscape seems to invite subversion, to request its own re-engineering across times and places, and perhaps it is this constant which accounts for its longevity within moving image practices and their photographic prehistory. It has variously been appropriated to betray rational thought, to enshrine imperial values, to subjugate the Other, and to visualise the nightmare; but it is precisely this – the mode’s chronic, fluid multiplicity – which opens it up to re-appropriation, to repurposing as a means to imagine permissive, strange, and utopian dreams.

[1] ‘Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the labourer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has purchased of him.’ – Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, Part 1 (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 257.

[2] Mark Fisher, The Weird and The Eerie, (London: Repeater, 2016), 61.

[3] Richardson shoots in revolving 360° with time-lapse techniques which image capture at a reduced frame rate, appearing sped up in normal playback.

[4] Jerrold E. Hogle, The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 190.

[5] George Barker, commentary, in Willard Maas, Geography of the Body, 1943. 16mm, 7 min.

[6] Patrick Brantlinger, “Imperial Gothic: Atavism and the Occult in the British Adventure Novel, 1880-1914”, in English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920, Vol 28, 3, (Baltimore: ELT Press, 1985), 243-252.

[7] Paul Maheke, Tropicalité, l’île et l’exote, 2014. HD video, 13 min.

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Marcus Jack is an independent curator and writer based in Glasgow. He is an AHRC PhD candidate at the Glasgow School of Art and Research Associate at LUX Scotland. In 2015 he founded Transit Arts, an organisation for the exhibition of artists’ moving image, and has developed screenings in partnership with ATLAS, CCA Glasgow, GFT & GSFF, Goethe-Institut, Scalarama, Scottish Contemporary Art Network, and Tyneside Cinema.

With thanks to Moira Jeffrey and Adam Pugh for their time, interest, and editorial insights, The Film-Makers Coop, New York, and Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.