Poetics of landscape in the age of mankind – Koray Kantarcıoğlu’s Bitmap Landscapes
In our common understanding, the landscape as the planet’s surface appears as a continuous manifestation of nature that has evolved in an evolutionary process over millions of years. The forces of nature change the surface and with it the geological structure of the earth. They form the landscape as the canyons have been shaped in the process of erosion by wind and water and mountains resulting from tectonic plates’ activity that shifted and pushed the landmasses together or apart. The transformation of the landscape is something we can only measure, sometimes over generations. But we can hardly experience the natural growth of a mountain or the birth of an island, unless in major catastrophic events such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions or floods where it becomes a sudden and devastating experience when the forces of nature strike back with all their power. In cultural history the landscape became a place for longing and projection, mountains became a symbol for stability and trust because they are always there.
But our understanding of nature and of landscape is about to change. Around the turn of the millenium the term “Anthropocene” as the new geological age was introduced by Nobel Prize winner Paul J. Crutzen. Now, it stands for one of the most discussed scientific concepts of the present times. In the Anthropocene as the age of mankind, landscapes are more and more characterized by heavy human use — degraded agricultural lands, industrial wastelands, and artificial recreational landscapes become characteristic of Earth’s terrestrial surface. In the last 500 years humans have turned the percentage of the primary vegetation from 90% to 20% due to an increase of agricultural cultivation, followed by an immense loss of biodiversity. Humans have caused fundamental changes to the biology and the geology of the planet. We are not about to leave only a geological footprint but we have altered the planet radically, we have anthropized it at high speed. In our advanced technologized and accelerated world, we see mountains moving and disappearing in order to access coal deposits, we see islands emerging from the sea created to give space for urban developments, we see diverted river courses, artificial straits, and increasing sea levels; also we experience the shift of the climate zones as a result of drastic manmade interventions. Now it is not the forces of nature anymore that shape the planet’s surface. Mankind became the maker of earth and technology is our most potential tool and weapon in the act of creation and destruction. In the Anthropocene technology is both, a curse and a proficiency for the future, as for the most fundamental problems that we are facing it is the source but might also be the solution.
Following the idea of the Anthropocene, to acknowledge the inversion of the relation between humanity and nature leads to an elementary paradigm shift, not only respectively technology and the consequences for humanity and our planet but also in our way of seeing. So how does the Anthropocene change our perspectives and perception? If nature is man-made, what does this mean for the understanding of concepts like „natural“ and „artificial“? And speaking about contemporary art, what does this mean for the perception and the representation of nature and landscape in art?
The ambiguity between nature, technology and time is very present in the landscape drawings of Koray Kantarcıoğlu. Since 2002 the artist has created a complex series of works entitled Bitmap Landscapes that consists of predominantly monochrome computer drawings visualizing the transformation of a landscape or a mountain over the course of time.
The landscape as a genre in art has a long tradition in the West as well as in the East with very different yet contrary approaches. In Western art the motif of the landscape reaches back to 14th century and the discovery of the central perspective. Through the artistic eras the landscape became an ideal place within the supposedly purity of nature, a mirror of the soul and the inner emotions, a quest for the sublime, a reflection on limits and infinity where the virginity of nature is opposed with its artificiality. Landscape became a ‘way of seeing’ where the artist is the creator to exercise power over space.
But Kantarcıoğlu’s landscapes also seem to have another approach. In the representation of space and time they remind of the metaphysical Shan-Shui ink drawings of East-Asian Art tradition. Painted and designed in accordance with taoistic concepts and the Chinese elemental theory of five elements representing various parts of the natural world, the Shan-Shui drawings are mostly depicting mountains and water valuing the tranquil contemplation of the landscape. At the same time they convey the vastness of the cosmos, since the artists of the traditional Chinese landscape painting do not show us a moment in time, but rather a time span of unknown duration.
Also in Kantarcıoğlu’s works we experience an indefinable temporality, it could be eons but also just a short moment of eruption or the ephemeral reflection of light and shadow. They represent a discontinuity with our common understanding of time, just as the fact that time is passing faster at the top of a mountain or the idea that something would be frozen in time. Kantarcıoğlu‘s monochrome landscapes also seem to have a cosmic appearance referring to the complexity of galaxies and universes. And it is there, in this state between archaic science fiction and the mountain as cultural code for the divine and the spiritual or mind-expanding search, where Kantarcıoğlu’s landscapes have an aura of mystery surrounding them.
„…it’s impossible to fall off mountains, you fool!“ Jack Kerouac had this jazzy kind of epiphany while climbing the Matterhorn peak in his 1958 novel The Dharma bums. Mountains and vague landscapes have served in all times and all cultures to host gods and ghosts, to keep secrets of frozen leopards or mysterious creatures and serve as the setting for all kind of legends. They are spiritual places, hardly accessible; to climb a mountain is a symbolic quest for metaphysical and transpersonal experience.
In Kantarcıoğlu’s works those “historical” forms of sublime encounter give way to futuristic technoscapes where contemplation and formal appreciation of “beauty” in an Anthropogenic landscape take on significantly different properties.
Kantarcıoğlu’s landscapes are composed with tools of modern computer visualization, running on the most basic and simple but most potential system to describe the world, the binary code. Initially inspired by a classic Chinese text called Book of Changes, the binary code is based on the idea that life or even the complexity of the universe could be simplified or reduced down to a series of straightforward proposition, that is zero and one, on and off, black and white, mass and void etc. In his working process Kantarcıoğlu uses MS Paint, one of the oldest graphic software programs for PC that is now approximately 30 years old and appears almost archaic. So here again we come to the relativity of time and to the anthropogenic idea.
“Poetics of landscape in the age of mankind” was published in Catalog of Kantarcoğlu’s first solo exhibition (Nesrin Esirtgen Collection, Istanbul,2013).