Begin with a world transformed by networks of forces – social, political, economic, technological, geological. Some of these transformations are barely perceptible, hidden in the tectonic rumble of deep time. Others take place within individual lifetimes, driven by the accelerating pace of global change.
Begin with an inner and outer world of experience – lived topographies and powerful attachments to place, narratives that enfold and shape the self.
Convention tells us that visual representations can accurately describe this world; that marks and motifs on the surface of the earth are capable of revealing the forces that produced them. This power to describe is given form in concepts like ‘landscape’, and in two-dimensional representations – easel painting and latterly, photography, both of which carry within them the geometrical legacy of linear perspective. Pictorial systems such as these record the dimensions and configurations of physical space, offering a fixed position from which to speculate on an image of reality. The rectangular frame is an emblem of rationality, its logic often mistaken for the working of the eye.
More recently, photography has embraced the idea of the topographic as a way of organising and describing space as landscape. A derivation of the Latin topographia – topos meaning place, and graphia, meaning “to represent by lines drawn” – so-called topographic photography reduces the uncertainty and emotional ambivalence of physical encounters with place to a set of visible, measurable quantities freed of sentiment or opinion. But the parameters of the visible world are ephemeral and unreliable; this appearance of order is an illusion.
‘New topographic’ photography emerged into the history of the medium as though without precedent, the supposed index of late twentieth century global transformations – the demise of industries, shifts in capital flows, large-scale movements of goods and money and people. The discourse that has followed on from it treats this history as a smooth continuum punctuated by singular images and events, closing off the notion of ‘topographic landscape’ from further scrutiny. The certainty that it promises has perpetuated divisions such as pre- and post-industrial, North and South, nature and culture, now and then.
The problem, then, is not just the idea of landscape as a system of representation, but the history into which it has been inscribed. The association of landscape with pictorial system and natural scenery dates back to the sixteenth century. But the term itself emerged much earlier, in Northern Europe, to describe the way that a people organized itself politically. Landscape, or Landschaft, referred not to physical space, but to a polity and the various economic and social activities that constituted it. Such activities were linked to the geography of a place and the affordances it offered – and thus, tangentially, to the visible features of the terrain. But landscape itself was not determined spatially or defined by the way that it appeared to the eye. Rather, it was a social idea, emerging from the dynamics of particular regions and given physical expression in/as a material environment.
Topography provides a limited frame of reference for this complexity. Landscape is more accurately described as a topological system, incorporating the topographic alongside other sets of relations that can’t be expressed as visible parameters fixed in space and time. Topology treats such parameters – and the social, historical, economic and other variables to which they are linked – as nodes in fluid, multiform networks. Some of these variables are materialised in the immutable forms and physical laws of the real world, others take shape in less concrete ways, as political institutions, shared knowledges and beliefs. The difference between topography and topology is not a matter of representation vs. abstraction. It is a matter of restoring to ‘landscape’ some of the richness of the term’s original meaning.
The work is a response to a changing landscape. The nature of this response is not to create representations of space, but to embody the systems and processes that bring landscapes into being.
Individual pieces can be compared to mechanical or industrial systems in miniature – sites where multiple ideas converge and surface, where materials, actions, and techniques combine in interlocking arrangements.
Specific phenomena act as pathways to broader fields of engagement, opening out into more general propositions (historical, technological, geopolitical, etc.)
i) Homology – similarity of structure, relation or position on account of common ancestry
ii) Affinity – similarity of structure or form on account of shared characteristics
iii) Analogy – correspondence or partial similarity; comparison for the purpose of logical explanation or clarification
These principles inform the structure of individual pieces and their relationship to the practice as a whole. They act as a mechanism for considering, reconfiguring, and dismantling certain ideas and concepts. They surface in/as the repetition and adaptation of specific themes and archetypal forms; in non-linear chronologies; in dialogues between depth and surface, part and whole, the human and the machine.
The following schemas outline some of the ways in which these principles and propositions coincide.
schema i / the frame
The rectangular steel cases that enclose many of the works allude to the formal and conceptual frame of landscape. Analogous to the chassis of an automobile, the frame provides both structural stability and the possibility of radical reconfiguration.
The angular fragments in Steel Strata Mk 1 and Mk 2 hint at the pictorial conventions of classical landscape – a familiar topography of mountainous forms created by the displacement of living rock. This fracturing – embodied in a tension that threatens to escape the confines of the frame – is echoed in the work’s internal organization, and in its intended display as a diptych. It is also present in the work’s low relief structure, which ruptures the integrity of the picture plane, extending two dimensions into three.
In contrast, the suite of Time to Totality pieces uses the protocols of the rectangular frame to bring harmony to an increasingly complex morphology. The internal structure of individual works emulates the stability of mechanical and electronic systems such as circuit boards and internal combustion engines. Here, the frame acts as a machine for producing visual order.
Works such Helical Column reach beyond the logic of the frame and the controlled space of the gallery itself to somewhere unknown.
schema ii / space, time
Although it is centered around certain locations and time periods, the work operates outside the framework of historical narrative, treating history as a constellation of nodes and linkages.
Time to Totality IX, for instance, sets the accelerating pace of global change – a world in which greater connectivity coexists with aggressive competition, increasing insularity and ideological division – alongside the moon’s gradual movement away from the earth. The basis of contemporary landscapes and industries on foundations laid down in prehistory is a recurrent theme.
Spatiotemporal paradoxes such as these persist throughout the work: time as discontinuous and simultaneous; space as proximate and distanced. Progress itself is posed as a broken continuum – less a confident march than a leap of faith, built on the ruins of the past.
schema iii / language
The work treats signifying systems as both opaque and excessively visible, deliberately withholding information in order to make room for new languages and forms of expression.
Works such as New Breed of Power and All the Difference in the World are based on historical advertisements with the image removed. This disruption of the classical marriage of text and image distances language from the system to which it originally belonged, transforming it into something more immediate and colloquial. Historical abstractions – desires and aspirations rooted in another era – are given physical substance and new meaning in the present.
In Steel Strata Mk 1 and Mk 2, each individual segment relates to various stages – the corporate mergers, takeovers and buyouts – that marked the demise of automotive companies like British Leyland and the Rover Group. But this is not stated explicitly. Instead, the work’s internal structure is a formal and gestural expression of this complex, discontinuous history – a play of forces analogous to the violent exercise of power that it represents.
Certain paradigmatic forms, derived from an arc-shaped section of the flywheel in an internal combustion engine, are refined and repeated across multiple pieces, such as Time to Totality XIX, Helical Structure IV, and Helical Column. Crossing over between the mechanical and the symbolic, these works engage with the arc as a mechanical component as well as an expression of aspiration, dignity, and power. Less obviously, they also demonstrate its affinity with the Greek ‘arche’ (ἀρχή) – an origin, first principle or source of action.
schema iv / human and machine
The early years of the industrial age were marked by debates around the relative merits of the hand and the machine. While industrial machinery promised the elimination of inefficiency and human error, hand-made goods expressed a sensibility that was seen as superior.
This historical dialectic takes different forms throughout the practice, in the unsettled relationship between manual and automated processes. Some pieces are created almost entirely by mechanical means while others have a more conspicuous human presence. The appearance of perfection and totality is belied by the small errors that creep in during hand crafting – burnishing, welding, machining, spray painting and polishing – all of which reveal imperfections and traces of the hand that created them.
This dialogue between sensory and machinic engagement is part of the language of the work. It is evident in the role of instinct and intuition in the selection and handling of different components – in allowing certain materials to dictate the way in which they are worked, and in the deliberate choice to process other materials in ways for which they are not intended (for instance, the hand working of elements that would normally be processed by a machine). Variations such as these invite imperfections, inconsistencies and processes of decay that a machine-made piece would not normally undergo.
Human sensibility plays a fundamental part in our engagement with machines. And the machine is a continuously evolving organism – an allegory for progress itself.
curtain of enigmas
… beginning and ending with landscape, and with the misgiving that it’s somehow arbitrary as a point of departure, as a way into this complex topology.
but it’s about where you come from, isn’t it? the place where you began, the way that the contours of that place somehow marry up with your own inner life. the way that the histories and mythologies of this place continue to resonate in the present. watching it change and transform, watching parts of it disappear and new forms emerge, and wanting to know why, and how this whole vast system continues to work, in tension and in harmony.
there’s something sublime about it.
knowing a place, being in a place, is a constant process of trying to figure all of this out. traditionally, fields like engineering and science have tackled these gaps in knowledge – their currency is to discover, to innovate and solve problems.
we think of art, on the other hand, as responsible for representing this reality.
but this separation is simplistic, it’s disingenuous – what was it that Sol Lewitt said? ‘The idea is a machine that makes the art.’ the flip side of this is the notion of art as a creative, animate machine for making ideas and creating knowledge – a complex system made up of individual components. a system that approaches the condition of science or engineering, exploring the complexity of its own roots, revealing the fault lines in its own conceptual foundations.
so it’s not about what the work represents, in the sense of something finished or absolute. it’s more about what it does – the way it sets new relations in motion, gathers and focuses energy, encourages alternate ways of viewing or experiencing. the way it embodies sensibilities that are deeply personal but also capable of being shared. the way it encourages us to embrace what is fundamentally human about our relationships with machines: that sense of wonder and fascination, the means by which an outwardly rational form can also embody emotion and paradox and contradiction.
these sort of affinities reach back at least to Leonardo, and probably even further, but they seem to have been glossed over at a time when we’re more closely involved with machines and complex systems than we’ve ever been. the more they shape our material and emotional lives, the less we seem to know or care about how they do it. making and experiencing art is a way of taking responsibility for the world we’re going to be living in – creating a language that taps into that world and suggests that you need involve yourself to find something out.
emotion and rationality, art and science, past and present, the hand and the machine … they’re all the same side of this weird topological coin, aren’t they? and landscape is an imperfect matrix for reflecting on the way it all works together.
‘Beginning and Forgetting: the work of Theo Simpson’, originally published in North, vol. IV (2018)