Naturally Hypernatural III: Hypernatural Landscapes in the Anthropocene

by Sabine Flach (Volume editor) Gary Sherman (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 286 Pages
Series: Art – Knowledge – Theory, Volume 5


This third volume of Naturally Hypernatural explores contemporary concepts of landscape in the humanities and the arts in relation to the notion that our age is defined by a ‘geology of the human’ and that this reckoning constitutes a new epoch, aptly named the anthropocene.
The thesis of this volume – that there is no homogeneous concept of landscape, just as there is no uniform definition of nature or culture – was developed concurrently at a conference at the University of Graz and at a series of exhibitions centered on film, painting and photography at the Kunsthaus Graz. This thesis has been fortified by registering the simultaneity of land art, the ecological movement and the view of the earth from space.
Art since the modern period reveals how divergent ideas of landscape are intertwined with differently chanted conceptions of subjectivity, perception and space.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1. Agency and Landscape
  • Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene
  • Agency in Biosphere
  • Movement and Perception. Landscapes of modernity
  • Die Leinwand ist voll. Politische Landschaft. Kunst Widerstand Salzkammergut
  • Water, Mud, and Sand: Dutch Re-scaping the Land
  • 2. Hypernatural Landscape
  • The Third Table
  • Tree-Ness. Roxy Paine’s altered States of Art and Nature
  • What has that to do with Trees? Zu den Raumkompositionen von Gordon Matta-Clark
  • TUE GREENFORT. Vom kaleidoskopischen Blick zu AMILKORKIM
  • Landschaft in Bewegung
  • Sedes Pacis Martis Austriaci seu Palatium et Hortus Serenissimi principis Eugenii. Die Anlage des Belvedere als barockes Beispiel für einen gestalteten Landschaftsraum
  • 3. Defamiliarized Landscape
  • The Spiral Jetty
  • Robert Smithson: Writing Landscape
  • A Force of Nature: Surface Tensions
  • Hacking the Future and Planet
  • Geography is History (Geologische Zeit, Zeit Orte und Räume, Sehnsuchtsträume)
  • Contributors
  • Series Index


The publication Naturally Hypematural III Hypematural Landscapes in the Anthropocene is the third volume of the book series Naturally Hypematural.

An endeavor like Naturally Hypematural III is not possible without the confidence of institutional support. Our special acknowledgements go to the Vice-Rector for Research and Junior Researchers’ Promotion, and the Universalmuseum Joanneum.

We are indebted to all of our colleagues who generously supported the preparation and realization of the conference with enthusiasm, ardor and reliability, namely: Mira Fliescher and Heike Schweiger.

We are enormously thankful for the vast help given by Carina Hutter, Nadine Marker, Heike Schweiger and Ursula Winkler and their priceless skills in editing and proofreading the texts and references with carefulness, accuracy, and sensitivity to language as well as to the themes in every chapter.

We are extremely grateful to Lisa Jeschke, for her support and accuracy for the translation.

Our very special thanks go to the Vice-Rector for Research and Junior Researchers’ Promotion of the University of Graz and the Government of Styria, who generously supported the print of the book.

Special thanks also go to Angelica Scholze from the Peter Lang publishing group in Switzerland. It is gratifying to work with someone so professional and insightful.

A special courtesy indeed goes to all the contributors to the conference and this publication. Without their engagement and participation, such critical and vivid discussions and enthusiastic debates would not have been possible.

We are indebted to those artists, scholars and institutions who have graciously granted permission to use the images that accompany the essays.

A special thanks to the artists Roxy Paine and Sofia Mojadidi Paine for their ongoing efforts and their generosity of time to make the cover of this publication so special and for their untiring efforts with regards to the text of Sabine Flach.

It was our special delight to work together with our colleagues from the Universalmuseum Joanneum, especially Peter Pakesch and Katrin Bucher-Trantow, who worked with us to conceptualized the conference. The conference ← 7 | 8 → took place in the Kunsthaus in Graz in conjunction with the Museum’s exhibitions, namely “Landscape in Motion” and “Political Landscape.” ← 8 | 9 →



The most abstract achievements of science, the most advanced theories and victories of mathematics represented nothing more than a stumbling, one or two-step progression from our rude, prehistoric, anthropomorphic understanding of the universe around us.

Stanislaw Lem1

The epigraph above confronts the epistemic limitations of human reasoning. It is as prescient today as is was in 1961 when it summed up the dilemma of research scientists in Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi novel Solaris. Lem’s novel is an account of a team of specialists stationed aboard a vessel orbiting a planet that is completely covered by a vast sea. After decades of fruitless research the scientists realize that the ocean enveloping the planet Solaris is actually a sentient entity and that this alien “other” expresses consciousness in a manner that cannot be ascertained via conventional scientific methods. All attempts to communicate prove futile, thus, the empirically-frustrated researchers conclude that Solaris has nothing in common with humanity; the two are ontologically incompatible. The reason the human scientists failed to apprehend the nature of Solaris is described in the epigraph from a pamphlet that was found in the library of the research vessel. Lem has stated that his intent was to create a vision of a human encounter with something (other) that cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that the term “anthropomorphic” has been deployed in a manner that is misleading in this context. Anthropomorphism is generally defined as attributing agency to that which should have none, as ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman things. The implication of the aphorism, as it relates to the storyline, seems to be more aligned with the “anthropocentric” view that interprets or regards the world in terms of human values and experiences, which is the view that will be critiqued here.

Science fiction is particularly adept at cloaking the conflicts and weaknesses of the human species in an allegorical form and putting a mirror to that form ← 9 | 10 → to reflect upon those biases and shortcomings. The inverse reflection of the apologue is just enough of a distortion to establish a comfortable sense of distance from reality. Researchers are currently embroiled in debates regarding the composition of reality.2 Our world – our reality – is mainly understood as factual. What we perceive as real exists. Yet Einstein reminded us that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” 3 That is to say, our reality consists of many things, both real and imagined, both artificial and natural, both fact and fiction. Some versions of reality are socially or politically motivated; they visualize a perfect utopian rapture, or an imperfect dystopian misery. Other scenarios imagine a more phantasmagorical reality consisting of creatures living double lives.4

What meaning does especially landscape have within such a setting? Far removed from being an equivalent of nature, it has always already been subject to anthropocentric parameters. Landscape is not simply given, but raises questions concerning the relation between landscape as an environment and the aesthetics of landscape. How can landscape appear in or as an artwork? Can contemporary landscapes be described according to the same aesthetic categories as, for instance, an Italian landscape painting from the eighteenth century?5

At least since the twelfth century – this much is certain – landscape has marked “the entirety of the politically agential inhabitants of a country”.6 We observe the emergence of the geographical understanding of landscape as a nature unit only at a later point in history. Ideas, theories and concepts on and about nature multiply exponentially. The resulting lack of homogeneity in significations ultimately leaves us a single reference point in the agreement that landscape is a spatial unity.

Art might be considered both as site and climax of these reflections, for in this case the concept landscape always already carries in itself the ambivalence of the relation to and distinction from society and nature: after all, landscape refers to an aesthetically represented space of nature implying the transgression of the artificial and the natural – to which landscape is and needs to be subjected so it can even be perceived as landscape. Hence the term of landscape comprehends connotations of the untouched as much as of a de-naturedness. Landscape is thus constituted not only of objects and things, but conditions an experiencing subject. Hence the term of landscape calls up those relations to spatial percep ← 10 | 11 → tion that are constitutively bound to experience. It is in this way that the atmosphere of a landscape space declares itself, in turn opening it to experience as attuned through a perceptual space; imagination, emotion and image sense become central categories of perception. Landscape thus implies reflection concerning new and different fields of the real, questioning not only the definition of reality but rather breaking through imaginative limits in terms of the perception of reality7. This certainly does not imply harmony with and familiarity of nature as landscape. On the contrary: in the twentieth century, if not before, landscape becomes a form of negation; we observe an alienation from the traditional nature experience of landscape.8 The related concept of life is not necessarily congruent with that of the human being. “Landscape is foreign to us, and we are fearfully alone amongst trees which blossom and by streams which flow”9 In consequence, landscape concretely implies an experience of alienation.10

This necessitates further questions: how do different understandings of landscape affect the arts? What experiences of space, place and sense are involved in imaging landscape and in images of landscape? When animals and plants are exhibited as contemporary art, while the real is conflated with the imaginary, what are the aesthetical, ethical, territorial, political and philosophical implications?

How does art investigate the fluctuating ‘essences’ of ‘nature’, ‘naturalism’ and the ‘natural in the twenty-first century? Each of these terms carries with it enormous philosophical questions ranging from the alteration of life itself to dialogues concerning man’s intervention into the natural world.

Today, the devastating consequences of subjecting the world to an omnipotent human observer are visible everywhere on the planet. The biosphere is broken. Resource extraction on an industrial scale has scared the landscape and pumped toxic emissions into the atmosphere. Ecosystems have been compromised to sustain artificial landscapes and, as a consequence, biodiversity has dwindled. And an insatiable desire for consumer goods has laid waste to land and sea. The ramifications of rampant anthropocentricism have led many scientists and philosophers to conclude that we live in a new geological epoch based on a geology of the human. In 2000, atmospheric researcher Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene F. Stoermer proposed retiring the term halocene to describe ← 11 | 12 → the current epoch and replacing it with the term anthropocene to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology.11

The most recent definition of the Anthropocene as presented by the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) to the International Geological Congress in Cape Town in 2016 declares that

the new epoch should begin around 1950, (…) and was likely do be defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests, although an array of other signals, including plastic pollution, soot from power stations, concrete, and even the bones left by the global proliferation of the domestic chicken were now under consideration. (…) The current epoch, the Halocene, is 12.000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilization developed. But the striking acceleration since the mid-20th century of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species and the transformation by deforestation and development mark the end of that slice of global time. (…) The Earth is so profoundly changes that the Halocene must give way to the Anthropocene.12

In his essay ‘Agency at the time of the Anthropocene’, French philosopher Bruno Latour addresses this issue and grounds his thesis with a tale from French philosopher Michel Serres’s book The Nature Contract. Serres compares the religious interests of the Inquisition and its injunction forbidding Galileo from teaching his heliocentric view of the Earth moving to the economic interests of contemporary deniers of global warming who hope to silence the message that unstable conditions on the planet are a consequence of human activity. To underscore the fact that the Earth is now ‘reacting’ to the symptoms of a large planetary illness, Latour evokes the mythical goddess Gaia – personification of the Earth as a living, self-regulating organism. Latour’s position is that the planet is so altered by, and responsive to, the assaults of human activity that it has “taken back all the characteristics of a full-fledged actor.”13 In Latour’s incarnation, Gaia embodies agents – animate and inanimate – that have morphed into an entangled ontological collective to develop the narrative that will become the planet’s geostory. ← 12 | 13 →

Against the critique that anthropomorphism attributes agencies to that which should have none, Bruno Latour argues: “The point of living in the epoch of the anthropocene is that all agents share the same shape-changing destiny.”14 “To be a subject is not to act autonomously in front of an objective background, but to share agency with other subjects that have also lost their autonomy.”15 “(T)he Earth is no longer ‘objective’; it cannot be put at a distance and emptied of all its humans. Human action is visible everywhere – in the construction of knowledge as well as in the production of the phenomena those sciences are called to register.”16

The bifurcation that once characterized an asymmetrical relationship of the Earth’s human inhabitants to the host planet has been upended, because – in Latour’s allusion to Galileo’s supposed reply to his inquisitors –“the Earth is moved.” In this intertextual iteration, however, ‘moved’ alludes to a new form of agency; a metaphorical emotional ‘tremble’ of the mythological Earth goddess. Under the auspices of Gaia, the collective of agents responsible for the destiny of the planet can no longer be thought about in terms of traditional subjectivity and objectivity.

The ontological facts of this unfamiliar inversion may appear, upon reflection, to be distorted to an even greater extent by the philosophical mirror of speculative realism, which rejects correlationism and speculates about a mind-independent reality in which all object relations–human and nonhuman–are considered to be ontologically equal with one another. Consequently, American philosopher Graham Harman – a leading proponent of object-oriented-philosophy, which is a subset of speculative realism – has developed a perspective on aesthetics that sidelines the traditional focus on epistemology and instead theorizes aesthetics in its ontological implications.17

When objects encounter one another, the basic mode of their relation is neither theoretical nor practical and neither epistemological nor ethical. Rather, before either of these, every relation among objects is an aesthetic one. This is why; as Harman puts it, ‘aesthetics becomes first philosophy’. . . . It is only aesthetically, beyond understanding and will, that I (one) can appreciated the actus of the thing being what it is—what Harmon calls ‘the sheer sincerity of existence.’18 ← 13 | 14 →

That is, before thought or reason, the biological substrate of the human body interacts with a reality of which it is one part among many, and that interaction is not more or less ontologically consequential than any other object relation. As previously stated, it is the correlationist view of a mind-dependent ontology that Harman challenges in his conjecture that object relations constitute a form of interaction that is neither epistemological, nor ethical in nature.

The Anthropocene presupposes that man is on the one side, doing something with things. If we see that the other way round, as it was seen in the arts throughout the whole of the 20th century, namely that man is a part of everything, then the whole picture shifts. Then one would have a setting in which man plays a part. And perhaps one could make progress if one no longer perpetuated this dichotomy between nature and culture. This is indeed the strength of the landscape picture in the arts. That landscape is precisely not nature, but rather always implies the polis. We make progress when we look closely at what the arts actually do. They show us in fact that what we assume to be landscape need not be in contradiction to us, nor to the concept of culture, but rather has always implied everything.20 ← 14 | 15 →

List of References

Carrington, Damian: The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth (last access September 2016).

Harman, Graham: Tool-Being: Elements in a Theory of Objects, Doctoral dissertation 1999.

Fischer, Luke: The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems, New York (Bloomsbury Academic) 2016.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (September)
Kunstgeschichte Kunsttheorie Gegenwartskunst ästhetische Theorie
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 286 pp., 40 b/w ill., 35 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Sabine Flach (Volume editor) Gary Sherman (Volume editor)

Sabine Flach is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Graz where she is also Chair of the Art History Institute. She studied art history, theory of literature, philosophy and humanities in Marburg, Perugia, Kassel and Berlin. Gary Sherman is an artist represented by the Phatory, LLC in New York. He is a Director of Operations and an instructor of Interdisciplinary practices and Urban Botanicals in the undergraduate Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York.


Title: Naturally Hypernatural III: Hypernatural Landscapes in the Anthropocene
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288 pages