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The Space Between: Disorienting Landscape in the Photographic Works of Willie Doherty

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In his essay ‘Scapeland’, Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard provocatively defines landscape as that which exceeds the sense of order imposed by perspective or by any system of knowledge and description. Dismissing the idea that it might be consoling, he insists that an encounter with landscape is fundamentally disorienting. According to Lyotard, landscape is a ‘borderland’, in which ‘matter offers itself up in a raw state before being tamed’ (Lyotard 1991: 186). Describing this borderland as an excess of presence, he claims that in our meetings with landscape ‘you do not associate. No more synthesis […] You pray to heaven, to provide for you in your wretchedness. The wretchedness of a soul rubbed raw by the tide-race of matter’ (ibid.). Landscape is conveyed as a space where the limits and walls that would render it knowable and navigable are breached. It is the instance (Lyotard's concept of landscape is configured in spatial and temporal terms) when matter cannot be cohered as form and the resulting effect is the ‘deflagration of the mind’ (ibid.: 185). The fact that landscape remains ‘beyond the realm of form’, he writes, leaves ‘the mind DESOLATE’ (ibid.: 186). This desolation is founded on the fact that landscape interrupts any attempt to make the encounter coherent as narrative. Here, landscape's capacity to seize and displace readable notions of space and time debilitate the processes that create and shore up subjectivity. The self, Lyotard writes, ‘is left behind’.

Interestingly, Lyotard avoids equating landscape with the natural or nature, preferring to locate its destabilising potential in the act of encountering, rather than in an abstract assertion of some inert pervading reality that might reside in the materiality of things. According to Lyotard, the desolation of the mind occurs in the movement between what is known and what is being experienced outside the realm of knowledge – in the clash that occurs when a mind that presumes to know meets a materiality that is untainted by the pre-inscribed orders of meaning that are imposed by all signifying systems. In this sense, landscape provokes a mental stutter, in which the process of making intelligible is interrupted. Lyotard reminds us, however, that the mind's ‘desolation’ initiated by landscape is only temporary, imposed in the instance of the encounter and then superseded by the cognitive drive to render experience explicable. Yet, he observes, we carry a memory of the shock that the encounter produces, one that always has the capacity to disorientate in a future contemplation.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2005

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