Introducing…The Alchemical Landscape research group


The manner in which contemporary art and culture takes a visionary – if not mystical – view of the environment


What is The Alchemical Landscape group about?

The manner in which contemporary art and culture takes a visionary – if not mystical – view of the environment.

The link between landscape and magical thought is, of course, ancient: seasonal observances, ritual practices and any number of festive traditions work as points of mediation between human consciousness and ‘nature’ (broadly understood). We’re not claiming this connection as part of a ‘new’, hitherto unknown, cultural current. Rather, we’re interested in contemporary artists who draw on this resonant history in order to prioritize representations of the rural, where we might expect to find engagements with urban space and associated contexts of ‘modernity’.

Examples would be Iain Sinclair who in his study of John Clare, Edge of the Orison (2005) turned his psychogeographic gaze from the density of London to the Essex flatlands. Patrick Keiller does something similar in his film Robinson in Ruins (2010). After interrogating urban and industrial spaces in London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) he has his title character disappear in the countryside in an attempt to commune with “non-human intelligences”. 

Basically, The Alchemical Landscape begins where Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem (2009) ends. Keeping in mind ‘Rooster’ Byron’s extraordinary exhortation to the gods of the earth, the project looks for artists working in a similar mode and considers the effects – creative, aesthetic and political – of such an invocation.

What are the big questions/issues/themes that you are dealing with?

Environmental change, in all senses. Consciously or not, much of the material we’ve been thinking about deals with the close intersection between ecology and psychology. All the ghosts that appear in works such as Chris Lambert’s Tales from the Black Meadow (2013) seem to be the spectral residue of a lost pastoral space. Certainly, the closer we move to the conditions of John Barr’s Derelict Britain (1969), the more this type of work is produced.

Home and habitation is another key theme. It’s no surprise that in this era of zombie properties, zero hour contracts and precariat economics there has been a significant investment in psychic spaces. The Haunted Shoreline project is a good example of this: an exploration of an imaginative and very personal locality.

Likewise: the creation of space. How does law form and mediate space? How might creative engagement with landscape create space for minority identities; create a zone of dissent, transformation or sanctuary? Within this we look at the behavioural economics of psychogeography: the thinking that connects property and properties; law and lore.

Who will it be of interest to?

Academics, artists and members of the public who have an interest in landscape beyond the frame of the National Trust and English Heritage. 

How did this research group come about? Why does it exist?!

The project was formally launched on 23rd March 2015 with a conference at the University of Cambridge. Prior to this we ran an event linked to Ben Wheatley’s film A Field in England (2013). It also emerges out of work conducted by the Cambridge University Counterculture Research Group and legal and cultural theory work undertaken by project director Yvonne Salmon on rave culture and the films of Derek Jarman.  We were keen to establish a research link between the Faculties of English and Land Economy in order to talk about the confluence of place, locality and mediation that colours much of this work.

The use of ‘Alchemical’ in the project’s title signifies two points. First, it indicates the field of knowledge to which a number of the considered artists refer. Second, and more metaphorically, it gestures towards the process of solve et coagula that the project intends to perform between the disciplines involved.

How can people find out more about your group? Are you on Facebook/twitter? Do you have a website or mailing list?

We have a website which provides details of our activities thus far. Please get in touch through the site to be added to our mailing list.

We also have a CRASSH research group page which details our upcoming seminars.

Follow us on twitter @AlchemicalLand

Finally, is there anything else you'd like people to know about your group?

The Alchemical Landscape is intended ongoing research project that uses seminars, symposia, public events, publications and artworks to explore the creative, aesthetic and political implications of this ‘geographic turn’. In addition to having the opportunity to mount a series of seminars at CRASSH, we will be continuing to develop the project via events, performances and creative work. As well as organizing two conferences thus far, we’ve also worked on creative projects with English Heretic, the Festival of Ideas, The Quietus and Bad Timing. We recently curated Headlands, a creative exhibition at the Faculty of English about the Cornish landscape.

Posted: Thursday 25 August 2016

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Tags: visual culture space pastoral landscape film culture art