The Land has Eyes

Pandit Chanrochanakit
Etymological investigation more often than not springs a surprise, as the search for meaning in the land and in space reveals how man has transformed nature to suit his own ends. As a result of this, we may wish to uncover the meaning of landscape, space and place. One can trace the notion of landscape back to the term ‘landschaft’ – which was used in the Dark and Middle Ages to refer to “a collection of dwellings built within an area of cultivated land that…is surrounded by an unknown-and unknowable wilderness”. 1
By the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch had slightly changed the spelling of the word to ‘lanschap’, meaning “an area of land that can be represented, by either a surveyor or artist, as a map or painting.” The reason for this was that by this time Holland had developed to such a degree that it made little or no distinction between forests and townships. In England, the term was changed from its original spelling to ‘landskip’, meaning “…broad, often elevated views of rural scenes in which one can place villages and fields, woods and roads.” 2 The modification of these terms created a sense that landscape was a product of human activity, a part of nature that had been modified by man. Certain spaces in this sense became landscapes because human beings transformed nature into places in which they could dwell. We can thus see that the notion of space and place are inseparable.
Humans transform and modify space by means of enclosure, clearance and cultivation; furthermore, humans create abstract space through the use of maps, paintings or written accounts. One might therefore ask: what would the world be like without human intervention - would there even be places, boundaries or space?
I argue that the notion of space and place are inevitably associated with states and power. State intervention introduces legal control over land and space, whereas place is left to the human sensoria.
There are many varieties of land-related art within the contemporary art scene, as artists explore and create experimental projects related to the land. For example, Francis Alÿs, in ‘When Faith Moves Mountains’ (2002 - in collaboration with Rafael Ortega and Cuauhtémoc Medina), asked 500 volunteers to use shovels to sculpt the surface of a mountain along a line, thus introducing a structural change to its surface3 and representing humans’ collective experience in terms of generating change.
In order to demonstrate that an individual can be an agent of change, Mel Chin’s work, titled ‘Revival Field’ (1993) is an exemplar. At a dumping site called Pig’s Eye Landfill near Minnesota, he showed that contaminated earth could be healed, by planting plants that can absorb poisonous heavy steel. The land was thus purified and was later able to sustain the growth of edible plants once more.
Hence, art is not just a commodity, but can represent a public service. Chin here not only “made a piece of artwork” and “cleaned up” the plot of land in question, but also created an opportunity to transform art’s function, from being an attempt merely to represent nature, to one in which healing and a tangible outcome could be produced. His practice reversed the process of development, such that human beings were able to transform the land back to a natural state; pure and uncontaminated.
Chin argues that man can be an agent of change, and his experience suggests that art is not only created for visual pleasure alone, but “…creates a condition where one can foresee the possibility of change…Art does not exist for its own sake.”  4


Land regimes represent systems of ownership which depend on political systems; for example, in feudal societies, rights over land belong to the head of a given community. In modern Europe; however, the ownership of land has generally fallen into private hands.
According to Marx’s ideological legacy, land should be common property, so in socialist societies the state takes control of the land and its management. Under this system, land is categorized into state-owned land and collectively-owned land, and in many ways, the state here plans the use of land in order to advance socialist principles of development, with large-scale projects such as dams, plantations and irrigation schemes promoted and deployed, more so than in liberal economies. However, such ambitions, to overcome limitations and scarcity in line with a socialist revolution, ultimately fail, with the commune system collapsing – as happened in the 1980s in Vietnam and many other socialist countries.
Thus, artists often look for a collective space in which to work together as a community; for example, in Thailand, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert founded the Land Foundation, as a platform for artists to explore more socially engaged and experimental projects.5 Some groups, such as V64 - a group of Thai artists, have organized themselves and rented space at an affordable price - attempting to avoid the hardships created by higher rents. V64 thus gives artists a greater chance to manage their own art events and promote their own art sales.6
We can see that practicing art in the contemporary context requires meeting the most basic of needs – having a space within which to work. In China, the rise in the number of art galleries has corresponded to the growth of the Chinese art industry as a whole,7 and artists have revitalized former factories, warehouses and communes in order to turn them into art studios and galleries. One group of artists in China even took advantage of a discarded housing project in Shanghai, though the Shanghai authorities later evicted them.8
Land, in the eyes of urban planners and the state authorities, is not an empty space but rather an abstract area to be plotted, planned, distributed and developed, and this represents a new meaning for landscape; one that will be with us for generations to come.


The alien being…can only be man himself. 9
Karl Marx, The Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
Where space feels thoroughly familiar to us, it has become place.” Yi-Fu Tuan here marks a crucial moment in spatial recognition – saying that a person’s sensorium allows him or her to remember and engage with space. However, when another person refers to a place, then space may be abstracted and represented by means of names, paintings or photography. 
Place is a space that binds men together; it means the space in which the process of remembrance continues to activate the past as something tangible, and Henri Bergson argues that space is lived and acted, rather than merely represented. 10 However, Henri Lefebvre suggests that space, as a social order, is sometimes hidden,11 and he divides space into two categories: absolute space and abstract space. For him, absolute space embodies all places and “…is located nowhere” 12 - it is the place where religious and political powers govern, and hence is operated by an imaginary force.13 Thus, in absolute space freedom is subordinated, while abstract space can act as a second order of state intervention - a space that becomes a concept in which the state can legalize, control, plan and urbanize.
In China, the state has taken control of some artist communities’ land, thus taking away their rights over the space. Here, the art space has become both absolute and abstract, a space over which the state now exercises its ultimate power and representing an alienating moment, as depicted in Lin Yilin’s Whose Land? Whose Art? (2010). His video installation shows a man walking over a vast space, and seems to have no embedded meaning whatsoever; however, this space was formerly an artists’ community that became the target of state intervention - in the name of development. Lin questions two basic notions of socialism: common production and common property. In his installation, the legacy of the social revolution has been left behind by the state.
The presence of a gigantic wall with the question ‘Whose Land?’ written across it is asking the viewer to contemplate state land use practices, those that generate imbalances within major cities in China, as well as in other countries. The artists who formerly owned the land were uprooted by the state, thus becoming flaneur - wandering around in a new landscape. 
We are witnessing a period of interconnection between space and man, and land use and access, plus the alienation of man and place. It is our eyes that explore and examine land use in order to answer the questions: Whose land and whose art? Or: What would happen if the land lost its meaning and was reinstated as a space - would it be the end of the process of meaning? But the most interesting question to ask is: What is man left with after all the land and place has been taken?
Any land taken away leaves behind a sense of exclusion of oneself, a recent example of this being the experiences of indigenous Hawaiians. The scholar Sydney Lehua Iaukea argues that Hawaiians and their genealogy are tied to their place, and that after the overthrow of their kingdom - a time when their ancestral lands were taken away from them, they were literally left at a loss; the Hawaiians did not know what to do with themselves. In other words, they had lost their sense of self as a result of losing their land, and were left in a void – being uncertain how to fill it again.14
Thus, an empty plot of land may no longer represent merely empty space, but rather a person’s sense of emptiness within the landscape.
(Pandit Chanrochanakit, a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science, Ramkhamhaeng University in Thailand. He was co-curator for Thailand’s National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2011, and is also the editor of Vibhasa Magazine, a magazine which looks at the social sciences, humanities and contemporary culture.)
[1] Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar. 2005. Place. London: Thames and Hudson p. 13
[2] Ibid, p. 13
[3] See more details in http://www.postmedia.net/alys/alys.htm, accessed 14th October 2011
[4] Linda Weintraub and Arthur Danto. 1996. Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society 1970s-1990s. Litchfield CT: Art Sight Inc, p. 47
[5] Uthit Atimana. 2004. ‘Preface’ Nothing: A Retrospective by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert. Ubonratchathani, Thailand: PLAN.b Limited Partnership
[6] http://www.artgazine.com/shoutouts/viewtopic.php?t=11333, accessed October 20th 2011
[7] Melissa Chiu. 2006. Breakout: Chinese Art outside China. Milano: Edizioni Charta, Pp. 206-209
[8] Chris Gill. ‘Chinese artists fight studio eviction: Ousted artists protest in style’. Armory Daily Edition
http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Chinese-artists-fight-studio-eviction/23355, accessed 10th October 2011
[9] Karl Marx. 1964. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: International Publishers p. 115
[10] Tacita, Dean and Jeremy Millar. 2005. Place. London: Thames and Hudson p. 14
[11] Lefebvre, Henri. 2002. The Production of Space. London: Blackwell Publishing p. 289
[12] Lefebvre, Henri. 2002. The Production of Space. London: Blackwell Publishing p. 236
[13] Ibid, p. 251
[14] Pennybacker, Mindy. 2011. ‘Truth Seeker’ in Honolulu Weekly: November 2nd.  (http://honoluluweekly.com/story-continued/2011/11/truth-seeker/#.TrQiSh6jWGw.facebook)