Here’s a compelling seascape. I’m certain most people today would find it beautiful. The cloud is hard to fault, and the sense of it rolling toward you adds to its fascination. Fog renders everything within its grasp desirable, romantically softening the many small indignities of the world like a Vaseline-smeared lens. This must partly be why you see that misty translucent whiteness in so many designed things just now, from computer products to shower curtains. As with all things designed, this poetic quality serves to mask a pragmatic need. Translucency is an extremely efficient way of making the banal, like the wiring on a circuit board, or your perhaps less than fit body, seem desirable. But the cloud, filling the frame, also induces some measure of unease, and as approaching fog even more so, since it will soon radically reduce how far you can see. Specific landscapes and site circumstances — a wind blown moor, a dripping alley at night, an orchard in summer, a suburban street in hard bright sunlight — have long been associated with certain patterns of inhabitation. As you well know, when fog appears in a movie, someone’s either getting kissed, or getting killed.
If you’re an architect, or an architecture student, this seascape will surely be familiar. It’s from a series of such images made by the architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro to indicate, prior to construction, the ideal presence they sought for the notorious Blur Building, a pavilion designed for Swiss Expo 02. While it stood, the Blur Building shot water from the lake on which it was constructed through thousands of high-pressure nozzles to make its cloud. It sounds straightforward enough, but extraordinary effort went into making it work. To be sure, it was a problem worth solving. You purchased a ticket — along with a translucent raincoat — at the lake’s edge, then walked a gangway out to the cloud. An adjacent gangway brought the moist back to shore. Mostly hidden from your view by the cloud, until you were in it (or if the wind was blowing) was an oval metal platform, like an offshore oil derrick, that held the pumping systems as well as the decks and stairs upon which you slowly explored the extent of the fog. Glass rails kept you from plunging into the water below. At the top, nested in the cloud, was a balcony, the “Angel Deck.” At night the cloud was lit from within.
The theme the architects had been asked to address was I and the Universe. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect solution. Already at the time the pavilion was proposed — it was first widely seen in design drawings — you heard other architects talk about it in a way that let you know that a cloud on a lake was just right. They’d say: I wish I’d done that. It was clear the design had captured a depth of meaning beyond the normal petty currents of style. And it was also clear the content resonated with questions about the status of nature, and of human presence and purpose in natural landscapes. I don’t think buildings often make you think consciously, but I can’t imagine someone visiting this building — with its Frankenstein monster of a cloud — and not having slightly worrying thoughts about nature come clearly into focus, fog notwithstanding.
Expo 02 was beset with difficulties (it was originally meant to be Expo 01). The Swiss government had to commit additional funding repeatedly. You can imagine the ideas had to be compelling enough — or at least be presented in a compelling enough manner — to survive intense scrutiny. Which gets us back to those seascapes. As a format for content, seascapes have been around for some time. They may have many purposes, but they have this in common: they provide evidence of the particular relationship of humans to the wide wet part of the world at the time of their making. So it is believable to assume from, for example, The Maas at Dordrecht, painted by Aelbert Cuyp around 1650, that at the time the Dutch — having used their naval skills to help rid themselves of the Spanish and to establish lucrative trade to the Southeast Asian archipelago (and having conveniently invented the seascape format) — considered the sea almost as casually as if it were a street, so confident were they in their own capacities to work with its demanding circumstances, and to reap from it immeasurable benefit. Here the Biblical injunction of man’s mastery over nature — an idea central to much of the history of landscape in the West — is made evident in the laziness of the sails.
Compare that sunny laziness to the moonlit violence of the American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder’s extraordinary Sea Tragedy, painted in 1892. What small figures one can make out are beset, and their boat is running at the edge of its capacity beneath the great cliffs. This is not an image about mastery: nature here is clearly in command. That said (and the title notwithstanding) it is also not a painting precisely about fear. There is not, for example, a lee wind — the terror of all sailors — to drive the boat against the rocks. The waves, the cliff — the roar in the silent image is deafening — the phenomenal sky, its racing wraith-like clouds: all serve to generate a visceral excitement, something desired. Here beauty arises from the tenuous balance of the limit of the fragile craft set against forces at a scale beyond comprehension. The riches of this sea are not economic but emotional and experiential. And this makes sense too. The record of seascapes is like a history of conversations between the human and the natural, constantly evolving, and this painting is from a time when the transcendentalist idea of the natural was being given voice by writers like Thoreau and Emerson, and painters like Caspar David Friedrich.
The relationship between humans and nature waxes and wanes as a subject for consideration in artwork. Every time it cycles to the foreground it comes back altered and evolved. Consider two relatively recent seascapes, both photographs, one by Clifford Ross, the other by Hiroshi Sugimoto. They have a certain resonance despite the fact that one documents the natural world at its most violent, the other at its most placid. The photograph of the convulsive sea is from Wave Music, a series of photographs that Ross took over a number of years at the end of Long Island during storm surges from hurricanes. The calm sea is from a suite of photographs by Sugimoto, also taken over a number of years, looking out to sea at various points around the world. How is it that powerful artworks make sense at certain moments in time? The waves in the Ross photograph are twisted and misshapen into impossible chaotic geometries, about as compellingly distant from conventionally beauty as possible. Though Ross began this series in 1998, they came onto the larger cultural radar screen in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of New Orleans in 2005, when these images seemed to carry a larger symbolic sense (regardless of whether the photographer intended it) of a nature out of synch with human understanding, and — by extension — human institutions. This lapsed relationship permeates the Sugimoto photographs as well. Where once the sea was full of fish or boats or sailors or shipwrecks, now it appears peculiarly empty and dead. These images could not care less for the condition of humans; their concern seems to be the condition of the sea, which is the basis of their hopeless perverse beauty.
So what can we say about the status of the world as represented in the seascapes made for the Blur Building? It is tempting to hone in on several aspects of the image that are similar to what we see in the Sugimoto photograph: the scale-less emptiness of the dark dead water, the absence of the activities of humans, the mist that hovers uncertainly. This is a landscape beset with doubt, though, to be certain, it’s not the same doubt as in that Ryder seascape — what is the sailor’s limit? In earlier seascapes the sea was invariably a frame for human experience, and it supported or confronted inhabitation. Now it is empty. The relationship is over, and we’re left to gaze at the wreckage. Is this true of the building as well, that is, of its experience, not just of its representation? I think so. As the wind moves the mist away and exposes the machine underneath — like the living flesh being peeled away to expose the robot in Terminator — the question resonates sharply: what precisely are we doing with nature? At night we are given a clearer answer, as the innocent cloud is recast as steam belching from a vastly lit and hidden machine, part refinery, part power plant, part iron lung.
Regardless of our presence in them or not, all of these seascapes have in common the relationship of humans to the natural landscape as their primary subject. What is new in this iteration of that cyclical interest is a profound sense of loss. In this, the Blur Building shares with the recent photographic seascapes something I admire. It finds beauty in the perverseness of the condition. It makes a landscape that isn’t hopeless, but its hope is not conventionally positive. As such Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s seascape has — beyond the coincidence of appearance — much in common with Blue and Grey, by Mark Rothko, a painting that does not have an actual so much an emotional sea space as its subject, and which is equally beautiful and fragile, since, as with most Rothko works, you suspect that it masks something sad and unknowable beneath its bright and luminous surface.