It is at this time of the year that, rather despondently, my sense of ‘anti-aesthetics’ seems to be particularly acute. It may well be the effect of the changing seasons but instead of being drawn outside in search of autumn colours in the countryside, I seem to find perverse pleasure in looking at the no-mans land between the urban and the wild. So I felt great satisfaction when I found out that the winning book of the 2012 Bristol Festival of Ideas was Edgelands, by Michael Symmonds Roberts and Paul Farley.
‘An engrossing and witty exploration of the hinterland beyond urban glamour and rural tranquillity, Edgelands exposes the startling wonder and resonant history of the landscapes we usually traverse so unthinkingly.’ (Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles bookstore)
The Bristol-based prize is awarded for a book published the previous year that presents new, important and challenging ideas. I guess that Rev. William Gilpin would turn in his grave if he knew the extent to which his idea of the Picturesque has evolved since he wrote his Observations on the River Wye, and Several Parts of South Wales, etc. Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the Summer of the Year 1770. However, as Symmonds Roberts said in this video produced by The Guardian, what contemporary writers and artists are doing for the English ‘edgelands’ is arguably what the Romantic poets did for mountains: to foster in the public awareness of beauty. In the case of the edgelands, the beauty that lies between the rural and the urban, the beauty of that which could be considered our very own post-industrial, post-modern wilderness.
When I look at the image I took in the Barbican in London, with which I opened this post, I see great beauty. There is beauty in those stubborn weeds, survivors of the plant kingdom poking through the seams of the paving stones. There is beauty in those exuberant border plants flooding over their concrete beddings. There is even beauty in that CCTV camera witnessing it all, seemingly being unable to do anything to stop wilderness from reclaiming the spot.
Edgelands is an undercurrent concept in contemporary documentary photography of landscapes – or should I say landscape photography? In Walking the Line Joel Sternfeld offers a visual celebration of wilderness literally taking advantage of an old railway line in order to find a clear way into the heart of Manhattan’s urban environment.
In Landscape Stories Jem Southam focused on abandoned industrial areas that are as representative of the English landscape as those which belong to the tradition of the picturesque. Mark Power, possibly inspired by Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital – download an interview with the author here, explored the edges of London as defined by the A to Z Atlas in his project A System of Edges.
The idea of the semi-wild – or semi-urban depending on your perspective – is also present in Dewald Botha’s Southliving porfolio, a portrayal of eerie urban landscapes in Suzhou, near Shanghai – you can visit Dewald’s OCA blog here. We assessed Dewald’s work on the July assessment session this year and were impressed by the visual and conceptual cohesion of his portfolio.
The concept of the edgelands is gaining specific weight in visual culture; it is also being studied from an anthropological perspective, in particular as a kind of ethnographic landscape. The book Urban Wilderness, published by Taylor Francis, is a cross-disciplinary exploration of a very modern phenomenon – you can read the foreword and the introduction on the online preview.
The environmental and political connotations of the edgelands are hard to avoid. The idea of the edgelands also underpins several bodies of work at this year’s Brighton Photo Biennial, whose theme is photography and the politics of space. And on that note, why don’t you join us on the OCA study visit to the 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial?