NS: You’ve referenced ideas of utopianism in your work. In that context, the absence of people in your paintings becomes interesting, perhaps even conspicuous.
BD: There’s a sort of conceit there, because there’s almost no corner of the planet where there isn’t human influence. Now, in terms of our influence on the climate, there is no part of the planet that’s untouched by human intervention.
There are two things at play here. The first I’ve already mentioned, which is that I want the paintings to be an inner experience, for them to work on the mind of the viewer as somewhere that they can roam around in. If there were other figures in there, that would completely re-contextualise that space. And then there is the prevailing trend in landscape imagery, which has been to render the landscape as somewhat mute. By turning a landscape into a picture, we impose our various cultural stereotypes onto this space. Obviously, we do this with people, too.
What I want to do is create paintings in which the landscape has an agency of its own. The landscape often affects people in very tragic circumstances whether it’s landslides, or weather systems, nature bites back with a vengeance. On a quieter level, there are sections on the map of Iceland where they can’t fill in the topography because they don’t know what it’s going to look like yet, because it’s still cooling. It’s this idea that there are forces which are beyond even human influence. We’re so accustomed to looking at certain geological formations, but what those represent in terms of force, and time, and magnitude of natural forces is almost beyond comprehension. Nature is always impassive, but we’ve assumed that it only comes into being when we look at it. Whereas, in actual fact, it can easily act upon us.
NS: It doesn’t just bend to our will.
BD: No, much as we like to think it does. And a lot of that idea of bending nature to one’s own will, because that’s the ‘will of God’ or man’s dominion over nature, that’s been borne out in Western Europe, and North America. I’m particularly interested in the language that’s used in the period where the pre-American West was being opened up, and all of the hardship and exploitation that went with that. There’s an incredible vocabulary used to justify those things.
NS: Manifest destiny.
BD: Manifest destiny, exactly. All of that side of things, that ideology. There’s the irony that landscape painting is seen as a very polite artistic and creative form, and it’s most often associated with little polite watercolours that people buy on holiday, and yet there’s no such thing as a non-political landscape painting. Any image of the landscape has political connotations.
Benjamin's latest book, Reimagining Somewhere and Nowhere, with Stephen Baycroft, is available now (Baycroft Publishing ISBN: 978-0-9955276-2-1).