Por John Constable. What has he ever done besides going to the fields and painting? Tate Liverpool doesn’t seem to be able to forgive him for this apparently harmless pursuit. Constable’s attempt to define a ‘radical’ British landscape art is consistently presented as a convenient shorthand for the ‘conservative’ landscape tradition it rejects.
His painting Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River) is shown alongside a looped clip from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Anyone who can rule out Berger’s insulting reduction to an obtrusive original sound has to deal with a long wall text that tells us that Constable’s “idealized image of nature and country life” creates an idyll “in contrast to reality for workers of the time”.
Like a wanderer from the city with no sense of the country, this exhibition strays into the undergrowth and thicket of mental confusion. If you give it a chance the curators don’t, Constable’s painting is a detailed view of a canalized stretch of river where a barge is being pulled by a horse on the bank. The horse is ridden by a boy who turns to make sure the tow rope is secure. Or does he look enviously at another fellow having a lucky fishing day? Because this is a depiction of child labor. Far from ignoring the misery of his time, Constable portrays them honestly.
Around the corner is Tacita Dean’s 2006 work Majesty, a stunning black-and-white photograph of a gnarled old English tree isolated from its surroundings by layers of faded gouache. Other trees can be seen through the white as misty specters, but Dean brushed them out to focus on this mighty ancient warrior with his winter branches like witch fingers. It’s a modern masterpiece, but what makes this “radical” and Constable “conservative”? There’s as much love for the timeless, pastoral and, yes, unmistakably British nature in Dean’s woody reverie as there is in his portrayal of barge life.
The exhibition could have been so much better if it would only accept what Dean’s tree is implying – that the love of landscape not only has radical and conservative sides, but they coexist in the same work of art, the same experience of nature. By defining Constables and (if following its own logic) Dean’s love of the British countryside as something backward, oppressive and literally Tory, it renders nonsensical both his own thesis that the country belongs to us all and his warnings about the urgency of the climate crisis. If loving green fields is evil, then why go there? If nature is exclusive, why save it?
The climate section is the most disastrous. It feels as if the curators, with a blunt routine, have selected works to fill in the gaps. Gustav Metzger’s Liquid Crystal Environment documents the 1960s counterculture that influenced psychedelic light shows – but what does that have to do with landscape or climate? At least his other work here, a photo of massive roadwork framed by a rusty caterpillar track, has a – slightly obvious – point. But why do so many contemporary climate artworks use cutting-edge technology that actually embodies the energy-guzzling consumer civilization that is the problem? Yuri Pattison uses a startling array of devices, including an atomic clock, to achieve a completely shrugging effect.
One could probably accuse Jeremy Deller’s neon version of the Cerne Abbas behemoth of energy-guzzling energy – but it’s a hilarious and liberating visionary delight. Deller has reproduced the famous chalk figure of a man with a huge cock wielding a club in white neon against a green background. It’s more visually subtle than it sounds: the light brings the green to life, giving you a real explosion of the British countryside at its most romantic and mysterious. For a moment the show starts to rock.
Deller’s obscene avatar of a primitive English past is surrounded by subversive encounters between the ancient and the modern. There’s a spooky film about the Avebury stone circle by Derek Jarman, whose camera is trained on the enigmatic stones like messengers at dawn. Alan Lodge features slides and videos from free festivals in the late ’80s, including Stonehenge; The soundtrack made me want to mess with these happy idiots in a field.
And that’s how this whole show could have been: happy, life-enhancing and therefore really radical. It could have juxtaposed William Blake’s depictions of ancient Bardic British country Deller, and brought in masses of odd old folk art to show us the country’s hidden popular history. But no. Even with acid house pumping out, this exhibit can hardly let its hair down before exploring another reason to be joyless. Blake is represented only by a sneering text that refers scornfully to this “green and pleasant land”. You will never build Jerusalem in a place you hate.