Working Against Nature

Denise Markonish


“I don’t think art can stand up to nature. Put the best object you know next to the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, redwoods. The big things always win.” “On the Importance of Natural Disasters” – Walter De Maria[1]

“Landscape images are the last preserve of a nation’s myths about nature, civilization and beauty.” – Deborah Bright[2]


What is this thing we call landscape, and for that matter what is nature? Once these terms held in them a promise, a kind of manifest destiny, an American ideology of progress, conquering and claiming. But what do these terms mean for us now as we exist in the anthroposcene, an era during which our effect on the landscape, the future of nature, and the very planet are in peril. What then does it mean to discuss these terms, to define them…especially in the realm of art? Maybe Walter DeMaria was right and nothing we can do can stand up to nature, but then again, maybe he was wrong, for look at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and even the redwoods: they all bear our footprints and fingerprints, they are all touched by humankind. In the end, these landscapes – emblems of nature at its most naturel – are engineered; for we articulate nature, frame it, sometimes working against it, and bending it to our will and our needs.

For Lee Boroson this idea of nature is ever present, but he is not only interested in the pristine outdoors or untamed wild. Rather he investigates how the idea of nature intersects with and encompasses the cultivated landscape, and indeed culture itself. In his work, nature becomes an idea that can be mediated and modeled. Using obviously man-made materials such as plastic, glass, and fabric, Boroson emulates elemental forces– each material becoming a surrogate for conditions and landscape features such as fog, wind, smoke, water, and lava. His installations create artificial environments that challenge our perceptions of the landscape, questioning the relationship between a natural and manufactured reality.

Artists have always depicted the natural world through a lens of mediation. The late 18th and early 19th century Claude glass, a mirrored device that requires its user to turn their back on the actual landscape and instead view their surroundings through a dark curved lens was popular for painters and tourists alike for it created a landscape as picturesque as the painting of Claude Lorrain. Later in the 19th-century Hudson River School artists painted from nature and then re-processed their sketches into artificially composed, though seemingly authentic landscapes. Artists like Thomas Cole and his contemporaries, such as Frederic Edwin Church

[1] Walter DeMaria, “On the Importance of Natural Disasters” in Nature, Jeffrey Kastner, Ed. (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2012), p.24.

[2] Deborah Bright, “Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men: An Inquiry Into the Cultural Meanings of Landscape Photography”, p.11. This essay originally appeared in exposure 23:1 (1985). It was revised and published in Richard Bolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Alternative Histories of Photography (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987).

[3] Conversation with the artist.

[4] Roger Caillois, “The Natural Fantastic” in Nature, Jeffrey Kastner, ed., p. 142.

[5] William Cronon, “Introduction: In Search of Nature” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996), p. 40.

[6] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, (New York: Vintage Random House, 1996), p.9