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Jan Kempenaers and the Picturesque

Jan Kempenaers and the Picturesque

Steven Jacobs

Jan Kempenaers is most known for his large-scale, panoramic and detailed images of industrial and urbanized landscapes in Europe and Japan. Fascinated by today's hybrid landscape in which the differences between center and periphery, city and country, and culture and nature are no longer clearly defined, Kempenaers evokes in several ways the notion of the picturesque, which originated in the eighteenth century. In the aesthetics of the picturesque, the severe geometry of the French garden was exchanged for a predilection for the whimsicalness of natural landscapes contaminated by human interventions and cultural remnants. Furthermore, in the picturesque, nature was approached indirectly, through pictures. On the one hand, nature was perceived as if it was a picture and, on the other, landscapes were carefully created and staged in situ. With his fascination for a particularly soft lighting and non-descript places where nature and city intersect, Kempenaers associates himself with the picturesque's predilection for the pictorial framings of hybrid landscapes.

In a series of more recent works, Kempenaers elaborated on the theme of the picturesque more explicitly by focusing on natural scenery in Scotland, Nordic areas such as Iceland, and the American West - regions that have played an important part in the development of the Romantic imagination of nature in the nineteenth century. In Two Ruins (2006), for instance, the natural and the artificial seem to answer to the same organic laws. Buildings look like plants; they are as irregular and capricious as the green meadows. However, this harmonic unity is transected by two cables, which introduce geometrical order into the image but also emphasize its surface quality. As in his posturban landscapes, Kempenaers demonstrates that photographing natural scenery is always dependent on an act of framing. This is also explicitly the case in stage set-like space of Dead End (2006), which combines contemporary traffic infrastructures with a kind of "grotto" - a prominent icon of the picturesque, and in View (2004), which evokes Romantic landscape painting by its confrontation of small human dorsal figures with the endless vastness of nature. Kempenaers' images of natural scenery, however, are not the result of Romantic nostalgia. They stipulate that natural landscapes are turned into codified spectacles. Strikingly, pictures such as View, Gap (2005), and Niest Point (2006) do not evoke the utopia of a virgin nature. The photographer, after all, arrives at a spot that has already been framed before him. Kempenaers visualizes places that include an entire tourist infrastructure, which marks viewpoints and framings. In this perspective as well, Kempenaers' pictures answer to the logic of the picturesque, which constantly reverses the relation between a picture and its referrent. Kempenaers demonstrates that the contemporary natural landscape has been colonized and domesticized on a global scale thanks to the world-wide proliferation of images, from artworks to all kinds of mediated landscape images in cinema, television, tourism, and so forth.

A second series of photographs focuses on monuments, which have always played an important part in the aesthetics of the picturesque as well. In the context of his "Spomenik: The End of History" project, Kempenaers has photographed monuments erected by the communist regime of former Yugoslavia. Paying attention to their careful integration in the landscape, he demonstrates that landscapes are turned into sites of memory. Commemorating the common traumatic experiences during the Second World War and the partisan battles, these monuments were intended to provide the people of Yugoslavia with a common history and identity that would be productive in its future evolution. However, in the late twentieth century, these landscapes were torn by nationalist and ethnic violence and their monuments are now neglected. The idea of progress has been buried under the weight of history and the monuments, which were once machines of sightseeing and (photographic) image production, have become obsolete and invisible. Notwithstanding their futurist designs and their space age associations, these monuments have become modernist variations of the Romantic ruin - another preeminent icon of the picturesque. The entire Spomenik project will be exhibited in the Braem pavilion of the Antwerp Middelheim Museum at the end of 2007.