Art and deserts

Question: No more likenesses of reality, no idealistic images, nothing but a desert! What might it say about art to equate art with the desert?

A geographical region is defined as a part of the earth that is distinctive from other areas and which extends as far as that distinction extends. [1]

Malevich Black Square [2]

[…] the concepts of the conscious mind are worthless.

Feeling is the determining factor … and thus art arrives at non-objective representation—at Suprematism.

It reaches a “desert” in which nothing can be perceived but feeling.

… I took refuge in the square form […], the critics and, along with them, the public sighed, “Everything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert […]” [3]

I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert. [4]

Flowers in Arizona desert, photo by Jack Dykinga [5]

[On the first day’s ride through the desert, just Lawrence – the blond, blue-eyed Peter O’Toole – in scruffy uniform and cap, and Tafas el Raashid, a Bedouin guide, all beard and robes, on camelback. They stop. Low angle two-shot.]

Tafas: Here you may drink.

[Lawrence unfastens his water bottle.]

Tafas: One cup.

[Lawrence pours a cup. Tafas watches him.]

Lawrence: You do not drink?

Tafas: No.

Lawrence: I’ll drink when you do.

Tafas: I am Bedou.

[Lawrence pours his water back into the bottle.]

[Later, encamped under the stars, a fire between them. Lawrence reclining, Tafas curious.]

Tafas: Truly, now! You are a British officer?

Lawrence: Yes.


Tafas: From Britain?

Lawrence: Yes.

Tafas: Truly?

Lawrence: From Oxfordshire.

Tafas: Is that a desert country?

Lawrence: No. A fat country, fat people.

Tafas: You are not fat.

Lawrence: No. I’m different.

[A few scenes later, Lawrence is in the huge, luxurious tent of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness, heavily inscrutable). It is night. Lamplight. The tent creaks in the wind. They are standing face to face.]

Feisal: The English have a great hunger for desolate places; I fear they hunger for Arabia.

Lawrence: Then you must deny it to them.

Feisal: You are an Englishman. Are you not loyal to England?

Lawrence: To England, and to other things.

Feisal: To England and Arabia both? And is that possible? [He takes a step toward Lawrence. The camera takes a step toward them both.] I think you are another of these desert-loving English. […], Stanhope; Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing. [6]

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I’ve had two main problems with this essay. First, nearly all my source material is from the Western world. I have been able to find little from people whose culture has evolved in the desert, except in reports by Western travellers. So that’s what this is about – a Western view of a non-Western landscape. The desert as, is, Other.

Second, the attributes of the desert in Western culture seem to be, like chaos, the infinite and the sublime, incomprehensible, unsayable, defined by being indefinable. You had to be there. You can’t learn it from books.

I like the words put into the mouth of Alec Guinness’ Feisal that I quoted above. I like that this is a blacked-up English Ealing comedy actor in a simplified, spectacularized, heroicized entertainment-oriented story of another Englishman who ‘went native’ in a different way. This is about as close, perhaps, as we can get to understanding the desert without living in it. It may be closer than Kasimir Malevich ever got. As far as I can find out, he never went near a desert.

The ascent to the heights of non-objective art is arduous and painful … but it is nevertheless rewarding. The familiar recedes ever further and further into the background…. The contours of the objective world fade more and more and so it goes, step by step, until finally the world–everything we loved and by which we have lived–becomes lost to sight. [7]

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, by Caspar David Friedrich [8]

The word ‘romantic’ does not appear in Malevich’s essay, but with the earlier-quoted emphasis on ‘feeling’ and fondness for desert and mountains, we are clearly in the territory pioneered by thinkers, landscape gardeners and idle aristocrats in the eighteenth century:

The moral importance of sentiment emerges clearly […] if we look at the growth of the feeling for nature in the eighteenth century. In France […] We see it in the increased vogue for living in the country, in the pleasure taken in country walks, in the growing popularity of the rustic idyll and the ‘bergerade‘ [shepherd-related activity], even in its more absurd pretences, of which the best know is the Petit Trianon, where Marie Antoinette and her ladies played at being shepherdesses and milkmaids. But perhaps we see it best of all in the retreat of the formal French garden before the ‘jardin anglais‘ [‘English garden’], which was supposed to put us in touch with unforced nature. [9]

In an age which still based its education and thought on the so-called ‘classics’, the ancient Greek poet Theokritos, [10] and his Roman imitators Virgil [11] and Horace, [12] provided authority for the idea that simple rustic life is wholesome while city-dwellers tend to be corrupt. Eighteenth-century globalization was also producing plenty of travellers’ tales about ‘primitive’ peoples abroad, tales which could be incorporated into this nature-worshipping ideology. It was all very nice:

The aim [of the new wave of ‘English’ gardens] was to awaken and nourish certain sentiments. … some may be gay, others offer a sweet melancholy, others will be romantic, and others again majestic. … [Many] gardens of the late eighteenth century were designed to evoke and sustain the pleasant melancholy of the lonely dreamer. The park at Ermenoville even had an Altar of Revery. [13]

Hence follies, fake temples, fake tombs, fake ruins – suggesting ‘foreign lands and far-away times’ [14]. We are not explicitly in the desert yet, but Percy Shelley was soon to show that there was nowhere better to site poignant wreckage:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away. [15].

Doug Aitken is a contemporary artist with enough credibility to be featured in an edition of Parkett. His video work Diamond Sea (1997) was

shot in the Namibian desert […] After demonstrating […] the exquisite beauty of nature, he shows us the residue of human activity; the ruins of a village, abandoned houses, doors swinging, a boat run aground in a sea of sand […] [16]

Aitken’s work also features footage of modern technology in action and has a soundtrack of industrial machinery; but perhaps all this means is that he is pointing out human vanity in the present instead of the past. The imagery and ideology are otherwise straight out of Ozymandias.

I’m getting a little ahead of things. Back in the age of the ‘English garden’ and Marie Antoinette, this was all new. In earlier times, the wilderness was, well, wild, a thing to be feared and avoided. As a species, it is what we have abandoned in favour of farming and cities. The writer of the following, unlike most of the people I refer to in this essay, almost certainly had direct experience of deserts. S/he thought there was room for improvement out there:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. […] I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the shittah tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together […] [17]

The stormy heath in King Lear is not bracing, or inspiring, or beautiful, but a setting for personal madness and political chaos. [18] For ‘Puritan pioneers in America […] the wild new world they found was seen not as a sublime source of mysterious truths but as a desolate wasteland, raw material awaiting transformation by honest Christian toil into a tamed and useful resource.’ [19] One such pioneer described the America he found when he disembarked from the Mayflower as a ‘hideous and desolate wilderness’. [20] Some centuries later, another traveller was having a bad day on his journey around the USA’s Southwest:

[…] interminable ranges of mountains […] a mass of cañons, ravines, ridges, gullies, chasms, and mountains, piled one above another in inextricable confusion […] The walls are perpendicular, and of a blood-red color. No vegetation is anywhere to be seen […] this black, yawning abyss just before us […] The gloom increases with every step. The walls around assume in the darkness a thousand grotesque and misshapen forms. The obstacles in our pathway become more frequent and dangerous. The darkness becomes more and more intense. We can no longer see the path for more than four or five feet ahead of us. […] And so we go on, hesitating, doubting, fearing, until, after hours of tedious toil, such as I hope never again to experience, we finally reach the bed of the river that has worn this mighty wrinkle in the face of Mother Earth. [21]

He had stumbled upon the Grand Canyon, but did not experience the Romantically correct response of awe and wonder. And it is striking that no-one before the middle of the nineteenth century seems to have gone up a mountain unless they had to; an attitude which was reversed by British climbers of that period, who scorned mountaineering done for such scientific purposes as surveying or atmospheric measurements. [22]

But in the eighteenth century, Malevich’s ‘feeling’ was being nurtured, husbanded, cultivated, by means of a way of thinking that was at least ambivalent to such techniques when they were applied to nature. The idea was ‘to allow unforced nature to awaken in us the response of unforced feeling. Now what previously passed for monstrous, for disorder, could awaken astonishment, awe. It could be what now came to be called “sublime”.’ [23]

The Sublime. According to Edmund Burke, it is (or rather, causes) ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’. It has to do with pain, danger and terror. [24] Inspired by self-preservation, the sublime is the ‘delight’ we feel when painful, dangerous or terrifying things are brought to mind without anything nasty actually happening to us. [25] ‘The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment [which] is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.’ [26] It is the philosopher’s answer to all urban cynics who declare that they can’t see the point in risking death, or even a soggy bum, clambering up mountains. It identified and explained pleasures, or ‘delights’, or fulfilments, that do not fit into the obvious categories of sensual gratification. Although Burke finds examples of the sublime in all sorts of places (from trumpets to wild asses [27]), key indicators such as Terror, Obscurity, Power, Vastness and Infinity point enticingly to the Great Outdoors.

The new feeling for nature […] moved beyond the English garden, beyond the valleys of Switzerland where the wilderness touches human habitation, and which Rousseau made famous, and comes finally to the inhospitable heights, where it meets in awe an immensity which seems utterly indifferent to human life. [28]

The European wilderness was just upstairs, on the mountain peaks. Englishmen did not need tropical climes to display their similarities with mad dogs [29]. And what they found up there was satisfyingly alien: sterile, unforgiving, uncomfortable, accessible only to the determined (and those with time and money to spend/waste), a mineral world where rock and weather could be observed, with only a little effort of metaphor, fighting million-year battles in which humans were irrelevant. And, as sweetener, they found the mountains very, very beautiful. Malevich would follow later, in his metaphorical hiking boots.

Since Copernicus and Galileo, people had got used to the idea that we were not literally the centre of everything. The ‘new feeling for nature’ mentioned above was another challenge to received wisdom about our place in the universe. For one thing, Burke’s analysis of the sublime stole much of God’s thunder: if we can get awesome wonder from the works of the Lord in Nature, then the Lord himself becomes much less interesting. For many who might once have been moved to pray to something bigger than themselves, something immortal and powerful, God has become dispensible when you can find those things on an Ordnance Survey map.

It wasn’t the only challenge to our Biblically guaranteed place as masters of all life. While early ‘pure’ mountaineers were clambering all over the roof of Europe, Charles Darwin was preparing a whole banquet of humble pie for the human race. [30] Now animate Nature had its own new claims on our attention. Those who felt inclined to look outside themselves, even outside their own species – now that’s alienation – now had a lot more reason to do so. But how did they know what they had found in the mute, Godless landscape? The answers, paradoxically, lay within, in those finely cultivated sentiments. But it’s much more comfortable to blame someone – or something – else:

… this modern feeling for nature which starts in the eighteenth century presupposes the triumph of the new identity of disengaged reason […] Our own nature is […] defined by […] our own inner impulses and our place in the interlocking whole. This is why our sentiments can have a value which earlier philosophy couldn’t allow them. […] in contemporary thought] a single current of life runs through world and self. So Coleridge could say, ‘In looking at objects of Nature while I am thinking … I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing anything new.’ And Wordsworth: ‘I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature.’ [31]

Enter the Romantics Coleridge and Wordsworth. We’ve already heard from Shelley. In the mountains, streams and forests, the old gods were receiving visitors for the first time in centuries. Some of the visitors even asked questions. A pity we’ve had to wait so long after that for the feminist revival of the Earth-(M)other.

It was a strange way to carry on, never likely to catch on with the public at large. Romantic art and culture has been extremely successful, of course, but few remember that it was also a political movement: ‘a revolutionary Romanticism, politically opposed to the narrow profit-seeking utilitarianism which industrial capitalism was seeking to impose in all aspects of society.’ [32] The Romantics were interested in the Other of Nature, but that need not make one other-worldly. Fine feeling is no match for power and money, however. Empires would not be expanded by people who were humble in the face of Nature, let alone their fellow humans. Romantics are perhaps doomed to political failure, and so all the more likely to take refuge in their beloved wildernesses.

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Deserts and prophets go together. The Biblical John the Baptist was identified with Isaiah’s ‘voice in the wilderness’ mentioned above, and he spent a fair amount of time there himself, [33] as, later, did Jesus whenever he had something to think about. [34] In the fourth century AD, Egyptian Christian monks followed their example by living permanently in the desert, with ‘not much sleep, no baths, poor food, little company, ragged clothes, hard work, no leisure, absolutely no sex, and even, in some place, no church’. [35] These so-called ‘Desert Fathers’ proved far more effective revolutionaries than the Romantics:

In Egypt the movement was soon so popular that both the civil authorities and the monks themselves became anxious: the officials of the Empire because so many were following a way of life that excluded both military service and the payment of taxes, and the monks because the number of interested tourists threatened their solitude. [36]

Solitude. That’s one thing you get in the desert. Many of its (commonly assumed) defining characteristics are about absence: of water, of shelter, of roads, of towns, of boundaries, of landmarks of people, of any kind of life. Not many distractions, then. A good place to think, to meditate, to pray. A good place to learn how to appreciate the simple things, to realise how little we need, as the pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry discovered in the Sahara:

But on this day we have experienced thirst. And we discover for the first time today that our familiar well radiates its influence over the whole vast expanse, as an unseen woman casts a spell over an entire house. A well spreads its power far and wide, like love. [37]

Freed from the sensory bombardment and psychological overstimulation of city life, or even simply of more fecund ecosystems, senses and faculties become extra-sensitive. T E Lawrence – the real one – has a killer story:

A first knowledge of [a] sense of the purity of rarefaction was given me in early years, when we had ridden far out over the rollng plains of North Syria to a ruin of the Roman period which the Arabs believed was made by a prince of the border as a desert-palace for his queen. The clay of its building was said to have been kneaded for greater richness, not with water, but with the precious essential oils of flowers. My guides, sniffing the air like dogs, led me from crumbling room to room, saying, ‘This is jessamine, this violet, this rose’.

But at last Dahoum drew me: ‘Come and smell the very sweetest scent of all’, and we went into the main lodging, to the gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert, throbbing past […] [38]

Mildred Cable, a formidable Christian missionary who travelled in the Gobi desert for many years in the 1920s and 1930s, wrote:

The desert atmosphere has a special quality which makes every object in the landscape stand out stereoscopically and with amazing clearness. One traveller very accurately observes: ‘The air is so clear that there is no perspective,’ and others have remarked on the surprise which they experienced when, sighting a caravan which they thought was close at hand, they found that hours passed before it reached them. Trees, walls and landmarks which appear to be but a mile distant are, in fact, half a day’s journey away.

The atmospheric peculiarity has its counterpart in the human intercourse of the desert, and in the personal incidents of each traveller’s journey. In other surroundings many contacts and happenings might seem to trivial to be remembered, but in the desert the detachment of life from all normal intercourse imparts a sense of gravity to every rencontre, and each touch with human beings is fraught with a significance lacking in the too hurried intercourse of ordinary everyday life.

On the desert track there is no such thing as a casual meeting, for even wayside contacts instantly become significant [-] [39]

That stark relief promotes a sense of drama. The desert is an arena for action ‘ literally so, as ‘arena’ comes from the Latin harena, ‘sand’, and in particular the sand that was spread on the floor of an amphitheatre. To provide a plain surface so that spectators could see clearly, from above, what was going on. Perhaps because as the event progressed, there would be more and more marks in the sand, to remind spectators of how much they had already seen. To soak up the blood. Set a drama in the desert and it is immediately more dramatic. You could die out there. Biblical epics, Lawrence of Arabia, [40] The English Patient, [41] The Sheltering Sky, [42] Zabriskie Point, [43] Walkabout [44] – desert landscapes are an easy cinematic shorthand, if you have the budget, with the possibility of personal transformation through suffering. You have to be there. You have to go through it.

T E Lawrence admitted that all that significance could get a bit tiring:

It was evening, and on the straight bar of Sinai ahead the low sun was falling, its globe extravagantly brilliant in my eyes, because I was dead-tired of my life, longing as seldom before for the moody skies of England. This sunset was fierce, stimulant, barbaric; reviving the colours of the desert like a draught – as indeed it did each evening, in a new miracle of strength and heat – while my longings were for weakness, chills and grey mistiness, that the world might not be as crystalline clear, so definitely right and wrong. [45]

But Antoine de Saint-Exupéry firmly preferred the arena to the stalls. After a crash in the desert, when he believed he was going to die of thirst, he writes that he felt like this:

We are in contact with the wind, with the stars, with the night, with the sand, with the sea. We try to outwit the forces of nature. We wait for dawn as a farmer waits for spring. We wait for the next port of call as a promised land, and we seek our truth in the stars.

I shall not complain. For three days I have walked, I have been thirsty, I have followed tracks in the sand, I have pinned my hopes on the dew. I have striven to rejoin my kind, whose dwelling-place on the earth I had forgotten. And those are concerns of the living. I cannot but judge them more important than choosing which variety show to go to in the evening. [46]

Lofty disdain. But then, he was a pilot. Which brings us back to Malevich, but not before noting that ‘promised land’ takes us back to the first and biggest desert drama of all, the forty-year wandering of the Jews from Egypt to Israel. Like Isaiah’s writer, they were desert realists. They were only there because the alternative was slavery, and they took so long because God was punishing them. They weren’t meditating. But they did provide a fantasy for billions who came after:

And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat. [47]

Malevich. Views from on high. We’ve already heard of the ‘arduous and painful’ ‘ascent to the heights of non-objective art’. And indeed, the view from a mountain does give a surprising perspective on the world down below. But Malevich had an advantage over the Romantics: he knew that in a plane one could have a still more godlike perspective, seeing landscape, buildings, people flattened and vulnerable against the earth [48]. For Saint-Ex, it turned the whole world into a desert:

[…] our winding roads […] avoid barren lands, great rocks and sands, they are wedded to the needs of men and go from spring to spring. […] And even if a road does venture across a desert, it twists and turns to enjoy the oases. […] We thought that we lived on a moist and tender planet.

But our perspective has sharpened, and we have taken a cruel step forward. Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line. […] It is only then, from high on our rectilinear course, that we discover the essential bedrock, the stratum of stone and sand and salt where Life, like a patch of moss deep in hollow ruins, flowers here and there where it dares. [49]

Smooth and open as a stage, free of the tiresome clutter of everyday life, of other people. During the filming of Lawrence of Arabia, luckless crew members would have to sweep the sand with big brooms to remove the signs of previous activity. [50] But eventually, the sands would have blown over the marks. The desert would have lived up to its reputation: ever virgin, over and over again, ever shifting, deceptive, trackless, mapless.

Not quite.

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Just as the Central Asian deserts form the largest wilderness area on the face of the globe, so also are they the most varied in character, for they are traversed by ranges crowned with perpetual snows, by barren volcanic hills, and are dotted over with jagged rocks of every shape, size and colour. Their flooring mainly consists of a wide expanse of sand or stone-littered plains, but a wealth of detailed variety hides itself under the superficial guise of monotony, and to the close observer each day’s march has the definite stamp of individuality. By reason of their vivid an varied colourings these stones are one of Gobi’s features of beauty, and sometimes the narrow, faint path passes through a litter of small multi-coloured pebbles, which are rose-pink, pistachio-green, tender peach, lilac, white, sealing-wax-red and black burnished by sand, sun and wind as though black-leaded, the whole, mixed with a quantity of orange-tinted cornelian, forming a matchless mosaic. One of the loveliest rock tints is a true rust, warm and glowing; and there are high jagged peaks of a green shade, so soft that from a distance they seem to be overgrown with lichen, though, actually, there is not the slightest trace of vegetation on them. Other hills are cone-shaped and covered with chips of white porphyry, as though a miraculous snow-storm had left them lightly sprinkled on a midsummer day. Under the bright blue sky and on a variegated flooring, these strange formations give the impression of a real rock garden, that is a landscape garden entirely made of rock. [51]

There are mountains hiding in the desert. There is plenty of visual beauty. Trackless? The paintings of Australian Aboriginal artists – people for whom the desert is not ‘other’ – is largely composed of symbolic maps, full of stories. T E Lawrence notes that ‘…each hill and valley […] had a man who was its acknowledged owner and would quickly assert the right of his family or clan to it, against aggression. Even the wells and trees had their masters […] [52]There are even flowers in the desert, sometimes.

Saint-Ex, for all his pompous dismissal of the trivial, is keen to tell us that people do not become ‘other’ in an alien environment. After a crash, knowing that he would probably soon die of thirst, he found himself studying the eating habits of a nocturnal desert animal by counting the numbers of tiny snails it had left on little bushes in the sand. It always left enough snails on a branch to breed, so ensuring its food supply. [53] Crashed and lost in the desert with his engineer, Prévot, he recalls a fellow pilot who had impossibly survived a crash in the Andes:

Once more we discover that it is not we who are shipwrecked, but those who are waiting for us! Those who are threatened by our silence. Those already torn apart by a terrible miscalculation. Not to set our course towards them would be unthinkable. Guillaumet too, when he came down from the Andes, told me that he was heading towards the victims! This truth is universal.

‘If I were alone in the world,’ says Prévot, ‘I would just lie down.’ [54]

It’s too simplistic just to say you’re alone. That’s not what the experience of being alone is like. Perhaps isolation in the wilderness just makes it clearer how much we live inside each others’ heads. Perhaps that’s a starting point for whatever desert journey you go on. You have to be there, I guess.

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But to many, this opulent barrenness is worthless. The desert is often used as a shorthand for sterile wasteland without positive qualities and nothing else. This is the meaning behind Jean Baudrillard’s phrase ‘the desert of the real itself’. [55] For Michelangelo Antonioni, this aspect of the desert was so strong that he called a film The Red Desert [56] despite its setting in a foggy, industrial European landscape whose main characteristic is the involution of sea and land. The possible meanings of ‘desert’ here seem to have shrunk to ‘not a very nice place’. Perhaps even Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have fallen into cliché when they cite the desert as a setting for the ‘good schizo dream’ of ‘Franny’: the desert here seems to have the role of a featureless plain upon which the crowd can do its teeming and swarming. ‘It’s a panoramic vision of the desert, and it’s not a tragic or uninhabited desert. It’s only a desert because of its ocher color and its blazing, shadowless sun.’ [57]

Such simplistic views can be dangerous:

It was a dangerous passage, and Ghroceyb returning had been in peril of his life: for as he rode again over the Harra [volcanic country] there fell a heavy rain. Then he held westward to go about the worst of the lava country; and as he was passing by a sandy seyl, a head of water came down upon him; his [riding camel] floundered …Ghroceyb hardly saved himself to land… [58]

No accident, perhaps, that the European writer had to use the Arabic word seyl (meaning simply ‘a dry bed down which, after a sudden downpour ‘upstream’, a head of water can sometimes flood, imperilling the life of anyone in its way’) to express the thing he did not expect.

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In the early 1800s, pioneers in the USA began travelling West on the Oregon Trail. They began among forests but after six weeks were on the edge of semi-arid highlands, the escarpments and sedimentary bluffs along the Platte River in western Nebraska. One was a mass over thirty miles long, with three spurs coming almost to the river. They could not have seen anything like this before, and tried to describe it in their diaries. John Bidwell wrote in 1851:

[…] the scenery of the surrounding country became beautifully grand and picturesque – [the bluffs] were worn in such a manner by the storm of unnumbered seasons, that they really counterfeited the lofty spires, towering edifices, spacious domes, and in fine all the beautiful mansions of cities. [59]

A Delano wrote:

Here were the minarets of a castle; there the loopholes of bastions of a fort; again the frescoes of a huge temple; there the doors, windows, chimneys, and the columns of immense buildings appeared in view, with all the solemn grandeur of an ancient, yet deserted city, while at other points Chinese temples, dilapidated by time, broken chimneys. [60]

The Reverend Sam Parker and Israel Hale say they ‘could not help’ perceiving the landscape in this way. [61] Of course they couldn’t. The only precedents they had were of buildings, and so that’s what they saw.

So, in short, it seems that you find in the desert what you take there. I suppose it’s clear by now that I don’t think Malevich is saying anything new about deserts in ‘Suprematism’, and that his ideas – as written in that essay – aren’t quite as new as he seems to think. The work he’s talking about is magnificent, of course. I’m tempted to borrow Baudrillard’s stance and say that the desert did not take place. So if art is like the desert, it is like whatever you think the desert is like.

Jay Appleton offers us a principle to guide us through all this relativity. He uses ‘habitat theory’ to explain our response to landscape and landscape-like things. [62] According to this theory, when we look at a landscape, or something that reminds us of landscape, we are asking some questions that have been important to us throughout history: How much can I see? Can I be seen? Is there shelter? Are there hazards? In desert-type situations, we can see a long way, but we can also be seen, and there is nowhere to hide, either from the weather or from attack. [63] So art that makes us feel exposed, that makes us alive to our own exposure in the world, is like the desert. Art that makes us aware of threats from all sides: threats from heat, from cold, from unseen enemies from whom we will not be able to escape if they spot us:

At first the sands are empty, then comes the day when, fearing the approach of a raiding party, we read within their contours the folds of the great cloaks in which the raiders are wrapped. Thus those raiders transfigure the sands. [64]

So art that induces paranoia? Art that forces us to see beyond Jacques Lacan’s ‘screen’ [65] – the protecting veil of perception and representation – uncomfortably close to the awful horror of unmediated reality – Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘Dionysian chasm’, [66] Lacan’s ‘gaze’?

I’d like to find a theory that encompassed all that, plus Mildred Cable’s rock garden, and T E Lawrence’s smell of nothingness, and Saint-Ex’s well of love, and Samuel Cozzens’ bad day at the Grand Canyon, and the unexpected flood that nearly did for Ghroceyb, and Alec Guinness’ make-up as well. But I can’t.

I think the essay ‘Suprematism’ is a bit overloaded with inappropriate rhetoric and for all its assertions of revolution and novelty is in places just recycling some long-established Romantic ideas. I like the pictures, but they don’t say ‘desert’ to me. Running with the desert quote, though, Robert Smithson saves us from literalness with more lightness and wit than I can muster, maybe:

Aristotle believed that heat combined with dryness resulted in fire: where else could this feeling take place but in a desert or in Malevich’s head? […] The desert is less ‘nature’ than a concept, a place that swallows up boundaries. When the artist goes to the desert he enriches his absence and burns off the water (paint) from his brain. The slush of the city evaporates from the artist’s mind as he installs his art. Heizer’s ‘dry lakes’ become mental maps that contain the vacancy of Thanatos. A consciousness of the desert operates between craving and satiety. [67]

Bearing his mind Smithson’s earlier dismissal of critics who don’t get the point of Malevich’s The Non-Objective World, I’ll say no more about that and restrict myself to the last of my few non-Western voices:

‘Malevich’s Black Square, his ‘absolute symbol of modernity’, is the equivalent in painting of the black-draped Ka’ba at Mecca, the shrine in a valley of sterile soil where all men are equal before God.’

Here we have the key to understanding Malevich’s achievement. In this painting, which for Muslims must be the most significant work of the 20th century, a cultured Russian finally breaks through the carapace of solidified reality, and intuits the nature of truth. Simplicity is beauty. And it is depth, instilling awe, and an authentic rather than sentimental emotion. [68]

I’d like to argue about ‘truth’ or its nature, or ‘simplicity is beauty’, or ‘authentic emotion’. But this praise is worth thinking about:

Absolute art demands rigor and subtlety few artists are equal to: it is hard to survive in the desert, and above all, to maintain the desert conditions of the art work so that ‘nonobjective sensation’ emerges. Absolute art calls for the ability to bring eternal form down to earth without denying its transcendental aloofness. [69]

It all assumes that there is such a thing as absolute art, or absolute anything. If I had to choose, I’d go for this instead:

Q. What were the skies like when you were young?

A. They went on forever, they, when I we lived in Arizona, and the skies always had little fluffy clouds in ’em, and, err – they were long, and clear, and there were lots of stars, at night. And, a, when it would rain, they would all turn, it they were beautiful, the most beautiful skies, as a matter of fact. A, the sunsets were- purple and red and yellow and, on fire, and the clouds would catch the colours everywhere. That’s, it, neat ’cause I used to look at them all the time when I was little. You don’t see that – you might still see it in the desert. [70]

Like, here’s my desert, show me yours.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

[1] Perspectives on The Nature of Geography, by R Hartshorne (Rand McNally, Chicago, 1969), p.130.

[2] ‘Suprematism’ in The Non-Objective World by Kasimir Malevich, translated from the German by Howard Dearstyne (Paul Theobald and Company, Chicago, 1959; first published in German, translated from Russian by A. von Riesen, published by Albert Langen, Munich, in 1927), plate 67.

[3] ‘Suprematism’, pp.67-68.

[4] In a Big Country, written & performed by Big Country, from the album The Crossing (Mercury, 1983), track 1.

[5] Photograph by Jack Dykinga.

[6] Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean, produced by Sam Spiegel, screenplay (officially) by Robert Bolt, UK, 1962.

[7] ‘Suprematism’ (see above), p.68.

[8] Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818, by Caspar David Friedrich, oil on canvas, 94 x 74.8 cm (Kunsthalle, Hamburg).

[9] Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor (Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp.296-297.

[10] ‘Flourished’, as they say, in Syracuse, Sicily, in 282 BC. He is famous for poems about love in an idealized pastoral setting, peopled by fantastic beings, in the poetic form called ‘eidullion’ – ‘a small kind of thing’ – whence we get the English word ‘idyll’.

[11] Publius Virgilius Maro, born about 70 BC, died 19 BC. He made his name with the Eclogues, short poems that mixed the commonplaces of pastoral poetry with some coded political observations, and went on to write the Georgics, a longer work meditating on politics, morals and metaphysics in the form of a poetic guide to farming (based in turn on the Works and Days of the Greek poet Hesiod (who probably lived about 700 or 800 BC)).

[12] Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 BC.

[13] Sources of the Self, p.298.

[14] Sources of the Self, p.298.

[15] Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley (written 1917, first published in The Examiner, January 11, 1818).

[16] See ‘Doug Aitken, the “Stalker” of this fin de siècle’ in Parkett 57 (1999), pp.54-55.

[17] The Book of Isaiah, King James version, chapters 40-41.

[18] King Lear by William Shakespeare Act 3, scenes 1, 2, 4 & 6, Act 4, scene 1 (Wordsworth Editions, Ware, 1996), pp.903-911

[19] The Last Refuge Of The Unquantifiable: Aesthetics, Experience And Environmentalism by Michael Hannis (, alluding to Environmental Aesthetics: Ideas, Politics and Planning by Douglas Porteous (Routledge, London, 1996), pp.75-77.

[20] Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, by William Bradford, ed. S E Morison (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1952), quoted in Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1967), p.24.

[21] The Marvellous Country or Three Years in Arizona and New Mexico by Samuel Woodworth Cozzens (Shephard and Gill, Boston, 1973) pp.100-107.

[22] Hold the Heights: The Foundations of Mountaineering by Walt Unsworth (The Mountaineers, Seattle 1994), pp.54-68.

[23] Sources of the Self, p.300.

[24] A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful by Edmund Burke (first published 1757, second edition (1759)), Part 1, Section 7. The notion of the sublime was further developed by Immanual Kant in his Critique of Judgment, sections 23-30.

[25] A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful Part 1, Section 18.

[26] A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful Part 2, Section 1.

[27] A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful Part 2, Section 5.

[28] Sources of the Self, p.305.

[29] Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Noël Coward, from the play The Third Little Show, 1931 (Warner Chappell).

[30] On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life by Charles Darwin (John Murray, London, 1859).

[31] Sources of the Self, p.301.

[32] Culture and Society, 1780-I950 by Raymond Williams, (Penguin, 1961) p. 48.

[33] Gospel of Matthew, chapter 3, verse1.

[34] Gospel of Luke, chapter 4, verse 1, and chapter 5, verse 16. The forty days and forty nights episode is in Mark, chapter 1, verse 13, but he was cheating as he had angels to minister unto him.

[35] ‘Introduction’ by Benedicta Ward in The Paradise of the Desert Fathers (Copt-Net,

[36] ‘Introduction’, The Paradise of the Desert Fathers.

[37] Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, translated by William Rees (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1995; first published in French as Terre des hommes, 1939), p.48.

[38] The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence (Penguin Books, 1962; privately published 1926, first public publishing Jonathan Cape 1935), p.38.

[39] The Gobi Desert by Mildred Cable with Francesca French (Readers Union & Hodder and Stoughton, London 1950; first published 1942), p.172.

[40] See above.

[41] The English Patient directed by Anthony Mingella, US, 1996.

[42] The Sheltering Sky directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy/UK, 1990.

[43] Zabriskie Point directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, US, 1969.

[44] Walkabout directed by Nicolas Roeg, Australia, 1970.

[45] The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, (4. viii. 18) p.560.

[46] Wind, Sand and Stars, p.97.

[47] Exodus, chapter 16, verses 14-15.

[48] Though he may also have been adopting the style of ‘Chinese and Japanese painters of the Middle Ages [who] often observed and represented nature as seen from a great height’: Malevich: Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art 1910-1930 by Larissa Zhadova, translated from Russian by Alexander Lieven (Thames & Hudson, London, 1982; first published 1978 under the German title Suche und Experiment: russische und sowjetische Kunst 1910 bis 1930, VEB Verlag der Kunst Dresden), p.48.

[49] Wind, Sand and Stars, pp.33-34.

[50] I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the book I read this in.

[51] The Gobi Desert, pp.98-99.

[52] The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, pp.84-85.

[53] Wind, Sand and Stars, p.86.

[54] Wind, Sand and Stars, p.92.

[55] ‘The Precession of Simulacra’ in Simulations by Jean Baudrillard, translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patten and Philip Beichman (Semiotext(e), New York, 1983) p.2.

[56] The Red Desert directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, produced by Antonio Cervi, written by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tomino Guerra, Italy/France, 1964.

[57] A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism & Schizophrenia, by Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, translated by Brian Massumi (The Athlone Press, London, 1988; first published in French, 1980), p.29.

[58] Travels in Arabia Deserta by Charles Doughty (Random House, New York, 1910), p.251.

[59] Man in the Landscape by Paul Shephard (Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1967), p. 240.

[60] Man in the Landscape, p.241.

[61] Man in the Landscape, pp.242-243.

[62] The Experience of Landscape by Jay Appleton (John Wiley, Chichester, 1975), p.82.

[63] The Experience of Landscape, p.108. Appleton points out (p.241) that the ultimate in ‘intense prospect imagery’ would be the surface of the moon, being as it is free of both vegetation and atmosphere. This recalls Mildred Cable’s observations on the clariry of the desert atmosphere. The current plans to begin mining operations on the moon, and to travel to Mars for no better reason than it’s some kind of biological destiny, thereby begin to sound even more like old-style colonialism. When the theft of America from its original inhabitants was repeated in Australia, the British set everything on a proper legal footing in 1788 by declaring the entire continent terra nullius – ‘no-man’s land’ – despite the Aboriginal men and women who had evidently got there first. They didn’t count. Like the moon and Mars, Australia was there for the taking, so why not?

[64] Wind, Sand and Stars, p.48.

[65] As discussed in The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century by Hal Foster (MIT Press, Boston, 1996), pp.132-141.

[66] The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann (Vintage, New York, 1967), section 2, p.30.

[67] ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’ (1968) by Robert Smithson, in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings edited by Jack Flam (University of California, 1996), pp.109-110.

[68] The Sunna as Primordiality by Abdal Hakim Murad, quoting Bruce Chatwin (no reference given) (

[69] ‘Red Desert & Arctic Dreams’ by Donald Kuspit, writing about Donald Judd and Robert Ryman as ‘heirs of Malevich’ in Art in America volume 77 (March 1989) p.121.

[70] Rickie Lee Jones interviewed by Levar Burton on PBS-TV children’s programme Reading Rainbow, as sampled for Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb (Big Life, 1990); also on the album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, disc 1.


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