Beyond the flat landscape

Sverre Raffnsøe – Professor of philosophy at the Copenhagen Business School

Regarding Bent Hedeby Sørensen’s exhibition at Sophienholm, Lyngby,

Our eyes are drawn into the flat landscape. Along the smooth rails never-ending
towards the horizon, allowing us to leave the near, distorted elusiveness of the fish
perspective to find peace in the clear-cut, resting contours of remoteness. And
maybe even reach a point where we lose ourselves at the exact vanishing point just
beyond the horizon. Remoteness is constantly becoming proximity, and proximity
becoming remoteness.

Yet, the frozen moment of the painting captures us hurriedly, going the other
way. Away, always moving on. Out of the flat landscape. The remote and fixed attract
us, enticing our gaze with its clarity and substance, yet it continues to disappear
behind the horizon that moves in tandem with us.

Going where? We can feel an urge to say goodbye to this eternal retrospectiveness,
and look forwards just for once. Yet, if we turn around, we will find ourselves in a
similar state. We are confronted by a parallel scenario that is not exactly the same,
but similar.

In its present form, landscape painting as a genre is related to modern times. It rests
on the, often tacit, assumption that man has set aside and freed himself from his own
inner humanness and the outer naturalness to such a degree that nature is a scenery
that may be contemplated from a distance and thought of as a landscape. The
landscape as a painting originates from the meeting of nature and culture. The
landscape painting shows us that we have risen sufficiently above nature for
somebody to frame it and represent it in a painting available to a contemplating

Once man has staged himself as a subject for whom a surrounding world of objects
is available, he may begin to feel locked up in himself: in his culture, his civilisation
and his humanness. Thus, a number of highly vital and precarious conditions are at
stake in landscape painting, namely the relationship between subject and object,
humanness and its surroundings, between civilisation, culture and nature.

Landscape painting traditionally represents nature as a picture that is at our
command. The landscape becomes a surface. However, at the same time this gives
rise to a dream of returning to and being a part of nature, to be freed from our own
freedom. From the liberation from nature that causes us to feel like we are hanging
unprotected in mid-air like empty, inane subjects without any support.

The damnation, however, is aesthetic rather than realistic. Were it present
as a real possibility we would be panic-stricken by the prospect of our own
disintegration. Here, however, it is only present in an imagined and experienced
form. Thus, we may safely expose ourselves as contemplating subjects and
experience an expansion of selfness. We find pleasure in rediscovering ourselves in
constantly new ways.

All of this is implicitly jeopardised in Out of the flat landscape, in the paintings’
specific displacement. Here, the observer strives to leave the constraints of his
limited perspective and its brevity, by disappearing into the painting, thus finding his
proper place in its greater context. However, he also learns the impossibility of this
dream: He cannot disappear into the non-perspectiveness of the remoteness; he is
constantly thrown back into his own limited subjectivity and its movement.

Through the repetition of the dynamics in which proximity and remoteness constantly
change places, the surface of the painting and the flat landscape take on an almost
timely depth. As the contemplating, backwards-gazing subject turns towards and
reflects in his surroundings to experience himself in them and fall back into himself,
an infinite, reflectionary movement occurs. An eternal narcissism, which irreversibly
causes him to move on and makes it impossible for him to turn back. Out across and
beyond the flat landscape. Irrespective of whether he wants to, the contemplating
subject is constantly moving forwards towards new horizons that he has not yet
acknowledged and that he can only meet if he leaves the previous ones behind.

Thus, the two paintings become strangely moving. They evoke feelings of sorrow
and constraint. Constraint, because the observer meets his own lack of freedom and
confinement within himself. And sorrow for the lost naturalness that he failed to
become a part of and that he thus loses as he is driven out of paradise again and
again. He also feels sorry for that which he must constantly leave behind in the
eternal “historic” reflectionary movement in and around himself. However, Out of the
flat landscape also evokes a sense of freedom. The movement described also
involves a departure from the boundaries referred to by the horizon, which threaten
to limit and confine us – in stagnation and thus ultimately in death that lurks in the
neutral vanishing point of the painting. In Bent Hedeby Sørensen’s paintings, the
frozen and abandoned ”nature morte” is certainly being resurrected.

The constrained observer, bound to wander around forever, always moving on, will
still meet himself when travelling Through inhabited areas. In this room he is
confronted by frozen snapshots of static surroundings contemplated by a subject in
motion. These are, however, snapshots of cultural landscapes that he is not working
his way out of, but just passing by.

He is, as appears from the swift brush strokes, the modern traveller who has passed
the place in question in the exact same moment as we see it. The passenger, who
continuously leaves time and place, thus assigning these factors a certain flightiness,
and who only takes with him superficial snatches of memory behind which you will
have to make do with sensing a not quite transparent reality.

Such paintings show – by placing a distance to the photographic source
– that this is not a realistic photograph of reality, but rather paintings that accentuate
certain traits of reality, thus evoking a specific, not just physical reality. An observer
appears who is affected by and doomed to live a life in an intoxicating freedom at
high speed, but who is also threatened by a sense of melancholy as he is always
leaving the world before it makes sense, thus threatening to fall apart and fall into
decay; a world made of lost and dead things. He is separated from them and must be
content with watching from a distance. Thus, proximity and remoteness may both
threaten to become remoteness.

Bent Hedeby Sørensen previously depicted nature, buildings and even towns as
landscapes, yet with Outskirts the sea finally appears as an expanse and as scenery.
Thus, we move not only to the outskirts of the known landscape, but also to the edge
of the landscape category. The sea appears as a motive that is difficult to capture
and contain – and threatening to break out of its borders.

A faintly lit night replaces the clear day from Out of the flat landscape.
Were we at that time able to leave the tumult of the proximity to find peace and
affinity in the distant horizon’s clear contours, we now lose ourselves through the
corresponding movement here in the unclear contours of remoteness. Only proximity
is clear. A halted, contemplative observer now replaces the traveller who went
Through inhabited areas. He is looking at a scene that appears to be far more dark
and brooding.

The observer seems to be remembering how he himself is on the edge
of nature and that he is not able to move into it without being in danger of losing
himself and being destroyed. With Outskirts this beautiful landscape – which we are
able to imagine belonging in – seems to move in the direction of the sublime,
towards a representation of a nature which it is difficult for human acknowledgement
to contain and which is threatening to humanness. The meeting with a naturalness of
this kind gives us the tragic experience that human existence is hubris, a violation of
the basic laws of life. As a result, it has this ephemeral character, is doomed to only
last for a short time, to be destroyed only to be replaced by other natural creatures.

Such an experience is a bleak encounter with our prevailing death.
However, it is also an experience that sets us free from the confinement of our own
limited world. In the gloomy waves of the sea we not only find a dismal atmosphere,
but also a movement from which the world is constantly resurrecting and to which we
may surrender and by which we may let ourselves be surrounded. And by which we
may be moved.