History of Art Research Seminar
In 1990, Mark Haworth-Booth hailed the five digital photomontages that make up Helen Chadwick’s Viral Landscapes (1989) as ‘a reinterpretation of landscape for our time’. Such early commentators on the Landscapes saw them gesturing simultaneously to the irrevocable penetration of the environment by the human, and of our environment by the digital, as well as the pandemic condition of HIV. Commissioned as part of ‘Artists in National Parks’, a programme of the Department of the Environment and the V&A, and sponsored by Conoco Oil, Chadwick’s works harnessed the conventions of the landscape genre to reflect upon the condition of viral penetration, the fusion of self and other, in the years immediately following the British government’s AIDS awareness campaigns in 1987.
Yet if ecological disaster and digital revolution have increasingly occupied consciousness in the years since, then representations and awareness of HIV have been more equivocal. The epidemic has appeared and disappeared from cultural view in Britain, only recently to re-emerge as an object of historical interest in the context of Covid-19, despite its ongoing nature. In this paper I consider how the Viral Landscapes pose HIV as a condition of the contemporary, by invoking both historic traditions of Welsh landscape painting, and a sublime, primordial state of psychic and physical undifferentiation, as theorised by Kristeva at the time. Chadwick’s disruption of the centrifugal nostalgia of the ‘Artists in National Parks’ project, I argue, offers a vision of the dissolution of boundaries, realising HIV as a crisis that persists into and pressurises the present moment.
Image credit: Helen Chadwick, Viral Landscape No. 2 (1988-1989)