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Multimedia installation reveals the complex, and often human, history of Earth's mountain ranges
Stefano della Bella (1610-1664), The Appenino, by Giambologna, Villa di Pratolino, Italy, The Met.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- Throughout recorded history, mountains have risen from the land and exerted influence on human life. As their physical forms have shifted over time, so too have the narratives defining their cultural significance. Now a source of fascination and wonder, mountains were once considered threats to humanity, sites of catastrophe, and a means of divine punishment. They have always occupied the cultural imagination, but their history has been complex.

Mountains and the Rise of Landscape reveals our common understanding of mountains as a human, discursive construction, one that has been shaped and redefined over millennia. The exhibition engages landscape theory to distill the cultural narratives of mountains, putting on view their world-defining history through a variety of media and research.

Positioning the perception of mountains as foundational to the perception of landscape more broadly, Mountains and the Rise of Landscape shows how our contemporary understanding of these land formations is the product of a variety of intermingled cultural strata. The exhibition looks first to Europe’s 16th and 17th-century scientific fascination with mountains as a sort of large-scale laboratory, inspired by the so-called aesthetics of the Sublime. Mountains had developed a historical reputation as unknown and dangerous—wild, undomesticated places—but as the aesthetics of the Sublime inspired a reinterpretation of nature, the wilderness became trendy and drew curiosity.

Mountains and the Rise of Landscape invites viewers to rediscover mountain beauty both as pure form and as a model for imitation, with allusions to mountain forms evident throughout architecture and examples of mountains that are entirely artificial. The exhibition also spotlights large parts of mountainous regions worldwide that are heavily marked by infrastructural, touristic, or military facilities. The show’s curators argue, however, that even if the world’s best known mountain landscapes have come to seem contrived, or otherwise manipulated by the human hand, our encounter with them can still function as a powerful source of surprise and inspiration for landscape architects and architects alike.

One of the exhibition’s core installations, “The Mountain Line of Beauty,” is inspired by 18th-century painter William Hogarth’s titular concept, proposing that serpentine, S-shaped lines offer the most aesthetic pleasure. The curators have applied the “Line of Beauty” concept to several of the planet’s mountain ranges, presenting viewers with curved, GIS-generated displays that prompt questions of representation and perspective. The apparently simple device of a line is intended to invite complex questions and suggest a complicated reality.

Complementing this are six other mixed-media installations that include:

• A section entitled Faux Mountains, revealing that artificial, human-made mountains are a worldwide reality. The exhibition’s curators observe that the history of landscape architecture is characterized by the construction of architectural mounds, often built by using local excavation material. Architects have found in the form of the mountain a model and a gestalt with which to play in an ironic way. In 20th-century art, mountains are ubiquitous, culminating in Robert Smithson’s masterful exploration of reversed, displaced, and rebuilt mountains.

• A screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1955 debut film, Opération béton, chronicling the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam in Switzerland. “The film gives a sense of the sublime nature of mountains, and a sort of immediate surprise and fascination and awe at seeing something extraordinary built at the heart of the Alps,” observes Jakob. “It hints at the fact that everything around us is human-made, that nature has been utterly transformed by human beings.”

• A section entitled “Camouflage” presents the work of photographer Leo Fabrizio. His photographs reveal the phenomenon of military infrastructure carved into mountain walls. From the 17th-century onwards, many mountainous regions were massively fortified, and military infrastructures were implanted at the heart of sites chosen for their solitary solidity. The photographer’s archeological descent into the ground of these camouflage techniques documents the surprising territory of a landscape that still looks “natural” while being completely transformed within.

• A small, cave-like structure invites the viewer inside a glacier, where a soundscape and still images from an Alpine glacier show that landscape is not only visual, but also acoustic. Celebrated and studied during the 18th century as sublime objects, glaciers have been sung by poets and frequently painted, and they function today as metonymies of a world of rising temperatures and vanishing natural phenomena. Geneva-based composers Olga Kokcharova and Gianluca Ruggeri explored the fascinating soundscape of the Mont Miné Glacier in Vallis, Switzerland. To hear the “voice” of a glacier questions our mostly visual landscape-oriented perspective. The mysterious sound of the white masses appears as the melancholy testimony of this once titanic presence.

• Large-scale photographs document the interventions of the Swiss architect Martino Pedrozzi into the delicate universe of abandoned agricultural constructions in the Alps. Pedrozzi interprets these mineral documents of the past as metaphors of a system left exposed to climatic and social changes. By both deconstructing and reconstructing the relics of former human interventions in extremely remote regions, he grasps the amazing beauty of a fragile landscape.

• Finally, a display of historic scientific models of geological formations highlights a thematic examination of how mountains are made and come to be known. Ranging in time and space from the labors of the mythical hero Hercules in setting up the twin peaks, or pillars, that define the perilous Strait of Gibraltar, across an ocean to the sugar plantations of Jamaica, and ultimately to the Apollo 15 astronauts who explored the Hadley-Apennine lunar mountain range, a selection of images and texts show how mountains produced and were produced by literary, artistic, and indeed moral and social narratives. Not to be missed are representations of Aesop’s fable “The Mountain in Labor,” from which is derived the expression “much ado about nothing,” or “don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”

The exhibition is on view at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) through March 15, 2019.

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