Haunted Landscapes

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The (Washing) Machine in the Garden

Beethoven’s quartets lie in the storerooms of the publishing house like potatoes in a cellar.

—Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art”

 

In an episode of The Simpsons (S23.E02)—one of the most culturally pervasive American sit-coms of all time—Bart (a principal character, for those unfamiliar with the show), along with a collection of some of Springfield Elementary’s lesser-performing students, are taken on an out-of-doors experiential learning trek to a state park. The scene might be categorized as a caricatured throwback to H.D. Thoreau’s 1862 essay “Walking.” Whereas Thoreau advocated “sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields” as a means to be “absolutely free from all worldly engagements,” these Simpsons characters would have worldly engagement thrust upon them. Meandering through the pristine animated wilderness while sporting backpacks and hiking apparel, one of the students (Dolph) stops to point to a location outside of the visible scene. “One time,” he says, “I found an old washing machine over there that still had clothes in it.” The boys gasp with awe and then continue on their wilderness excursion.

 

We might assume by his use of past tense that the washing machine, as anomalously as it had appeared within the picturesque natural setting, has now disappeared from the fictional site. Yet the memory of its encounter is still fresh in the mind of the spectator who once happened upon this mass-produced monolith of modern technology, this emblem of industrial domesticity rendered useless and placed out of context in what is supposed to be a “virginal” wilderness setting unsullied by domestic interjections. The encounter with this refused item, especially one as substantial and imposing (yet commonplace) as a washing machine, would inevitably inspire questions about human trace. The idea that the machine still had clothes in it elevates it to the status of enigma, endows it with a brand of thinghood whereby—to invoke William Wordsworth—“ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way” (“Preface” 59). It is an example of the everyday excesses of both manufacturing and mass-produced culture as the jarring appearance of the machine in the garden, what Leo Marx describes as “a sudden, shocking intruder upon a fantasy of idyllic satisfaction” (The Machine 29), a recurring trope entrenched in American literature and culture. Just as objects more quantifiably “aesthetic” have the capacity, according to the Heideggerian model of thinghood, to regress into commonality and “lie in the storerooms of the publishing house like potatoes in a cellar” (“Origin” 19), the “stone in the road” and “the clod in the field” and the washing machine in the garden achieve ontological relevance (20), perhaps no less by their location in an expansive and malleable “field” of spectatorship. In the case of the washing machine caught out of place in a natural setting, memory is tied to trace; even in the absence of the object-become-artifact, the anomalous encounter has scorched the earth and haunted the empty ground with lingering questions.

The persisting fascination with the excesses of technology caught out of place in a pastoral setting begs the question of what spectatorial dynamic is at work when such ironic juxtapositions disrupt those fantasies of idyllic satisfaction. Take as further examples two of Banksy’s mock-oil paintings: Countryside Car Wreck and his present-day reimagining Claude Monet’s Water Lily Pond, pastoral scenes to which has been added the remnant overspill of commodity culture—in the former, an abandoned vehicle contrasted by a sheep herder and ruined castle; in the latter, discarded parking cones and shopping carts that are an all-too-familiar sight in the rivers flowing through urban centres. Appropriation art like Banksy’s Wreck and Pond attest to the increasing relevance of our (mis)conceptions of an idealized rural past versus the reality of the accumulating dross of human activity. Here a sort of ironic re-interpretation of the picturesque—the fetishization of “splendid ruin, contrasted with the objects of nature” expounded in William Gilpin’s eighteenth-century aesthetic manifesto Observations on the River Wye (40)—becomes the groundwork for postmodern picturesque taste. However, in the case of the postmodern picturesque, the “enchanting scenery” (40) of crumbling abbeys and castles tends to be supplanted by the decaying object matter of mass-industrialization.

 

The machinations of picturesque viewing are very much entwined with the concerns of the (neo)pastoral; in many ways, they are variations of the same theme which examine “simpler” ways of life that are threatened, are made obsolete, or are reconfigured by urbanization. Banksy’s pictures extend this examination into the twenty-first century by suggesting that traditional conceptions of pastoral space, owing to the surpluses of commodity culture, no longer exist. However, addressing the question of whether pastoral themes will disappear with increasing urbanization and industrialization, Lawrence Buell in The Environmental Imagination quotes Leo Marx as a response: rather than pastoral motifs vanishing, a “wholly new conception of the precariousness of our relations with nature,” an indeterminacy exacerbated by industry, “is bound to bring forth new versions of pastoral” (qtd. in Buell 51). Work like Banksy’s seems to be the fulfillment of this prophecy, bringing forth new representations of old paradigms—the neopastoral. Within this new form of the pastoral genre, shopping carts as symbols of commodity excess dumped into a water lily bespeckled pond take on relevance beyond their existence as mere waste.

Images like Banky’s Countryside Car Wreck and Water Lilies will undoubtedly provoke visceral reactions accompanied by contempt and censure, particularly in the more environmentally minded spectator. It seems obvious to conclude that the waste of commodity culture situated in what is meant to be an aesthetically pleasing scene says something pejorative about the imbalance precipitated by cultures of disposability and their influence on natural environments. But who is to say that a vehicle left to disintegrate on a rural property is not being kept there for aesthetic (or archival) reasons?

 

Arguing that we “can think of commodities as deferred trash” (407), Julian Stallabrass in Gargantua: Manufactured Mass Culture locates the aesthetic otherness of garbage in the disintegration process (and here we might read dis-integration as a form of de-contextualization, the removal of an object from its integrated framework or function). He particularly notes how various juxtaposed and incongruous articles of domestication, “their mixing and eventual merging with other diverse products” (408), generates “relationships of a more poetic and intrinsic interest” (416). Somehow “during this process [of disintegration],” Stallabrass goes on to suggest, “their allure is not lost but, loosed from exchange and use value, it takes on an apparently more genuine aesthetic air” (408). Ironically, the ultimate favour a consumer can do for a corporation is isolate its logo amidst a natural setting like a gaudy billboard situated in a bean field beside a highway. Such guerrilla advertising appropriates an aura analogous to an art object. Stallabrass has a term for this type of display, and he places a premium on its spectatorial effects. “This trash writing”—as he calls it—“may be seen as another form of graffiti, omnipresent like its wall-bound counterpart, critical, and, unlike brand-name graffiti, full of content” (416).

Next: Photos as Objects of Memory

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