Radical Landscapes review – consciousness-raising from the ground up | Art and design

Two opera-goers in full evening dress sit before a folding table on the manicured lawns of Glyndebourne. They appear almost comically oblivious to a group of dairy cows closing in on the picnic. Tony Ray-Jones’s 1967 photograph is all affectionate mockery – of the couple, carrying on exactly as if they were at home, of the posh costume in the rural landscape, and most particularly of the proximity of man and beast, apparently separated by no land at all (the artist’s brilliant illusion is to conceal the ha-ha between lawn and field).

Land and landscape, and the difference between them – this is the subject of Tate Liverpool’s fascinating exhibition. There are plenty of painted landscapes on show, it is true, from Constable’s luxuriantly verdant Flatford Mill to Paul Nash’s eerie standing forms to the rolling Wiltshire hills of Eric Ravilious, pictures of horses cut into the chalk. And there are many films, photographs and videos of land that is farmed, mined, mapped, walked or occupied. But you are in no doubt from the start that it is the coincidence of the two that matters here – who owns what, and what they do with the land.

The show plants its first flag at Greenham Common from the 1980s onwards, with a whole gallery of still and moving images of the women’s protest. Greenham was about land more than landscape; about the storing of Nato warheads on British soil, in the telling parlance of the time. You were stuck on the scrubby verge along the perimeter fence with a view through to nothing more beautiful than vehicles, soldiers and ordnance. The severing of the fence was not about the right to roam those Berkshire fields so much as to prevent their abuse in the ramping up of the global nuclear threat.

But barriers keep returning to mind all through this show. Here are photographs documenting the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932, led by Benny Rothman, where you see the Duke of Devonshire’s gamekeepers beating the ramblers who are trying to walk through the vast open countryside. Here is the artist Jo Spencer, naked, on the ground between a car and a Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted notice. And a beautiful sequence of photographs by Rose English of what looks at first like a heap of white litter in the colossal ploughed field of some industrialised farm behind wires but which – as the camera homes in – turns out to be a couple asleep in the earth, which is drawn up over them like some comforting eiderdown.

Greenham Common Peace Camp, c1982 by Thalia Campbell.
Greenham Common Peace Camp, c1982 by Thalia Campbell. Photograph: © Thalia Campbell Design, courtesy of the Peace Museum

The land is perennial and familiar – John Nash’s cornfields, Tacita Dean’s glorious English oaks, the wondrous silver gelatin photographs of peas, broccoli and apples by Charles Jones, taken around 1900 when he was head gardener at Ote Hall in Sussex. Or the land is ancient and strange. It is Derek Jarman’s haunting golden filmic A Journey to Avebury, Bill Brandt’s monochrome photographs of anthropomorphic stones on the East Sussex coast, Edward Burra’s vast and magnificent watercolour celebrating the Northumbrian landscape as a sequence of rhyming female forms and rhythms.

Sometimes it is the art itself that makes the landscape seem strange. There is an abundance of land art in this show, from Richard Long’s documented walks onwards. But more potent, it seems to me, is that strain of Wicker Man wildness that endures in our culture. It is epitomised here in Anthony McCall’s filmed performance, Landscape for Fire, where a bunch of solemn 70s conceptualists are seen lighting a great grid of fires in the gloaming. It ought to be absurd – the flares, the heavy manifesto – but in fact it is feels like haunting primitive rite.

McCall appears in a very muddled section titled Art in a Climate Crisis. I have no idea why he is here; any more than Gustav Metzger’s five-screen Liquid Crystal Environment, which used to mesmerise the crowds at Cream concerts in the 1960s. And it is not obvious why pictures of the Scottish Burry Man, in his coat of burrs, are included at all unless you believe that he is some kind equivalent to England’s Green Man. In one photograph he is being helped to a drink in a pub. Presumably he is meant to represent the spirit of dissent.

Edward Burra’s Valley and River, Northumberland 1972.
Edward Burra’s Valley and River, Northumberland 1972. Photograph: © The estate of Edward Burra, courtesy Lefevre Fine Art, London/© Tate

For Radical Landscapes is mainly what the title suggests: social and political history by other means. Constable gets the usual pasting for showing a rural England where the poor are free to farm and roam the land as if the Enclosure Acts had never happened. Peter Kennard stuffs Constable’s haywain with a sheaf of cruise missiles in his famous collage. And John Berger, on screen, presents his deathless take on Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews sitting smugly before their landscape as a treatise on ownership. Trespassers Keep Out, reads the dropped-in cartoon sign.

It is comparatively rare to find a museum show these days so unapologetically devoted to consciousness-raising. There is a vivid education to be had here. What happened at the M3 protests at Twyford Down; how people tried (and failed) to organise raves at Stonehenge; how the soap packet designer John Hargrave started a bizarre offshoot of the Scout movement called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift in the 1920s, complete with costumes inspired by vorticism and Dada, which then turned into a more militant youth organisation, the Green Shirts.

But the show is just a little too tame to be properly radical. The largest of its special commissions is Ruth Ewen’s Back to the Fields, which brings pots of living plants into the gallery. There must be more impressive grounds all over Merseyside. They should have invited the back gardeners, guerrilla gardeners and allotmenteers to come on in and take over.