Of Becoming a Land(Scape). Material, Science, Utopia

Britta Benno

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Britta Benno is a drawing and printmaking artist living in Tallinn. Benno is constantly extending the fields and combining conventional media with innovative unexpected layers. 

“Of Becoming a Land(Scape)” is her latest solo-exhibition, presented at the large gallery of the Tartu Art House in 2022. There she focuses on landscapes that previously appeared in the background of her artworks. Image is becoming abstract and architecture is backing away from the stage. A layered landscape comes forth, the rocks in the Earth’s crust reveal themselves underneath the soil.



At the beginning, the Earth was a large molten stone. Afterwards it cooled down, the magma crystallising into a crust and solid rocks. Even now there is a hot sphere of magma inside the Earth. The internal life of the Earth fluctuates quietly on its surface, a part of it is the skin on which we walk. The Earth’s crust is porous like the human skin: permeable, palpitating and breathing. Nothing is set for good: the inorganic and organic components of the Earth are in a constant process of solidifying and melting, in an endless becoming. The former living organisms are layered on the Earth with older ones at the bottom and newer ones on top, yet it is not always the case. Sometimes they have been disarranged, turned upside down or mined open.

Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Still from a cutout animation. 2022

The paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz uses geology to describe what comes after the humankind. By revealing the origin and development of rocks and the Earth’s crust, he offers a geological viewpoint of the future Earth. I use his texts about the development and layering of E/earth as a point of comparison and place them in the context of my artistic practice. Thinking and depicting in layers is my main method of creative research. Zalasiewicz calls Earth a machine of layers, which, unlike its neighbouring planets, and thanks to its hot core, is constantly reacting and in motion, growing and recreating new materials by taking them from a solid state to a liquid one and back again. In some cases, the layers will deposit on top of each other, but in others they are eroded by precipitation and winds. This description has many parallels with my printmaking process, both from creative and technological aspects.

Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Making of the cutout animation on glass tables in the artist’s studio. 2021

The stratigraphic descriptions of Zalasiewicz are very similar to the technical processes of making art. When I am printing, painting, animating or building installations, I am adding new layers of traces from materials, colours, (conceptual) motions and other means of depiction to a base structure. In printing, I am using different methods and mechanisms of transfer to create imagery. When drawing directly onto the canvas or on paper, I use a tool to create the new layer with a pencil or the tip of a brush leaving its trace.

Sometimes, however, I also remove layers: I erase, wash off with water or tear the textile into shreds.

Britta Benno. Of Becoming a Land(Scape): Devil’s Punch Bowl. Painting a screen printing layer in the Smokestack Studio in Canada. 2021. Photo: Barry Gray, The Hamilton Spectator
Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Washing the offset lithography plates. Open Studio in Toronto, Canada. 2021

The forms of landscape are developed through erosion, but the creation process of artworks also consists of cutting out and wearing away forms and shapes. The essential nuances of etching are the most pronounced when the metal plate is used for various intaglio techniques. The acid corrodes copper and the surfaces and lines drawn on the plate disappear to be replaced by cavities instead of surface layers.

When I am doing silkscreen printing, I wash off the stencil exposed on the mesh using ultra-violet light: the uncovered areas in the polyester mesh become a clearly delineated shape which lets the paint pass through.

Britta Benno. Ruinenlust in Lasnamäe. Exhibition view in the Hobusepea Gallery, Tallinn: copper plates and plaster moulds. 2020
Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Screen printing stencil in the Smokestack Studio. 2021

Just like paleontologists can read the cavities inside the rocks left behind by once living bodies and the traces of their lives, we read the cavities, holes, erasures and torn out parts of artworks as elements of a complete image. The spaces between the letters form a silence which talks to us in the same manner as words and sentences do.

Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape): Yamal Hole. Detail of a silkscreen print. 2021

What could the Earth be like in a distant future? Compared to the present, it will probably be hotter and covered with more ocean blue. What relicts of our existence could the explores of the post-human Earth discover? The ruins of an old city, the rusted pieces of a car or the crumbs of plastic bags from a landfill? In his book The Earth After Us, Zalasiewicz speculates about the traces we would leave behind, reminding us after millions of years on the geological timescale. Strange chemical and isotopic signals in the rocks will testify to the global transformations that happened during the age of humans. These are urban strata and objects from our everyday life or maybe even cavities shaped like our bones that will be concealed in the stones of the future. I would imagine that we would leave behind a plethora of trash like plastics, concrete dust and the remains of clothing. The process of making art results in a lot of packaging scraps, lining paper, cleaning rags and lumps of adhesive tape. As a result of my desire to reuse more of the materials of my artistic process, I use tape and sewing thread to assemble an installation resembling a mountain.

Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Installing the exhibition in the large gallery of Tartu Art House. 2022

Every once in a while, the Earth becomes old, crumples up and crinkles into striped mountains. Then again, it is rejuvenated, becoming smoother with landscapes levelling out through the ceaseless rhythm of winds and waters. Under the top, the most visible layer of Earth, which is like the skin of a living being, the layers of rock become the flesh and bones of the land. The iron red pigment of minerals is red like blood, gases and liquids circulating in the veins and arteries.

Britta Benno. Of Becoming a Land(Scape). Hybrid drawing. 2022

When thinking about the Earth, one’s way of thinking also becomes muddy and dark, striped like the geological strata which are not a uniform and monolithic mass, but a stratification of layers with different characteristics. One of the international pioneers of sculpture and painting, Robert Smithson has called the way of thinking that is muddy and imitates the processes of the surface of the Earth “abstract geology”: the spirit and the land are constantly eroding, the power of thoughts moves the abstract shores, ideas dissolving into the rocks of ignorance. Abstract geology, as the relation between thoughts and land, resonates also with my abstract forms of E/earth and rocks. The minerals are like a mass of conceptual and working processes which form into mountains and cavities, recalling and forgetting. This is the tension of the landscape, the unbearable contradiction between being and becoming.

Fossils from the geology collection of the Natural History Museum of the University of Tartu. From the exhibition Becoming a Land(Scape). Photo: Jürgen Vainola

What to call large works that consist of canvas, stretchers and frames, priming, printed images, watercolours, charcoal, acrylic paints, Indian ink and plexiglass? I don’t have a definite answer to that, but the works themselves direct me to use different techniques and materials. I reuse the paintings that I made some time ago: respecting the already existing shapes and surfaces, I carefully cover them with new traces. The existing surfaces point the way for the new lines. The existing work and their materials become the deciders, they are the quiet voice with whom I am having a wordless discussion.

The question of whether one should create new things, including works of art, and why to do it, is more topical than ever in our general overabundance and availability. I’m also troubled by the question of what will happen to my works or art as material objects after the exhibition is over. This question haunts me every time I reach for a new white sheet of paper. Is this truly necessary? What might be the afterlife of this object? The responsibility that goes along with the creation of a work of art is always implicitly there. I have the feeling that maybe nowadays the aim of a work of art is not to be permanently preserved as has been the desire of visual arts for centuries. Besides using sustainable materials to make artworks, it seems also ethical to make art which perishes over time, using materials that are soft and impermanent.

The greyish brown threads of the canvas, which I pulled onto the wooden stretchers, feel warm and soft to the touch although they are strong and sturdy. I fall in love with this material and its colour and abandon the white primer. I print, paint, draw and glue semi-transparent layers onto the canvas. Stains and touches work together. The planned lines and blurry incidents act as conversation partners. The transparent primer reacts to water and changes the colours of Indian ink. We feel each other: it’s not only me getting a hold of the canvas, but the canvas is also getting a hold of me.

Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Hybrid drawing. 2022. Photo: Jürgen Vainola

In my drawings, I disassemble and reassemble both abstract forms and more clearly defined shapes. Like in a dream, I place the memories on top of each other in layers. The stain and the intentional line – the result of the touch with the bristles of a brush – gain the same importance: “If touch is a mark on the surface that indicates the trace of the material and presence of the hand, then tache is a defamiliarization of the very mark.” The 19th century art critic and colour theorist Charles Blanc differentiated a touch and a stain (tache) in drawings. While touch is a sign of the artist’s decisions and control on paper, then a tache or a stain refers to alienation from the trace. The medium functions and creates itself independently of the artist’s intentions. I borrow from Blanc the conception of the tache as a trace that is not controlled, the opposite of an intentional trace.

The openness and liminality (being in between, on the threshold) of drawing contain the immense potential of transformation, the inherent non-being and hybridisation. Becoming something or somebody feels like flowing or writing: it is a place that requires common construction; it is a time which does not flow in a linear manner. As the post-humanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti has claimed, the process of becoming is not predicated on a stable centralized Self who supervises its unfolding. The art theoretician Marsha Meskimmon and the artist-writer Phil Sawdon refer to her ideas to describe the openness of drawing. They claim that the nature of drawing is that it lacks one. Instead of being complete, there is becoming, the endless unrolling of materials and gestures, limitless potential.

Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Hybrid drawing. 2022

A liminal state as being somewhere in-between or in a state of transition can also be attributed to printmaking. Such states or objects are hard to define because they have crossed the characteristic boundaries of a specific phenomenon but are not yet part of a clearly defined category. It is an uncomfortable state of expectation. The printmaker Tess Barnard defended her doctoral artistic research project on linocut as an artistic technique dividing the different processes into two categories: the skin (the surface) and cutting. Barnard puts into words what it means to print, emphasising the importance of the process as an endless becoming and a limitless potential. She also compares writing by hand with linoleum, as her method of documentation and research is writing letters. She compares the materials that she penetrates by cutting and deforming to skin which is a breathing living organism that is by nature liminal: like a threshold which will lead to another transformation if crossed.

Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape): Earthmonsterfish, Crocodileland. Offset-lithograph. 2021. Photo: Jürgen Vainola

Print graphics have been accompanied for a long time by the shadow of the technical approach which does not go deeper into the aspects that are more conceptual, naturalist, philosophical, cultural or personal. I would like to both overcome the technical viewpoint but also to understand the multi-layered meanings of printmaking techniques and the tools used to achieve them: why do I choose a certain technique or medium, how does the way that the tool penetrates the material and transforms its textures affect the final work, what are the messages that come along with a certain technique? Each movement, every stage of the process has been recorded in the work. Each artwork hides many wordless messages. If you mix together different media or various stages of the technical approach (either in one hybrid work or by putting them together in the gallery space), the works start to tell an opulent polyphonic narrative.

The expanded field of printmaking is transitory and ambiguous, which like a chameleon imitates and includes a wide spectre of media that are hard to identify, as the artist Barbara Balfour describes printmaking. In my own artistic practice, I combine various techniques and include different conventions which I imitate or develop. One technical experiment leads to the next steps and developments; through the work and research process one concept opens the way to more and more expansions.

Just like the crust of the Earth which I described earlier, the field of printmaking is like the skin: it is a porous and absorbent medium which imitates or recreates other media through its formally ever-changing nature. Printmaking is breathing and alive like skin, yet it is not like a sponge that allows passive absorption. Skin is a mobile agent capable of thinking, it lets new ideas pass through it selectively and, if necessary, protects the organs. It is like the crust of the Earth which has both a mediative and a protective function.

Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Etching, aquatint. 2021. Photo: Jürgen Vainola
Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Still from a cutout animation. 2022

The printed work is like the skin and the printing the embrace of two bodies tightly squeezed against each other. The matrix is pressed strongly against the surface on which the image is printed. Usually, the matrix itself is not exhibited. Only the trace remains, the shadow of the original shape. When it comes to animation, the objects on the glass tables act as matrices, while the photographic images are already the impressions of the original image. There is a serial quality to working with printmaking and animation: consecutive production being an inherent element of both media.

Britta Benno. Becoming a Land(Scape). Detail of a hybrid drawing. 2022. Photo: Jürgen Vainola

Stones, mountains, holes and landscapes are distorted into colourful shapes both on canvas and on paper but also in spatial installations and cutout animations. In contrast to the warm greyish texture of the canvases, I add shapes cut out of coloured plastic to the compositions. Plexiglass – the sleek, shiny and bright artificial material, i.e. the thermoplastic shatter-resistant polymethyl methacrylate – is laser cut using a previously drawn shape and engraved in freehand. Through this process, the scanned drawing becomes a vector file which can be sent through an application to the cutting machine where the blazing beam will burn the shallower lines onto the surface and will cut a precise shape out of the rigid material using the deeper lines. The pieces of plexiglass will become elongations and expansions of the freely flowing mountains and rocks. The painting moves out of the rectangle of the frame, on it, into the space surrounding the frame. The freehand drawing is converted into a vector format in a way that it acts like a matrix for the following material. Laser cutting is the expansion of printmaking in a shiny and cold new format.

The plastic, textiles and other (found) materials combined into metamorphic rocks deep in the lithosphere create new landscapes of thought. I discover poetically flowing mountains in the heap of blankets on the bed, on topographic maps or in the atlas of non-existent beings.

Britta Benno. The preparation process of the exhibition Of Becoming a Land(Scape) in the artist’s studio. 2022
  1. Jan Zalasiewicz, The Earth After Us, p. 20.
  2. Ibid., p. 29
  3. Ibid., pp. 13, 17.
  4. Ibid., p. 122.
  5. Ibid., p. xiii.
  6. Leonid Saveljev, Jäljed kivil. Tartu: Teaduslik kirjandus, 1947, pp. 66–68.
  7. Robert Smithson, A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects. – Materiality. Ed. Petra Lange-Berndt. London, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Whitechapel Gallery, The MIT Press, 2015, p. 152.
  8. Laura Kenner, Stain. – Drawing: The Invention of a Modern Medium, pp 98.
  9. Laura Kenner, Stain. – Drawing: The Invention of a Modern Medium. Eds. Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Elizabeth M. Rudy. Harvard: Harvard Art Museums, 2017, pp. 97–105. Citation from: Charles Blanc, The Grammar of Painting and Engraving. New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1874, p. 170.
  10. Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming. Oxford: Polity, 2002, pp. 118–119. Cited in: Marsha Meskimmon, Phil Sawdon, Drawing Difference: Connections Between Gender and Drawing. London, New York: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2016, p. 80.
  11. Ibid., p. 88.
  12. Tess Barnard, S L / \ S H Embodiment, Liminality, and Epistemology in Relief Printmaking Through the Linocut Process. Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh, 2018.
  13. Ruth Pelzer-Montada, Introducution. – Perspectives on Contemporary Printmaking. Critical Writing Since 1986. Ed. Ruth Pelzer-Montada. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018, p. 4.
  14. Barbara Balfour, The What and The Why of Print. – Perspectives on Contemporary Printmaking, p. 118.
  15. Ibid., p. 119.
  16. Ruth Weisberg, The Syntax of the Print: in Search of An Aesthetic Context. – Perspectives on Contemporary Printmaking, p. 63.
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