‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’

Article accessible here.

The article Staring into the Contemporary Abyss was published in 2010 in Tate Etc magazine, written by Simon Morley as a response to the Tate 3 year research project The Sublime Object. The idea behind the project:

In the early eighteenth-century Joseph Addison described the notion of the sublime as something that “fills the mind with an agreeable kind of horror”. It was an idea feverishly explored by artists such as Turner, John Martin and Caspar David Friedrich, and further taken up by the American abstract painters Rothko and Barnett Newman. But how about now? As Tate comes to the close of a three-year research project, “The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language”, TATE ETC. explores how contemporary artists have responded.

Morley uses image examples from  11 artists and their contemporary response to the sublime:

In the text he also refers to other artist’s work that he feels successfully demonstrates the contemporary sublime.

In the article Morley makes points in his writing about the the general concept of the sublime and its application in contemporary art. He explains a renewed interest in the term sublime and how it has been applied:

As a result of this renewed interest among postmodern thinkers and artists, we now have a rather confusing number of uses of the word sublime. In the book I have recently edited, The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art, I try to make sense of the situation, distinguishing five different ways in which the word is now broadly used. These are in relation to the problem of the unpresentable in art, and to the experiences of transcendence, terror, the uncanny and altered states of consciousness.There are also two main contexts for such discussions: nature and technology. What links such various perspectives, I think, is a desire to define a moment when social and psychological codes and structures no longer bind us, where we reach a sort of borderline at which rational thought comes to an end and we suddenly encounter something wholly and perturbingly other.

At the sublime’s core are experiences of self-transcendence that take us away from the forms of understanding provided by a secular, scientific and rationalist world view. Thus, discussions of the sublime in contemporary art can sometimes be covert or camouflaged devices for talking about the kinds of things that were once addressed by religious discourses and nevertheless seem to remain pertinent within an otherwise religiously sceptical and secularised world.

But often contemporary perspectives on the sublime reject traditional conceptions of a self, or a soul or spirit, seen as moving upwards towards some ineffable and essential thing or power. Instead, the contemporary sublime is mostly about immanent transcendence; that is, it is about a transformative experience understood as occurring within the here and now. What we make of this experience, what value we give it, can take us in two very different directions, however. One re-envisages the self as existing in the light of some unnameable revelation arising in a gap between, on the one hand, a dull and alienating reality, and on the other an unmediated awareness of life. In contrast, there is a far more pessimistic conclusion that can be drawn, one that ends up as a resigned sense of inadequacy, in which we are made aware of our emotional, cognitive, social and political failure when faced with all that so blatantly exceeds us.

In my own practice and research I have found that the ‘transcending’ quality of developing technology fulfils this in the contemporary sublime- specifically in the field of aviation. Flight technology has been improving since the first craft allowing man fly and navigate the earth from above. In current commercial airlines and the phenomenon of the airport, both passengers and flight technology are separated from each other, planes are a symbol of the sublime- they have immense power in terms of both technology and allowing passengers to reach far destinations. They also represent a fear within the sublime, failure of imperfect technology, terrorism and fear of death and rethinking mortality.

Morley also makes the point that the man made and natural together are a large part of the term contemporary sublime:

Today it is technology rather than nature that provides us with our strongest sense of the sublime. While the legacy of the Land Artists of the 1970s, such as the Americans Robert Smithson or Walter de Maria, who expanded the frame of art into the vast open spaces of the mid-west, still makes itself felt, and contemporary photographers, such as Gursky or Darren Almond, continue to bring the awesomeness of nature into the art gallery via the medium of large-scale digital prints, it is not so much the desert, the stormy sea, or the mountain range that serve as subject matter for a contemporary sublimity as the mind-boggling power of science and the infinite spaces created by digitalisation. Indeed, any residual sense of nature comes thoroughly mediated. As the American artist Fred Tomaselli remarks of his childhood: “After hiking miles into the wilderness and discovering my first real waterfall, I immediately began looking for the pumps and conduit that make it work.” A recent work by Eliasson seems to engage directly with just such cultural contagion and confusion, as it involved creating artificial waterfalls around New York City’s rivers. The magical effect they evinced suggested both a sense of something natural and at the same time thoroughly unnatural and man-made.

This point, for me, links back to my research into the structure of the airport in the book Aviopolis. The interconnectivity of passengers with the physical structure/aesthetic of the airport together create an experience of the sublime. Morley also mentions the mediation of nature by man made technology; this is also seen in flight as technology allows passengers to fly but also protects them from the dangers of the natural world.

I have also come across the term mediation in the book Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory. Here Gene Ray talks about the gap or mediation between the direct source of fear and the recipient. The type of mediation- through art, literature or contemporary media allows the audience to enjoy the terror to a certain degree. This has been an important part of my research- looking specifically at how plane crashes and other disasters are represented in society and any ethical issues may arise from depicting these scenes.

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Filed under MA Fine Art, Musings

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