An exhibition catalogue essay commissioned for ‘Of Stars and Chasms‘. The show was presented at Arthouse1 in London in 2018, and featured work by artist Hannah Luxton and Jullie F Hill. It explored notions of the sublime, from its origins in 18th Century Romanticism to the contemporary, technological and scientific.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed, one thing that often soothes me is the thought of my own and every other living creature’s sheer inconsequentiality. Our lives and fretted concerns weigh less than a speck of cosmic dust in a universe estimated to be around 13.799 billion years old and 93 billion light years in diameter. Numbers which can be calculated by human minds but never truly comprehended, so far do they exist beyond the realms of lived experience.
At home on Earth, the inconceivable slowness of deep, geological time revealed through the fossil record commands no less of a sense of awe. The vastness of scale forces us into the region of analogies; the classic example being a representation of the history of our estimated 4.55-billion-year-old planet on a 24-hour clock face – humans arriving at little over a minute to midnight.
Such concepts illuminate the unknown and yet are unknowable. They make the brain fizz and induce a vertiginous sensation akin to the physical gut-wrench of safely gazing out over a boundless ocean, peering into a bottomless cavern, or standing at the foot of a towering precipice. A feeling which contains the seductive allure of annihilation; submission to something greater; dissolution of the self. The sublime.
Perhaps thanks to the lasting influence of British philosopher Edmund Burke and the Romantic movement of the late 18th century, the sublime is a term commonly associated with the awesome qualities of the natural world. However, it relates to something much bigger, too. A capacity for feeling that transcends boundaries and cannot be reduced into language; which can only be gestured towards, approached obliquely. It comes close to the Dutch philosopher Hent De Vries’s definition of the Absolute: “that which refuses to dissolve completely into the milieu of human knowledge.” Which “names the limits of intelligibility.”
The slipperiness of the sublime invites and problematises its representation; we can only ever be moved to sensate the experience through the activation of our imagination. The internal process of transportation entailed, however, is also exactly what can make an artwork affecting. The pieces presented in Of Stars and Chasms achieve just this; drawing both upon ancient motifs and the strangeness of our expanding universe to offer a gateway or portal into the borderlands of perception.
Using a section from one of the largest photographs taken of the Milky Way – measuring 108,200 by 81,500 pixels and containing nearly nine billion pixels – Julie F Hill’s site-responsive sculptural formation, Dark River (2018), commands a gravitational presence. Up close, its mesmerising density of stars picked out against undulating clouds of nebulous gas brings the immense abundance of the microbial kingdom to mind (a taxonomy numbering an estimated one trillion species on this planet alone). Further back, the tumbling shape of the pillar echoes the crashing power of a waterfall. Somewhere in between, its pitted surface and engulfing size emanates the monumental force of a meteorite.
Draped around a long L-shaped mirror, the surreal merge of telluric and celestial references is accompanied by a disorientating conflation of image and reflections. The effect plays upon the dualistic nature of the core light-gathering component which enabled the photograph to be taken and has helped us to look deeper into space since Isaac Newton’s invention of the first reflecting telescope in 1668. Mirrors are instruments of science and objects of myth, magic, truth and illusion; as such, they appear often in Hill’s work.
Her immersive video installation Through Machine & Darkness (2018) builds on this strange intersection further, emphasising the increasingly beyond-human, almost supernatural power of technology. Made using a Deep Convolutional Generative Adversarial Network (a form of artificial intelligence/machine learning increasingly used in examining astronomical datasets) trained on over 45,0000 RAW images from the Hubble Space Telescope; the looping sequence provides a view of space that is utterly different from the breath-taking colour images presented to the public by NASA. A view much closer to the unfiltered information which the telescope actually transmits.
Over the course of 40 minutes, the projection crystallises from a field of haze into what appear like stars, galaxies and other astronomical configurations. The experience of watching evokes a quiet, ghostly feeling; a far cry from the orchestral crescendos that tend to mentally accompany visions of space. We are watching the algorithmic imagination at work. The technological sublime in motion.
By contrast, Hannah Luxton’s paintings speak a far more elementary, instinctual language rooted in a place of pre-rational understanding. Elegantly refined minimalist shapes (circles, arcs, pointed cones) radiate a pure aspect of light and energy, whilst surrounding swathes of naked linen canvas connect with the artist’s interest in Eastern philosophical notions of the Void – a sort of supreme nothingness free from illusion; the true basis of reality.
Luxton finds her subjects within nature – the sun, the moon, stars, mountain tops, craters and ice caverns – condensing and abstracting each referent into an archetypal version of itself. As such, her practice engages with the Romantic tradition whilst equally reaching much further back in time, finding an emotional kinship with the implicit sense of the sublime perhaps traceable within prehistoric art. This narrative is further enhanced by the animistic currents running through pieces like Numina II (2018) and Constellations (2017), which seem to hint towards a higher spiritual dimension.
As well as dislodging the sublime’s place in art historical time, these elusive paintings also expand upon the Romantic conception of ‘nature’; dissolving the boundary frequently drawn between ‘the natural world’ that surrounds us on Earth and the ‘natural’ sphere of the cosmos. The electric red ring in Crater (2017), for instance, might relate to the molten lava bubbling deep within Mount Etna or Mars’s Olympus Mons. And are the two silvery points in Duo (2016) snowy ice caps or shooting comets? An ethereal quality forms the universal fabric both to the work and all it depicts.
Separately, Luxton and Hill have each set out in search of a raw, essential encounter with reality, but both have arrived at work that shares a strangely dreamlike core. Rather than suggesting that they have strayed from their intended course, this strikes me as raising an insightful series of questions around human perception itself. Particularly in the post-Enlightenment West, the idea of reality is intrinsically linked with science, reason and logic –anthropocentric models that perhaps act as barriers rather than enablers when trying to comprehend a subject wholly greater and impervious to ourselves. Of Stars and Chasms approaches a titanic subject in the only way possible; with humility and openness, inviting wonder and embracing the unknown.
Image: Julie F Hill, Dark River (2018), physically manipulated digital print, 9 x 3m