Kelly Richardson, a Canadian artist living and working in the northeast of England produces large-scale, cinematic videos that are associated with the 18th century notion of the sublime. Primarily through theorists such as Longinus, Edmund Burke and Kant, the idea of the sublime has come to signify nature beyond human ability to control, driven by fears of industrialization and implications of rapid technological development. Visual representations of the sublime are one way that fears have been reified, however, since WWII, notions of the sublime have become problematized. Timothy Morton, theorist and advocate of an emerging strain of philosophy titled object-oriented-ontology, calls for an updated theory of the sublime because he claims it has the potential to increase our understanding of the environmental crises we presently face.[1] However, the discourse of the sublime is tainted in several ways. For example, notions of the sublime have served as a substitution for religiosity, certainly paintings from the Romantic period exemplified by Caspar David Friedrich attempted to convey spiritual meaning through elements of the landscape. By creating a seamless continuity between foreground, middle ground, and background, Friedrich broke with previously established protocols of landscape painting and de-stabilized the landscape creating a moralizing narrative whose aim was to induce a spiritual contemplation of nature. This signaled a departure from previously established modes in landscape representation such as those displayed in Classical paintings by Nicolas Poussin in which spatial elements are formally structured and clearly differentiated with a fixed vanishing point. Subsequent depictions of landscape, such as Rain Steam and Speed, The Great Western Railway (1844) by J.M.W. Turner, expressed anxiety around the progress of technology caught in a web of decline against the backdrop of industrialization and the inevitability of catastrophe. The painterly methods employed by both Friedrich and Turner ensure that the viewer remains outside of the frame of experience, in a place of safety merely observing sublime landscapes. Without a stake in the narrative, their message is rendered didactic. Not only that, but malevolent politics have tainted the sublime. The cathedrals’ of light created by chief Nazi architect Alfred Speer served to enhance the horrific spectacle of power in the Third Reich as the rhetoric of the sublime was deployed to seduce the masses. By radically cutting away the language of representation to emphasize the primacy of form and attempts to re-shape reality, Kasimir Malevich also engaged in theatrics of the sublime. By privileging a so-called ‘purity’, Malevich aimed to identify the irreducible core of painting, in both colour and form. The discourse of the sublime creates a sort of paralysis, in which case, the sublime often opens doors to darkness.

The Last Frontier I (2013) by Kelly Richardson depicts an enormous swirling dome set in an uncanny, remote terrain. The work unfolds in a bounded loop with no discernible beginning or end. Does the dome protect an unseen population from a hostile environment or is it a containment shield for a catastrophic nuclear or cosmic force? It remains undetermined whether the image represents a future, utopian habitat or a dangerous event horizon.[2] In 2013 The Last Frontier premiered at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival in Berwick-on-Tweed, a town located on the northeast coast of England, close to Scotland’s border. The first time The Last Frontier was exhibited publicly was significant because it was installed in the Bankhill icehouse, an early 18th century underground structure common to the area. Icehouses were purpose-built around the 1780’s and used to preserve food shipments that would be sent from Berwick to London and elsewhere. Eighteenth century icehouses were built with redundant doors so that air circulation was restricted to limit the ice melting. They had multiple layers of doors and no two sets would be open at once. Icehouses were hermetically sealed but there were drainage structures built inside that allowed ice to melt and water to drain away.[3] The Bankhill icehouse was used as its original function until the 1930’s, when iit became designated as an air raid shelter for WWII.

Trinity was the code name used for the first detonation of a nuclear weapon conducted by the US army in 1945 on a 160 kilometre tract of land in New Mexico called ‘Jornada del Muerto’[4]. Consider the image of the Trinity nuclear test, a few milliseconds after detonation. Morton identifies this moment as the end of the world. Actually, Morton calls the moment James Watt patented the steam engine in April 1784 the end of the world, because that moment marked the onset of non-naturally occurring carbon dioxide being deposited in the Earth’s atmosphere.[5] But Morton (and others) says that “for something to happen, it often needs to happen twice”[6] and so the second and re-affirming end of the world occurred on July 16, 1945, with the detonation of the first atom bomb.

There are a number of apocryphal stories with regards to the origin of the name ‘trinity’ for the first detonation of a nuclear device. Some say it derived from the first line in an 1896 poem by John Donne, Holy Sonnets 14 in which the first like reads: “Batter my heart, you three-person’d god”:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

-John Donne, Holy Sonnets XIV (1896).

Whereas, theoretical physicist and principal architect of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer reflects on the Trinity detonation in a video on the atomic archive, by quoting from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”[7] In the Bhagavad-Gita that phrase is uttered by one of the three anthropomorphic forms of creation, maintenance and destruction, also called the Hindu Triad or the Great Trinity.[8] This image of the Trinitydetonation was banned for some time because the test was conducted covertly during the wartime era, the first the general public heard of a nuclear device detonation was when it was deployed in Hiroshima and then three days later in Nagasaki.  The mere image of a massive ballooning globe was considered more provocative than the ubiquitous mushroom cloud. Trees, represented by tiny dots on the horizon in the Trinity detonation, provide a better understanding of the scale of the image.

That singular moment in 1945 where light was exposed to silver crystals that were suspended in gelatin on light sensitive resin-coated paper to preserve an image, reconciles with formal qualities that are evident in The Last Frontier. Both images depict a swirling, womb-like structure, yet taken together these images offer an oscillating juxtaposition between destruction and protection. The installation of The Last Frontier in a former WWII bomb shelter offers protection, but the potential for annihilation remains. The field of vision in The Last Frontier is punctuated by an element of incoherence symbolized by a churning orb that glows with an inner light. The point of incoherence is not necessarily easy to locate, as incoherence is a point of rupture. According to Žižek, a kernel of reality is the true horror of the real, it is also that kernel, (that irreducible core) which most disturbs us.[9] Both images open up terrifying vistas of reality that piece together our dissociated knowledge into a threatening truth. In this sense, Trinity now takes prominence as the more reassuring of the two images because it has had almost seventy years to sink into our consciousness. Several generations have lived with the awareness of a possible nuclear event, whereas The Last Frontier represents a future, unknown event horizon that proposes a terrifying utopia. Where Trinity is definitive, The Last Frontier vacillates  and it evokes many unanswerable questions.

Like the sublime landscape images of the 18th century Romantic period, viewers remain outside the frame of experience in The Last FrontierThe Last Frontier is a melancholic dispersion pierced by light, light of the dawn announcing the truly new, not unlike the storm of progress approaching on the horizon of Dürer’s famous 16th century print MelancholiaThe Last Frontier opens up a space where Benjaminian messianic time[10] becomes possible and in fact it can now be said that The Last Frontier depicts colliding modalities of time. Finally, The Last Frontier emerges as a cinematic sequence of sanctioned violence answered by a time of forgiveness from the distant future. A force moves to annihilate the cycle of historical time and The Last Frontier becomes a dialectical image where the past, present and future collide.

In the Medium is the Message (1967) Marshall McLuhan says that: “we look at the present though a rear-view mirror.We march backwards into the future.”The phrase ‘backwards into the future’ is significant because it suggests our understanding of the present is constituted only in retrospect by observing history. In The Sublime Object of Ideology, Žižek supports the idea that meanings of the past are constructed retroactively.[11] And one of the key concerns in Hal Foster’s Return of The Real is the notion of displaced temporality. Freud’s concept of deferred action nachträglichkeit where a traumatic event is decoded retroactively only through a later event, figures prominently. A return from the future where one moment leads to the next, exemplifies an uncanny temporality that is apparent in The Last Frontier. It is only with the advent of the next moment that permits comprehension of the one before.

This notion of the future anterior runs through Barthes’ passage in ‘Flat Death’ from Camera Lucida (1981):

(This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which   death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past…[photography] tells me death is   in the future…I shudder…over a catastrophe which has already occurred.[12])

Similarly, in The Ecological Thought, Morton also addresses the future anterior in saying that: “we must create frameworks for coping with a catastrophe that, from the evidence of the hysterical announcements of its imminent arrival, has already occurred.”[13]

Through sublime warnings of environmental cataclysm, Richardson’s work suggests that humanity may not be able to counteract its interventions into the landscape. The Last Frontier is a paradoxical, cinematic work that references an apocalypse while simultaneously promising a subjective utopia.[14] The Last Frontier signals a sort of demise where a violent, unknown event horizon has necessitated the creation of a zone of protection. Although the swirling dome purports an uncanny, nebulous region of light and shadow, it also suggests events expected to happen after a point of reference, at some temporally undefined moment in the future. It indicates that a violent event that has disrupted time.

The Last Frontier suggests a narrative scenario that results from an interruption of the normal social order; a disruption that would presumably occur when established socio-political structures fail. It issues warnings of consequences that, in retrospect, more concerted efforts should have been made to avert and offers a means to see the present, as if from a distance, by the work’s portrayal of a deep future or else, a deep past.”[15] The present becomes less a point on a temporal trajectory and more like a crossroads where the possible worlds of future and past intersect.

The globe of protection and annihilation in The Last Frontier represents a land overcome by nuclear winter. But it also articulates a utopian possibility[16] that reaches beyond the paralysis of the sublime. Although to our knowledge present-day technology has not yet been able to manifest the conditions represented in The Last Frontier. The Last Frontier is a work of revelatory emergence that defines a particular, ecologically oriented, politics. The work also functions as an iterative structure marked by a dialectic that no longer moves towards a transcendent future, within the rhetorical category of the sublime.

 

[1] Timothy Morton. “Sublime Objects.” In Speculations II: A Journal of Speculative Realism, edited by Michael Austin, Paul J. Ennis, Fabio Gironi, Thomas Gokey, New York: Punctum Books, (May 2011): 227.

[2] Kelly Richardson, artist website, http://kellyrichardson.net/?project=the-last-frontier (accessed February 26, 2014)

[3] John Claudius Loudon, An Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture and Furniture (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1839), 364-366.

[4] The translation of the name reifies how inhospitable the geographic area is. In Spanish Jornada del Muerto translates to: ‘a day’s journey, for a dead man’.

[5] Timothy Morton. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2013):7.

[6] Morton. Hyperobjects. 7.

[7] J. Robert Oppenheimer, http://www.atomicarchive.com/Movies/Movie8.shtml (accessed February 26, 2014). In the clip Oppenheimer is paraphrasing Chapter 11, section 32 of the Bhagavad-Gita.

[8] But Oppenheimer is paraphrasing: there are in fact many translations: “I am all-powerful Time which destroys all things, and I have come here to slay these men.” Another edition of the Bhagavad-Gita translates the line as: “I am come as Time, the waster of peoples, Ready for the hour that ripens to their ruin.”

[9] Jacques Lacan provides the framework for Žižek’s analyses. Especially important to Žižek are Lacan’s three registers: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. See Žižek, Violence, 13. Also see Benjamin Noys, “The Horror of the Real: Žižek’s Modern Gothic,” International Journal of Žižek Studies Number 4, Volume 4, (2010): 1-13.

[10] Walter Benjamin. “Critique of Violence” in Selected Writings: 1913- 1926Volume 1 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996): 250-252.

[11] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology. (London: Verso Books, 1989) 56.

[12] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, (New York: Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1981), 96.

[13] Morton, The Ecological Thought, 17.

[14] I use the term ‘utopia’ somewhat hesitantly because it implies the failure of its enterprise.

[15] Alistair Robinson, “Future Anterior,” In Kelly Richardson: The Last Frontier (Lethbridge: Southern Alberta Art Gallery, 2013), 15.

[16] Utopia is the conjoined twin of dystopia. See Richard Noble, ed. Utopias: Documents of Contemporary Art. (Co-published by London: Whitechapel Gallery and Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009).

 

HONEST ULSTERMAN
Feature: Kelly Richardson – Shadows from the Future

by CARMEN VICTOR

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