Thursday, 16 June 2016

Subject Matter - Representation and Abstraction

Keywords: Sublime / Shadowtime / Stuplimity / Solistalgia

My switch from purely abstract images to a more representational approach was born out of an observation made in the last module that my mark-making was becoming repetitive. I was starting to rely of a range of 'characters' like an alphabet is used to make words and sentences. I wanted to start working from reference to give myself a range of visual problems to solve, namely how to describe line, texture, shape etc… Therefore I would be forced to adapt my intuitive approach and create a richer range of marks. The Landscape and Light project provided the perfect opportunity to test this out. Here I had a defined reason to use trees as subject matter, they were of that place and defined the space both architecturally and psychologically.

However in this final module I have decided to stick with trees as a motif on which to 'hang' my abstractions. But this new body of work is not about a specific location so why? This was a question posed to me at the start of the module.

As I develop this new body of work two possible answers to this question have started to emerge:

My first response was that trees acted as symbols of the metaphysical, allover weblike structures functioning as literal interpretations of my earlier abstract pattern based paintings. These organic structures also allow a degree of flexibility in how they are described, allowing me freedom to use expressive, gestural marks. As symbols of the natural world they have an engrained universal resonance, we are part of nature and nature is part of us. Images of the natural therefore encourage an emotional response. I have always felt that understanding is first gained through 'feeling'. I see the initial preverbal response to an artwork’s aesthetics as a powerful and deep-rooted connection; successfully evoking a scene of sublimity is therefore directly tied to the viewer’s first engagement. These emotive motifs may therefore better function as agents of a preverbal response. 

“Gaston Bachelard (1969)’ a pioneer in the investigation of the creative reception of literature, famously asserted that ‘…the image has touched the depths before it stirs the surface’. He meant that we do not need to know the context from which it originates, nor to have shared the poet’s suffering, in order for an immediate response to a poetic image to make itself felt” (Maclagan, 2004, p.44).

Language is a Chinese whisper from our own psyche. We can never fully articulate our understanding with words, understanding is first 'felt'. Feeling is the mind/bodys primary response to a stimulus. Language is therefore a reductive system which will always fail to convey the RAW of experience. I regard this immediate connection as a spiritual one, not to be confused with a religious belief but a belief in the ‘other’, something that can’t be proven and is known through feeling.
“The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, lies beyond the human – God or the gods, the daemon or Nature – is matter for great disagreement” (Weiskel, 2010, p.12). 

The sublime is centred in us, a personal response to the undemostratable, its true understanding is attained in the moments you experience it.

‘The role of the contemporary artist is to “question the nondemonstratable’. That question is, to me, the only one worthy of life’s high stakes, and the world of thought in the coming century”
(Lyotard, 2010, p.135).
This reading allows contextual ideas and concepts developed from my initial proposal to apply in much the same way and requires no big shift in thinking. Trees/nature are functioning as metaphysical agents, the face of the non demonstratable.

The other reading and the one which is becoming unignoreble as my work progresses is that there is an ecological reading. Independent of my practice I have begun reading articles about the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is a term is being used to define the period in which we as a species have caused ecological long-term damage to our global environment.

The word joins the Greek word 'anthropos', for humans, to the suffix 'scene', meaning new or recent to suggest an epoch defined by recent human activity. The start of the Anthropocene is much debated but is commonly placed with the dawn of the nuclear age. It also coincides with the 'Great Acceleration', when massive increases occurred in population, carbon emissions, species innovations and extinctions, and when the production and discard of metals, concrete and plastics boomed.

Throughout my reading I have been finding new terminologies invented to try and define the issues and ideas around the concept of the Anthropocene. I have found these words/phrases often  intended to help describe or define this new ecological concept often also seem to 'fit' or define concepts starting to form in my work.

Shadow time - The sense of living in two or more temporal scales simultaneously.
Stuplimity - An aesthetic response in which astonishment is mixed with boredom.
Solastalgia - Form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change. Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action:the home becomes suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants.

Stuplimity in particular seems to resonate with my thinking, in many ways stuplimity defines a post-modern Sublime. While formulated to articulate ecological concerns it effortlessly extends to define the whole our post-modern experience (or post-postmodern but there is no time here for that debate!).

We are saturated with information and in the current din of information all sense of importance, meaning and clarity are lost. Taking Facebook posts as an extreme example of this, scrolling through my news feed I see War in Syria, mass shootings, a cat holding a pizza, deforestation in the amazon, what my friend had for dinner last night. All is served up in the same manner with the same implied relevance. The mundane and the catastrophic have lost their distinctions. It may also be that in our coverage of geological or man made disasters such as, war, famine and disease we are seeing sublime terror often. This familiarity normalizes and these encounters and the sublime is diminished.  The Stuplime has replaced the Sublime, we are astonnished then but it soon passes and we scroll on by.

The indifference hinted at in the word 'Stuplime' is itself terrifying, the knowledge that our compassion and will to act have become paralyzed by the weight of information. However I'm sure the terror of this realisation will soon pass!  

I do not feel I have to decide between these two positions and feel its possible for both to function concurrently. But with trees and nature I have a subject with which all can relate to and draw their own conclusions.

'The tree is a fundamental form. It's a shape, a metaphor, a concept that we inherently respond to and find attractive. Trees have the potential to be read both abstractly and formally.' 
Katie Holten - interview with Stephen Sparks - On turning Words and Paragraphs into Whole Forests

Further reading:

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014) Elizabeth Kolbert
Field Notes from a catastrophe (2006) Elizabeth Kolbert
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (2014) Naomi Klein
Adventures in the Anthropocence (2015) Gaia Vince

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