A blackout is a deprivation. It narrows our perceptions. It inhibits, or stops, our movement. It takes away permanence; the present may no longer be as you remember it from the past, and you don’t make long-term plans. You inhabit the now with a fresh immediacy. The sense of control that vision brings with it is removed; objects beyond those that can be heard, or smelled, or touched lose their objectivity, and become mere ideas. The notion of place as a point in a continuum, uncontested, starts to break down. You know where you are. But where’s everything else?
At the same time as the deprivation — or a little afterwards, perhaps; the sense of time begins to play tricks the moment the lights go out — comes the expansion. The unreduced senses start to stretch further. Awareness, rather than being pinned in place behind the eyes, spreads out into the murmuring darkness. Vision breaks things down and orders them, by place, by size, by kind. Its removal allows them to merge. Lines of travel, and lines of demarcation, are removed. The practical possibilities of running and jumping are curtailed; moral possibilities, though, may expand in the uninspected dark. No one can see us loot, or love. We can think differently. The unseen world can change.
Dan Holdsworth’s Blackout series is harsh art. It withholds the cues our eyes are used to; we cannot judge depths or trust surfaces. Its singular technique, reversing out a grey world bleached by overexposure, alienates us from its landscapes. In other circumstances we might respond to glacier-carved hillsides and horizons with anything from academic interest to touristic intention, with emotions from indifference to sublime awe. Now our responses are harder to categorise. The art feels sharp and sudden as a flash gun. It pulls at our sense of scale, it strips out our skies. In depriving us, this art makes us work. The mountains of the imagination Holdsworth has created are there to scale, not just admire. It is a demanding ascent: how big are these things? How far off? We stumble in the space they confront us with, which is not so much a space within the images as a space which divides them from the world we thought we knew.
Blackout’s alienating take on the panoramic makes us explorers of a distant planet. And by posing the exploration of its landscapes as a challenge, the work opens up a question that is both moral and aesthetic: Why do I care about this barren land — if, indeed, I do? The barren land in question is based on Iceland, an island Holdsworth has taken as a subject for years. It is an easy country to become fascinated by, especially if you are drawn to the empty. By its very location it is edgy, sitting on the rift created as two great tectonic plates pull the surface of the Earth apart. Normally such sunderings are submerged in the ocean depths. In Iceland the rift is raised up above the waves by a hot plume of material from a source deeper down in the Earth’s mantle — perhaps hundreds of kilometres, perhaps thousands. The coincidence of rift and plume drives volcanic activity on a level unmatched anywhere else on the Earth; hundreds of volcanoes, thousands of hot springs.
On top of the fire, the ice. Iceland sits just below the Arctic Circle and its mountains are wrapped in and moulded by a variety of glaciers. As the volcanoes build the island, the glaciers tear it down; ice and lava flow into, over and under each other, rock shaping ice, ice shaping rock. Fresh lava intruding under icecaps can lead to great floods of meltwater, jökulhlaups, rushing over gravelly plains to the sea. Ice melting in magma can turn what would otherwise be calm flows and controlled fountains of new rock into explosions that stretch up to the stratosphere, darkening skies across the island, closing airports a thousand kilometres downwind.
Iceland’s otherness does not sit easily on eyes trained to landscapes elsewhere. Its rocks, built up eruption by eruption on the Earth’s freshest crust, have not yet been folded and rippled by time. They lack the charm that comes from being reworked, geologically and artistically, in the various ways more frequently aestheticised mountains like the Alps, or the Highlands, or the American West have been. The land is violent and still, windswept and treeless, elemental.
It is not hard to see this land as an alien world, colonised by longships that, in their time, might as well have been spaceships. The directors of fantasy and science fiction films have pressed it into unearthly service time and again: Matthew Vaughn in Stardust; Wolfgang Petersen in Enemy Mine; Luc Besson in The Fifth Element; Ridley Scott in Prometheus; Christopher Nolan in Interstellar; the makers of Game of Thrones, seeking a wildling land beyond their Wall. Scientists whose requirements for stand-in pseudo-planets are more exacting do much the same. Apollo astronauts were brought here to learn about basaltic lava; not much of the Earth’s exposed surface is made of basalt, but for much of the rest of the inner solar system (particularly the bits flat and hard enough to land on) basalt and its broken down derivatives are pretty much the default. Geologists interested in the ways that basaltic lava and glacial ice interact to shape the landscape of Mars, and in the sorts of hot-spring life that such collisions of ice and fire can make possible, come to do field work in Iceland’s summers.
My own first trip to Iceland was for a “Bioastronomy” conference devoted to ideas about the habitability of the universe; the location and the field trips were a large part of the attraction. In the Blackout series Holdsworth confers a new otherworldliness on Iceland. The work focuses on a southern landscape — quite close to Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that closed down Europe’s airports in 2010 — that is dominated by a glacier which, rather than being icy-white, is darkened by basalt-black dust and grit within it. This black-for-white inversion is one of the subtler games of rock and ice. By day, a black particle sitting on clear ice, warmed by the sun, will sink into that which supports it. By night the ice refreezes. Next day the grain goes deeper, and again and again until entirely encased in ice. Even then it does not stop. Grit and soot will descend as deep into the ice as the light of the sun can penetrate, injecting rockiness into its essence.
The seeming contradiction of the black glacier appealed to Holdsworth. Icy shapes were rendered in the colours and textures of dirt; mountain rock and the force eroding it flowed into a sort of continuity. Where ice is so often used to betoken purity and fragility (not least in images associated with climate change), here it came ready polluted, self besmirching, concrete and brutal. With an industrial cast but no acknowledgment of human agency, it did not fit easily into established aesthetics of landscape. It was uneasy, depleted, contradictory. It was months later that Holdsworth, having read a description of the New York blackout of 1965, thought to ask what a removal of light might do to these landscapes, and tried inverting the images. The effect was immediately arresting. The darkened glacier came to bright life, a whiteness first blacked out by nature now reversed through technology. The cloud-covered sky turned empty black. The image abstracted itself into something entirely unearthly. The pictures became Iceland’s next contribution to science fiction, landscapes sent back from a probe to another world that reflected and reinterpreted the contradiction of this one.
Holdsworth’s interest in the unearthly is longstanding. It informed his At The Edge of Space series, which responded to the European Space Agency’s launch site in French Guyana, and to subjects such as the northern lights and the Arecibo radio telescope, which was originally built to study, from the sunnier climes of Puerto Rico, the ionosphere that brings those lights into being. Nor is moving beyond the Earth unprecedented in landscape photography more generally. As Michael Light has brilliantly shown in his creation / curation Full Moon, the astronauts who went to the Moon took with them aesthetics trained in the American West as surely as they took reflexes trained in flight school. Their images of the moon cry out to be understood in the tradition of American landscape photography that first provided a way to incorporate desert and mountain geometries into the aesthetics of a minimalist modernity, and which took as its subject both the barrenness of the desert and the signs of the photographer’s presence in it — whether they be the wheel ruts of a mule-drawn truck or the long shadow of an astronaut.
The images of an unearthly Earth in Blackout, though, take us in the opposite direction — emphasising the discontinuity of a planetary space deprived of human reference. The images from the scientific exploration of space that they recall most powerfully are not those from the Moon, where men walked, or from Mars, where humanity’s slow-roving emissaries have for years rolled across dunes and over hills indistinguishable, to the untrained eye, from those of the Earth. They look much more like our pictures of the volcanoes of Venus, inaccessible to humans, impossible for the human eye to see.
The searing heat and extraordinary pressure of Venus’s atmosphere have allowed almost no exploration of its surface; the few pictures sent back by short-lived Soviet landers show just a handful of murky rocks. But its features have been mapped by radar, most effectively by an American orbiter called Magellan, and the radar data have been processed into what seem to be pictures. There too are the black skies, the mountains and rifts, the impression of illumination from within, the lack of a sense of scale and the impossibility of any real presence. These are no longer landscapes across which there might be tracks.
Blackout’s strange illumination, the feature of the work that brings radar most to my mind, is one of the keys to its power. Radar is a curious way of seeing because, in most of its applications, the point of illumination and the point of view are one and the same. It is as though the eye provided its own illumination or — geometrically the same thing — as if every facet of the world were projected onto the retina, or the focal plane, by a source of light that lay directly behind it. Radar is thus free from shadow; to be in the line of sight and to be lit are one and the same. The rays heading out are the rays coming back. As far as I can tell, there is not yet any large body of radar art. I know there has been some experimentation, but the possibilities of this medium in which the observer can be active and passive, and time and space matched off against each other by the nanosecond, seem to remain largely unexplored. But the relatively even illumination in Holdsworth’s original photographs, overexposed under overcast skies, and the subsequent removal of any sense of those skies in the inverted world of the finished product, make some inroads into this alternative sensorium. They are not ersatz radar images, but they take on some of the effects of radar, and some of its egotistical objectivity, its ability to synthesise worlds focused on a viewer who does not inhabit them.
One consequence of this is a difficulty in reading scale and texture. The images are authentic to the rock and ice originally photographed, but the inversion renders their structure illegible. The conscious appreciation that light is dark, that brightness is shadow, cannot be passed far enough down the chain of visual processing to make full sense of what is seen; sight and mind are at an impasse. And so there is just texture, with different granularities abutting against each other in ways that one would expect to reveal depth, but in the act of seeing remove it. But if hard to read, the textures of Blackout, with their curious ribs, streaks and stripes, are at the same time vital to its strange beauty. If our eyes are asked to work, they are also rewarded with riches, if not with full comprehension. The effect is strengthened by Holdsworth’s compositions. Some, such as Blackout 13, draw us in with valleys and a sense of layering (remember, though — the darkened distance is in fact an ever brighter backdrop to the dark foreground). Some, such as Blackout 17, flatly shut us out, leaving nothing but abstraction on their surfaces.
The negation of shadow that produces the pictures’ depthlessness also dislocates time. Stripped of any identifiable human agency, flattened by their pseudo-illumination, echoing the immensities of untraveled planets, the Blackout pieces seem timeless. One way to read that timelessness is as eternity, and that sits well with the sense of the alien; the rocks of the Moon and Mars and Mercury are ineffably ancient compared to most of the rocks of Earth, which the movements of the tectonic plates ceaselessly create and destroy. But just as eternity is timeless, so is the instant. The Blackout landscapes have a lightning-lit feel, evoking a world-flash which, as with radar, is an all-seeing act of will. A light that is instantaneous sits well with the notion of blackout. Blackouts are defined by the light that suddenly stops at the instant of their onset. And blackouts go on to become moments of their own, odd sorts of moment that refuse to end, a persistent sense of normal service endlessly not resumed.
This is not the only moment in play. The emptiness of the sky again makes the reading more complex. In a storm, the lightning lights the sky as well; linking the sky to the land is the whole purpose of such storms, at least as far as electrostatics and aesthetics are concerned. For want of a lit sky, in at least some of the images the notion of lightning becomes incipient. And once again things are reversed. The bolt seems about to burst, not from the sky, but from the ground. The internal light of the landscape betokens some great accumulation of energy; the jagged skylines stand like spike-cathode arrays, inverted lightning rods from which the energy accumulating in the glowing Earth is about to discharge itself into the empty sky. It is the moment before the moment.
And it is also the moment after the moment, in which the flash is no longer in the world, but only in our retina, the moment of the afterimage. Part of the deprivation of the Blackout images is that through this afterimage effect they carry the sense of being the last things we saw, of being things that we have suddenly stopped seeing even as we look at them. The moment of the blackout sits frozen between what is about to begin and what is already over.
Soot for snow; ice for rock; black for white; Earth for other; flatness for depth; light for dark; day for night; instant for eternity; constraint for unboundedness; raw world for digital artifice. Vision for Blackout. Human for inhuman. In the last of all those inversions is the meaning of Holdsworth’s work that matters most to me. In Western aesthetic traditions of the sublime there are two streams that stand out from early on, defined by Burke and Kant. Burke’s sublime is the feeling of awe that should inspire terror but which, thanks to the privileged position of the viewer, does not — it is the terrible seen from safety. Kant’s sublime is that of the immensity understood, a vastness made safe by the fact that the intellect through which it is understood is shown, through that act of understanding, to be greater still.
Space travel, and the Earthly daydreams it inspires, play off both forms of the sublime. The grand terror of landscapes colder than ice or hotter than foundries, their staggering distance transcended by the human mind not just through its pure intellectual grasp, but through its spectacular practice of technology. I am removed from these deadly vistas by millions of kilometres across which I could never actually travel. But, the technology says, I could be there. This sense of space travel as the realm of untrammelled possibility lends itself to the idea of space as utopia — a place that is no place, which could not be a place, but which at the same time might, somehow, just possibly, be a perfect place. I say utopia; I could as well say afterlife.
But in the visions of Blackout, there is no there where I might be. In a blackout I cannot see. In Blackout I can’t project myself into what I see. A creation of the computer, its landscapes are further off, in their way, than moonscape or Mars-scape; no road or rocket could take me there. The jaggedness, the play of light and shadow, the semi-Alpine feel all speak of Burke’s sublime — but there is no point of entry for me, and without that Burke’s conflation of terror and safety seems to mean both less and more. It seems real, and it is a representation of the real, but it cannot feel real, because the representation is strange in a way that my visual cortex can’t quite untangle.
But if I cannot get in, there is also an uneasy feeling that I cannot get out; that I am there, trapped in that all seeing moment of illumination, at the same time as I am utterly outside it. Blackout is in this way akin to op art, deriving some of its impact from processes beyond my control and my capacity to interpret symbolically (though where op art is invasively kinetic, this is timelessly still). And this characteristic undercuts any hope that Kant’s version of the sublime could apply, because I can’t hold the notions that control this vision in my mind. They live not in reason but in the mechanics of perception. And so my senses are cut off and I am alienated from a landscape which, presented without inversion, I would find ugly but inhabitable. A landscape external in the way that a far-off planet might be and internal in the way a vision is. The odd lack of scale makes it everything except human, the sense of time disassembled into endless instants removes it from the realm of human narrative. It makes me think too much, while holding itself in silence.
It is a landscape that I can’t reach and that my mind can’t encompass. For all its bright-lit simplicity, it is not a utopia. It is a heterotopia, a world built of contradiction, like a mirror, or a madhouse, or a city plunged into darkness and no longer capable of seeing itself, policing itself, informing itself, cohering. It is not a place I can go to or come back from or understand. What reason then have I left to care for it? Simply that it is, in all its deprivation and contradiction, the world. Close your eyes and see.