BECOMING SECOND NATURE:
DAN HOLDSWORTH AND THE SUBLIME
Very Like A Whale
‘Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is back‘d like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.’
[Hamlet, Act Three, Scene Two]
It is late summer in Southern England. In the low distance, the sky rises from the land as a milky haze. Higher up, the haze thickens into more distinct masses of cloud. Higher still, the banks of cloud have been teased apart and pierced by a blue so bright it seems to have arrived cleansed by the ferocious winds and rain of the preceding days. At the sky’s highest, it is this blue that dominates, the clouds’ presence reduced to ever-thinning corrugated streaks.
The scene evokes little of the turbulent force of a cloudy Turner seascape and hardly any of the melancholic grandeur of a Caspar David Friedrich mountainside of mist and fog. Nevertheless, compared to the land that lies beneath it - tamed into neat grids of industrial agriculture, scattered with pockets of dwellings and scored by transport routeways as far as the horizon, there is still something of nature in these cloud formations. Perhaps there is even something of the sublime, a speculation made more credible by the willingness of some philosophers — Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and John Locke, for example — to dwell on the role of clouds in the sublime.
Over to the east a passenger jet is making a break for the coast, its trajectory marked by a condensation trail. The contrail- a mixture of water vapour and pollutants — begins life as a tight tunnel before gradually dispersing. Although I have watched this process at work many times and even conducted some cursory research into the matter, it is still with a start that I realise that the streaky clouds I previously noticed at the sky’s zenith and confidently assigned to an effect of nature are nothing more than aircraft exhaust fumes. The sheer quantity of these interweaving layers of pseudo-cirrus is awesome. I am reminded of the statistic proposed by a NASA scientist that in relatively dense air traffic corridors, like the one above this hill, one fifth of the cloud cover might be attributed to contrails, the formations of which endure for weeks. Although I am no longer struck by the same magnitude of nature evoked in Turner or Friedrich, the shock of encountering these human artefacts in disguise, the contrails, may amount to another kind of sublime.
In Search of the Sublime
The insertion of the sublime into British aesthetics can be traced back to the translation of a short treatise by an anonymous Greek philosopher of the first century AD whom scholars decided to call Longinus. It was Edmund Burke whose interventions steered its interpretation away from Longinus’ primary focus on rhetoric and a ‘certain Eminence or Perfection of language’ towards a definition that was partially occluded in the original, the idea of ‘an Image reflected from the inward Greatness of the Soul’.
The principal location for Burke’s exploration of the sublime conventionally remains within the pages of his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of the Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.1 Eleven years before its publication the sixteen-year-old Burke’s observations of a flooding river provoked a poetic rendering of the sublime experience: ’The melancholy gloom of the day, the whistling winds, and the hoarse rumbling of the swollen Liffey, with the flood, which even where I write, lays close siege to our whole street ... It gives me pleasure to see nature in these great though terrible scenes. It fills the mind with grand ideas, and turns the soul in upon herself ... I considered how little man is, yet in his mind, how great! He is Lord and Master of all things, yet scarce can command anything‘.2 This notion of the sublime evokes a curious mixture of pleasure and pain, of the pride of human enterprise punctured by the humiliating powers of the natural environment.
As the baton passes from Burke to Immanuel Kant and we move into the last years of the eighteenth century, this paradoxical juxtaposition of ecstasy and dread remains. Kant’s dramatic encapsulation of the sublime initially sounds apiece with Burke’s efforts: ‘Bold, overhanging, and as it were threatening rocks, clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peaks, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river, and such like - these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might‘.3 For Kant, however, the sublime undergoes a radical twist. The human does remain humiliated by the confrontation with nature in terms of our relative physical fragility. Moreover, our imaginative capacity is equally disgraced in its ineffectual struggles to embrace the totality of nature. Nevertheless, while the flesh and the imagination prove weak in the battle with the sublime, for Kant another faculty emerges victorious, that of reason: ‘And so also the irresistibility of its might, while making us recognise our own [physical] impotence, considered as beings of nature, discloses to us a faculty of judging independently of and a superiority over nature’.4
Considerable time has passed since Kant and Burke formulated their approaches and much has happened to the sublime. For one thing, the word buried itself into the soil of colloquial language and is now only unearthed in such expressions as ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’ and ‘with sublime indifference’ with a pungent odour of irony. For another, when the sublime is employed without irony, it has gone - in a process parallel to the one which afflicted the word landscape - from meaning a relationship to nature to meaning nature itself. Finally, although the sublime persists as an entry in any dictionary of aesthetics, its use there, and indeed in this essay on Dan Holdsworth’s photographic work, risks being compromised by at least two problems.
The first problem encountered in any contemporary application of the sublime relates to its original connection to the enormity of nature alone. This pitfall can be skirted if we hold on to the centrality of the confrontation between humans and their environment, the feelings of ecstasy and dread evoked and the ultimate conclusion of humiliation (Burke) or hubris (Kant). That Kant and Burke expressed the sublime in terms of an unambitious definition of the environment is perhaps less our problem than theirs.5 The second problem is perhaps easier to side step, at least in the specific case of Dan Holdsworth’s photographs. In general terms, Burke and Kant intended their ideas of the sublime to apply at first hand, so to speak. Kant, for example, frequently derides ‘nur Kunst’ — mere art — and insists that in order for an authentic experience of the sublime to be provoked, the stimulus ‘must be nature or [at least] be regarded as’6 nature.
The justification for conducting this philosophical detour into Burke‘s and Kant‘s sublime lies in the discovery of inspirational concepts with which to navigate Holdsworth‘s world. Elements of Burke’s and Kant’s ideas betray their origins in the working out of the debates of the Enlightenment and this is true of the two problems just identified. Because it is the idea of the sublime that I am after and not any precise reading of any specific author’s work, I can remain agnostic about whether or not Kant’s or Burke’s approaches accommodate a vicarious or indirect sublime, one that is produced by our experience of art itself.
Scanning Surrogate Beauty
The development of the idea of the sublime did not, of course, grind to a halt with the innovations introduced by Burke and Kant. Where the sublime is applied to forms of creativity today it seems to be used primarily to diagnose the postmodern avant-garde’s critique of representation. lean-Francois Lyotard is exemplary here, identifying the sublime as ‘an art of negation, a perpetual negation ... based on a never-ending critique of representation that should contribute to the preservation of heterogeneity, of optimal dissensus ... [it] does not lead towards a resolution; the confrontation with the unpresentable leads to radical openness’.7 When I interviewed Dan Holdsworth in 2001 much of what he said then chimed with this paraphrase of Lyotard’s position. He spoke of his photographs as ‘indeterminate’, of a refusal to ‘specify interpretation’ and a desire instead to provide densely detailed ‘surfaces of information’ that are amenable to being ‘scanned’ for their multiple meanings. However, his images have not severed ties with the dynamics of representation as Lyotard anticipates.
Holdsworth’s expressed intention that the viewer relate to his photographs ‘at first hand’ explains the fact that his work is rarely inhabited by human presence or labelled with overt sign age. Were his images to be populated by humans or by semiotic signals then they would become, in a sense, second-hand images, to the extent that our navigation of them would be directed by our gaze’s involuntary compliance with the position of the people or the signs within the frame.
Without such reference points, engaging with Holdsworth’s work requires participation on the part of the viewer and in this regard it parallels the work of the great American photographer Lewis Baltz.8 The photographer, Baltz has argued, could specify interpretation, ‘but this robs the viewer of participation in the work. It robs the viewer of the responsibility they must have’.9
I never fully appreciate a Holdsworth photograph straight away. Given his remarks to me about intended indeterminacy perhaps this is an appropriate response, the meaning of the photograph is not fixed once and for all like a butterfly pinned above a small card bearing its serifed Latin name. Although the critical perspective in Vilem Fluss’s Towards A Philosophy of Photography ultimately withholds any pleasure from photography, there is one passage from it which seems to mirror my own process of engagement with Holdsworth’s photographs: ‘While wandering over the surface of the image, one’s gaze takes in one element after another and produces temporal relationships between them. It can return to an element of the image it has already seen, and ‘before’ can become ‘after’ ... Simultaneously, however, one’s gaze also produces significant relationships between elements of the image ... The space reconstructed by scanning is the space of mutual significance’.10 Holdsworth’s photographs enable the viewer to embrace still photography as a durational form, one that the viewer can spend time in, not just grasp in some decisive moment before moving swiftly on.
The beauty of a Holdsworth photograph is just that. It is the photograph that is beautiful and not necessarily the subject that he has worked upon. As such, the photographs in this book are a graphic refusal, for example, of Roger Scruton’s simplistic dismissal of photography. For Scruton, the ‘photograph is transparent to the subject, and if it holds our interest, it does so because it acts as a surrogate for the represented thing. Thus if one finds a photograph beautiful it is because one finds something beautiful in its subject’.11 What is beautiful about a Holdsworth image is at least as much a function of his technical prowess — reconnaissance of site, composition, management of the lens, negotiation of the printing as anything that might be encountered in the original location.
Yet if the images are beautiful can they also be critical? Might their very beauty not limit our engagement with them to a kind of spectacular passivity, one that smoothes over any conceptual grit they may also contain? From my perspective, Holdsworth’s photographs accommodate an abrasive allure, holding a tension between the pleasure of beauty and the pain of criticism. As such, the experience of the image itself might be a sublime one. Not sublime in Burke’s or Kant’s sense of direct confrontation with a colossal nature, nor sublime in Lyotard’s sense of some vertiginous negation of representation. Rather, a sublime that resides both in the expression — the pleasure/pain of viewing — and in the content. I want to turn to that content, and map his work so far according to three versions of the sublime.
The Colossal Indifference of Nature
Into this first version of the sublime I would corral Holdsworth’s Black Mountains triptych and his series entitled The World In Itself. Both works were made in Iceland a year apart and both evoke something like Burke’s notion of the sublime in which the terrifying grandeur of the Earth is marked by a colossal indifference to our presence on it.
The Black Mountains images were taken on the Vatnajokull icecap, the third largest after those in Greenland and Antarctica. Their predominantly black surface is derived from the soot thrown up by the two volcanoes, Grimsvotn and Graef, that lie active beneath it. With the sky - so often a feature of Holdsworth’s work relegated to a neutral tone and confined to a small fringe at the top of the image, there is little opportunity for the viewer to adjust to the scale of what they encounter. Such an adjustment is further denied by the sheer size of the three prints, each measuring 179 x 237 centimetres. As Holdsworth told Mark Sladen from Kultureflash, by ‘taking out the sky you can focus the gaze. But also you‘re alluding to something else; there’s something there that you can’t see ... ’
It is not only the spatial volume of Black Mountains that humiliates, their temporal aspect also suggests a humbling of human experience. The glacier represents the crystallisation of tens of thousands of years of physical geography. It is composed of ice in constant molecular motion and beneath it are dynamic heat sources of unimaginable vigour. As such, the very immobility of the photographs can be read as further testament to our inability to capture the complexities of geo-planetary forces. The Black Mountains photographs can be read as interventions in our sense of time, confronting the viewer with the superimposition of distinct temporal domains: the plane of the present measured in the seconds and minutes in which photographic film is exposed and galleries visited; the millennial time derived from the lifespan of the Vatnajokull glacier itself, already three times as old as the very first human settlements; and the geological timescale against which even the colossal age of the glacier barely registers. As Holdsworth has said, the ‘landscape of Iceland is a place that exists outside of a human idea of time and it’s interesting to go to a place like that and think about modern human interaction. While making this work I was thinking a lot about our fragility’.12
With The World In Itself, the surging gradients of the glacier are left behind and the terrain is gentler. However, although we are no longer with the dramatic black peaks that might have featured in a Turner painting or a Wordsworth poem, we are still in the presence of a sublime that problematises the significance of human measurement.
For one thing, with the sky still registering as a blank expanse but now occupying a larger proportion of the frame, the individual elements represented in the photographs deflect any comfortable sense of scale. Just how deep are these pools of water, how large are these rocks that we see, how steep the slopes that mark the landscape? For another, in The World in Itself photographs, attempts to discern connections between individual elements in the photographs, and from those connections achieve a sense of the size of the region depicted, elude resolution. Do the different images in the sequence represent different perspectives on the same area or different distances from the same object? Does the pool in the centre of one image correspond to the fragment of a pool which occupies another?
Even the concrete bridge that spans the horizon in one of the photographs - without which the series might as well have come from an uninhabited planet - does little to reassert any priority of human values. The structure’s material is apiece with the rock deposits that surround it and its apparent effectiveness is undermined since it seems to lack any dimensionality. It is entirely appropriate that the expanse of water in the foreground of this image does not reflect the bridge. Indeed, throughout the sequence of images, the pools’ unresponsive mirroring of the void above enforce further detachment from the missions of Man, emphasising the meaning of the collective title, The World in Itself, as one of sublime indifference.
Our Colossal Indifference to Nature
Of the many Holdsworth works that might be included in this category of the sublime, the most emblematic are the series At The Edge of Space and the later No Echo photographs. In these works we find something like Kant’s notion of the sublime in which human reason exceeds any magnificence that might have been attributed to nature. This is not to suggest that Holdsworth’s works somehow endorse Kant’s elevation of reason above all other values. On the contrary, this is Holdsworth’s most ecologically committed work.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the At The Edge of Space project that centres around the Port Spatial de l’Europe in Guyana in South America. Here, the images meticulously explore what Holdsworth has called ‘the projection of architecture into space’. In the anti-septic interiors of the rocket launch systems, the cold purity suggests the ratio-centric, Kantian enterprise being conducted through the attempted exploitation of outer space. Yet the rigorous symmetries, the simplicity of the colour scheme, the toy-like design of the various components, the obsessive cleanliness and the neurotic placement of objects suggest something else. There is a hair-trigger tension here, as if everything might unexpectedly collapse.
There is something awry, too, in the exterior images. The image of what may well be nothing less banal than an underground sewerage tank invites eerie comparison with buried anti-personnel weaponry. Whatever these pods may be, their compositional alignment against the hacked out jungle and the cynically crude track that surrounds them suggests a subtle critique of the frequently military aspect of satellite technology and a critique, too, of the brutal despoliation of the environment.
Yet what ultimately reins in reason’s hubris in the external shots is the sky. Rather than the sky of the Iceland images injecting an unsettling blankness, the sky here appears to place a lid on our overreaching rationality. The vertical rocket jet trail appears compressed by the surrounding night into as minimal a visual impression as possible; the rocket silhouette in another image may attract at first but it strikes a cartoonish note against the relatively rich variations of the dusk. Talking about the role of the sky in these images, Holdsworth spoke of it as an allusion to ‘the cosmic, to the vastness and isolation of experience’. At The Edge of Space at first seems to inflate reason’s pride in the extraterrestrial adventures it sponsors. On closer inspection, the project works to deflate that pride. In the words of a postcard sent by Holdsworth from Guyana it works to ‘put you right back in your place’.
This humbling process is also evoked in the No Echo series from 2003, in which the photographs seem to take to an extreme Holdsworth’s preference for subject matter that refuses to invite specific interpretation. Often located on campuses or science parks, anechoic chambers were initially environments designed to eliminate external noise and as such they have long been involved in the design of acoustic components like speakers and microphones.l3 Since anechoic chambers also screen out electromagnetic radiation, they have more recently seen service testing a massive range of consumer durables to ensure that they comply with regulatory standards. Throughout their history, they have played a significant role in military R&D. In Holdsworth’s photographs the chambers’ abstract grids offer no immediate access to the eye - no obvious figure, no sign, no graspable connotation. With the oppressive regularity only rarely interrupted, the eye is propelled left, right, up and down on a labyrinthine search for a bearing as if in a Pac Man level designed by MC Escher. The anechoic engineer’s pursuit of pure silence in the eradication of all irregular interference here becomes a metaphor for reason scrupulously excluding the other. But for me, the No Echo series extends beyond mere evocation of the hermetic horror of a world of reason. Against Burke and Kant’s suspicion of art generating the effect of the sublime, the images themselves create sensations of profound disquiet and disorientation. Intriguingly, these sensations relate very closely to the ones felt by artist Chris Watson in a real chamber: ‘My experiences of silence within anechoic chambers have felt like oppressive forms of sensory deprivation. In that silence, true silence, my ears and brain searched for a reference. In the absence of external aural stimulus my hearing and brain seemed to turn inwards to perceive (or invent) the sounds of my internal body mechanisms - pumping blood, thumping heartbeat and a characteristic hissing noise in my ears. I also felt an external ‘pressure’ around my head. The experience was deeply unpleasant and two or three minutes was quite enough for me’.14
Second Nature Within The Natural World
In 60 BC in Ancient Rome, Cicero announced: ‘We sow corn, we plant trees, we fertilise the soil by irrigation, we confine the rivers and straighten or direct their courses. In short, by means of our hands, we create a second nature within the natural world’. It is this second nature within the natural world that constitutes the third interpretation of the sublime I believe is at work in Holdsworth’s photographs. This is a place where dizzying grey zones of uncertainty open up, where the ideas of nature and culture find themselves suddenly struck by provisionalising apostrophes.
Holdsworth referred to this particular idea of the sublime during our 2001 interview, describing the uncanny experience of finding himself in the spiral steel stairwell of a footbridge over the M4 near Malpass, whose acoustic properties transfigured the onward rush of motorway traffic into a sound-field analogous to ‘sitting by a river’. Later in our discussion, Holdsworth suggested that what is significant for him are the sensations generated by a location rather than any specific demarcation of it as natural or cultural. What is important is that a ‘place comes into being ... it could be a forest clearing or a dilapidated warehouse’.
To admit this second nature within the natural world involves resisting what Holdsworth called ‘the idea of separation’ that tends to organise the world into mutually exclusive poles. More than this, it involves acknowledging that the same image can invoke negative and positive dimensions of these borderline spaces simultaneously. If this is right, Holdsworth’s photographs can be said to exude not ambiguity but duality, not an either/or but a both/and. If this sounds paradoxical, it is well to remember that the juxtaposition of apparent opposites is the hallmark of the sublime itself.
For me, this third interpretation of the sublime lies behind the aesthetic and conceptual impetus of much of the work Holdsworth has made over the last ten years. It seems true, for example, to his sustained engagement with those spaces which owe their creation to the car: the Autopia sequence that started in 1995, through Megalith and the Motorway Vistas to the magnificent photograph of a nocturnal section of road in Valencia, California from 2004. What is second natural about these images is the fact that the roadways depicted have become so embedded into nature that they are no longer distinguishable from it; embedded, that is, in the literal sense of the road sinking into the landscape, as a scar that has since healed over, and embedded in the more lateral sense of the activities on the road, the illuminating of the night sky, traffic appearing to flock together, populations migrating, and the branching and sub-branching of routeways. Those ways, in fact, in which the road creates and exhibits systems associated with nature itself. As Paul Shepheard once wrote: ‘is it that the automobile development patterns themselves are a kind of wilderness and the preserved lands are huge gardens, single-use paradises set down in the wilderness like Eden? On the one hand, I say wilderness; on another, I say cultivation. Brought together, palm to palm, they fit each other perfectly. It’s hard to see where one starts and the other leaves off ’.15
There is something second natural, too, about Holdsworth’s dynamic studies of the Bluewater shopping complex and in his various photographs of architectural ‘back lots’, images which again span the length of Holdsworth’s career. In the Bluewater series, entitled A Machine For Living, for example, the genealogy of the rock face that features so prominently is difficult to determine: is it an artificial quarry-side or natural cliff face? A similar ambiguity conditions our view of the trees and water: are they authentic remnants of original woods and lakes, or newly made and entirely counterfeit? To reiterate the point made earlier, however, Holdsworth’s photographic encounters with these spaces appear less an engagement with ambiguity; they are more effectively worked out under the sign of duality, of a second natural order of things, where the very same architectural and environmental elements possess a dual citizenship simultaneously belonging to both the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ world. To this extent his photographs can be read as manifestations of Emerson‘s plaintive caution: ‘we all talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not itself natural’. 16
Broken Household Appliance, National Forest
‘It remains to be asked whether the sublime still confronts contemporary aestheticism with an obstacle worthy of consideration’.17 Edmund Burke’s version of the sublime, the one that speaks of humbling confrontations with the awe-striking grandeur of nature, appears an anachronism. The dreadful power of the elements has been brought down to human scale: with vast valleys dammed for hydroelectric power; the hillsides of what was once wilderness now populated by monumental wind-farms; the previously inhospitable regions of the globe now just another playground for extreme sports fans; Mars bar wrappers and Coke cans litter Everest, the last point before space. Space itself has been robbed of many of its mysteries with hucksters flogging tracts of the moon and Richard Branson boosting extra-planetary package tours.
Yet this evidence of the domination of nature does not allow for an entirely comfortable complicity with a Kantian notion of the sublime, where what is now stunning is the triumph of human reason against all the environmental odds. There are few today who are willing to cheerlead on behalf of reason and fewer still who are able, in good conscience and without at least a note of defensiveness, to survey our interventions on the planet and determine them a good thing.
Even the postmodern sublime diagnosed by Lyotard that locates awe at the point of the frame appears to have run out of steam. Compared to the genuinely striking accomplishments of Duchamp‘s urinal, of John Cage’s 4‘33” or of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, the attempts by today‘s neo-conceptualists to critically interrogate the aesthetics of representation seem so many empty gestures.
Yet, for all this, Dan Holdsworth’s photography reminds us that the sublime is by no means exhausted. Remnants of a nature with the capacity to shock still persist here and there and Holdsworth’s investigations of Iceland’s interior bring these to the surface in a way that I am sure Burke would have appreciated. If Kant twisted the concept of the sublime to reflect less the grandeur of nature and more the greatness of human accomplishment, then other work by Holdsworth bends this logic one more time. What shocks now are the consequences of human accomplishment unbounded by humility — of an Earth shaped for human purposes, scarred by roads, squatted by settlements and rendered hygienic in the isolation of an anechoic chamber. Moreover, Holdsworth moves beyond a binary opposition of Burke versus Kant to discover the duality of second nature, where the viewer of his images can find a sublimity in the accommodation between the natural and the human.
Although Holdsworth’s work brings us back to senses of the sublime that might have been thought lost, it does not do so under the guise of Lyotard’s postmodern sublime. Holdsworth is, of course, alert to the seductive debates in which only representation itself is worthy of representation, yet he is not deflected by their allure. The images in this book bear eloquent testament to Holdsworth’s commitment to the potential of the figurative photograph. Their impact is as an effective rejoinder to Lyotard’s perspective as it is an evocative refusal of Kant’s dismissal ‘nur Kunst’. Holdsworth ’s photographs are not mere art, they are not the world at a remove; they are sublime in themselves.