ART REVIEW FEATURE
Dan Holdsworth’s Blackout (2010) is a series of 21 large-scale (226 x 177 cm) c-prints documenting a mountainous terrain that is, for the moment, home to Iceland’s receding glaciers. The landscape is presented in negative, where everything is black (most strikingly the sky) or white (most strikingly the earth). or perhaps that should say: where everything that should be black is white and everything that should be white is black. More often than not, the odd colour does seep in – things get a bit blue, a bit magenta – but when that happens, it’s in the sinister manner of a Gulf of Mexico-style oil slick. Albeit beautiful, rather than an ugly, greasy mess. And that’s pretty much that in terms of the facts of this matter. Errr… oK, I’ll admit that I couldn’t help colouring those so called facts a bit, but that’s something we’ll come to later. It’s Holdsworth’s fault anyway. On one hand, the illuminated striations of each landscape in this series make it look as particular and individual as a fingerprint– make us aware that we are looking at a photograph of a specificplace; on the other, each landscape appears to be so alien, solacking in atmosphere (in the literal sense that in the flat black‘sky’ in Holdsworth’s work, all traces of the collection of gases that surround the earth, that allow us to breathe and make this world home, have been erased), that it could have been shot on another planet. And let’s face it, when we think of, say, the Martian landscape, we’re not thinking about how the sunlight hits the cliffs that border the Mare Cimmerium. we’re thinking of little more than a vague red-brown. Accordingly, these photographs seem to erase their specificity almost as insistently as they lay it out. Indeed, I’m going to venture something a little more grandiose, because if Holdsworth made these works grand in scale, I feel a sympathetic desire to make them grand in meaning. (Yes, I accept that pumping up artworks is what art critics do when they write features about works of art, but they don’t always do it because the artwork makes them.) I want to add some gravity, to collect the kind of associations that will create an atmosphere in the space of the one his black sky has so successfully rubbed out. It’s as if I feel the need, as a viewer, to say, ‘Let’s not get too negative’. or perhaps I’m just responding to a law of physics – nature abhors a vacuum, and I’m rushing to fill in Holdsworth’s blackuum. But enough about me. Here we go. The grandiose. It’s as if Holdsworth gets straight to the essence of what makes a photograph intriguing to look at: the fact that it is evidence that something very particular is present at a very particular time (and this is why it was worth mentioning those receding glaciers earlier on); and its simultaneous exhortation to think that the subject is more than its surface, more than simply the information we see. Consequently, Holdsworth’s works invite us to deny their very nature (as indexes of facts and data that offer a definitive statement about what their subject is); they are like a series of X-rays revealing skeletons, or some sort of essence of a thing, onto which all we want to do is add a little flesh so as to make ourselves feel a bit more comfortable. Indeed, Holdsworth’s works might serve as a definition of that most contradictory of terms: ‘science fiction’. I couldn’t help noticing that the landscapes in Blackout are remarkably similar to the lunar landscapes imagined in fritz Lang’s final silent film, Frau im Mond (1929). (far from coincidentally, Iceland was one of a number of locations at which NASA conducted its geology field trips during the 1960s in preparation for its lunar landings.) often credited as the first serious science-fiction movie (and with giving birth to the idea of counting down to a rocket launch), Lang’s film deploys a painted set depicting mountain ranges against a dark (but in this case starry) sky and what we might now call Holdsworthesque effects of intense light and shade. Unlike Frau im Mond, Blackout is about more than the simple and clichéd visual equation of exploration to a process of bringing light into darkness. Rather it celebrates the dark unknown (which has an interesting side effect when it comes to writing about the works: everything I assert, I want immediately to deny); as much as the series illustrates the process by which nature carves out a landscape, it illustrates the supernatural process through which we dream one up. And if Lang followed the rule of thumb when creating an believable alien world – the credibility of an alien environment involves concessions to a certain degree of familiarity (aliens that look like insects, moons that look like north Atlantic islands, etc), otherwise people might conclude that you’re simply making it all up – then Holdsworth appears to state the reverse: it’s only believable if there’s space for a bit of invention. Just as much as he’s manipulated these images, we’re keen to manipulate them, too.