Crater Glacier in Washington, USA is a geologically young glacier that formed following the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helen’s volcano in 1980. In the years since then it has continued to develop, with each new instance of volcanic activity prompting a change in form: advancing and splitting, squeezing and compressing, thickening and melting, to result in the landscape of vast ridges and deep valleys that captured in the aerial views of Holdsworth Forms FTP. In these images, however, the terrain is not quite as it first appears. What are perceived to be ridges in one image can be easily read as valleys when the same image is flipped through 180⁰. Deciphering the actual geological forms of the scene is impossible task, and one each viewer must try to determine. Presented as two orientations of the same view side-by-side, the Forms FTP diptychs reveal a phenomenon known to cartographers as ‘false topographic perception. Describing the confusion of convex or concave surfaces in the mind’s eye, this phenomenon is common to images created through remote sensing, in the aerial views captured by satellites or, as in this case, from an aircraft.
In his decision to engage with this phenomenon, Holdsworth continues his investigation of the consciousness of perception, and expands upon his interest in the relationship between photography, mapping and the virtual developed throughout his career. While examining the relationship between abstraction and perception, Holdsworth became fascinated with a mode of critical discourse that emerged in the 1960s. This body of texts was characterized by artists looking to new studies and theories on the limitations of perception so that they could apply them in art practice, to expand the parameters of abstraction. Often they did so by appropriating models such as alternating perspective figures or stereoscopic images, whose function was to illustrate the faculties at work in resolving conflicting two-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional plane, into a three-dimensional form in the mind’s eye.
Holdsworth has looked to Robert Smithson’s work on ‘enantiomorphic’ chambers (a term used to define crystals that are structural mirror images of each other), and taken it as a precedent. In Forms FTP he has explored what happens to our perception of the two-dimensional landscape when the conditions required for reconciling competing interpretations of images are withheld. Working with Smithson’s conceptual vocabulary of ‘the crystalline’, ‘the entropic’, and ‘the geological’, Holdsworth presents a landscape lacking in markers of mass or scale that make it legible. These are landscapes which therefore appear to be without a centre, which cannot be plotted in measurable space, and are outside of time. Here, a photograph acts not as an index of a ‘real’ geography that is believed to exist, but as a foil for a virtual landscape that doubles, shifts and slips beyond our mental grasp. These images invoke cognitive processes that are at once lucid and muddy, recalling Smithson’s descriptions of thinking around abstract geology wherein “mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason” (Smithson 1996:100). Presenting these images of Crater Glacier in such a way that conjures false topographic perception, Holdsworth highlights the feedback loop that occurs between the motion of our eye across a picture plane, the mind’s attempt to formulate a coherent image from contradictory cues, and our gradual awareness of the problem of reading images as a process of hypothecation or guesswork. We should locate Forms as a work not on the surface of the plane but within the third space of the virtual.
Smithson, R., (1968) Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’, in Flam, J., ed., (1996) Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam, Berkeley: University of California Press, pp100-105, originally published in Artforum, September 1968, New York.