DETERMINING THE LAY OF THE LAND
Through Forms FTP, Holdsworth is able to engage with our basic optical perceptions of landscape. The ‘FTP’ of the title refers to ‘False Topographic Perception’, the scientific name for confusion between convex and concave phenomena when scanning the landscape, which is explored here. ‘FTP’ is most often associated with satellite imagery that surveys the terrain of the Moon or other planets. However much we strive to know their far-flung landscapes, our distance causes misrepresentations and misreadings to occur.
It is no coincidence that Holdsworth has identified the same anomaly in recordings of a landscape closer to home: he has documented our own planet through a distinctly otherworldly lens. From the glowing, radioactive negatives of his Blackout series, to the topographic casts of Transmission, Holdsworth’s art is made from a world we feel we scientifically know. Yet he presents these vistas to us in an unfamiliar fashion that lends a sense of objective detachment, leading to newly considered perspectives.
Forms FTP began with an aerial shoot over Crater Glacier in Washington USA. This glacier is one of the youngest in the world: a baby, in geological terms, being only formed after the eruption of the volcano Mount St. Helen’s in 1980. This emergent landscape features in the series Transmission, and echoes Holdsworth’s previous glacial series Blackout, which was made at Sólheimajökull in Iceland (where other eruptions also created chaos).
Mount St. Helen’s had previously been famed for its almost symmetrical appearance, and was seen as a tourist destination: a place of ‘natural beauty’. It has been suggested that this reputation, as well as its position in the US, led to an assumption that nothing catastrophic could occur. Its unexpected eruption stands as a modern example of the Kantian ‘dynamic sublime’ at work. The site exemplifies how scientific expectations and understanding of geological processes are far from infallible, and indeed not always even secure. By focusing on the topography of this primal ‘new land’, only formed post-eruption, Holdsworth identifies an arena of geological instability. He uses it to subtly challenge our perceptions of the wider conditions of landscape.
A sense of the sublime pervades Holdsworth’s entire body of work, as does his seeking out of remote locations. However, the relationship between his practice and the sublime is more complex than any variant of the Romantic eighteenth-century definitions allow for. Holdsworth’s works emanate a darker, and perhaps somewhat paranoid twenty-first-century sublime. His version of the sublime combines the unpredictable power of ‘natural’ forces with observations of humans’ effects upon the fine balances of wider ecologies. It intertwines an awe at the technological advancements that allow us to picture and know the world in new ways, with a concern for the ethical problems that these create. These technologies allow for permanent and global surveillance in which we are all potential objects of scrutiny.
Holdsworth has described his recent works as being “data-driven” ̶̶ that is, derived from what are mechanical readings of a landscape’s surface captured as digital data, which is addressed with a more subjective eye. Forms FTP continues this working method. To record the visual phenomena we encounter, Holdsworth had to take a ‘bird’s eye view’ over the glacier, or what might now better be described as a ‘machine’s eye view’, scanning the land below in a manner that echoed that of aerial surveillance by military drones and satellites. Forms FTP is testimony to the fact that even isolated landscape can be assessed remotely, even by ordinary citizens, using Google Earth. Holdsworth suggests that such tools have dramatically changed our interaction with and understanding of landscape: nowhere is truly ‘off grid’ any more.
We encounter a machine-like objectivity in the presentation of each image, which has been so close-cropped that we are denied any sense of a wider geographical context. On the one hand, this allows for a systematic examination the FTP optical illusion. On the other, the lack of further visual information allows us to project more subjective and interpretive ideas onto the land. We are told that the landforms are located in Washington, but the squeezing, plunging contours could as easily be upon some distant planet or moon.
Holdsworth’s position therefore is best described as somewhere between artist, cartographer and observational scientist. He has spoken of the earliest mappings of the American West as an influence upon his recent works, in particular the collaboration between early landscape photographers such as Carleton Watkins and scientists to map the vast Western frontier. The calculated ambiguity of the title reflects the artist’s crossing of disciplinary fields. The word ‘forms’ has connotations that are equally sculptural, art historical, and scientific.
Indeed the sculptural qualities both of the rugged landscape, and of the photographs themselves as objects, are clearly priorities for Holdsworth. We are drawn towards the extraordinary clarity of these images, which allow for the smallest grains of dust and dirt to be visible. The multi-layered textures and metamorphic forms of the glacier seem to rise and sink from the photograph’s surface as much as from the ground, lending them a sense of physicality, and all but defying the object’s status as a ‘mere’ flat image.
Trying to decipher which out of the two specimens displayed is the ‘true’ landscape and which the inverted is almost impossible. Both appear plausible options in a landscape that is in such a transformative state of flux.
In Forms FTP, Holdsworth presents us with what we might call ‘parallel worlds’: one a material reality, the other an illusory ‘window’ onto a manipulated realm. The two resonate together to conjure questions about our ‘consumption’ of landscape by virtual means, rather than through our physical presence. In an age of rapid technological change that has allowed visual information to proliferate, it might seem that we have a greater or deeper understanding of our physical world than ever before. Yet through a simple manipulation, like the covert switch of a Victorian illusionist, Holdsworth offers an alternative means of reading the lay of the land. He opens up discourse around this new frontier, and indeed opens the frontier of a new discourse, where documents of change in the geological world (in which we are all implicated) converge with virtual forms of construction and manipulation.