Everard Read, Cape Town
06.04.2016 – 29.04.2016
“all that stuns the soul, all that imprints a feeling of terror, leads to the sublime” (Diderot).
The above quote serves as the opening line for the exhibition guide for ‘Pastoral Abstraction’. The title immediately harks back to an art historical understanding of the pastoral, a genre of 19th century landscape painting that glorified human dominion over and cultivation of the natural environment. This reference provides a crucial starting point to consider the works on show. Drawing on the concept of the sublime, ‘Pastoral Abstraction’ is a contemporary effort to visualise the place of humans in nature in the context of the current historical moment.
The notion of the sublime was first conceived by philosopher Edmund Burke and was born out of the Romantic turn away from the Enlightenment obsession with rationality in favour of the aesthetic potential of the emotions. Far from a consciousness that saw humans as interconnected with the rest of the natural world, Burke’s sublime ushered in a new vision of humans at the mercy of a great and unpredictable Nature. On the edge of the precipice or within the sprays of a sea storm, as in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), humans maintain their positions as the central protagonists in the narratives at hand.
In more contemporary understandings of the sublime, it becomes increasingly difficult to feign disconnection from the natural world as many environmental theorists reiterate time and again, with increasing urgency: “The human psyche and human spirit are not some addition to the Universe, but have emerged out of the Universe itself”[i]. In simpler terms, as the more recent adage of the ecologically conscious insists: “Humans are nature.” As widespread environmental degradation, climate change, food insecurity, poverty and migration may no longer be ignored in the interests of global capitalism, it has been argued by philosophers and scientists alike that understanding the relationship of human beings to the rest of the natural world is not only significant but a matter of human survival itself.
The eight artists included on the show consider the sublime as a starting point from which they engage with the problem of visualising human relationships to nature, an effort that cannot be severed from an acknowledgement of human culpability for the dismal trajectory of the planet’s ecology.
In dealing with such a weighty subject, perhaps it makes sense that the artists on show have turned to abstraction as a visual and conceptual tool by which to negotiate the concept of an environment in flux. Varying in materiality, the works are unified by a dismissal of realistic representation (and largely of human subject matter) resulting in repeated allusion to disappearance, absence, instability and collapse. There is anxiety in each artist’s desperate attempt to capture and fix that which is shifting or is already somehow lost.
Centrally occupying the lower gallery space, Sean Slemon’s Fragmented Sapele (2016) is one such work that immediately speaks of that which once was. Constructed of the wood of an entire Sapele tree, the monolithic structure juts out of the floor at an angle, forcing one to question why an object of such substantial size and materiality immediately offers a sense of absence. Presenting his works as a celebration of his chosen material, it is difficult to overlook the significance of each piece being comprised of the wood of an entire individual tree. Indeed, questions of commoditisation and distribution of natural resources come to the fore, but in the name of what exactly do these works stand as monuments?
While these reconstructed corpses of felled trees seem to serve as tributes to their former selves, they may be more immediately read as a glorification of human ingenuity and technology over the Earth’s raw materials. With the breath of life thoroughly stripped and sanded from their grain, they have been made immortal but remain dead. This interplay between presence and absence is echoed throughout the show, particularly in the paintings of Alexandra Karakashian and photographs of Brett Rubin.
Karakashian’s Collapse (2016) is a landscape in the loosest sense, an oil on canvas dyptich that whispers of trees or a horizon but just as quickly as a form appears, it is gone. Engaging with “local and global questions of land, environment and belonging”, Karakashian’s landscapes are elusive and nearly impossible to inhabit. They continually shift, resembling Brett Rubin’s blurred photographs taken from a moving vehicle. While rendered in the traditional media of landscape painting, Karakashian’s oil does not seem permanent on the surface of the canvas but threatens to evaporate or slip away before our eyes.
Similarly, Rubin’s photographs, Diepsloot (2015) and Bus Shelter, KwaZulu Natal (2013) capture slices of time. Figures blur seamlessly into what one assumes are buildings or foliage and the glass on which the images are printed lend them a lightness and illusory quality, like a single flash of a memory or dream. There is however, an anxiety in the brevity of this moment in both Rubin and Karakashian’s work. Despite what we know of how Rubin’s work is made or that Karakashian has simply whisked oil into the canvas fibres with a dry brush, the blurred landscapes before us are unsettling.
Suddenly, it is evident that it is not our movement that is causing the blur, but rather, the landscapes are slipping past us. Figures and all human remnants dissolve away. Like life itself flashing before our eyes in our final moments, the works serve up the increasingly realistic possibility of nature forging on without us. Perhaps the anxiety that is prevalent in so many of these works, the feeling of slippage, collapse and disappearance, is less an invocation of patronising sympathy for the state of nature as a result of human hands, than it is a masochistic and sobering glimpse at our own obsolescence. We are reminded that we are nature, we use nature and need nature. But does nature need us? Perhaps it is in this question that one may come to terms with the sublime in the most contemporary and poignant sense.
[i] MacGillis, M. 2014. In Spiritual Ecology: The cry of the Earth. 2014. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (ed.). The Golden Sufi Centre: Point Reyes, California. 61.