Infinitely extending lines

“For mathematicians, the parallel is defined by lines extending to infinity without intersecting. Gursky invites us to imagine that his lines not only go on forever, but that they are everywhere, underlying not only the disciplined orderings of culture but the unconscious life of nature. His parallels suggest a forever beyond the photograph, a forever of lines extending beyond the frames of each image and, more frighteningly, entirely beyond reason, representation, and calculation. Despite the formal harmonies of these photographs, then, Gursky’s infinitely extending lines evoke the sublime. Thus with their beauty comes a kind of terror…

“Of course, postmodernity has encountered and embraced the sublime before, as theorized in what are now its most classic articulations. Jean-François Lyotard famously pits the postmodern sublime against the eclecticism of “anything goes.” A genuine postmodernism, refusing to value art according to its profits, launches an enthusiastic defiance of conventional forms and expectations, the desire to “put forward… the unpresentable in presentation itself”. If for Lyotard this sublime can happen in Montaigne as well as in Mille Plateaux, Fredric Jameson argues for a sublime particular to the emergence of the vast, decentered complexity of multinational capitalism. Jameson’s sublime, like Lyotard’s, reveals the limits of figuration, but it results specifically from the attempt to grasp the “impossible totality of the contemporary world system”

While Lyotard’s sublime is evoked by unprofitable novelty and Jameson’s sublime emerges from the endless surfaces of a world overtaken by commodification, Andreas Gursky’s parallels seem to offer something older, something more metaphysical. In their extension from frame to frame the lines imply a constant, a depth beneath the surface, an underlying pattern or structure. As if Gursky was a faithful reader of Kant, his work appears to present something like an enactment of the Critique of Judgment: his lines offer a formal harmony and also, in their infinite extension, they rupture that harmony; they frame the world and they also break that frame. Thus unlike Jameson’s bewildering postmodern architecture, which dislocates and disorients, Gursky’s photographs embrace an order that is disordered only by the fact that the same forms eerily spread from one photograph to the next. In his allegiance to a venerable formalism, Gursky also seems to invoke an older philosophical paradigm. Indeed, his loving references to Romantic painters reinforce the notion of a sublime that belongs to the late eighteenth century. We see echoes of Caspar David Friedrich in “Seilbahn, Dolomiten” (1987), and we find J. M. W. Turner’s mysterious and illegible landscapes neatly framed by parallel lines in “Turner Collection” (1995)…”

Review of: Andreas Gursky. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 4 March – 15 May 2001.
Peter Galassi. Andreas Gursky. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2001.

Image: Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent Store, 1999.


Vividness of a lightening flash

“As I am addressing a person so accomplished in literature, I need only state, without enlarging further on the matter, that the Sublime, wherever it occurs, consists in a certain loftiness and excellence of language, and that it is by this, and this only, that the greatest poets and prose-writers have gained eminence, and won themselves a lasting place in the Temple of Fame. A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no. Skill in invention, lucid arrangement and disposition of facts, are appreciated not by one passage, or by two, but gradually manifest themselves in the general structure of a work; but a sublime thought, if happily timed, illumines an entire subject with the vividness of a lightning-flash, and exhibits the whole power of the orator in a moment of time. Your own experience, I am sure, my dearest Terentian, would enable you to illustrate these and similar points of doctrine…”

Longinus: On The Sublime, 1st Century CE.

Image: Walter de Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Catron County, New Mexico. Dia Art Foundation

Symphony Monotone

“During this period of concentration, I created, around 1947–1948, a “monotone” symphony whose theme expresses what I wished my life to be. This symphony of forty minutes duration (although that is of no importance, as one will see) consisted of one unique continuous “sound,” drawn out and deprived of its beginning and of its end, creating a feeling of vertigo and of aspiration outside of time. Thus, even in its presence, this symphony does not exist. It exists outside of the phenomenology of time because it is neither born nor will it die. However, in the world of our possibilities of conscious perception, it is silence – audible presence”. – Yves Klein Overcoming the problematics of art

“My old Monotone Symphony of 1949, which was performed under my direction, by a small orchestra on March 9, 1960, was destined to create an “after-silence” after all sounds had ended in each of us who were present at that manifestation. Silence … This is really my symphony and not the sounds during its performance. This silence is so marvelous because it grants “happenstance” and even sometimes the possibility of true happiness, if only for only a moment, for a moment whose duration is immeasurable.” Yves Klein, Truth Becomes Reality

Source: Yves Klein Archives

The sheer luminosity of metaphor

“After the flash and filigree of the sixties, the next decade can seem rather docile, even disappointing. It is widely regarded as an interval of integration and bruised armistice. David Hartwell, scholar and important sf editor (he bought both Herbert’s Dune and, fifteen years on, Gene Wolfe’s incomparable Book of the New Sun and its successors), declared: “There was much less that was new and colorful in science fiction in the 1970s and early 1980s, given the enormous amount published, than in any previous decade … a time of consolidation and wide public acceptance” (Hartwell, 1984, 182). At the end of the seventies, in the first edition of his magisterial Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls ran the two preceding decades together, noting an on-going and complex generic cross-fertilization. “The apparently limitless diversity opening up is an excellent sign of a genre reaching such health and maturity that paradoxically it is ceasing to be one” (Nicholls, 1979, 287).

“This bursting open of a previously secluded or mockingly marginalized narrative form happened on the largest possible scale in 1977. Two prodigiously successful movies were released: Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, vigorous and even numinous [if equally set at child’s-eye level], unabashedly revived and exploited the sense of wonder known until then mostly to the few hundred thousand devotees of print sf – and the many who watched bad monster movies and clumsy early episodes of Star Trek, which premiered in 1966. In part this success was enabled by technical advances that finally came close to matching the immense spectacle of space travel, physical transformation, and sheer luminosity of metaphor that had always worked at a dreamlike level in classic sf. That impulse has not yet faltered, carrying sf/fantasy [of a rather reduced, simplified kind] to the point where it accounted for most of the highest-grossing films of the last two and a half decades.”

Damien Broderick, “Where We Came From: The Third Wave”, Unleashing the Strange: 21st Century Science Fiction Literature. Rockville MD: Wildside Press/Borgo Press/, 2009. pp 44-45.

Towards infinity


“Sublimity. This attribute of objects of sight seldom occurs on the face of nature, in its natural state, comparatively with most of those which have been enumerated. Mountain scenery, how grand or magnificent it may be, is now, on that account, the more sublime-, an extent of water, though wide as the sea itself, will not admit of the epithet, while it remains in a calm, unagitated state; any more than will an extent of country covered with snow; unless the idea of unbounded space raise it in some degree: but how infinitely more is this idea capable of exciting it, in viewing space itself, — in beholding the universe, — in looking towards infinity!

“The sublime seems to require that the higher degrees of astonishment should be roused, to demonstrate its presence: a degree of terror, if not of horror, is required to produce the more forcible emotions of the mind, which Sublimity is capable of exciting.

“A giant precipice, frowning over its base, whether we view it from beneath, or look downward from its brink, is capable of producing sublime emotions. A river tumbling headlong over such a precipice, especially if it be viewed with difficulty and a degree of danger, real or imaginary, still heightens those emotions. Lightning, thunder, and hurricanes may produce them.

“But, of all natural scenery, the ocean, agitated by a violent storm, attended with thunder and lightning, is perhaps the most capable of filling the mind with sublime emotions, and most especially the mind of a spectator who is himself exposed on its frail surface; and who is not incapable, either from constant habit, or from an excess of apprehension, of contemplating the scenery which surrounds him.

“On the whole, sublimity must rouse some extraordinary emotion in the mind; it cannot be dwelt on with indifference, by an eye unhabituated to its effects, and a mind possessing the least sensibility. Magnificence, grandeur, or simple greatness, may excite some degree of astonishment; but it must be unmixed with awe; the emotions they excite are of the more pleasurable kind. Ugliness disgusts; yet when adorned, it is capable of giving delight; as a contrast to the more rational gratifications of ornamented beauty. All that simple beauty has to bestow is pleasure, heightened, perhaps, by a degree of admiration. Even simplicity, in a state of polished neatness, is capable of giving a degree of pleasure; but, in a state of slovenliness and neglect, it disgust, as ugliness, or deformity, which is simplicity, or beauty, disgustingly defaced.”

Ashfield, Andrew & de Bolla, Peter, eds. The Sublime: A reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996. William Marshall, from A review of The Landscape, a didactic poem (1795). pp 276-277.

Image: Alexander McKenzie, Day Landing, 2008. Oil on linen. 137 x 197 cm. Martin Browne Fine Art