Exercise 1.6: The Contemporary Abyss

Notes on Morley:

  • originally the sublime (as discussed by romantic artists) referred to experiences which “produced emotions in the audience of a decidedly irrational and excessive kind, emotions seemingly aimed at evicting the human mind from its secure residence inside the House of Reason
  • abstract expressionists adopted the sublime to refer to any work which had a deeper meaning than art tied to classical ideas of beauty
  • postmodernists sought to bring back the idea of the sublime in a number of ways to try to understand aspects of human experience – what links the various interpretations is “where we reach a sort of borderline at which rational thought comes to an end and we suddenly encounter something wholly and perturbingly other
  • the sublime can sometimes be a camouflage for discussing ideas which would once have been part of religious discourse but which still have a relevance in the modern world
  • the contemporary sublime is mostly about a “transformative experience” – the experience can either lead to a positive revelation of the self, or a pessimistic realisation of one’s inadequacy (NOTE – unlike many others Morley is accepting here that the sublime isn’t necessarily about fear and inadequacy, it can also be a positive affirmation)
  • what once may have seemed sublime quickly becomes its opposite – the beautiful
  • it is not so much the desert, the stormy sea, or the mountain range that serve as subject matter for contemporary sublimity as the mind-boggling power of science

We are asked to select, in light of Morley’s essay, one body of work which explores the sublime. One work sprung to mind immediately, from a documentary I watched last year: Katie Paterson’s “History of Darkness” (1) This consists of a series of slides (ultimately there will be thousands) depicting merely darkness. Darkness has been a theme of the sublime right from its early conception by landscape painters – it conjures up feelings of fear, danger, uncertainty, and takes us from our “secure residence” as Morley describes.

Although each individual slide is small and unassuming, the sheer scale of this project is itself sublime, awe inspiring by virtue of numbers alone. A vast accumulation of stuff, whatever its nature, can cause us to experience a reaction akin to the sublime – “rational thought comes to an end” when faced with possessions beyond our ability to control. (This is in part the basis of one of my ideas for assignment 1, images of a library). The fact that each little piece of darkness is contained within the white border of the slide and ordered by number should be comforting and take it out of the realms of the sublime, imposing control, but it is oddly disconcerting to try to contain darkness in this way, and the vast numbers of slides hint at the impossibility of truly controlling the work.

However, what really brings this work within the umbrella of the contemporary sublime is the origin of the darkness being displayed. These are images of the universe, images of places that are beyond our ability to reach or even to conceive of, images formed millions of years before our existence. In those small portions of darkness we are seeing our history. This is a conflation of nature and science – the ability to form these images coming from the realms of science (which is where Morley suggests the comtemporary sublime lies), but the images are of the very basis of nature, yet simultaneously the absence of nature.

A vast repository of imagery created from the very absence of imagery. So paradoxical that it can only be described as sublime.


Reference: Morley, S (2010) “Staring into the Contemporary Abyss” – published at http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/staring-contemporary-abyss

(1) http://www.katiepaterson.org/darkness/ (accessed 20th April 2017)


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