james-castell

Dr James Castell—one of the co-ordinators of the ScienceHumanities initiative at Cardiff University—visited the Centre Pompidou in Metz to explore how the exhibition Sublime: Les tremblements du Monde might inform or converse with the project.

Walking into the exhibition space in the Centre Pompidou Metz, visitors are immediately immersed in a sense of sublimity. Darkness and obscurity are important points of discussion in Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). The first room of this exhibition is both dark and obscure.

On the far wall, a flickering orange hole appears—a burning crater which is the subject of Adrien Missika’s Darvaza, an HD video with accompanying soundtrack. Missika’s camera captures plumes of burning gas from different angles, dematerializing and rematerializing the fire as it shifts in and out of focus. This ‘door to hell’—as it is known to visiting tourists—in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan is captivating in its violence and strangeness.

In Missika’s film, the flames of the pit are framed in multiple ways, but each cut is like an admission of the inadequacy of the medium to represent the totality of this object. The elements that make up the crater are deeply challenging to visual representation. Only one perspective of its 70 metre diameter is available at any given time: it is an orange ellipsis from the side, a glowing circle from above, a chaos of heated rock from within. The video’s projected light captures something of the translucent flames, but can barely approximate the darkness and absence that also threaten the gaze of any viewer.

Visual limitations make the audio aspect to this piece all the more striking. Victor Tricard’s music is brilliant and overwhelming, creating a powerful sense of three-dimensional space in its electronic reverberations and producing both moments of disorientating climax and periods of calm menace. Hesitating between the geologic and the mechanical, Tricard’s sound also mirrors the work’s temporal unfolding as the sun slowly dawns over the desert landscape, altering if not exhausting the crater’s nightmarish quality.

The exhibition’s annotation adds a further dimension to Missika’s work. Darvaza—which means ‘door’ in Turkmenmay resemble something natural, like a volcano, but it is actually a result of an accident caused by human actions. In 1971, Soviet engineers who were looking for oil caused a natural gas field to collapse. They decided to set alight the resulting hole, which is the size of an American football field, in order to prevent excessive methane release. They thought it would burn for a few weeks but it has been burning consistently since then.

For this reason, Darvaza is a brilliant place to start this exhibition. The piece mobilises a range of aesthetic questions about the representation of large, obscure or threatening natural objects that have been central to philosophical discussions of the sublime since the eighteenth century. But it also places these ideas into conversation with more recent preoccupations about the relationship between human beings and the natural world. It reveals something of the dangerous hubris of human attempts to colonise or control natural objects that ultimately prove more powerful than expected and slip out of control. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz have suggested that the recent classification of our current geological epoch as the Anthropocene is a ‘sign of our power, but also of our impotence’.[1] Darvaza then might be seen as the Anthropocene in microcosm.

The exhibition as a whole spans twenty different rooms and is divided into five thematic sections. The first and second sections look respectively at the excess of the sublime (‘la nature trop loin’ as Victor Hugo put it) and varied imaginings of catastrophe from John Martin’s nineteenth-century apocalyptic paintings to an excerpt from Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia (2011). The third considers human impacts on the landscape, including the land art of Robert Smithson, Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of nickel residues in Ontario, and Ursula Biemann’s memorable film, Deep Weather (2013), which devastatingly highlights the interconnections between Bangladeshi flood barriers and the Canadian tar sands. Finally, the fourth and fifth sections of Sublime: Les tremblements du Monde turn toward imagined alternatives for human habitation in increasingly hostile environments and consider the return of rituals and animist traditions as a form of aesthetic ‘re-enchantment’.

The best things about the exhibition are an exemplar of how we might proceed with thinking the ScienceHumanities. It is an exhibition that is admirably unafraid to draw lines of influence between historical periods, making for example comparisons between Caspar David Friedrich and ecofeminist artist Ana Mendieta. It also demonstrates the connections between different disciplinary approaches to the world and our relations with it. By virtue of being in the same physical space, disparate objects and ideas rub up against and interrogate each other. Particularly important to this exhibition are dialogues between art, science, philosophy and criticism, politics, environmental policy, planning and architecture. Sir William Hamilton—the eighteenth-century British diplomat to Naples who was also an antiquarian and volcanologist—makes a brief but exemplary appearance because he serves as a reminder of historical moments where disciplinary boundaries were more fluid than they sometimes seem in the contemporary academy. The ScienceHumanities similarly offers another opportunity for thinking without borders, while simultaneously demanding that we reinvestigate the limits of existing disciplines as well as their development over time.

Some weaker aspects of the exhibition also offer compelling evidence for why we need the ScienceHumanities. For me, this exhibition ultimately lacked either enough Science or enough Humanities. Hélène Guenin, the curator, states in the catalogue that its aim was to interrogate ‘the continuity of the idea of the sublime and its evolution in a contemporary context’.[2] But my view is that, especially in its second half, it didn’t do enough to draw a genealogy between the sublime as it played out in eighteenth-century philosophical aesthetics and more recent artistic approaches to nature in a world confronting imminent ecological devastation. Although it was interesting to see so much new work juxtaposed with older objects and modes of thought, there was not enough of an unfolding narrative across the exhibition to pull visitors from Burke to the bubble ecosystems of Spanish architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg.

Given the fascinating range of work on display and the exhibition’s emergence in a fruitful time for scholarship on these issues, this felt like a missed opportunity. Cornelia Parker’s Neither From Nor Towards (1992) and her Meteorite Lands series (1998 onwards) are rich and compelling artworks but, like many pieces in this show, they were not adequately pulled into a focused or consistent argument keyed into rapidly unfolding developments in thinking about the ‘natural’ world and the ecological disaster facing humans and nonhumans alike.

Scholars working in what we’re calling the ‘ScienceHumanities’ might offer a lot in this respect. A number of recent thinkers—including, for example, the Romanticist-turned-ecophilosopher Timothy Morton—make convincing arguments about how contemporary modes of thinking about nature are shaped and indeed limited by older narratives. Bonneuil and Fressoz (who makes an excellent contribution to the catalogue of the exhibition) have challenged the humanities to forge ‘new narratives’ for the Anthropocene.[3]

Numerous critical and artistic responses to the Anthropocene have combined powerful deployments of new scientific data with intellectual historiography and innovative technologies. One example of this might be the project Terra-forming: Engineering the Sublime, which combines high resolution topographic and bathymetric data and knowledge of previous cartographic histories to produce distorted three-dimensional models of the globe that are submerged under water. Another might be Bruno Latour’s Reset Modernity! exhibition at the ZKM in Karlsruhe. Other scholars in the ScienceHumanities might offer different understandings of the history of the sublime and artistic engagements with it. We might also be more demanding about how we connect these ideas to evidence collected by contemporary science or to the activists and policy makers trying to negotiate the challenges of our contemporary moment. Given the scale and urgency of such ecological problems and the necessity of cross-disciplinary thinking on these topics, one might say that the ScienceHumanities has never been more necessary.

Two aspects of the sublime challenge any exhibition on the subject. One is the obvious problem of trying to bring the scale and danger of the sublime into the gallery. The other issue is perhaps that, as soon as we comprehend something (even if we merely understand it as being sublime), it stops being sublime in the purest sense of the word. We’ve got a handle on it. It’s no longer quite the same existential threat that it was before. These challenges explain this exhibition’s partial failure to confront fully the vast and fascinating territory that it set out to explore. It also shows why we need as many tools as possible for thinking and action in facing an ecological threat as terrifying as the one before us. We certainly need responses from scientists and engineers, from architects and activists, from politicians and artists. But we also need the rigorous, historically-informed work of the ScienceHumanities to narrate and conceptualise the sublime challenges of a trembling world.

[1] Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: the Earth, History, and Us, trans. by David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016), p. 15

[2] Hélène Guenin (ed.), Sublime: les tremblements du monde (Metz: Centre Pompidou-Metz Editions, 2016), p. 14.

[3] Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene, p. 20.

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