sublime simon morley

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  1 By Simon Morley (available here: .htm)  In Context: the early eighteenth-century Joseph Add i  son d e  scribed the notion of the sublime a  s somethin  g  that "f ill  s the mind with an agreeable k ind of horr or ". I t wa  s an id ea f everi  shly expl ored by arti  st  s such a  s T ur ner, John M artin and C a  s  par David F ried rich, and f urther  tak en up by the American ab  stract   painter  s Rothko and Bar nett N ewman. But  how about  now? As T ate come  s t o the cl ose of a three-year  re  search  pr oject, "T he S ublime Ob  ject:  N ature, Art  and Lan  guage "  , S imon Morley expl ore  s how contemporary arti  st  s have re  s  pond ed. Luc Tu yman s, T he W al k 1993, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York © Luc Tuymans Oil on canvas, 37x48cm Caspar David Friedrich, W and erer Above the S ea of Fo  g 1818, Courtesy Kunsthalle Hamburg, Oil on canvas, 98.4x74.8cm In the fertile climate of the contemporary art world the word sublime seems to be br eeding  prefixes: Ame rican-, anti-, architectural-, c apitalist-, degenerate-, digital-, feminine- , gothic-, historical-, military-, negative-, nuclear-, oriental-, postmodern-, racial-, etc. Perhaps, like someone famous for being famous, sublime is just an empty word, one to which we can

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Page 1: Sublime Simon Morley

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By Simon Morley (available here:

 In Context: the early eighteenth-century Joseph Add i son d e scribed the notion of the sublime a s somethin g  that "f ill  s the mind with an agreeable k ind of horr or ". I t wa s an id ea f everi shly 

expl ored by arti st  s such a s T ur ner, John M artin and C a s par David F ried rich, and f urther  tak en up by the American ab stract   painter  s Rothko and Bar nett N ewman. But  how about  

now? As T ate come s t o the cl ose of a three-year  re search  pr oject, "T he S ublime Ob ject: 

 N ature, Art  and Lan guage"  , S imon Morley expl ore s how contemporary arti st  s have 

re s pond ed.

Luc Tuymans, T he W al k 1993, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York © Luc TuymansOil on canvas, 37x48cm

Caspar David Friedrich, W and erer Above the S ea of Fo g 1818, Courtesy Kunsthalle

Hamburg, Oil on canvas, 98.4x74.8cm

In the fertile climate of the contemporary art world the word sublime seems to be breeding

 prefixes: American-, anti-, architectural-, capitalist-, degenerate-, digital-, feminine-, gothic-,historical-, military-, negative-, nuclear-, oriental-, postmodern-, racial-, etc. Perhaps, likesomeone famous for being famous, sublime is just an empty word, one to which we can

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simply attach whatever meaning we need. But why should it have endured? After all, the term

has a rather archaic ring, and, to make matters worse, in relation to the philosophy of artmeans something completely different from in ordinary usage, where sublime denotes thewonderful or   perfect.

Pierre Huyghe, S till  f r om One M illion K in g dom s 2001, Courtesy Marian Goodman

Gallery, New York and Paris © Pierre Huyghe, Video installation with sound, 7mins

Etymologically, it comes from the Latin sublimi s (elevated; lofty) derived from the

 preposition sub, meaning ³up to´, and limen, the lintel of a doorway, or also perhaps fromlime s, meaning a boundary or limit. The word first came into vogue as a way of discussingnew kinds of experiences sought by Romantic artists and generated by evocations of extreme

aspects of nature ± mountains, oceans, deserts ± which produced emotions in the audience of 

a decidedly irrational and excessive kind, emotions seemingly aimed at evicting the humanmind from its secure residence inside the House of Reason and throwing it into a boundless

situation that was often frightening. Good painterly manifestations of this include Turner¶sSnow S t orm: H annibal  and hi s Army C r ossin g  the Alp s (1812) and Caspar David Friedrich¶s

W and erer Above the S ea of Fo g (1818). But the term took on a new lease of life in theunlikely setting of 1940s New York City with the work of the Abstract Expressionists,

especially in relation to Barnett Newman (who wrote an important short text on the subject

called ³The Sublime is Now´) and Mark Rothko. Here, the word was intended to signal whatwas characteristically different about American modern art. The sublime for these artistsessentially meant an art possessing a depth and profundity European art failed to provide

 because, so they declared, it was still tied ± in spite of such radical innovators as Picasso and

Mondrian ± to classical and outdated ideas about beauty and aesthetics.

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Still from Walter de Maria's film Two Lines and Three Circles on the Desert (1969),

Courtesy Gagosian, London © Walter de Maria

In the event, however, the idea of the sublime didn¶t take hold at that time. Instead, a largely

formalist concept of the artwork became the dominant model within which to discuss theavant-garde of the 1950s and early 1960s. The goal of art was seen to be to pare a work down

to a minimal visual language in order to establish its purity and also its resistance to the

encroachments of kitschy popular culture. References to transcendence and the like weredismissed as being residually theological, or ways of thinking that had now been banished by

a thoroughly modern and materialist aesthetic. Then, with Pop and Conceptual Art another shift occurred, one that served to challenge this, and so by the late 1970s the stage was set for 

a reassessment of the idea of the sublime.This time it came from continental Europe, and, in particular, from within the ranks of radical philosophers in France trying to come to terms

with the failure of the political movements of the 1960s to respond adequately to the crisis in

capitalism, and to bring about fundamental social change. They hoped, by seeking tounderstand aspects of human experience that seemed to lie beyond the controlling structuresimposed by the status quo, to keep open a pathway leading to some kind of possibility of 


As a result of this renewed interest among postmodern thinkers and artists, we now have arather confusing number of uses of the word sublime. In the book I have recently edited, T he 

S ublime: Document  s of Contemporary Art , I try to make sense of the situation, distinguishing

five different ways in which the word is now broadly used. These are in relation to the

 problem of the unpresentable in art, and to the experiences of transcendence, terror, theuncanny and altered states of consciousness. There are also two main contexts for such

discussions: nature and technology. What links such various perspectives, I think, is a desireto define a moment when social and psychological codes and structures no longer bind us,where we reach a sort of borderline at which rational thought comes to an end and we

suddenly encounter something wholly and perturbingly other.

At the sublime¶s core are experiences of self-transcendence that take us away from the forms

of understanding provided by a secular, scientific and rationalist world view. Thus,

discussions of the sublime in contemporary art can sometimes be covert or camouflageddevices for talking about the kinds of things that were once addressed by religious discourses

and nevertheless seem to remain pertinent within an otherwise religiously sceptical and

secularised world.

But often contemporary perspectives on the sublime reject traditional conceptions of a self, or a soul or spirit, seen as moving upwards towards some ineffable and essential thing or power.

Instead, the contemporary sublime is mostly about immanent transcendence; that is, it isabout a transformative experience understood as occurring within the here and now. What we

make of this experience, what value we give it, can take us in two very different directions,however. One re-envisages the self as existing in the light of some unnameable revelation

arising in a gap between, on the one hand, a dull and alienating reality, and on the other an

unmediated awareness of life. In contrast, there is a far more pessimistic conclusion that can be drawn, one that ends up as a resigned sense of inadequacy, in which we are made aware of 

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our emotional, cognitive, social and political failure when faced with all that so blatantly

exceeds us.

Installation view of Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project in the Turbine Hall at TateModern, 2003, © Olafur Eliasson. Photo: Tate Photography

Albert Speer's Light Dome consisting of 130 anti-aircraft searchlights, conceived for Hitler'srally at the Zeppelinfeld in Nuremberg, 1937, Courtesy Bildarchiv Foto Marburg. Photo: Lala


Ultimately, the concept of the sublime must pose more questions than it answers, andfortuitously Tate Modern has its very own laboratory of sorts, within which to address them:

the Turbine Hall. Here, in a vast industrial architectural space that functions as a kind of man-

made Gordale Scar (as depicted by the Romantic painter James Ward), artists are at regular intervals invited to tackle the sublime. Some succeed, while others do not. Three successes (at

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least for me) have been Olafur Eliasson¶s T he W eather P r oject (2003) ± his extraordinary

luminous man-made sun ± Anish Kapoor¶s huge maroon trumpet M ar  s ya s (2002) andMiroslaw Balka¶s dark container. Balka¶s work, How I t Is (2009), a huge steel structure witha vast dark chamber, captured perfectly the ³terrific´ sublime as described by Edmund Burke

in one of the founding texts on the subject, written in the mid-eighteenth century. Burke

 pinpointed a key aspect of the sublime as being the heightened and perversely exalted feelingwe often get from being threatened by something beyond our control or understanding. We

walk into the inky blankness of Balka¶s giant container and quickly lose any comforting sense

of place (at least when there are no mobile phone lights being turned on), something that is allthe more remarkable as we are simultaneously aware of merely experiencing an artwork in amuseum. But such, it seems, is the power of the sublime experience to destabilise and


Douglas Gordon, Untitled (T ext For Some P lace Other T han T hi s) installation d etail 1996

Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven © Douglas Gordon

This is a kind of negative-sublime, one that lures us close to a point where, because we haveentered a structureless and unsettling zone, we can feel the cold breath of what Wordsworthcalled the ³blank abyss´. Such nameless and imageless emotions are also at the core of the

recent site-specific work of Douglas Gordon, P retty much every wor d written , s pok en , hear d  , overhear d f r om1989«(2010), in Tate Britain¶s display µArt and the Sublime¶. For Gordon, as

for many other contemporary artists, it is as if the sublime can only be signalled through an

enhanced sense of human insufficiency and anxiety, and at this extreme it merges with

another key concept in contemporary art ± the uncanny. Indeed, the American artist MikeKelley has argued that the two terms are really synonymous: ³I see the sublime as coming

from the natural limitations of our knowledge: when we are confronted with something that¶s

 beyond our limits of acceptability, or that threatens to expose some repressed thing, then we

have this feeling of the uncanny.´

But Anish Kapoor¶s monumental M ar  s ya s, made of stretched PVC, managed to convey a

more affirmative experience of the sublime ± a kind of post-religious state of emotional

transcendence in which, exactly because of the lack of ordered structures or codes, we feel a powerful sense of exaltation and release rather than fear. His work also serves to link 

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discussions of the sublime to non- Western concepts. In an interview given several years ago,

he declared that through the experience of void that is central to his art he sought to convey ³a potential space, not a non-space´. Such ideas are closely allied to those of east Asian thoughtas it has come down to us through Taoism and Buddhism. In the ideas feeding the work of the

Korean artist Lee Ufan, for example, or the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, a sense

of void ± of being on a borderline or edge where we can no longer codify experience ± isconsidered a fundamental prerequisite for a deeper sense of reality, serving to mediate

 between being and nothingness, and communicating through a condition of absence a

heightened awareness of the self. We find a similar commitment to an affirmative experienceof sublime nothingness in the works of the American artist James Turrell, who uses light todematerialise an environment and to propel the spectator into a state of sensory confusion that

isn¶t so much unsettling as ecstatic. Turrell, who is influenced by Quaker Christianity¶s ideaof divine light as well as by oriental concepts, declares that his work is involved in the

³plumbing of visual space through the conscious act of moving, feeling out through the eyes´,

and adds that the experience is ³analogous to a physical journey of self as a flight of the soul

through the planes´.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Union C ity Drive In , Union C ity 1993, Courtesy Pace Gallery © the artist

Gelatin Silver Print, 42.2x54cm

It seems that the most sublime artworks these days tend to be installations, and it is certainly proving harder and harder for painting, the traditional vessel for evoking visual sublimity, to

elicit such effects. But the eclipsing of the sublime in painting is part of the logic of thesublime experience itself. For what once may have seemed sublime quickly becomes its

opposite ± the beautiful. Or, as the American critic Harold Rosenberg once wrote, it is the

destiny of all art to eventually become craft. As the sublime deals with what lies on the other side of a cognitive and experiential borderline, it depends on an art that can convey theimpression of almost not being art at all ± that is, of something pushed beyond categories and

structures. When Barnett Newman created his huge flat paintings sometimes consisting of one

or two thin dividing ³zips´, they did not look much like what even the most advancedanalysts of art thought painting was. Now, however, they certainly do. The sublime edge has

 been blunted.

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Gerhard Richter, W al d hau s 2004, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © Gerhard

Richter, Oil on canvas, 142x98cm

One solution for painters has been to shift the medium into the field of photography. In the

works of Gerhard Richter looking like blurred photographs, the German artist seems to touchon a new sense of the sublime as something that gets squeezed out as an intangible and

ambiguous supplement in the gap between these two different but related media. It is the

experience of an indeterminate yet fertile in-between state. His grandiose abstract works, onthe other hand ± or at least to me ± seem merely to engage with the sublime in the more

traditional and easily consoling sense of something that strives for the exalted effect. The

Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, meanwhile, in his deliberately drab paintings derived from

 photographs, employs what might be called a language of the disappointed sublime (oh dear,another prefix), one that relates to Samuel Beckett¶s devotion to the nobility of failure.Tuymans addresses thwarted transcendence, and yet at the same time behind his works we

may sense that there hovers the ghost of some hope of transcendental release. It is nocoincidence that many of Tuymans¶s works often refer to Nazism,a movement in which

sublime effects were exploited in order to inspire a nation to commit barbaric acts. Albert

Speer¶s Cathedrals of Light, constructed for the Nuremberg rallies, were frightening instancesof the sublime in the hands of authoritarian politics, as today are the intricately orchestrated

mass public displays of the North Koreans, which were the subject of a series of large-scale photographs by the German Andreas Gursky. These examples remind us that any discussion

of the concept of the sublime should take into account its political implications.

Another negative context that makes an affirmative vision of the sublime problematic is theway the rhetoric of consumerist pseudo-sublimity is exploited within mass culture. Sublime

effects are routinely produced to sell anything from automobiles to men¶s aftershave. But for 

artists who have grown up deep within the dense technological forest of such a popular culture, the sublime often remains alluring, and it is not so much a question of looking for 

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some way around these exploitations as of learning to live with them in a manner that still

 permits the exploration of self-transcendence.

Darren Almond, N ight + Fo g (Moncheg or  sk 8 ) 2007, Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube,London © Darren Almond, Black-and-white bromide print, 124.8x154.7cm

Mike Kelley, Dreadf ul P recipice s (f r om the  phot o serie s T he S ublime ) 1984/1998, Courtesy

the artist and Patrick Painter Inc © Mike Kelley

Today it is technology rather than nature that provides us with our strongest sense of thesublime. While the legacy of the Land Artists of the 1970s, such as the Americans RobertSmithson or Walter de Maria, who expanded the frame of art into the vast open spaces of the

mid-west, still makes itself felt, and contemporary photographers, such as Gursky or Darren

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Almond, continue to bring the awesomeness of nature into the art gallery via the medium of 

large-scale digital prints, it is not so much the desert, the stormy sea, or the mountain rangethat serve as subject matter for a contemporary sublimity as the mind-boggling power of science and the infinite spaces created by digitalisation. Indeed, any residual sense of nature

comes thoroughly mediated. As the American artist Fred Tomaselli remarks of his childhood:

³After hiking miles into the wilderness and discovering my first real waterfall, I immediately began looking for the pumps and conduit that make it work.´ A recent work by Eliasson

seems to engage directly with just such cultural contagion and confusion, as it involved

creating artificial waterfalls around New York City¶s rivers. The magical effect they evincedsuggested both a sense of something natural and at the same time thoroughly unnatural and


Today a vast new potential for transcending the limits of the physical body is available at the

mere flick of a switch, leading some to talk of a new era of the digital sublime. The works of the French artist Philippe Parreno and his collaborators, for example, which were recently on

display at Tate Modern, dive into the depths of virtual reality by exploring how contemporary

subjectivity is distorted and augmented through plugging into the digital. The artists

copyrighted a digital animation character in order to ³set her free´ to ³live´ in ways notconstrained by the strict regulations imposed by the usual conventions of cyberspace. Perhaps

it is indeed to this new world, beyond the limits of the physical body and of time and space,that the sublime experience is now migrating.

 For  more information on T ate¶  s re search  pr oject ³T he S ublime Ob ject´ and other  re search 

 stud ie .uk/ re search / tatere search / ma jorpr oject  s.

S imon Morley i s an arti st  and art  hi st orian. H e i s the ed it or of A Reader in Contemporary

Art: The Sublime ,  publi shed by W hitechapel Art Gallery /MIT P re ss (2009 ) and Writing on

the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art (2003).