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Becoming Second Nature: Dan Holdsworth and the Sublime

Very Like A Whale


Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud thats almost in shape of a
camel?
Polonius: By th mass, and tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale. [Hamlet, Act Three, Scene Two]
It is late summer in Southern England.
In the low distance, the sky rises from the land as a milky haze. Higher
up, the haze thickens into more distinct masses of cloud. Higher still,
the banks of cloud have been teased apart and pierced by a blue so
bright it seems to have arrived cleansed by the ferocious winds and
rain of the preceding days. At the skys highest, it is this blue that
dominates, the clouds presence reduced to ever-thinning corrugated
streaks.
The scene evokes little of the turbulent force of a cloudy Turner
seascape and hardly any of the melancholic grandeur of a Caspar
David Freidrich mountainside of mist and fog. Nevertheless, compared
to the land that lies beneath it tamed into neat grids of industrial
agriculture, scattered with pockets of dwellings and scored by transport
routeways as far as the horizon there is still something of nature in
these cloud formations. Perhaps there is even something of the
sublime, a speculation made more credible by the willingness of some
philosophers Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant and John Locke, for
example to dwell on the role of clouds in the sublime.
Over to the east a passenger jet is making a break for the coast, its
trajectory marked by a condensation trail. The contrail a mixture of
water vapour and pollutants begins life as a tight tunnel before

gradually dispersing. Although I have watched this process at work


many times and even conducted some cursory research into the
matter, it is still with a start that I realise that the streaky clouds I
previously noticed at the skys zenith and confidently assigned to an
effect of nature are nothing more than aircraft exhaust fumes. The
sheer quantity of these interweaving layers of pseudo-cirrus is
awesome. I am reminded of the statistic proposed by a NASA scientist
that in relatively dense air traffic corridors, like the one above this hill,
one fifth of the cloud cover might be attributed to contrails, the
formations of which endure for weeks. Although I am no longer struck
by the same magnitude of nature evoked in Turner or Friedrich, the
shock of encountering these human artefacts in disguise, the contrails,
may amount to another kind of sublime.

In Search of the Sublime


The insertion of the sublime into British aesthetics can be traced back
to the translation of a short treatise by an anonymous Greek
philosopher of the first century AD who scholars decided to call
Longinus. It was Edmund Burke whose interventions steered its
interpretation away from Longinuss primary focus on rhetoric and a
certain Eminence or Perfection of language towards a definition that
was partially occluded in the original, the idea of an Image reflected
from the inward Greatness of the Soul.
The

principle

location

for

Burkes

exploration

of

the

sublime

conventionally remains within the pages of his Philosophical Enquiry


into the Origin of the Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful . Eleven
years before its publication the sixteen-year-old Burkes observations of
a flooding river provoked a poetic rendering of the sublime experience:
The melancholy gloom of the day, the whistling winds, and the hoarse
rumbling of the swollen Liffey, with the flood, which even where I write,
lays close siege to our whole street It gives me pleasure to see
nature in these great though terrible scenes. It fills the mind with grand

ideas, and turns the soul in upon herself I considered how little man
is, yet in his mind, how great! He is Lord and Master of all things, yet
scarce can command anything . This notion of the sublime evokes a
curious mixture of pleasure and pain, of the pride of human enterprise
punctured by the humiliating powers of the natural environment.
As the baton passes from Burke to Immanuel Kant and we move into
the last years of the eighteenth century, this paradoxical juxtaposition
of ecstasy and dread remains. Kants dramatic encapsulation of the
sublime initially sounds apiece with Burkes efforts: Bold, overhanging,
and as it were threatening rocks, clouds piled up in the sky, moving
with lightning flashes and thunder peaks, volcanoes in all their violence
of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless
ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river, and
such like these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly
small in comparison with their might. For Kant, however, the sublime
undergoes a radical twist. The human does remain humiliated by the
confrontation with nature in terms of our relative physical fragility.
Moreover, our imaginative capacity is equally disgraced in its
ineffectual struggles to embrace the totality of nature. Nevertheless,
while the flesh and the imagination prove weak in the battle with the
sublime, for Kant another faculty emerges victorious, that of reason:
And so also the irresistibility of its might, while making us recognise
our own [physical] impotence, considered as beings of nature,
discloses to us a faculty of judging independently of and a superiority
over nature.
Considerable time has passed since Kant and Burke formulated their
approaches and much has happened to the sublime. For one thing, the
word buried itself into the soil of colloquial language and is now only
unearthed in such expressions as from the sublime to the ridiculous
and with sublime indifference with a pungent odour of irony. For
another, when the sublime is employed without irony, it has gone in a
process parallel to the one which afflicted the word landscape from
meaning a relationship to nature to meaning nature itself. Finally,
although the sublime persists as an entry in any dictionary of

aesthetics, its use there, and indeed in this essay on Dan Holdsworths
photographic work, risks being compromised by at least two problems.
The first problem encountered in any contemporary application of the
sublime relates to its original connection to the enormity of nature
alone. This pitfall can be skirted if we hold on to the centrality of the
confrontation between humans and their environment, the feelings of
ecstasy and dread evoked and the ultimate conclusion of humiliation
(Burke) or hubris (Kant). That Kant and Burke expressed the sublime in
terms of an unambitious definition of the environment is perhaps less
our problem than theirs.
The second problem is perhaps easier to side step, at least in the
specific case of Dan Holdsworths photographs. In general terms, Burke
and Kant intended their ideas of the sublime to apply at first hand, so
to speak. Kant, for example, frequently derides nur Kunst mere art
and insisted that in order for an authentic experience of the sublime to
be provoked, the stimulus must be nature or [at least] be regarded as
it.
The justification for conducting this philosophical detour into Burke and
Kants sublime lies in the discovery of inspirational concepts with which
to navigate Holdsworths world. Elements of Burke and Kants ideas
betray their origins in the working out of the debates of the
Enlightenment and this is true of the two problems just identified.
Because it is the idea of the sublime that I am after and not any precise
reading of any specific authors work, I can remain agnostic about
whether or not Kant or Burkes approaches accommodate a vicarious or
indirect sublime, one that is produced by our experience of art itself.
Scanning Surrogate Beauty
The development of the idea of the sublime did not, of course, grind to
a halt with the innovations introduced by Burke and Kant. Where the
sublime is applied to forms of creativity today it seems to be used
primarily to diagnose the postmodern avant-gardes critique of

representation. Jean-Francois Lyotard is exemplary here, identifying the


sublime as an art of negation, a perpetual negation . . . based on a
never-ending critique of representation that should contribute to the
preservation of heterogeneity, of optimal dissensus . . . [it] does not
lead towards a resolution; the confrontation with the unpresentable
leads to radical openness.
When I interviewed Dan Holdsworth in 2001 much of what he said then
chimed with this paraphrase of Lyotards position. He spoke of his
photographs as indeterminate, of a refusal to specify interpretation
and a desire instead to provide densely detailed

surfaces of

information that are amenable to being scanned for their multiple


meanings. However, his images have not severed ties with the
dynamics of representation as Lyotard anticipates.
Holdsworths expressed intention that the viewer relate to his
photographs at first hand explains the fact that his work is rarely
inhabited by human presence or labeled with overt signage. Were his
images to be populated by humans or by semiotic signals then they
would become, in a sense, second-hand images, to the extent that our
navigation of them would be directed by our gazes involuntary
compliance with the position of the people or the signs within the
frame.
Without such reference points, engaging with Holdsworths work
requires participation on the part of the viewer and in this regard it
parallels the work of the great American photographer Lewis Baltz. The
photographer, Baltz has argued, could specify interpretation, [b]ut this
robs the viewer of participation in the work. It robs the viewer of the
responsibility they must have.
I never fully appreciate a Holdsworth photograph straight away. Given
his remarks to me about intended indeterminacy perhaps this is an
appropriate response, the photographs meaning not fixed once and
for all like a butterfly pinned above a small card bearing its serifed
Latin name. Although the critical perspective in Vilem Flusss Towards

A Philosophy of Photography ultimately withholds any pleasure from


photography, there is one passage from it which seems to mirror my
own process of engagement with Holdsworths photographs: While
wandering over the surface of the image, one's gaze takes in one
element after another and produces temporal relationships between
them. It can return to an element of the image it has already seen, and
'before' can become 'after' Simultaneously, however, one's gaze also
produces significant relationships between elements of the image
The space reconstructed by scanning is the space of mutual
significance. Holdsworths photographs enable the viewer to embrace
still photography as a durational form, one that the viewer can spend
time in, not just grasp in some decisive moment before moving swiftly
on.
The beauty of a Holdsworth photograph is just that. It is the
photograph that is beautiful and not necessarily the subject that he has
worked upon. As such, the photographs in this book are a graphic
refusal, for example, of Roger Scrutons simplistic dismissal of
photography. For Scruton, the photograph is transparent to the
subject, and if it holds our interest, it does so because it acts as a
surrogate for the represented thing. Thus if one finds a photograph
beautiful it is because one finds something beautiful in its subject.
What is beautiful about a Holdsworth image is at least as much a
function of his technical prowess reconnaissance of site, composition,
management of the lens, negotiation of the printing as anything that
might be encountered in the original location.
Yet if the images are beautiful can they also be critical? Might their
very beauty not limit our engagement with them to a kind of
spectacular passivity, one that smoothes over any conceptual grit they
may also contain? From my perspective, Holdsworths photographs
accommodate an abrasive allure, holding a tension between the
pleasure of beauty and the pain of criticism. As such the experience of
the image itself might be a sublime one. Not sublime in Burkes or
Kants sense of direct confrontation with a colossal nature, nor sublime
in Lyotards sense of some vertiginous negation of representation.

Rather, a sublime that resides both in the expression the pleasurepain of viewing and in the content. I want to turn to that content, and
map his work so far according to three versions of the sublime.
The Colossal Indifference of Nature
Into this first version of the sublime I would corral Holdsworths Black
Mountains triptych and his series entitled The World In Itself. Both
works were made in Iceland a year apart and both evoke something
like Burkes notion of the sublime in which the terrifying grandeur of
the Earth is marked by a colossal indifference to our presence on it.
The Black Mountains images were taken on the Vatnajkull icecap, the
third

largest

after

those

in

Greenland

and

Antarctica.

Their

predominantly black surface is derived from the soot thrown up by the


two volcanoes, Grimsvtn and raef, that lie active beneath it. With
the sky so often a feature of Holdsworths work relegated to a
neutral tone and confined to a small fringe at the top of the image,
there is little opportunity for the viewer to adjust to the scale of what
they encounter. Such an adjustment is further denied by the sheer size
of the three prints, each measuring 179 x 237 centimetres. As
Holdsworth told Mark Sladen from Kultureflash, by taking out the sky
you can focus the gaze. But also you're alluding to something else;
there's something there that you can't see...
It is not only the spatial volume of Black Mountains that humiliates;
their temporal aspect also suggests a humbling of human experience.
The glacier represents the crystallisation of tens of thousands of years
of physical geography. It is composed of ice in constant molecular
motion and beneath it are dynamic heat sources of unimaginable
vigour. As such, the very immobility of the photographs can be read as
further testament to our inability to capture the complexities of geoplanetary forces. The Black Mountain photographs can be read as
interventions in our sense of time, confronting the viewer with the
superimposition of distinct temporal domains: the plane of the present,
measured in the seconds and minutes in which photographic film is

exposed and galleries visited; the millennial time derived from the
lifespan of the Vatnajkull glacier itself, already three times as old as
the very first human settlements; and the geological timescale against
which even the colossal age of the glacier barely registers. As
Holdsworth has said the landscape of Iceland is a place that exists
outside of a human idea of time and it's interesting to go to a place like
that and think about modern human interaction. While making this
work I was thinking a lot about our fragility .
With The World In Itself, the surging gradients of the glacier are left
behind and the terrain is gentler. However, although we are no longer
with the dramatic black peaks that might have featured in a Turner
painting or a Wordsworth poem, we are still in the presence of a
sublime that problematises the significance of human measurement.
For one thing, with the sky still registering as a blank expanse but now
occupying a larger proportion of the frame, the individual elements
represented in the photographs deflect any

comfortable sense of

scale. Just how deep are these pools of water, how large are these
rocks that we see, how steep the slopes that mark the landscape? For
another, attempts to discern connections between these individual
elements and from those connections achieve a sense of the size of the
region depicted in The World In Itself photographs elude resolution. Do
the different images in the sequence represent different perspectives
on the same area or different distances from the same object? Does
the pool in the centre of one image correspond to the fragment of a
pool which occupies another?
Even the concrete bridge that spans the horizon in one of the
photographs without which the series might as well have come from
an uninhabited planet does little to reassert any priority of human
values The structures material is apiece with the rock deposits that
surround it and its apparent effectiveness is undermined since it seems
to lack any dimensionality. It is entirely appropriate that the expanse
of water in the foreground of this image does not reflect the bridge.
Indeed, throughout the sequence of images, the pools unresponsive

mirroring of the void above enforce further detachment from the


missions of Man, emphasising the meaning of the collective title, The
World In Itself, as one of sublime indifference.
Our Colossal Indifference to Nature
Of the many Holdsworth works that might be included in this category
of the sublime, the most emblematic are the series At The Edge of
Space and the later No Echo photographs. In these works we find
something like Kants notion of the sublime in which human reason
exceeds any magnificence that might have been attributed to nature.
This is not to suggest that Holdsworths works somehow endorse Kants
elevation of reason above all other values. On the contrary, this is
Holdsworths most ecologically committed work.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the At The Edge of Space project
that centres on the Port Spatial de lEurope in Guyana in South
America. Here, the images meticulously explore what Holdsworth has
called the projection of architecture into space. In the anti-septic
interiors of the rocket launch systems, the cold purity suggests the
ratio centric, Kantian enterprise being conducted in the attempted
exploitation of outer space. Yet the rigorous symmetries, the simplicity
of the colour scheme, the toy-like design of the various components,
the obsessive cleanliness and the neurotic placement of objects
suggest something else. There is a hair-trigger tension here, as if
everything might unexpectedly collapse.
There is something awry, too, in the exterior images. The image of
what may well be nothing less banal than an underground sewerage
tank invites eerie comparison with buried anti-personnel weaponry.
Whatever these pods may be, their compositional alignment against
the hacked out jungle and the cynically crude track that surrounds
them suggests a subtle critique of the frequently military aspect of
satellite technology and a critique, too, of the brutal despoliation of the
environment.

Yet what ultimately reins in reasons hubris in the external shots is the
sky. Rather than the sky of the Iceland images injecting an unsettling
blankness, the sky here appears to place a lid on our over-reaching
rationality. The vertical rocket jet trail appears compressed by the
surrounding night into as minimal a visual impression as possible; the
rocket silhouette in another image may attract at first but it strikes a
cartoonish note against the relatively rich variations of the dusk.
Talking about the role of the sky in these images, Holdsworth spoke of
it as an allusion to the cosmic, to the vastness and isolation of
experience. At The Edge of Space at first seems to inflate reasons
pride in the extraterrestrial

adventures it sponsors.

On closer

inspection, the project works to deflate that pride. In the words of a


postcard sent by Holdsworth from Guyana it works to put you right
back in your place.
This humbling process is also evoked in the No Echo series from 2003,
in which the photographs seem to take to an extreme Holdsworths
preference

for

subject

matter

that

refuses

to

invite

specific

interpretation. Often located on campuses or science parks, anechoic


chambers were initially environments designed to eliminate external
noise and as such they have long been involved in the design of
acoustic components like speakers and microphones. Since anechoic
chambers also screen out electro-magnetic radiation, they have more
recently seen service testing a massive range of consumer durables to
ensure that they comply with regulatory standards. Throughout their
history, they have played a significant role in military R & D. In
Holdsworths photographs the chambers abstract grids offer no
immediate access to the eye no obvious figure, no sign, no graspable
connotation. With the oppressive regularity only rarely interrupted, the
eye is propelled left, right, up and down on a labyrinthine search for a
bearing as if in a Pac Man level designed by MC Escher. The anechoic
engineers pursuit of pure silence in the eradication of all irregular
interference here becomes a metaphor for reason scrupulously
excluding the other. But for me, the No Echo series extends beyond
mere evocation of the hermetic horror of a world of reason. Against
Burke and Kants suspicion of art generating the effect of the sublime,

the images themselves create sensations of profound disquiet and


disorientation. Intriguingly, these sensations relate very closely to the
ones felt by artist Chris Watson in a real chamber: My experiences of
silence within anechoic chambers have felt like oppressive forms of
sensory deprivation. In that silence, true silence, my ears and brain
searched for a reference. In the absence of external aural stimulus by
hearing and brain seemed to turn inwards to perceive (or invent?) the
sounds of my internal body mechanisms pumping blood, thumping
heartbeat and a characteristic hissing noise in my ears. I also felt an
external

pressure around my head. The experience was deeply

unpleasant and two or three minutes was quite enough for me.

Second Nature Within The Natural World


In 60 BC in Ancient Rome, Cicero announced: We sow corn, we plant
trees, we fertilise the soil by irrigation, we confine the rivers and
straighten or direct their courses. In short, by means of our hands, we
create a second nature within the natural world. It is this second
nature within the natural world that constitutes the third interpretation
of the sublime I believe is at work in Holdsworths photographs. This is
a place where dizzying grey zones of uncertainty open up, where the
ideas of nature and culture find themselves suddenly struck by
provisionalising apostrophes.
Holdsworth referred to this particular idea of the sublime during our
2001 interview, describing the uncanny experience of finding himself in
the spiral steel stairwell of a footbridge over the M4 near Malpass,
whose acoustic properties transfigured the onward rush of motorway
traffic into a sound-field analogous to sitting by a river. Later in our
discussion, Holdsworth suggested that what is significant for him are
the sensations generated by a location rather than any specific
demarcation of it as natural or cultural. What is important is that a
place comes into being it could be a forest clearing or a dilapidated
warehouse.

To admit this second nature within the natural world involves resisting
what Holdsworth called the idea of separation that tends to organise
the world into mutually exclusive poles. More than this, it involves
acknowledging that the same image can invoke negative and positive
dimensions of these borderline spaces simultaneously. If this is right,
Holdsworths photographs can be said to exude not ambiguity but
duality, not an either/or but a both/and. If this sounds paradoxical, it is
well to remember that the juxtaposition of apparent opposites is the
hallmark of the sublime itself.
For me, this third interpretation of the sublime lays behind the
aesthetic and conceptual impetus of much of the work Holdsworth has
made over the last ten years. It seems true, for example, to his
sustained engagement with those spaces which owe their creation to
the car: the Autopia sequence that started in 1995, through Megalith
and the Motorway Vistas to the magnificent photograph of a nocturnal
section of road in Valencia, California from 2004. What is second
natural about these images is the fact that the roadways depicted have
become

so

embedded

into

nature

that

they

are

no

longer

distinguishable from it: Embedded, that is, in the literal sense of the
road sinking into the landscape, as a scar that has since healed over,
embedded in the more lateral sense of the activities on the road, the
illuminating of the night sky, traffic appearing to flock together,
populations migrating, and the branching and sub-branching of
routeways. Those ways, in fact, in which the road creates and exhibits
systems associated with nature itself. As Paul Shepheard once wrote:
[i]s it that the automobile development patterns themselves are a kind
of wilderness and the preserved lands are huge gardens, single-use
paradises set down in the wilderness like Eden? On the one hand, I say
wilderness; on another, I say cultivation. Brought together, palm to
palm, they fit each other perfectly. Its hard to see where one starts
and the other leaves off .
There is something second natural, too, about Holdsworths dynamic
studies of the Bluewater shopping complex and in his various
photographs of architectural back lots, images which again span the

length of Holdsworths career. In the Bluewater series, entitled A


Machine For Living, for example, the genealogy of the rock face that
features so prominently is difficult to determine: is it an artificial
quarry-side or natural cliff face? A similar ambiguity conditions our view
of the trees and water: are they authentic remnants of original woods
and lakes or newly made and entirely counterfeit? To reiterate the point
made earlier, however, Holdsworths photographic encounters with
these spaces appear less an engagement with ambiguity they are more
effectively worked out under the sign of duality, of a second natural
order of things, where the very same architectural and environmental
elements possess a dual citizenship, simultaneously belonging to both
the natural and the human world. To this extent his photographs can
be read as manifestations of Emersons plaintive caution: [w]e all talk
of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not itself natural.

Broken Household Appliance, National Forest


It

remains

to

be

asked

whether

the

sublime

still

confronts

contemporary aestheticism with an obstacle worthy of consideration.


Edmund Burkes version of the sublime, the one that speaks of
humbling confrontations with the awe-striking grandeur of nature,
appears an anachronism. The dreadful power of the elements has been
brought down to human scale: with vast valleys dammed for
hydroelectric power; the hillsides of what was once wilderness now
populated by monumental wind-farms; the previously inhospitable
regions of the globe now just another playground for extreme sports
fans; Mars bar wrappers and Coke cans litter Everest, the last point
before space. Space itself has been robbed of many of its mysteries
with hucksters flogging tracts of the moon and Richard Branson
boosting extra-planetary package tours.
Yet this evidence of the domination of nature does not allow for an
entirely comfortable complicity with a Kantian notion of the sublime,
where what is now stunning is the triumph of human reason against all
the environmental odds. There are few today who are willing to
cheerlead on behalf of reason and fewer still who are able, in good
conscience and without at least a note of defensiveness, to survey our
interventions on the planet and determine them a good thing.
Even the postmodern sublime diagnosed by Lyotard that locates awe at
the point of the frame appears to have run out of steam. Compared to
the genuinely striking accomplishments of Duchamps urinal, of John
Cages 433 or of Ad Reinhardts black paintings, the attempts by
todays neo-conceptualists to critically interrogate the aesthetics of
representation seem so many empty gestures.
Yet, for all this, Dan Holdsworths photography reminds us that the
sublime is by no means exhausted. Remnants of a nature with the
capacity to shock still persist here and there and Holdsworths
investigations of Icelands interior bring these to the surface in a way
that I am sure Burke would have appreciated.

If Kant twisted the

concept of the sublime to reflect less the grandeur of nature and more
the greatness of human accomplishment, then other work by
Holdsworth bends this logic one more time. What shocks now are the
consequences of human accomplishment unbounded by humility of
an Earth shaped for human purposes, scarred by roads, squatted by
settlements and rendered hygienic in the isolation of an anechoic
chamber. Moreover, Holdsworth moves beyond a binary opposition of
Burke versus Kant to discover the duality of second nature, where the
viewer of his images can find a sublimity in the accommodation
between the natural and the human.
Although Holdsworths work brings us back to senses of the sublime
that might have been thought, lost it does not do so under the guise of
Lyotards postmodern sublime. Holdsworth is, of course, alert to the
seductive debates in which only representation itself is worthy of
representation, yet he is not deflected by their allure. The images in
this book bear eloquent testament to Holdsworths commitment to the
potential of the figurative photograph. Their impact is as an effective
rejoinder to Lyotards perspective as it is an evocative refusal of Kants
dismissal nur Kunst. Holdsworths photographs are not mere art, they
are not the world at a remove; they are sublime in themselves.