The palpable terror and magnificence of deep alpine chasms and empty glacial expanses, which drew those early pioneers of the sublime far into the untamed wilderness, have been enfeebled. No longer are these remote locales so unfamiliar, or indeed even that remote any longer. Though still evocative, their power to induce the glorious incommunicable solitude of consciousness is weakened. Today the sky-scraping ravines of the metropolis provoke a shadow-like sense of the wonder and dread that drove Joseph Addison and John Dennis into the high Alps. There has been a change in our relationship to the wild places and perhaps even towards the idea of them causing an “agreeable kind of horror”[i]. Nonetheless, we still seek such situations, as if venturing there will elucidate the nature of – though certainly never release us from – the snare of consciousness which, for Pascal, was induced by confrontation with the magnitudes of the universe: “I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse... I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more.”[ii]
These infinites are redolent within Hrafnkell Sigur›sson’s installation, CONVERSIONS, and given evangelic zeal with the infolding of the abject debris of contemporary living into an unspoilt tract of nature. However this is not a hackneyed morality tale of the folly of human consumerism threatening the idyll of nature. The presence of the refuse is an extension of the human – literally relics from our existence – that through a form of transitivity, convey the implication that we become a part of nature. This combined with the images’ Rorschach-like appearance, where garbage folds in upon itself, implicates the corollary infinite to the endlessness of nature. Thus in both the treatment of the images and the squalid nature of the subject matter, there is a distinct allusion to our own mortality. Underpinning this is an asymmetry within the garbage images where the left and right elements subtly differ, the result of a temporal schism between when the photographs were taken. The detritus is shown in flux, at the moment where it is about to be buried within the landfill site. A moment upon the brink of decomposition and its commencing of a crystallization back into nature. This process of material degradation and transformation is of particular relevance, as the sublime itself was often understood as an artifact of breakdown, with the Alps described as “ruines of a broken World.”[iii] Through this collision of the two distinct types of image, Hrafnkell’s compounds a material and conceptual breakdown, which proposes a theoretical synergy with the concept of the sublime. An idea, such as the natural sublime - as espoused by Dennis, Addison, Burnet et al – which is itself a composite notion created from what could be thought of as exclusive properties, for instance the terrifying and the wonderful. In the light of which it is particularly apt that Hrafnkell provides a coda to the installation that extenuates this sense of conceptual ruination and resurrection. The anagrammatic wall-text of names is indicative of a sense of individual isolation through the threat of the eradication of the self. The broken up names – which almost become new people – standing as is an epitaph to the self and its disintegration, conjuring with our fear of our own annihilation. Yet this is offset by the potential of something new arising from that act destruction, a conceptual parallel to the refuse pile which will eventually give way to becoming a new landscape.
[i] Joseph Addison, “Pleasures of the imagination” The Spectator (London, 1712)
[ii] Blaise Pascal, Pensées trans. WF Trotter (London: JM Dent & sons, 1943) §3, #194.
[iii] Thomas Burnet, A Sacred Theory of the Earth (London: Centaur Classic, 1965). During his travels to the Alps in the late seventeenth century Burnet considered that the mountains were not the direct creation of God but rather the result of the cataclysmic biblical Deluge. The idea had currency with others who took up the Grand Tour, John Dennis’ 1688 visit to the Alps lead him to conclude of them: “Ruins upon ruins in monstrous heaps, and heaven and Earth confounded”