Landart and the Sublime
Vast spaces, grand heights, and unfathomable depths, along with the great tempests of the seas and sky are the stimulus for the sublime experience.
Landart and the Sublime
"Gandalf could be seen, glimmering in the gloom; he seemed small, and altogether alone: grey and bent, like a wizened tree before the onset of a storm." This famous scene from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring conjures images of terror and magnificence along with the great strength of a single man confronting the Balrog, a servant of the dark. Tolkien put in words that which we have difficulty understanding while in the moment of experiencing the sublime. As a professor of English language and literature, Tolkien knew what literary theorists had designated as the sublime. It is also likely that Tolkien was equally knowledgeable about the sublime in art. He may have seen John Martin's The Great Day of His Wrath (1851 - 3). This painting, the third in Martin's Judgement Series, depicts St. John The Divine's fantastic account of the Last Judgement given in Revelations. Confronting the Balrog and the great storm of His Wrath are expressions of the sublime. While literary theorists and art historians have leaned toward terror and magnificence, there are others that have looked upon the majesty, wonder, and beauty of our world in awe. Often experiencing a profound mix of emotions and engulfed in the wonder of it all we find ourselves contemplating our place in this vast world and the universe. Land Art is an extension of the sublime depicted in literature and art to an actual experience of the sublime in nature.
As described by the Tate museum, the sublime is a "theory developed by Edmund Burke in the mid-eighteenth century, where he defined sublime art as art that refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation." During a survey of land art, we have seen many examples, including Michael Heizer's Double Negative located in Moapa Valley and Walter de Maria's Lightning Field located in Catron County, New Mexico. Both of these works of art, part of the vast landscape, are affected by the natural elements, ever-changing the visual attributes of the art. While Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans War Memorial with its polished black granite transports visitors to another realm as they search for the names of their loved ones who appear to be gazing back through the reflective surface. These experiences of the sublime require us to understand the roots of this concept in art. Emily Brady further discusses this idea in her book The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature stating that "experiences of sublimity may support an enriched understanding and re-valuing of extraordinary natural phenomena and the place of humans in relation to them." In an effort to control nature, humans have ascribed sublimity to that which cannot be controlled. Vast spaces, grand heights, and unfathomable depths, along with the great tempests of the seas and sky are the stimulus for the sublime experience. Heizer, de Maria, and Lin have used the stimulus found in nature as the medium for the art that can only be found outside the museum or gallery.
Emily Brady continues her discussion of the sublime by stating that "sublime feeling involves an oscillation or simultaneous feeling of displeasure and pleasure, rather than a move from displeasure to pleasure. Natural objects do violence to the imagination and senses, and make us feel physically small and insignificant in comparison to nature's size or power." Tolkien's character, Gandalf, was very small, standing at the edge of an abyss in a vast cavern confronting the Balrog. And Martin's stormy scene provides a sense of impending doom. However, the emotional experience of the sublime is left to the observer to imagine. So how do we experience the sublime - experiences that Emily Brady suggests "involve qualities related to overwhelming vastness or power coupled with a strong emotional reaction of excitement and delight tinged with anxiety?" In A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian' Hugh Blair provides the answer in a single phrase: "[The sublime] is the offspring of nature, not of art." Land art simultaneously becomes both the object of the sublime and the artistic representation of the sublime. The work of Robert Smithson and James Turrell are examples of both the subject and the experience of the sublime.
In this space and throughout time, the individual has attempted to control the uncontrollable: nature. And in this effort, has manipulated the landscape as proof of this control. However, this control is fleeting and temporary. Why? Because nature is powerful, vast, and complex. Robert Smithson understood this concept. Smithson's Spiral Jetty, located in The Great Salt Lake of Utah, is a work of art that changes as nature changes. Time is supposed to change the art. Over the decades since its placement, Spiral Jetty has been above water, submerged, and then dry as the lake receded due to drought. The control of nature was initially implemented, ordering the materials into a form that appears naturally. Over time this order is reduced through the disorder of nature and will eventually be taken over by nature. In describing Spiral Jetty, Robert Smithson shares: "As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake." Interestingly, Smithson and other artists who make site-specific environmental or land art question the idea that art can be contained in a gallery or museum context. There is a striving for containment or control in these types of work. Yet, there is also a release of that control. Another example of this control/containment and release is Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field in New Mexico. While the lightning rods are arranged in a grid to direct lightning strikes, the rods do not create lightning. There is no guarantee that an observer will witness a spectacular light show. There is only a hope that there will be a light show. Other site-specific pieces go further than the landscape and the weather, reaching for the stars.
James Turrell's Roden Crater is an example of a site that goes beyond the site and into the night sky. He literally uses the sublime object, an extinct volcano, as the site for an experience to engage with celestial events from within the observatory built inside. Turrell shares his thoughts on the Roden Crater website: "My desire is to set up a situation to which I take you and let you see. It becomes your experience." Terror and wonder seem to be combined to create a sublimely surreal experience. To truly experience and understand the sublime, humans need to engage with nature. There seems to be an element of reverence in this experience, maybe drawing on the creativity within each of us.
Our attempts to control nature are merely experiments or experiences - ways in which to understand our world and the vastness of space and the universe. The world in which we live is vast and beautiful. It continues to rotate and revolve. Live moves forward. Climates and weather patterns change. What is captured or contained by us is temporary and fleeting or exhausting if we persist in containing the uncontrollable. At some point, we will understand, like Gandalf, that we are but an atom in a vast universe. If we are wise, we will brace ourselves against the storm or ride the waves, experiencing wonder and awe.
Blair, Hugh. 'From a Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian (1763)'. In Andrew Ashfield and Peter De Bolla, eds., The Sublime: A Reader in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 207-212, 212-223.
Brady, Emily. The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Smithson, Robert. Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Edited by Jack D. Flam, University of California Press, 1996.
"Sublime." Tate. https:www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/s/sublime.
Turrell, James. Roden Crater, https://rodencrater.com/about/.
About the author
I started writing when I was about eight years old. I love to read and I also love to create. As a writer and an artist, I want to share the things that I have learned and experienced. Genres: Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and history.