The Terrifying Sublime: Where Awe and Fear Mingle With Pleasure.

I've just finished watching Picnic at Hanging Rock (directed by Peter Weir, 1975). It's fantastic, but I was surprised by how much it scared me. Set in 1900, the plot centers on a group from a women's college and a St. Valentine's day trip to a large rock formation in Australia that is apparently one million years old. Primordial trouble I think. While exploring the rock, several of the girls disappear sometime after all of their watches mysteriously stop at noon. As they make their way deeper within the crevices of the rock, they begin to remove their shoes and stockings. This could be symbolic as it would be a very unusual thing to do during the Victorian era. My personal take is that the living presence of the ancient volcanic rock enchants some of the girls, drawing them toward the heart of the rock, luring them into becoming sacrificial victims. There are many mentions of the girls being "intact" and of course they are all dressed in virginal white. I spent the entire movie on edge, filled with some kind of indeterminate dread as different characters were magnetically drawn into the rocks. It was similar to the tension that builds in any kind of horror film, except this time the antagonist seemed to be of the sublime variety, strengthened by the innate power of nature to both give life and take it away. 

One of the girls, in a starkly contrasting and symbolic red cloak, is recovered. Upon her return she is ostracized by the group since she can't remember what happened to the others that are still missing.
I have big plans to recreate this cake, complete with chocolate ants.

Just a few days ago we discussed Richard Serra in class. Since I've been lucky enough to visit some of his large scale sculptures, made of weathered steel, I wanted to express the heightened sensations that may potentially accompany viewing, or rather participating in, these works. In both cases (at Dia Beacon just outside New York City and in Los Angeles at LACMA), I had a terrifying experience. Now I may be slightly more prone to anxiety than others, but the effect of interacting with the steel sculptures nearly pushed me into a full on panic attack. I highly recommend it. Despite the uncomfortable feeling of being enclosed and trapped in a labyrinth as the walls undulate in all directions, as the pathways veer unexpectedly, opening up to freedom sometimes and closing you in at others: the visceral response to a work of art is precious, rare, incredible and exhilarating. 

Richard Serra

I can only think of one other occasion where a work of art asserted itself with such strength. Designed by Peter Eisenman and engineered by Buro Happold in 2005, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin covers 19,000 square feet with cement stelae. The ground slopes irregularly and the stelae, like gravestones, rise in varying heights starting low on the outside, but creating dark shadows as they increase to over twelve feet tall as you make your way through the interior. Similar to Richard Serra's towering steel walls, the concrete stelae and narrow passageways lead to panic and disorientation as you begin to feel as though you've entered a never-ending, unpredictable, claustrophobic path. According to my students, the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC gives a similar experience. I won't be going there especially after visiting Sachsenhausen concentration camp a few years ago. The nightmares that place gave me are enough to last a lifetime.

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

Collectively, these experiences bring memories of the times that I survived death defying battles with profound natural forces: the Atlantic Ocean and later the Baltic Sea. Blinding panic, tremulous anxiety beneath chilling, life preserving calm overlaps with nearly maniacal euphoria as I realize that I gained the upper hand this time. I emerge somehow changed, definitely for the better. 

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