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. 


Purism, Synesthetes, and Simultaneity: Modern Art Musings.

Inspirations from this week's lesson. I forgot that I actually like some of the art from the early twentieth century. Here are three interesting concepts that evolved during that time.

PURISM: French artist Amédée Ozenfant, along with Le Corbusier, eschewed the decorative, disordered qualities favored by Cubists. Together, they founded the Purism movement with their manifesto: The Foundation of Modern Art (1925). Purism advocated a return to clear, precise, ordered forms, expressive of the modern, machine civilization.  

Ozenfant, The White Pitcher, 1925.
Ozenfant, The Vases, 1925.

SYNESTHESIA: Even though I have a strong aversion for the collective, Der Blaue Reiter, especially the Russian artist Vassily Kandinsky, I appreciate the probability that he was a synesthete. This describes someone who "hears" color and "sees" sound. In other words, when one sensory pathway is activated a second pathway is automatically, simultaneously activated. He and his fellows were interested in reuniting humanity with nature and spirituality in an attempt to counter the cold, modern mechanical world. The allowance of the subconscious to come forth organically determining the painting would soon be exploited by other artists, notably the Surrealists. This provocative short film stylishly explores the concept of synesthesia.

Terri Timely, Synesthesia, 2010.

SIMULTANEITY: Ukrainian born artist Sonia Delauney shows us how to collapse spatial and temporal distances, fusing art with life, with Simultaneous Dressing. She is known for layering repeat patterns (dress, jacket, accessories: same print). This idea was taken farther by dressing useful machines, such as automobiles, in the same pattern.

She and her husband, painter Robert Delaunay, liked to express the dynamism of modern life in rhythmic and bold patterning, the sensation of movement is caused by putting certain colors together. The clothing is meant to identify the wearer as modern.

Sonia Delaunay

Delaunay also made costumes, along with plenty of other modern artists such as Natalia Goncharova, Michel Larionov, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, André Derain, Georges Braque, André Masson and Giorgio de Chirico. 

Delaunay's costume for ’Cléopâtre’ in the Ballets Russes production of ’Cléopâtre’, 1918
Look at these costumes by Sonia Delaunay! 
Tristan Tzara's Dadaist play, The Gas Heart, 1920's. Costumes by Delaunay.

David Bowie (with Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi) get in on the Dada look, Saturday Night Live, 1979.