Published: April 01 2013, by John
I thought it would be interesting to write a bit more about the theme behind the artworks in the Explore Discover Innovate Series.
In part I simply wanted to create a series of artworks that were visually rewarding and would be thematically linked on the topic of Exploration. After settling on the subject of Exploration I started to wonder why this theme had been so appealing. And it seemed to me it was because, as humans, we've always had an inclination to explore, to push ourselves to more and more extreme challenges - and from every challenge we've succeeded in, we learn new lessons that we adapt to the next, greater, challenge. It was from this hypothesis that the larger theme of 'Explore Discover Innovate' came about.
Once I had a basic theme, it took me weeks to develop a style for the artworks. I tried lots of approaches, some were simply not that great, others worked well for one or two images but didn't extend well to a larger series of work.
Eventually I hit upon the style seen in the finished prints. The first picture I created was By Canoe. And while I was happy to have found a look and feel for the images that would work well across an entire series - looking back at the finished work, I realised there could be a further level of interest to add to the series.
The initial aim was just to illustrate a man in a canoe, in a spectacular landscape. Looking again at the finished work I could see not just a man in a canoe, but a list of unanswered questions: why is he there? where has he been? where is he going? - what's the story?
Being out in a canoe on your own might be an enjoyable weekend break, but our natural instincts also flag up inherent dangers. So it's natural that we look at these images and our initial reaction might be one of envy that we'd also like to be outside in some remote wilderness. But following that initial response is our chimp brain flagging up all the possible dangers that we should be thinking about.
Humans have always explored and always sought out a certain amount of danger. But it wasn't until the 18th Century that exploration as we typically think of it today really became popular. And it led to the development of a number of theories as to the appeal of these extreme landscapes.
In the mid eighteenth century John Dennis wrote one of the earliest treatise on our pleasurable fear in the mountains.
We walk'd upon the very brink, in a literal sense, of Destruction; one Stumble, and both Life and Carcass had been at once destroy'd. The sense of all this produc'd different motions in me, viz., a delightful Horrour, a terrible joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleas'd, I trembled.
In essence Dennis shows us that there is pleasure to be found in fear. In the following years this concept was expanded and formulated into the broader theory called the Sublime.
The sublime delights in chaos, intensity, cataclysm, great size, irregularity. It created a fierce (particularly in Britain) affection for wild landscape, ice-caps, oceans, forests, deserts and above all mountains.Robert Macfarlane - Mountains of the Mind
Edmund Burke published 'A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful' in 1757.
He expands on Dennis' writings - with the observation that:
that which is too big, fast or powerful for our minds to properly comprehend, we often find to be Sublime. They might be hectic, intimidating or uncontrollable - but they inspire in the observer a mix of pleasure and terror.
A painting or sculpture (particularly of the type shown in the 18c) might be beautiful, but an avalanche or flooding river is Sublime.
...whatever is in any sort of terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.Edmund Burke
The core of Burke's thesis is that terror is a passion. And one that always produces delight when it does not pass too close. Being injured or killed by an extreme natural event is too close - but being close enough to witness it first hand without experiencing any negative impact creates a surge of passion, first fear but quickly relief or joy that you are safe.
The scenes in Explore Discover Innovate aren't overtly sublime - if anything the style and colour range suggests warmth, security, relaxation and by implication safety.
However, the landscapes are remote and potentially extreme. The figures are alone and there's no narrative given to understand their situation. The person in the canoe might be paddling back, from a short trip, for a barbecue with his family on a nearby shore. Or he might be the last survivor of an extended expedition where his 4 fellow travellers have died in accidents.
The climber might be comfortably scaling the cliff face, or he might be about to lose his grip and fall.
There's a lot of scope in the artworks to bring your own narrative to the scenes and the more you think about the worst case scenarios of what might be about to happen or has already happened - perhaps the more interesting they become because we're inherently enthralled by the Sublime.
The fact that the figures are all shown relatively distant is important. It makes their isolation more apparent, and the fact that they are potentially putting themselves at danger more obvious.
Explore Discover Innovate will be running at Castle Street Studios in Exeter 18 - 23 April 2013. Find out more.