Lex Thompson

Originally published in Lavalette, May 30th, 2013

There isn’t really a visual equivalent for ineffable, at least not one that holds the ineffable’s relationship to the transcendent as well as to the inexpressible. One could go with the prosaic, unviewable, or the slightly more mysterious, invisible, to deal with the simple inability to see a thing. But, you would have to join it to something like ulterior to convey a sense of existence past a defined boundary, or occult to reveal its secret nature beyond the range of human knowledge. Still, these are not terms relating to purely vision, and would have to be used as ancillary adjectives. Sublime brushes up against these ideas somewhat, but, like the others, holds its primary meaning and implications in other areas.

Lack of a precise vocabulary for this has not prevented artists from trying to approach this territory. The best religious art has been about this. Certain elements of abstraction have been after this. These frameworks offer particular tools, complex symbology and non-representational form, for coping with that which is beyond comprehension. So then, what is a medium like photography to do with such tools? A great number of photographic projects employ these methods to one degree or another, but more interesting are works that approach the ineffable with the very thing that photography does best, representing the world in front of the camera – a direct 1:1 record that is used to suggest something unknowably beyond the thing which we see.

Totally invisible to eye and instrument, dark matter is believed to comprise most of the matter of the universe. Its existence is only inferred, a conjecture about what is beyond our perceptions. The Cryogenic Dark Matter Search lab, located in a mine in northern Minnesota, is the nucleus for Keith Taylor’s photographic series Dark Matter. The prints are photogravures, a process that remains mysterious even to many photographers, and renders a black that is palpable. The images are concentrated in the lower portions of the tonal range, depicting the deep rich shadows of the mine, research center and surrounding forests. With no visible subject towards which to point his camera, Taylor imagines the dark matter within the shadows of the environment. The photos shift between abstraction and clear depiction of objects, from forests to technical devices. The juxtaposition of these materials and the ominous objectification of darkness within the photographs makes their haunting pervasive beyond the photos and into one’s own experiences. Thus far, Taylor’s attempts to locate the dark matter of the universe have been more successful than those of scientists. Though we still cannot truly see the stuff, he makes us able to feel it lurking outside the spectrum of our vision, flickering in our peripheral, skulking in the deepest shadows of the world.

Mårten Lange’s Another Language focuses on the phenomenological as well, but instead of looking there for the unseen mass of the universe, it reveals the order of creation found in the forms of each instance. The cover’s black whirlpool, stamped on gray bookcloth, shifts easily into a blackhole in the mind of the viewer. The understated book, elegant but demure in design, printed on a paper that satisfies the touch yet mutes the tones of the photographs, allows the images to remain quiet, a kind of murmur from one page to the next. Associations between images are based on formal resonance. Echoes of a tree burl are found in crystalline rock and in the surface of parched land. The texture of a fire is likened to that of the face of a mountain. Bee carcass, pile of sticks, and a rock protruding from the ocean are bound by their shape and their participation in a grander order of all that is. The short bit of text in the book, excerpted from Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos (a nineteenth-century, multi-volume attempt to unify all scientific knowledge), concludes, “A physical delineation of nature terminates at the point where the sphere of intellect begins, and a new world of mind is opened to our view. It marks the limit, but does not pass it.” The photograph marks a kind of terminus of its own, the concrete physicality of the subject in front of the lens. But, the grammar of the sequence of these discrete images does in fact speak another language, one that suggests a way of seeing the ineffable that underlies existence, not just a “new world of the mind” but a way to see and speak of and within that world.

Form within an image can identify reverberations of that which undergirds, but an attempt to get a handle on this kind of knowledge must also come through our bodies – holding it in our hands.

We can measure the distances within the solar system from planet to planet, and we can calculate the time to traverse these vast, seemingly empty distances, yet these numbers remain abstract from our experience. The 2011 international cooperative Mars500 simulation locked six astronauts in a model spaceship for 520 days to simulate a trip to Mars and back, after an attempt in 2000 ended in a drunken brawl and an unwanted kiss. Most people do not have the opportunity for this kind of extreme embodiment. Museums and educational model companies manufacture scale models of the universe, presenting us with a visual, more manageable expression of the expanse of space, but still these experiences remain only a minimal manifestation. It seems odd that a more effective media for discussing and sensing the breadth of time and space in our solar system is a book, or rather a multi-volume set.

Mishka Henner’s Astronomical is simple, minimal and brilliant as an artwork and as an embodiment of space and time. The title, author’s name and volume numbers are distributed over the spines of the white covered twelve-volume work. After the title page, the only text in the book relates to distance. A scale informs us that each page represents one million kilometers – the first volume represents 0-500 million kilometers. The next page is a photo of the sun. The subsequent 499 pages, nearly all completely black, cover the remaining miles of the book. The black pages stretch one after another through each five-hundred page tome. Most planets, when they do appear, are small dots on the page with only the gas giants appearing sizable. Other than the sun, nine pages of planets, and a number of pages of asteroid belt, each page is black vacuous space. A regular faint speckling and occasional splotch appears on a page as a result of the printing process, becoming a sort of cosmic dust that drifts about as the reader leafs from one million kilometers to the next. The time and persistence that it takes to go page by page in these books, looking at space and anticipating celestial bodies, conveys a sense of the immensity, unending wilderness, and tediousness of space in a way that is otherwise hard to feel beyond hard calculation. The book becomes a way of knowing space and time by proxy, a liturgical walk into the void.

The idea of envisaging the infinity of the universe is staggering. Jason Lazarus’s portrait of Eric Becklin, the first person to look at the center of our galaxy, a pioneer in infrared imaging for astrophysics, suggests that even approaching this kind of visual input is transformative. Wearing a white collared shirt, with thinning wispy white hair, Becklin’s pale visage stares toward the viewer from in front of a stark white background, his pupils become deep black space by contrast. Becklin’s expression is distant, almost as if he has never looked away from that inaugural perception of a location of such consequence. It is as if he has seen a ghost, and as such became one himself.

Lazarus asks related questions elsewhere. If a physiognomy can represent such a transformation by that which is beyond our reach and available only to augmented vision, then can a person also be represented once they have transcended their own being? In Heinecken Studies, Lazarus, whose name becomes remarkably apropos, scatters portions of the ashes of photographer Robert Heinecken across photographic paper exposed to create shifting color fields. In his titles, Lazarus details the illumination used to create the image (aperture, time, color pack, light source, etc.), a careful spectroscopy – a photographer’s attempt at Belkin’s type of astrophysical methodologies. Heinecken’s earthly remains interrupt the abstraction with a kind of corporal cosmos, becoming starfields against the proliferating light spectrums of the universe. The photographic act resurrects Heinecken from dust to cosmic dust. This metamorphosis suggests a kind of transcendence, a return from whence he came in a way that is both aesthetic and conceptual, moving beyond what we can know through what we can see.

Heinecken once said, “Many pictures turn out to be limp translations of the known world instead of vital objects which create an intrinsic world of their own.”[1] Lazarus has employed Heinecken’s cremation remnants to create the kind of image that Heinecken himself valued. When walking into a new world like this, as Lange and von Humbolt suggest, it quickly becomes a way of broadening our understanding of our own world, patiently traversing the distance provided by Henner’s six-thousand pages and staring into Taylor’s abyss, it intimates the ability to see parts of existence that would otherwise be unspeakable and imperceptible.

1. Holte, Michael Ned. “Robert Heinecken: Marc Selwyn Fine Art.” Artforum International 47.6 (2009): 199+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.