The Sublime 3.0: Fear & Awe is featured in The Wrong Biennale, pavilion 37, where we showcase how New Media artists are shaping and pushing the boundaries of the contemporary sublime. Divided into four categories: the natural, the eerie, the technological and the dis(embodied) sublime   we invite you to explore our virtual realm of fear, awe and destabilising beauty.

Gabriella Gasparini | Ed. Peter Traynor | 10 October 2021

Pierre Jacques Voltaire - Vesuvius' Eruption 1782 - The Natural Sublime - Agora Digital Art
Pierre Jacques Voltaire, Vesuvius’ Eruption (1782) © Courtesy of the artist.

The natural sublime can be described as a feeling of awe, grandeur, terror and stupor which arises from the confrontations humans have with nature. Many might have heard, or be familiar with this sensation of sublimity. In fact, the natural sublime is one of the most established categories within the historical discourse of this topic, but nonetheless, one that still exerts much force to this day, especially within the context of climate change. In today’s fractured ecological landscape, what can we learn from revisiting the natural sublime in a New Media or Digital Art context?

If the thoughts of mastery over nature established during the enlightenment appeased the many prominent thinkers of the eighteenth century, nature and well all those glorious thoughts of superiority, came tumbling down, quite spectacularly, in the twenty-first century (at humanity’s expense!). The ‘Grand Tour’, that rite of passage for all the decadent aesthetes of the seventeenth century, took unsuspecting British blokes on a whirlwind tour of Europe’s most daring natural artefacts. From the icy perilous slopes of the Swiss Alps to the vicarious ridges of southern Italy’s majestic volcanos. The tour throttled the barely-of-age landed gentry into landscapes far more violent than the docile and green rolling hills of England they were accustomed to. There, amidst the perfect storm of being a typical tourist in a foreign treacherous land, and being exposed to the frightful elements the youngsters realised nature’s full dramatic extent and then hastily returned back home, now armed with all those great ideas that would later turn into the Industrial Revolution. In other words, after being absolutely petrified by the natural landscapes they saw both in real life and spread all over those canvases painted by Caspar David Friedrich, J W Turner and Theodore Gericault, the boys decided enough was enough, nature was to be tamed. 

Arctic Russian wildfires (2021) Фото © ТАСС / Иван Никифоро - The Natural Sublime - Agora Digital Art
Arctic Russian wildfires (2021)  Фото © ТАСС / Иван Никифоро

Over the past two hundred or so years, this unstoppable need for mastery over our land, nature and its resources has resulted in the dire situation we now find ourselves in today. As such, nature remains one of the principal categories within the sublime, a force of terror, awe and stupefaction that culminates in either a complete sense of displacement and abandonment, best encapsulated by the emerging eco-anxiety of younger generations; or a potent and empowering sensation of activism, driven by the desire to act, change, stop the incessant ‘blah blah blah’ to galvanise action, as demonstrated by a new generation of eco-warriors. 

Within the two natural sublimes I have highlighted, the stupefying, arresting sublime that materialises as eco-anxiety, carries the weight of all our failures to come to terms with our impact on nature. Our eco-anxiety, driven by today’s cynicism, exhibits itself via a nihilistic fear of impending environmental doom, worsened by the lack of health resources and the rising social inequalities within certain marginalised communities. Youngsters now go on virtual ‘Grand Tours’ of all the usurped landscapes, broken ecosystems and open-air dumpsters around the world, all from the destabilizing comfort of their own wi-fi enabled homes and, inevitably, feel powerless. A 2020 psychiatric study revealed the harrowing statistic that up to 57% of youngsters now feel distressed and anxious about the climate crisis, affecting their ability to think about their future and their place within a crumbling ecosystem. And so the grandeur which prompted the eighteenth-century teens to experience the fright of nature, now flattens into an inability to come up with viable solutions to the problems of climate change. Climate change has become a hyperobject, a thing so powerful and massive that humans can no longer comprehend or contain it. But the irony of climate change within the discourse of the sublime can be cast in the terrifying realisation that the longer climate change goes on, the more dramatic, unexpected and violent its outbursts will be, from Germany’s flash floods which killed 70 people, to the arctic heatwave which saw temperatures soar to over 35 degrees centigrade in polar Siberia. How close to danger must we get before the aesthetic sublime collapses into just the feeling of fear?

Sian Fan, Spore1 (2020) © Courtesy of the artist.

If, on one side, society is crippled by an impending sense of doom, on the other, we see the re-emergence of the eco-warriors, the activists taking a hands-on approach to climate change, best exemplified by movements like XR and their mass-scale street protests that use shocking and disruptive tactics (not too dissimilar to those which draw us to sublime experiences), to force people into thinking about the environment. With eco-warriors, the shocking, empowering and reactive aspects of the natural sublime are explored, giving birth to a movement that is outward-facing and political. If the destabilising powers of nature suspend the eco-anxious amongst us from conceptualising a solution, the empowering and self-affirming powers of human emotion help eco-activists come up with new, brave and thought-provoking ways we might re-establish equilibrium with nature. For example, projects like Next Nature Network seek to bridge the gap between nature and technology by re-evaluating the way we engineer technology to interact with the environment, giving rise to technological advances that act symbiotically with nature rather than as a force against it. But then again, the mining for resources to make that technology possible, in many cases still exploit the land, in a catch-22 situation. 

Both the stupefaction of eco-anxiety and the terror experienced by eco-warriors can and should be seen through the aesthetic lens of the sublime, which is why today we see a major resurgence of artists working within the themes of ecology, sustainability and conservation but also of biotechnology, helping us to merge or flatten the historical distinction between what we consider ‘natural’ and ‘human-made’.  It is in this gap between the natural and the technological, that the contemporary natural sublime exerts most of its power. A power to reclaim the natural from the claws of technology; but also a power to reshape and re-contextualise what we mean by the idea of ‘natural’, aided by a form of technology that doesn’t seek to destroy or take over, but rather blend, merge and coexist symbiotically with nature. 

Dalena Tran, Incomplete (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

Against this backdrop, a new breed of artists has been working towards reframing the natural sublime. New Media artist Sian Fan visualises the coexistence of technology and nature, helping us to ruminate on our increasingly hyperconnected world via the metaphor of a spore, in both its natural, organic form as a mycelium and as a digital, forever expanding rhizomatic extension of the internet. Superimposed, the actions of the natural spore, extending through the earth in search of nutrients and the cyborgic spore, spreading via the network of worldwide webs, do not appear so different after all. Dalena Tran’s body of work merges technology and nature into a flat plane of existence, a valley where all the anxieties of the twenty-first century coalesce and implode under their own gravitational pull. The result? Digital art like ‘Incomplete’ which Tran accompanies with the subtext “the year is 2021. The future has already happened” almost invoking a ‘Slaughterhouse 5’-like multiplicity of timelines, all collapsed into one sublime entity. Here, in this glitchy submerged plane between the real and the virtual, we experience a mirage of never-ending change as images bleed into one another seemingly without physical pain. In contrast, Rebekah Guo takes us into the epicentre of a sandstorm, an experience that left her wondering what it was about that frightening experience that left her contemplating it in awe. The brutal force of billions of inert small, insignificant sand grains, now suddenly enraged with the collective force of nature that pushes, grinds and thrusts its way into and onto its environment. Here, Guo explores the natural sublime’s themes of insignificance and instability versus the grandiose force of nature, perhaps inviting the spectator to become one of these tiny inconspicuous sand grains that then, once together, become destructive. 

Rebeka Guo, Being in a Sand Storm (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

The above New Media artists all question and re-evaluate the notion of the natural sublime, inviting us to ask novel questions and formulate new solutions to our environmental woes. In turn, I’d like to ask you, the reader, to ponder the future of the natural sublime. If on one side, society’s eco-anxious appeal to the sublime’s destabilising and stupefying nature, and if on the other, society’s eco-warriors call for the sublime’s empowering and grandiose qualities does that mean that the contemporary natural sublime exists in a split form? Can the contemporary sublime feel subverting and empowering? And can we ever feel at once grandiose but also minuscule, just like a spore expanding towards the great unknown, like time collapsing under its own hourglass’ weight or like that tiny grain of sand, joining forces with the growing 7.753 billion others to actually create a storm? 

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