Wednesday, 5 April 2017

UTOPIAS - 5 : A Different kind of Water




To forestall its use for a Nazi atomic bomb a 187 litre quantity of heavy water was moved from France to Britain in June 1940. Heavy water, or deuterium oxide, is isotopically different from ordinary water, making it useful in the production of
 Nagasaki before and after the detonation 
of a nuclear bomb utilising 6.4 kg of the
artificial element plutonium of which
1 kg was converted to enough energy to
kill 35-40,000 people. A hydrogen bomb
is approximately 1000 times more powerful.
plutonium. The water was initially hidden at Wormwood Scrubs prison in London and later in the library at Windsor Castle. The story has a surreal quality that reflects the extent to which science changed our relationship with nature. Large amounts of hydro-electricity had been used at the Vemork plant in Norway to accumulate this special form of water that superficially appeared normal, but offered a rout to immense power.

The psychological unease produced when something as seemingly familiar as water is revealed to be strangely different was described by Ernst Jentsch in 1906 and by Sigmund Freud in 1919 in their essays on the uncanny. The concept of the uncanny was originally applied to personal experience but 20th century science also revealed nature to be strangely unfamiliar. Rare but naturally occurring, heavy water was concentrated at the Vemork plant and considered so important it was worth fighting for and dying for. As an emblem of power, derived from nature and held in the hands of the righteous, heavy water could almost belong in the type of history painting that preceded landscape art. It was like a modern version of holy water bound for the cathedrals of technology such as were the reactor halls of the 20th century. Atomic physics challenged landscape art as a paradigm of nature when art was already experiencing rapid changes. The first two decades of the century included; Albert Einstein's and Ernest Rutherford's
discoveries, development of; the aeroplane, radio, photography and cinema, the emergence of Cubist art, and the 1st World War. Since its origins in the Netherlands in the 16th century landscape art had contemplated natural scenes and helped to formulate the concept of nature within secular culture. 20th century science changed this as it rendered uncanny images of nature, an unintended consequence of research that continues to the present.

Another contemporary rift between art and nature was referred to by Holger Cahill in his introduction to the catalogue for the 1936 exhibition New Horizons in American Art:
  "Throughout most of the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth the concept of nature had served as a unifying element in literature as well as the fine arts. Nature had been conceived as a principle underlying the forms and phenomena of the visual world, drawing them into a harmonious and purposive whole, benevolent and somehow friendly to man's interests and ideals. Art had been conceived as a harmony dependent on the harmony of nature." (1)

Describing how the Hudson River school of landscape painting had been founded on the conception of nature as a unifying force, and how this idea was swept aside by modern art, Holger Cahill went on to lament the post-impressionist idea that "art is a harmony paralleling that of nature" (stated by Paul C├ęzanne) implying instead that art could be freed from the intellectual pretensions of European art movements,
Karl Fortress - Winter Vista 
Reproduced in black and white in 
New Horizons in American Art
democratised and made relevant to all citizens through a programme of public works. The pictures presented in New Horizons in American Art operate a folk art aesthetic that celebrates the dignity of labour and emphasises the fulfilment of human potential with landscape functioning as a stage on which the pathos of lived experience could be enacted. Holger Cahill implicitly assumed an uncomplicated relationship with nature. The new discoveries of science are not referred to, as if the laws of nature could remain in the background like a cat's cradle of elemental forces wrapped around the hands of a benevolent creator.

The Federal Art Project that financed the creation of the pictures shown in New Horizons in American Art was part of a wider programme of government interventions made necessary by the Wall Street Crash and the subsequent economic depression. As well as other Federal Art projects in the 1930s the U.S.
The Technological Sublime TVA
government 
founded the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which undertook a series of hydro-electric dam and flood control schemes designed to tame the river system and also provide electricity and employment in the region. The long-lasting cultural traction produced by the TVA and similar engineering around the world was qualitatively different from that of the earlier era of canal building (in Britain at the start of the industrial revolution) which reached a peak of achievement with the excavation of the Suez and Panama waterways. Whereas canals were slotted into the landscape and filled with water, hydro-electric dams straddled the land creating lakes where none had existed and harnessed the power of water driven by gravity. 

Chales Sheeler "Water" 1945
The engineered landscapes celebrated by artists such as Charles Sheeler are very different from the horse-driven world depicted in John Constable's Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River). The Anthropocene is the current geological epoch in which humans have a greater effect on Earth systems than natural processes. There is debate as to when it began, but its onset seems to coincide with the cultural change that allowed the idea of sublime beauty to become associated with technology. Sheeler claimed that "our factories are our substitute for religious expression." David Nye retrospectively used the term the 'technological sublime' to describe the relocation of the feelings of grandeur and awe from nature to technology. (2)

In 1936, the Mount Palomar telescope was another eagerly anticipated project. As the mirror blank was moved by rail from the Corning glass factory to the Caltech optical shop in

Nearly 1000 guests are dwarfed by the Mount
Palomar Telescope at the dedication 
ceremonyin 1948.        LINK

Pasadena, thousands of interested people lined the train tracks to watch the unfinished crated article pass. 12 years before the completion of the telescope in its art deco dome on top of Mount Palomar the project had already managed to unite the sublime notion of nature, as expressed by Edmund Burke in 1757, with the technological sublime. But even the technological sublime
Before European settlers arrived the ecology
of the North American plains had depended on 
deep rooted grasses to stabilise the soil. Deep
ploughing and a series of droughts caused
disastrous topsoil loss and  500,000 people
to become homeless.
has a fearful aspect, symbolised in the 1930's by the Dust Bowl agricultural disaster. After years of destructive ploughing topsoil was lost from a 400,000 sq. km area of the United States prairies in a series of storms.






Subsequently contour ploughing became a way of reducing soil
Margaret Bourke-White

erosion, recorded in an almost abstract photograph by Margaret Bourke-White. It shows wavy furrows, made by a tractor as it translated the contour lines of a map into physical reality, resembling the loops and whorls of a fingerprint. By the 1950s even photography was influenced by abstraction. In the post-war era 'ambitious' artists gave up on landscape.




Invented in 1952, bubble chambers were used to 
photograph paths of subatomic particles. 
"It seems to me that the modern painter
cannot express his age, the airplane, the atom bomb,
the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or
 of any past culture. Each age finds its own technique."
      Jackson Pollock in a recorded interview in 1950.


Jackson Pollock's 1950s abstract 'action' paintings resemble the tracks of subatomic particles seen in bubble-chamber photographs. Ansel Adams depicted the High Sierra of the U.S.A. with an uncanny 'scientific’ clarity in his 10" x 8" format photographs. Minor White explored the border of science and art by using infrared film to create black and white landscape photographs in which foliage glows white. In 1956 Gyorgy Kepes (3) suggested that a synthesis of science and art could renew the cultural perception of nature, but the two disciplines continued to survey the world in their individual ways. Although landscape art remains popular, art history tries to end its story with the late modernist land-art movement - featuring constructions or excavations made in remote locations of the U.S. by artists such as Robert Smithson and Walter De Maria.

Smithson is remembered for Spiral Jetty (1970) which he created
by tipping 6,650 tons of rock into the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The
Spiral Jetty
resulting 4.6 metre wide causeway is 460 meters long and leads away from the bank and spirals in on itself for two and a quarter turns. 
In New Mexico, De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977) is a construction of 400 stainless steel poles set vertically and 22 feet apart in a grid one mile by one kilometre  and is designed to attract lightning to the ground, although this has been photographed only once.

The Lightning Field is Commissioned and 
maintained by the Dia Art Foundation.
Smithson and De Maria became the first notable artists of the Anthropocene by emulating the processes that define it. The 21st century challenge to art is to reflect the interaction between nature and artifice as climate change and synthetic biology become the norm.


Welcome to the Anthropocene  (3 minute 38 second video)

UTOPIAS 5 on Blurb   (Artwork from page 6 onward by John Stockton)


(1) THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART. New horizons in American art. New York: reprinted edition. Arno Press, 1969,  pp.12

(2) NYE, David E. American technological sublime. Cambridge,
Mass: MIT Press, 1994.

(3) KEPES, Gyorgy. The new landscape in art and science.
Chicago: Paul Theobald and Co., 1956


"People never tire of recalling that Leonardo da Vinci advised painters who lacked inspiration when faced with nature, to contemplate with a reflective eye the crack in an old wall! For there is a map of the universe in the lines that time draws on these old walls. And each of us has seen a few lines on the ceiling that appear to chart a new continent. A poet knows all this. But in order to describe in his own way a universe of this kind, created by chance on the confines of sketch and dream, he goes to live in it. He finds a corner where he can abide in this cracked-ceiling world."


          Gaston Bachelard. Corners - The Poetics of Space. (1958)