Artist Lawrence Lek, the first contributor to the Archives and Access Artist Albums project, outlines his practice and research in the lead up to his involvement to the 2016 Glasgow International Festival

Digital images of sublime landscapes are twice removed from the awe-instilling natural environments that they represent. Sequences of low-resolution JPEGs don’t quite capture the essence of apocalyptic storms and seascapes in the same way that detailed canvases do. But maybe that’s not the point. Digital archives aren’t about materiality, but about memory.

Paul Nash in Tate’s digital archive

While browsing the recently digitised material in Tate’s Archives and Access project, I came across the 1200+ black and white photographs of painter Paul Nash (d. 1946). Those from the interwar years of the 1930s featured mostly landscaped ruins (Tintern Abbey, Maiden Castle) and everyday scenes with friends and lovers. But the difference between these and the photos taken during World War II is striking. Piles of wrecked airplanes at Cowley Dump in 1940 are nothing like the romantic piles of medieval rubble. Here, destruction is mechanised, not natural.

Black and White photograph of WW1 destruction at Cowley Dump
Paul Nash
the Cowley Dump 1940
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Waterfront photograph on Swanage Bay
Paul Nash
Swanage Bay 1940
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Digital art project at Glasgow International

I’m looking at the history of the sublime in order to borrow some drama for QE3, a digital simulation that I’m working on for a project at next year’s Glasgow International. I’m creating a fictional last voyage for the QE2 luxury ocean liner, being taken back to its birthplace (the Clyde River) to be turned into an extension for the Glasgow School of Art. 

Of course it’s not really going to happen – it’s a commentary about the use of art in urban regeneration, and the changing nature of production over the fifty years since the ship was built. And even though it’ll be made with 3D animation software, it references the tradition of sublime seascapes, from Nash’s paintings, back to Turner’s Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up (1838), in which the age of sail gives way to the age of steam. Here, the age of transatlantic postcolonial luxury giving way to the age of digital representation.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'Steamer and Lightship; a study for 'The Fighting Temeraire'' circa 1838-9
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Steamer and Lightship; a study for 'The Fighting Temeraire' circa 1838-9

Virtual worlds and the sublime

Since it’s a new medium, virtual worlds have little critical history that place them in relation to the sublime – the pleasurable aesthetic effect which philosopher Edmund Burke claimed acted in opposition to classical ideas of harmonious Beauty. Burke described the physiological sensation of the sublime as negative pain, which he called delight, and which is distinct from positive pleasure. For Burke, the imagination is moved to awe and instilled with a degree of horror by what is ‘dark, uncertain, and confused.’

This is of real interest to me because I’ve been using video game software to create site-specific simulations: uncanny digital worlds based on real places. But 3D software, to most people, has a visual aesthetic associated with the animated films and video game industries that drive the development of the technology. Like the first moving image films, their novel aesthetic is seen as derivative entertainment rather than as an art form. 

Depicting the chaos of nature in oil paintings and video games

In the midst of agricultural and industrial revolutions, painters and poets started looking at the turbulent character of nature. Beginning with Turner, Tate has a particularly great selection of deliberately ‘dark, uncertain, and confused’ canvases and sketches. Scanned notebooks filled with hastily drawn depictions of storms, crashing waves, burning buildings (e.g. The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, Oct 16 1834) are found throughout the digitised collections.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, 'The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834' exhibited 1835
Joseph Mallord William Turner
The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons, 16th October 1834 exhibited 1835

It’s this element of real-time that brings together sublime painting and video simulation. Video games differ from conventional animated films in that every frame is rendered by the computer a fraction of a second before it is seen by the viewer. That’s because the game is interactive and needs to respond to the player, whereas the animated film is a closed, linear sequence of events. Directors can determine exactly what each frame will look like. So whereas each frame of Pixar’s Toy Story took four hours to render, each frame of a video game takes 1/30 second, fast enough to appear as smooth motion to the player. 

In other words, while Hollywood animations and oil paintings can achieve larger ranges of visual effects, video game renderings and watercolours are better at capturing the moment. For Nash, photography was a way to capture images from his own experience that would later provide raw material for new paintings.

Swirling graveyards of aeroplanes

While browsing I came across another sublime favourite which I had almost completely forgotten about: The Great Day of His Wrath (AKA The End of The World), an 1851–53 canvas by John Martin. It illustrates a passage from Revelation, 6: 17 on a canvas ten feet wide. Scary stuff.

And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.
And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places….
For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?

John Martin, 'The Great Day of His Wrath' 1851-3
John Martin
The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3
John Martin, 'The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum' 1822, restored 2011
John Martin
The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011

Here, gravity is unbound in a single freeze-frame that prefigures the visual effects of a Hollywood disaster movie. Modelled on Edinburgh, grand citadels and hilltop terraces explode outwards and appear suspended upside-down over a volcanic ground, flags still flying from its buildings and before crashing head-on into the valley below. In both this painting and the earlier Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Martin achieves a suffocating effect by filling the horizon with a swirling cloud of rock and ash. 

This recalls Nash’s own description of the landscape of the Cowley dump that inspired Totes Meer:

The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea … the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no: nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead.

Unlike in his interwar photographs, the sea is no longer a smooth expanse of water, but a swirling graveyard of aeroplanes, washed up after the tempest. Digitised, Tate preserves it for us, frozen forever in a 1140 x 762 pixel image.

Paul Nash, 'Totes Meer (Dead Sea)' 1940-1
Paul Nash
Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1
Oil on canvas