My project is using glimpses of hermitage cells and their surrounding landscapes to metaphor a sanctuary from modern society in nature. The oratory's and hermit cells are obvious religious/spiritual sites but there is more to this simple religious connection in the photographic strategies of my work. This became apparent after reading a couple of different texts relating to Awoiska van der Molen's Sequester work by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Ernst Van Alphen.
In Phosphorescence: Awoiska van der Molen’s Sequester (2014), Wolukau-Wanambwa talks about how through the strategy of photographing in low light or moonlight, the longer than conventional exposures make apparent that the lighter areas of the image are only possible because of this photographic process. Low light tends not to cast any shadows and as such, these types of images become a paradox in conventional ways of seeing. Lightness comes out of the darkness through a process of photographic time, which can be seen as a metaphor for the biblical tropes of light and dark in Christian faith, and in Buddhism that whilst we should accept and embrace our cracks and flaws (the darker side of our lives) with hard work and attention to details, we can become stronger and more beautiful for it (the light in our lives).
Darkness, like religion, is a human construct. Humans have a low sensitivity to light, many creatures can see perfectly well at night. Wolukau-Wanambwa points to Giorgio Agamben's essay in which he states: “The absence of light activates a series of peripheral cells [which] produce the particular kind of vision that we call darkness”. So in fact, as Wolukau-Wanambwa concludes: “darkness is not, therefore, a privative notion but rather the result of the activity of the “off-cells,” a product of our own retina... Darkness as a concept is only intelligible within the narrow confines of our own optical capacity, and not an immutable register with which to measure the shape and nature of the world'. Likewise, aspects of creation within religion are only intelligible within the narrow confines and vulnerable limits of human capacity.
Ernst Van Alphen approaches his analysis of van der Molen's work by looking at nature in relation to cultural representation. He claims Western culture utilises two traditional topoi that locate nature outside culture: 'The first one is that of the biblical paradise, the Garden of Eden, the place of pure nature because guilt did not yet exist. The second one is the Kantian idea of the sublime as experience that is post-cultural. When man is located with his back to civilization and eye to eye with wild oceans or steep mountains, he has an experience that is supposed to be outside the familiar possibilities of representation. We call such an experience sublime', (Van Alphen, 2014). Van Alphen sees Van der Molen's landscapes as a combination of these two extremes of pure nature; both paradise and sublime: 'because they look most like the way we imagine nature to have looked after creation'. He continues by referring to Earth's creation in the book of Genesis in which he reminds us that not only God creates light, which is good, on the 6th-day, he created humans to live in the paradise garden of Eden - and thus nature becomes home to human cultural representation.
Furthermore, on the 7th day, God rests and reflects on what has been created, which is similar to how we feel when we look at the objective, non-human landscapes of artists like van der Molen, Ron Jude and Daniel Gustav Cramer, and hopefully my own in some respects. The lengthy approach of analogue photographic time and process taken to create these images of nature free of anthropocentricity, are there to be rested and reflected upon. But any mention of paradise in the Garden's of Eden or the 'sublime' an immediately undone by the fact that these are man-made photographs: 'But both topoi of pure nature lose their persuasiveness as analogies... when we realise that the landscapes in question are nothing less than human-made. Paradise-like landscapes, as well as wild, sublime landscapes, are perhaps not really representable in their undifferentiatedness within an ordering imposed mechanically by an optical lens. The distinctions made by God in the design of his paradise demonstrate this, because they illustrate what culture is all about: to make differences. The photographs of Awoiska van der Molen are emphatically moments of looking back. Looking back at landscapes that withdraw from culture. This implies that it is culture that has produced these natural landscapes. In other words, paradise has not been created by God but by Awoiska van der Molen'. (Van Alphen, 2014)
- Van Alphen, Ernst. 2014. Time Saturation: The Photography of Awoiska Van Der Molen. Published in ‘De Witte Raaf’, Belgium. March 2014. Awoiska Van Der Molen [online] Available at: https://www.awoiska.nl/var/upload/essay_alphen_nu.pdf [Accessed on: 26.08.21]
- Wolukau-Wanambwa, Stanley. 2014. Phosphorescence: Awoiska van der Molen’s Sequester. Published online at 'The Great Leap Sideways' - New York 2014. Awoiska van der Molen [online] Available at: https://www.awoiska.nl/var/upload/writing_stanley_wolukau.pdf [accessed: 30.08.21]