When Irish statesman Edmund Burke first described the feeling of “dread-tinged calm”, he did not characterize our contemporary reality, in which environmental crises are met with reassuring complicity. The year was 1757, and Burke was attempting to depict the profound effect of nature on a man experiencing its grandeur. He called this condition the sublime. His term that defined the art of Romanticism and denoted the dominant aesthetic sensibility in Europe and America for more than a century.
Times have changed, and so have tastes, but French curator Nicolas Bourriaud doesn’t believe the sublime is obsolete. On the contrary, he sees it as crucial to understanding how the greatness of nature is being ravaged today. As a member of the independent curatorial collective Radicants, he has set out to illustrate his point in a series of three exhibitions at Palazzo Bollani to coincide with the Venice Biennale. Collective is the name of the exhibition series that runs from April to November Planet B.
“I am convinced that with the idea of the sublime we can outline a new approach to contemporary aesthetics,” writes Bourriaud in the exhibition catalogue. “Deprived of all romance, this updated version of the sublime seems to be the most relevant aesthetic concept for the analysis of art in the Anthropocene.”
From Bourriaud’s perspective, the sublime is important not only as a curatorial framework or as an art historical theme. He believes that it is nothing less than quality that gives contemporary art its power as an antidote to the “Capitalocene”. In other words, his exhibition is political. What sets it apart from countless other politically motivated environmental exhibitions is that environmental polemics are virtually non-existent.
Take the work of Hicham Berrada, for example. In his permutations Series, aquariums are filled with otherworldly structures that look organic and have grown from the dissolution and crystallization of exotic metals from e-waste. These “strange landscapes”, as Berrada describes them, can be seen as harbingers of a post-technological world in which our machines are reconstituted according to the natural affinities of their materials. In other words, they indicate our future absence on a planet that we have tried to make in our image. Berradas permutations can be seen as permutations of 19th-century landscapesth Century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, who typically depicted the human figure as the most insignificant feature in a vast panorama.
Still, there are important differences between Friedrich’s paintings and Berrada’s mixed-media work that support Bourriaud’s contention that the “new sublime” is different. The most obvious is the way the human element is expressed. Friedrich often portrays a lonely wanderer, overwhelmed by his surroundings. Berrada shows no one, but implies our entire species through the initial conditions from which his landscapes emerge.
More subtle, but also more important, is the difference in the process. With Friedrich we identify a painter and distinguish him from the painting that still bears his signature 182 years after his death. The conditions under which Berrada’s work is created are more fluid, both literally and figuratively. The work builds itself up when he lets it go.
As Bourriaud wisely notes, Berrada and contemporaries such as Bianca Bondi and Peter Buggenhout “reject the mental scheme that has structured Western aesthetics for the last two millennia: imprinting matter, drawing a figure against a background”. More than any environmental message that could be derived from Berrada’s use of e-waste, this refusal has political implications that are potentially transformative. “We live in a gigantic echo chamber,” notes Bourriaud. “This is the new consciousness from which emerges the contemporary sublime, which is above all a rejection of the tragic confrontation between man and the world that has been the leitmotif of Western thought.” The new sublime is to be found in the dissolution of ourselves .