Exercise 1.6: The contemporary abyss

Read Simon Morley’s essay ‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’ published on the Tate website: This should provide you with a good overview of the sublime as a theme within visual culture. Choose any body of work that you feel explores the sublime. It may be a photographic project, a work of literature, cinema, or any other medium. In your learning log, write at least 300 words describing how you believe the work you’ve selected relates to the sublime. Use Morley’s text to support your argument.

 My response:

Edward Burtynsky Manufactured landscapes

Burtynsky is a photographer and filmmaker. His feature length film Manufactured Landscapes (2006) made with Jennifer Baichwal follows him travelling through China taking large-scale photographs of ‘manufactured landscapes’, where man has changed the landscape, for his book with images of the same name.

I was fortunate to hear him interviewed about his work at a recent Photographer’s gallery event and have a full viewing of his film afterwards.

In the film he visits factories quarries, recycling yards, factories, mines, and dams, where from mountains of tyres, to rivers of bright orange waste from a nickel mine, to huge factories, “his images are simultaneously beautiful and horrifying” (YouTube, 2018).

     (, 2018)


(ArchDaily, 2018)

Burtynsky describes this work as inspired by landscapes and the transiency of humans on the landscape compared to geological time, and shows the transformation that humans are having on the landscape in this relatively short time – Industrial incursions – the lament of the landscape. He presents this complex picture without documentary text allowing us to enjoy the aesthetics and to meditate for ourselves on its implications and shift our consciousness about the world and the way that we live in it.

His work relates to the sublime as described by Morley in various ways. The work is certainly awe inspiring and has been described as stimulating the senses and the conscience simultaneously, producing emotions and causing a questioning of reason, just as the early romantic artists evoked extreme aspects of nature.

Burtynsky’s Manufactured landscapes alters your state of consciousness, in the context of nature and technology, one of Morley’s five suggested manifestations of the contemporary sublime. Viewing the film certainly causes a transformative experience, an immanent transcendence which Morley suggests is at the Sublime’s core. Morley suggests a key aspect of the sublime is feeling a loss of comfort, when an image is perturbing and yet exalting; this work does exactly this- it destabilises the viewer. Morley says that the uncanny is synonymous with the sublime, viewers usually find what Burtynsky presents to us uncanny, beyond the limits of acceptability.

Burtynsky’s use of technology, whilst shooting and postproduction fits with Morley’s label of the new era of the digital sublime. The subject matter or possibly the scale of it, is extraordinary, both in reality and its presentation. Sites such as the Three Gorges Dam, which is bigger by 50% than any other dam in the world, displacing over a million people, and factory floors over a kilometre long, are Burtynsky’s subjects. The way in which he presents his work either cinematographically expressing scale by using real time examples, or as large scale images (up to 15ft by 30 ft made by stitching many images together) in galleries to bring small details into significance, are digitally sublime. Julian Bell in his essay about the contemporary sublime says that scale is crucial to Burtynsky’s industrial sublime (Bell, 2018).

When Burtynsky was interviewed he was asked if he intends to make awesome images; he answered that he just wants to produce taut detailed images that transcend the ordinary.

In Staring into the contemporary abyss: The contemporary sublime, Morley suggests 5 different ways in which the word sublime is now used: The unpresentable in art, experiences of transcendence, terror, the uncanny and altered states of consciousness – in two contexts, nature and technology. Manufactured landscapes by Burtynsky particularly relates to the sublime as the uncanny, experiences of transcendence and altered states of consciousness caused by the effect of techology on nature.


ArchDaily. (2018). Gallery of Films & Architecture: “Manufactured Landscapes” – 3. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2018].

Bell, J. (2018). Contemporary Art and the Sublime. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Nov. 2018].

Edward Burtynsky, 1. (2018). Manufactured Landscapes. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2018] (2018). Manufactured Landscapes :: Zeitgeist Films. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Oct. 2018].

YouTube. (2018). Edward Burtynsky: Manufactured landscapes. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2018].

Staring into the contemporary abyss: The contemporary sublime. Simon Morley.  September 2010. Tate Etc. issue 20: Autumn 2010

Key points extracted from Morley’s overview of the sublime as a theme within visual culture.

  • Joseph Addison early 18th century described the sublime as something that ‘fills the mind with an agreeable kind of horror’.
  • Etymologically: Latin sublimis (elevated; lofty) derived from the preposition sub, meaning ‘up to’, and limen, the lintel of a doorway, or also perhaps from limes, meaning a boundary or limit.
  • Romantic artists use the term for evocations of extreme aspects of nature: mountains, oceans, and desserts “which produced emotions irrational and excessive kind, emotions seemingly aimed at evicting the human mind from its secure residence inside the House of Reason and throwing it into a boundless situation that was often frightening”.
  • Abstract Expressionists (1940s) used the term sublime for what they thought was characteristically different about American modern art, “an art possessing a depth and profundity not tied to European art features of classical and outdated ideas about beauty and aesthetics”.
  • Morley suggests 5 different ways in which the word sublime is now used: The unpresentable in art, experiences of transcendence, terror, the uncanny and altered states of consciousness – in two contexts, nature and technology. The sublime is where we reach a sort of borderline at which rational thought comes to an end and we suddenly encounter something wholly and perturbingly other.
  • At the sublime’s core are experiences of self-transcendence taking us away from understanding provided by a secular, scientific and rationalist world view.
  • The contemporary sublime is mostly about imminent transcendence; a transformative experience understood as occurring within the here and now.
  • Edmund Burke thought a key aspect of the sublime was the heightened and perversely exalted feeling we often get from being threatened by something beyond our control or understanding – a loss of any comforting sense of place. A negative-sublime, one that lures us close to a point where, because we have entered a structure less and unsettling zone, we can feel the cold breath of what Wordsworth called the ‘blank abyss’.
  • The sublime can be a kind of post-religious state of emotional transcendence in which, exactly because of the lack of ordered structures or codes, we feel a powerful sense of exaltation and release rather than fear, is an idea allied to Taoist and Buddhist thought. Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto illustrates a sense of void – of being on a borderline or edge where we can no longer codify experience – a fundamental prerequisite for a deeper sense of reality, serving to mediate between being and nothingness, and communicating through a condition of absence a heightened awareness of the self.


Hiroshi Sugimoto Union City Drive In, Union City 1993 (, 2018)

  • The uncanny is synonymous with the sublime – being confronted with something that’s beyond our limits of acceptability, or that threatens to expose some repressed thing.
  • The eclipsing of the sublime in painting is part of the logic of the sublime experience itself – what once may have seemed sublime becomes its opposite – the beautiful. As the sublime deals with what lies on the other side of a cognitive and experiential borderline, it depends on an art that can convey the impression of almost not being art at all – that is, of something pushed beyond categories and structures.
  • Some modern concepts of the sublime have included large sculptural installations such as Eliasson’s The Weather Project.

Olafur Eliasson   2003 Installation view, Turbine Hall at Tate Modern Photo (, 2018)

  • Painters have been able to shift the medium into the field of photography. Albert Speer’s Cathedrals of Light, constructed for the Nuremberg rallies, were frightening instances of the sublime in the hands of authoritarian politics. These examples remind us that any discussion of the concept of the sublime should take into account its political implications.

Albert Speer Light Dome 1937 130 anti-aircraft searchlights conceived for Hitler’s rally at the Zeppelinfeld in Nuremberg.

Bildarchiv Foto Marburg. Photo: Lala Aufsberg  (, 2018)

 Morley argues that today it is often technology rather than nature that provides us with our strongest sense of the sublime. Contemporary photographers, bring the awesomeness of nature into the art gallery via the medium of large-scale digital prints, it is not so much the subject matter but the mind-boggling power of science and the infinite spaces created by digitalisation that is sublime – a new era of the digital sublime. Perhaps it is indeed to this new world, beyond the limits of the physical body and of time and space that the sublime experience is now migrating.

 Reference (2018). Staring into the contemporary abyss. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Oct. 2018].