Artificial Infinity exhibition
Museum University of Navarra, Pamplona, 2017
Artificial Infinity exhibition
Museum University of Navarra, Pamplona, 2017
Exhibition “Artificial Infinity” Museum University of Navarra
Ignacio Miguéliz Valcarlos
The earliest artistic endeavours of Madrid-based Argentine photographer Fernando Maselli (Buenos Aires, 1978) were not in photography but in painting and drawing. As a teenager he began drawing nudes in charcoal, based on commercial photographs, studies he would later exhibit on a provisional basis in his grandmother’s house, where he lived. This first experience with charcoal drawing inspired his use of pigment techniques on Hahnemühle paper for printing his images. This approach was not part of an attempt to equate his photography work with painting but rather because this texture reminded him of the drawings he had made as a teenager. All the same, it can be said that his approach to photography, and many of his influences, come from painting, not because Maselli retains a pictoral approach, but for the way in which he works. Just as the painter goes outside to make sketches of what later becomes the landscape in his studio, so he takes photographs outside and later, in his studio, composes the final landscape through the juxtaposition of different images he has captured previously. Maselli practices both modalities of photography, the commercial and the artistic. His commercial work enables him to engage in research and experimentation for his artistic work.
In his work, focused on landscape photography, we see references to painting, literature, philosophy and aesthetics. Maselli looks for natural spaces unspoilt by man, which takes him on long forays into nature, sometimes lasting days, to find the landscape he’s looking for. Places that offer a glimpse of his interest in aesthetic concepts like the Beautiful and the Sublime, sometimes referring to universal ideas like the perception of the divine and the religious fact. Thus, in his series Hierophanies he approaches the relationship between the human and unspoilt nature and how, thanks to this, vital concepts for man, such as spirituality, are explained. Maselli photographs “sacred” natural spaces around the Iberian Peninsula; to do so he has travelled several times to the Pyrenees and the Picos de Europa, visits that aroused his passion for these landscapes and are behind his decision to photograph the mountains. This series can be considered the aesthetic genesis of the work that is now on display and the Museum of the University of Navarra, Artificial Infinite, and other works by Maselli.
His work is marked by the representation of the immensity of nature against the insignificance of the human being, not without a certain criticism of man’s perception that he dominates nature when, in reality, it is the latter that wields the power. And, at the same time, there is an absence of the human figure in his work. Despite this, the person becomes a protagonist of his photography as this takes on greater meaning when viewer contemplates it, becoming part of it. In fact, in some of his works there is a point marked in the foreground that signals the space where the viewer is positioned, a resource heavily influenced by Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar Friedrich, one of his painting influences along with William Turner, the Hudson River School and the Spanish painter Carlos de Haes. Among his photographic influences he cites Ansel Adams, Robert Weston, Charleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan and the Dusselforf School, in particular Axel Hütte, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, and the work of Javier Vallhonrat. Like them, Maselli confronts the representation of an heroic and grandiose nature, in which one can perceive an admiration for the landscape compared to the aseptic and questioned image of landscape in the 20th century, and even more so in the 21st. In this vision, man pales into insignificance alongside the sheer immensity of nature, as Maselli seeks to “put the viewer before a sublime and daunting spectacle that makes them question their conscience, the universe, beliefs and their own origin,” which can be better understood as a moral and sentimental reflection on nature.
There is one central concept in Maselli’s work and one that contributes to the central pillar of his research, and it is none other than the search for the Sublime, which, as he himself states, is about “contained fear before the beauty of abrupt landscapes and its majesty, which is linked to the divine.” While completing the research that would inspire Artificial Infinite, he discovered the work of Edmund Burke. There, “he examined certain physical aspects of nature and their effects on the mind, which provoke in us a sense of the sublime. In my photographs I appropriate something from these concepts to be developed in my own research into the Sublime. I found myself looking at elements like majesty, immensity, obscurity and, in particular an attribute that Burke calls the artificial infinite, which consists of the succession and uniformity of the fractions. In other words, it is the repetition of an element in the constant and uninterrupted configuration which generates in the viewer a sense of the infinite, one of the qualities of the sublime.”
Burke was not the first to study the concept of the Sublime, as it already appears in an anonymous work from the 1st century A.D. which for many years was attributed to Longinus; On the Sublime. Here this concept is explored from the point of view of the literary genres, rhetoric and grammar and not from an aesthetic perspective. One of the chapters includes an analysis of the figure of the Sublime in relation to the immensity of the cosmos, although linked to man and not to the external world.
In 1756, Edmund Burke returned to this idea in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke made an empirical analysis of aesthetic terms as yet undefined, focussing on the identification and differentiation of the Beautiful and the Sublime, which for him are qualities that we see in objects in a reconcilable way. Burke defined the sublime thus: “the passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” It consists of a controlled fear that attracts the soul and that is present in qualities like immensity, inifinity, emptiness, solitude and silence. Some years later, in 1764, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant analysed these same concepts in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, developed subsequently with even greater depth in 1790 in Critique of Judgement. For him, the Sublime is “that which the mere thought of proves the capacity of the mind to exceed all measure of the senses, i.e. a capacity that is in itself supersensible.” Kant differentiates between the Sublime, which implies an experience of feelings not explained through reason; and the Beautiful, understood as feelings understood from an intellectual capacity; “the sublime moves; the beautiful charms.”
In this way, the Sublime represents an exaltation of the senses of the viewer, who then becomes emotionally involved in what they contemplate, far from a state of indifference. It is linked to the capacity to feel sensorial experiences before the contemplation of the deepest beauty or, in its most extreme and irrational version, ecstasy, in which case this experience can even cause pain before the difficulty of assimilating it in full, causing in the viewer a state of excessive sensorial confusion. Thus, experience of the Sublime produces much stronger emotions that those that the sprint is capable of feeling. According to Burke, nature has the capacity to provoke extreme emotional states in the subject, introspectively awakening one’s deeper self, feeling ecstasy and anguish at that same instant. And as we have said, compared to the Beautiful, the Sublime escapes the domains of reason to fully enter the world of feelings and senses; the world of the irrational.
For both Burke and Kant, one of the fundamental components of the sublime, which Kant linked to the concept he called “the terrifying Sublime”, is related to feelings of horror, melancholy, nostalgia, sorrow and solitude, acquiring a certain negative character. For them, fear is an essential feeling if one wants to experience the Sublime, therefore experiencing solitude is seen as the way to confront this concept. All of this is interlinked with the idea of the majesty of nature compared to the smallness and fragility of the human being. It is an idea that makes us confront our mistaken belief that it is man who dominates nature when, in reality, the opposite is true. For this, and to experience the Sublime in all its splendour, Maselli confronts nature in solitude; he always goes to the mountain alone, sometime spending a week without speaking to anyone.
From this experimentation of the concept of the Sublime on his forays into the mountain, Artificial Infinite was born, which as we have said, is related to his previous works like Hierophanies, Tempests and Annunciation. This series, which has already been partially exhibited at Talent Latent in Tarragona and La Kursala in Cádiz is presented in full for the first time at the Museum of the University of Navarra. Maselli uses the large scale format because he is trying to get away from the intimacy that comes with smaller dimensions and is seeking a confrontation of the viewer and nature and to provoke the flood of feelings released by the perception of the Sublime. The use of black and white contributes to this, allowing the viewer to distance themselves from the composition and focus on the sensory perception of the immensity of nature.
The protagonist of these works is the mountainous landscape, while it is true that we are looking at unreal panoramas, as they are created through the digital manipulation of different images. In taking on this project, Maselli had to physically prepare for climbing high mountains, improvising bivouac shelters and confronting the “feelings of solitude, fear and physical fatigue of a solitary climber and the emotion of being surrounded by great beauty accompanied by the feeling of being alone in nature”; feeling and experimenting in the flesh the concept of the terrifying Sublime theorised by Burke and Kant. He approached the mountains from a deep sense of respect and admiration, on excursions made in solitude and in silence, during which he might spend days without interacting with another human being. This allowed him to feel the emotion of finding himself and feeling alone before the immensity of nature and experiencing this sense of the sublime. For him, it was an introspective catharsis that allowed him to discover himself on a deeper level.
The subject of the images included in Artificial Infinite are the mountain ranges of the Pyrenees and the Alps and, in particular, the Argentine glaciers, less affected by tourism and therefore more appropriate for the solitude required for this project. Maselli climbs alone, which, when it comes to recording the videos that accompany these images, sometimes means he has to make the climb twice; first to set up the camera and the second to capture it. Before that, he prepares his work by meticulously planning the route he will take for the climb, documenting the landscape his will pass through and the different routes he can choose. Once he has selected the route, he analyses it in detail and plans possible shots. During the climb, he contemplates and experiences the landscape on an introspective level while also reflecting on and studying the shots and possible combinations he can make of the captured images. When it comes to composing the photographs he can use images from different places, but always belonging to the same massif and the same mountain ranges, taken from different angles. Later on, in his studio, he uses digital techniques to compose his works and through “fragmentation, repetition, multiplication, superimposition of volumes, he highlights the magnificence of the mountain ranges.” Thus, through the use of this digital process, and the reiteration of the different parts, he builds imaginary landscapes in which he attempts to achieve the effect of infinity. In his work, Maselli uses collage to show an invented, artificial and infinite nature, photographed passively in search of the viewer’s empathy. It represents not only what is seen but also what is felt. As he himself has defined it, Artificial Infinite is “a photographic inquiry into the aesthetics of the sublime, represented as a controlled fear that attracts the soul. The sublime is usually associated with qualities like immensity, infinity, emptiness, solitude and silence. In Artificial Infinite I use rugged mountains as the visual embodiment of what we can call the ‘terrifying sublime’.” To achieve this effect, Maselli manipulates the landscapes in a complex way through their digital photographic recreation, thus broaching one of the major questions in contemporary photography: that of where to draw the limits between reality and its representation.
And in this approach to the sublime, through solitary experience of the majesty of nature, Maselli glimpses the abyss of infinity and emptiness, just as Caspar Friedrich did in his paintings. But unlike Friedrich, who gave us an individual, with his back to the viewer, contemplating the immensity of nature, the work of Maselli is notable for the absence of the human beings, who confront their own solitude, at the mercy of nature. The absence of the human figure, paradoxically, turns the viewer into the protagonist of the photograph, as they are placed at the focal point occupied by Maselli. From there, they contemplate this immensity, with different elements of the landscape bearing silent witness to their presence; they feel their smallness, are overwhelmed by the immensity of nature and feel the Sublime. With this work, Maselli seeks to “leave the viewer confused but also impressed by the magnificence of nature.”