Here's a short catalogue essay I wrote for Alex James's new exhibition, "Of Form/Combination", coming up in June at Dominik Mersch Gallery, Sydney. You can see some of Alex's recent work at his site, here: http://www.amrjames.com/.
It is a melancholy fact that in time our lives will have vanished almost without trace. After death, we will likely be remembered for a few generations. But this posthumous survival, even at best, will be relatively short-term. Perhaps something of us—our little unremembered acts of kindness—will have effects that cascade on for a few generations more. And yet inevitably, if you look far enough into the future, into the long run that stretches out indefinitely ahead, then everything we are, everything we do and everything we care about will have disappeared, given enough time.
For almost all who have ever lived, and almost certainly for us, this process occurs quite quickly, in less than one hundred years. Some practices and values take longer, of course. G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “tradition means giving a vote to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” What Chesterton neglected to add was that traditions also die out. Even democracy, which is itself a kind of tradition, will one day be forgotten. This will probably not happen in just a few hundred years. After all, democracy is an enduring tradition: the name and the practice it names are already nearly 2,500 years old. But it seems less probable that democracy will still be spoken of at much more distant dates—in around 100,000 years, for example. Chesterton’s vast democracy is in fact made up of the unremembered, those whose lives have disappeared into oblivion, taking with the traditions that once leant those lives meaning. And one day, we too will belong to that silent majority of the dead, along with nearly everything we value: every contested principle, every cherished loved one, every transcendent moment of beauty. Religions promise longer prospects. But at least as concerns the material Earth, the only world in which we find our happiness or not at all, we will not be remembered.
At a geophysical level, however, our actions today will indeed live on, precipitating out in around 100,000 years as a thin layer of submarine limestone. This is how the oceanic carbon sink works: it is the ultimate destination of the carbon I emit every time I get in my car, or write something on a computer, or indeed do almost anything that I tend to do every day. None of these acts is particularly memorable in itself: they will all likely be forgotten in days and weeks and months, let alone in centuries. And yet they will also be inscribed as many tons of calciferous deposits on the ocean floor: my permanent trace in the geology of the planet, my earthwork. In 2000, Paul Crutzen, atmospheric chemist and Nobel Prize-winner, proposed the concept of the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch, in which humans are collectively reshaping the geosystem. The Anthropocene gives a name to this strange paradox: the fact that our everyday lives, however unimportant, are also now as permanent as stone. The Anthropocene makes us responsible for our fossilized future: it makes us dwell in the unimaginable time of the dead. By destroying the possibility of transience, of ephemerality, and of traceless disappearance in time, it forces a change of perspective on us.
Western culture has a record of generating and responding to temporal shocks like this—to jarring disjunctions of drastically discrepant measures of time. In the final years of the eighteenth century, for instance, natural philosophers—Hutton, Buffon, Cuvier and others—suggested that the geological timescales of the earth massively exceeded those of human history, and indeed potentially stretched back far behind the origin of the human species. These new ideas of vast inhuman spans of time, of temporal stretches inconceivable in the terms of human experience, helped inspire Romanticism’s intense interest in imagining the world without us. The poet Percy Shelley had been reading Buffon, for example, in the days and weeks leading up to the composition of his great Romantic lyric, Mont Blanc, which concludes with a question posed to the mountain:
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
Shelley drew on natural history in Mont Blanc to imagine a universe of destruction, of entropy, in which human consciousness had no special significance or importance. The world suddenly appeared much older, and much more alien. It was indifferent to the collective destiny of the human species, existing in another time, an inhuman time.
Much of the literature and art of the Romantic period can be understood as a coming to terms with this newly ancient world. The Anthropocene replays this Romantic shock of the old in reverse. What it requires us to see is that humans now also dwell in this geological, inhuman time. It requires us to think about our role in the deep future, and about the new permanence of our transient actions. Photography can help in this task, because photography shows that objects are processes in slow motion. It can do this quite directly—a burst balloon is the bullet passing through it—but also in more reflective and less obvious ways. Making objects by slowing processes down is in fact how all photographs come into being. The medium of photography works by slowing down the action of light: it slows it down so that we can see this action, so that it is inscribed, permanently visible.
The early work of Alex James revisited colonial landscapes of loss—sites of historical drownings in southeastern New South Wales—to capture images haunted by absence and lack, explorations in darkness visible. More recently, he has been photographing clouds, reworking Romanticism’s discovery of the aesthetics of atmosphere for our own climatically troubled times. “Cloud” is an old word in the English language, a word originally related to “clod.” “Cloud” once meant a mass of rock, or a hill. So in a sense, to talk of clouds is to talk of airborne rocks, of mountains hanging in the sky. In an age of carbon cycles this curious etymology takes on a strange and ironic new truth. Rocks, quite literally, are clouds slowed down. Alex James’s new work traces out formal combinations of these different relative speeds and densities. It deals in the convertibility of processes into objects, using the medium of photography to picture forth our entanglement with times that exceed our grasp, that stretch out beyond the limits of our experience. His rocks appear light—floating, suspended, wanderers each as lonely as a cloud. But they are also heavy with the geological gravity of our human atmosphere.
Alexander James, Rock at Rest 1, 2014
50 x 40 cm