John Timberlake teaches fine art at Middlesex University. He has a long-term interest in landscape & the apocalypse. Unable to attend his “Landscape & Eschatology” conference earlier this year at Tate Britain, & interested in how John’s own work interacts with the apocalyptic sublime, I asked him if he’d like to contribute a guest post for the Ambiente Hotel. Here’s what he wrote–
The piece being shown in the large exhibition “Dark Sky” in Wellington, Another Country XIV, is from a series I made between 1999 – 2001. The works have a complicated geneology (and it’s interesting that one has been included in a show predominantly about astronomy) but as the curators, Geoffrey Batchen and Christina Barton, say in the catalogue, my work aims to expand the conceptions of historical landscape to incorporate fictions and phantoms.
In 1999 apocalyptic themes abounded. I wanted to locate mine to some specific historical and cultural reference points, and also to give them a DIY feel. I made dioramas with painted backdrops, in which skies from C18th Romantic paintings showed mushroom clouds from Britain’s 1950s nuclear tests, photographs of which I’d found in the Imperial War Museum’s photographic archive. The dioramas were photographed and exhibited as large (non digital) prints. The idea of a landscape showing a hazy dream of nuclear war originated there in the museum – the source photographs were in a box file labelled ‘Atomic Warfare’ – an imagined war amidst all the other records of historical events.
I made AC XIV in New York in October 2001, when my original thoughts around the shifting cultural echoes after the Cold War were being supplanted by the advent of ‘The War on Terror’. I arrived in NY on Saturday 8 September, having gained a place on the Whitney Museum’s studio programme for artists, which is based in Lower Manhattan. Still finding my bearings in that uncanny city, I’d watched the second fireball as Flight 175 hit the south tower of the World Trade Centre that Tuesday from the rooftop of an East 7th St apartment. The composition of AC XIV is based on JMW Turner’s Millbank by Moonlight, with Turner’s moon supplanted by a fireball from one of the Antler tests at Maralinga. In the traumatised atmosphere of New York that autumn, I was particularly interested in the sublime event as rupture(s) in the social fabric as much as a single spectacle in the landscape. Nuclear test photos often contain onlookers with their backs to the viewer, akin to Caspar David Friedrich’s famous early C19th Romantic paintings.In Another Country XIV the figures were not posed as onlookers as much as ‘caught by the flash’, perhaps doing something furtive or ‘unseen’ in the manner of other nocturnes.
My interest in painting has always been focussed on what I see as those moments when it occurs as if unselfconsciously, not as ‘high art’ but rather as a supplement to something. I’m interested in painting when it’s illustration, when it’s a backdrop, and also when it’s an ‘artist’s impression’. This last category interests me because of a sort of inadequate quality. The pictures I’m showing with my friend Ron Haselden in Paris, are ‘artist’s impressions’. After the Another Country series my landscapes moved towards satellite and aerial type views.
Firstly I made photos of model planets called News From Nowhere, then horizonless photographs of waste ground into which I sketched imaginary canyons and mountains. One of these, Colony 10, appeared on the Op Ed page of The Guardian 2/9/06. At the same time I started making oil sketches of the distorted renderings on Google Earth. In this way I conducted a Grand Tour. I found Google Earth quite depressing. There was a sort of ‘anti spectacular’ quality to it, but that also seemed interesting. My own painterly attempts to supplement with added colour, skies etc stands in place of the absence of actual figures in the landscapes. There’s a sublime aspect to this project, but of a very different character to that of the nuclear test work. It’s a fragmented, deflationary, anti-sublime, where power is represented as diffuse (routine satellite surveillance, global positioning systems etc) rather than an overwhelming single spectacle.
Another Country: John Timberlake by John Timberlake is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License