In the 18th century Edmund Burke theorised the sublime as separate to beauty, as an emotional and intellectual response to terror producing “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”. This was to be found in landscapes of great magnitude and vastness that are both fear and awe-inspiring. Burke also described experiences that would remind the individual of our smallness and irrelevance in beneficial ways, to connect us to something greater than ourselves. This theory carried into the arts, and particularly landscape painting of the 19th century.
Eloise Kirk works predominantly with collage and poured resins, creating works about suspension, erasure and fragmentation. Often these works contain a central rock or geological form, severed from its context and suspended in resin. With dark maria at Contemporary Art Tasmania, Kirk has expanded the scale, concerns and materiality of her work. The resulting exhibition comprises ‘paintings’ (made from collages and poured pigmented resin), together with a series of monumental sculptures formed from pigmented plaster applied to ply supports. These are accompanied by three kinetic works, in which her paintings sit atop rocking motorised bases.
Kirk’s works contain landscape imagery sourced from books, which are collaged into her sculptures and paintings, with the torn edges of the books they are ripped from left visible. Her landscapes and mountainous forms are devoid of recognisable locations and references, but favour mountainous peaks, vertiginous slopes, volcanic and geological formations: they are the landscape of the sublime.
A key feature of the sublime is a pleasurable terror at being confronted by the unknowable and unfathomable, likewise in Kirk’s work we see geological forms and landscapes floating in a great unknown, formed of miasmas of otherworldly colour fields and auras. Kirk cites the influence on this body of work of Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet. Thacker describes a contemporary sublime in which the world is ‘unthinkable’, an incomprehensible world of disaster that confronts us with our own limits, creating horror at the concept of a “world-without-us”.
The sublime exists in the emotional state evoked by the combination of awe, attraction and beauty, together with the horror of potential destruction and awareness of the viewer’s precarity and insignificance. In the European painting canon, Burke’s theory of the sublime was associated with 19th century vistas of rugged nature including mountain ranges, vast plains, waterfalls and canyons. While Kirk gives her constructions as imagined realms, she works and lives within a specific Tasmanian landscape that has historically been pictured by its colonists through the lens of the sublime. Across from Kirk’s studio on the waterfront at the University of Tasmania sits the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery’s collection of colonial painting and landscapes by artists including Piguenit and Glover. As I write this, both institutions are shadowed by the snow-capped kunanyi/ Mt Wellington. These are the types of vistas that occur in Kirk’s work, and the sort of idealised peaks that she seeks out in books and on location.
Kirk is drawn to nature’s untouched extremes. For inspiration she visits the most beautiful yet inhospitable of sites, such as the mesas of Utah, lava fields in Iceland and calcium carbonate structures at Lake Mungo. These sites evoke awe because they contain threat alongside great beauty. Kirk sees in mountains not only their magnitude and magnificence but also “destablisation, collapse and reformation”, “the movement of tectonic plates and natural phenomena that cause epochal changes to the landscape”.
While Kirk’s landscapes have always been constructed fantasies, dark maria brings explicitly built structures into her practice. Each of her large plaster-clad sculptures have open backs and fissures through which their empty interiors and ply construction is revealed. These sculptures are an odd hybrid of built and natural forms, with lumpy geological fronts applied to structural supports. The sculptures mark a new experimentation with texture in her work, and what Kirk deems a new ‘ugliness’ of form that differs from the polished aesthetic of her previous works. In these sculptures, architectural influences comingle with the geological. Kirk has referenced the concrete architecture of a brutalist crematorium in Kiev as influence on their forms. They also bring to mind follies, the decorative architectural structures popular with the aristocrats of the 18th century. These buildings would serve no functional purpose, but were ornamental amusements taking forms including faux ruins from previous historical periods or foreign lands.
The other landscapes referenced in the exhibition are signaled by its title, dark maria, which refers to the dark spots on the moon. These basalt plains were formed by ancient volcanic eruptions, once thought to be lunar seas and so named maria (Latin for sea). The misreading of the lunar surface appeals to Kirk’s love of ambiguity and unknowing in landscape. The lunar landscape ties into her penchant for the foreign and unknown, its landscape is literally otherworldly. And on Earth, the locations Kirk is drawn to are the most otherworldly volcanoes, mountains and mines, places devoid of humankind.
Crossovers into the realm of the extraterrestrial are hinted at in Kirk’s high-gloss 2D works. Each of her wall-hung or rocking paintings is shaped as a semi-circle, suggesting lunar eclipses and layers of atmosphere. Kirk uses poured pigmented resins to create crescent-shaped auras emanating from each central collage. Ellipses and mandalas are formed of an alien palette of acidic and sulphuric greens and yellows. These paintings are also applied to mechanized structures that slowly oscillate, like abandoned space stations.
It has been posited that the sublime landscape of the 21st century exists not in nature but in technology, machines and factories, and the overwhelming expanse of information within the Internet. Given this, it is unsurprising that some of Kirk’s location imagery is sourced through tracking geological sites in Google Earth. Kirk looks not only for the beautiful, but also for error, focusing on Google’s glitches in cloud formations and digital voids, searching for absence instead of information. In this way the digital abyss takes on the role of the mouth of a volcano or the edge of a canyon – those terrifying voids confronting the viewer with their own insignificance and mortality. Her uncanny landscapes therefore straddle the digital sublime and the romanticism of Burke’s sublime, luxuriating in an emotional response to nature.
While Kirk’s dark maria is an imagined world of idealised and constructed landscapes, it can’t be overlooked that they contain imagery of actual landscapes, in real mountains, volcanoes and geological structures. A strand of environmentalism runs strongly through her work. It contains beauty, but also the cataclysmic threat of nature’s destructive force as well as nature’s destruction at our hands: in Kirk’s words, the sense of the “simmering catastrophic elements that lay beneath our feet”.