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Beyond Bestimmung

Exhibition essay by Anne O’Hehir

Curator of Photography at National Gallery of Australia


Canberra June 2018

The rocky, mountainous landscapes depicted in Ellen Dahl’s Beyond Bestimmung series are to be found in Rogaland, a wild part of Norway on its south-western tip, known for its rugged and spectacular scenic features. The landscape has a particular resonance for the artist who in childhood spent the all-so-brief summers visiting the region with her grandparents. How complex and multilayered is our relation to place! An ever shifting interplay of the private, memory and associations – with cultural, political and historical narratives. The landscape in Rogaland was, Dahl has stated, a place of escape for her grandparents who had lost their only child. It does on the face of it seem like an unlikely place to seek comfort; with its uncanny moonlike aspect it feels alien and inhospitable in nature. In her still and moving images, Dahl references motifs often found in works of art that talk to commonly held notions of the sublime.

What perceptions come to mind when the concept of the sublime arises? Vastness. The metaphysical. Intensity - intense light, intense darkness. These are all present in Dahl’s images. Tiny houses and people dwarfed by huge cliff faces and giant rocks. The sublime can be triggered by natural phenomenon but it happens in the mind and in the body. It is nature as it affects the viewer. The sublime isn’t out there somewhere; it is created in the moment. Evoking a trembling in the body, heightened sense of awareness, overwhelmed. Akin to terror. Certainly a sense of something greater than oneself. The sublime experience implies a response to an outside phenomenon that cannot be rationally understood: overwhelming, overpowering, indeed beyond explanation. To talk about the sublime is not to experience the sublime.

Nonetheless, philosophers and aestheticians have discussed the sublime at great length for centuries. Some of the most important thinking was done at the end of the eighteenth century by philosophers like Burke and Kant and went on to infiltrate painting in the Romantic period of the early nineteenth century. Into this world came photography in the late 1830s, invented by men educated in the Romantic era. The tension between the camera as a mechanical documentary tool (the dispassionate cold eye of the lens) and the photograph as a site for the imagination took flight. To talk of that beyond the material world, has run through its history. I am always surprised, reading about landscape photographers, by the mystical way they so often talk about their relationship with nature. It’s everywhere. They go off walking into the mountains and they’re never quite the same again. Their ‘picnic at Hanging Rock’ moment. Except they come back. And make pictures.  

The photographs are taken at Magma, an UNESCO-designated global Geopark. Our contemporary relationship to nature is complicated and compromised just as our relationship to image making is. Below the surface trouble is afoot. Dahl points to this, to a sense of warning in the blood-red filter employed by her in one image - her manipulations of the palette evoking the sense of the natural world in free-fall, unstable and volatile. And yet, we can still experience a sense of awe in the face of nature, a sense of wonder, of belonging and a sense of connection. Dahl argues that it is an ethical imperative to respond to these emotions. And the role of photography?  The power of photography surely lies in its ability to hit us like the force of a personal encounter that is created in the present in a magical and intimate way. For it too blur the lines. And as Kant reasoned, as humans we do have free will; we have the ability to affect a future that, if it weren’t for our rational minds, would be completely pre-determined. We are beyond Bestimmung (determination).  The future is for us to create.

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