The Anthropocene Sublime

by Eva Horn


The Anthropocene may not be the end of the world, but it marks a point of no return. As we are looking on with isolent denial or idle alarmism, humanity is exiting the safe operating space of the Holocene, the geological epoch which saw the emergence of everything we have come to call civilization. In August 2016, geologists officially suggested to rename the present geological epoch the „Anthropocene“, citing irreversible species loss, resource depletion, accelerated population growth, technological development, and most notably global warming. Yet this disruption remains uncannily abstract. All we have are graphs and numbers of global temperatures, changing patterns of atmospheric fluxes, ocean acidification, rising levels of greenhouse gases etc. Even if the past three years have been the warmest since the beginning of recording global temperatures it’s hard to experience global warming phenomenologically - unless you are an Inuit, winemaker, farmer, or NASA scientist. It’s hard to see species loss. It’s impossible to smell rising levels of CO2. The uncanny thing about the Anthropocene is that its vastness and complexity exceeds our ways of experiencing and comprehending. It marks an end of the world as life-world.


With the awareness of living in a damaged world, art can no longer rely on the representation or imagination of a world „out there“, of nature as the object of aesthetic reflection. Yet a nature that is no longer natural is in dire need of being brought to our senses, set before our eyes. While the massive environmental crisis of the Anthropocene may be a hyperobject that defies direct representation, it paradoxically calls for the creation of evidence, of perceptibility, of documents – the renderings of a fleeting world. What is needed are bodies of evidence for a transformation that is both so massive and so tiny, that is happening so fast and so slowly that no image or narrative can ever grasp its breadth. How can we start to sense what we only know abstractly? Producing such bodies of evidence seems like an impossibility – and at the same time, more necessary than ever.


Combining aerial photography with sophisticated artistic printing techniques, Justin Guariglia tackles this paradox in a bold and pithy manner. His point of departure is the scientific gaze, the objectifiying yet concerned perspective of NASA glaciologists trying to chart the effects of global warming where it is taking its most dramatic course: the Arctic ice shield. As an embedded artist in NASA’s Oceans Melting Greenland mission, Guariglia takes photographs of some of the most remote parts of the planet with the NASA team. He transforms this basic visual data into highly complex, monumentally sized art works. His view from afar is thus combined with sharp detail and an complex, tactile surface, bringing the object of observation uncannily near. By reducing the shades of landscape to monochromatic pattern he deletes all background noise from the image, turning towards the essential through abstraction. Melting ice becomes an scattering of white particles on a black surface, brittle fragments of albedo lost in space. Working on a scale that is both huge and small, Guariglia’s images translate the magnitude of the current disruption of climates, landscapes and life-worlds.


Conflating distance and immediacy Guariglia is working on an aesthetics of the sublime for the Anthropocene. Traditionally, the aesthetics of the sublime meant to observe phenomena of violent destrucion, of overwhelming force or terror. Its favorite subject was nature, the greatness and dynamics of natural phenomena such as huge mountains, thunderstorms or the storm-swept sea. Yet the sublime spectacle is always experienced from the safe viewpoint of an observer who relishes both in the horror of the scene and the pleasure of being able to perceive and reflect upon it. It calls for emotional shock as well as for rational reflection. And it creates an acute sense of the overwhelming dimension of the observed in relation to the observer. Perceiving the sublime thus implies a clash of scales, the small scale of human comprehension and the immense scale of the sublime object. Guariglia taps into this aesthetic tradition - yet he gives it an epistemic and affective twist attuned to the de-naturalized nature in the Anthropocene. 


Guariglia’s images point out the violence done to nature not only by the human impact on landscapes and climates but also epistemically by a distanced, objectifying approach to natural things. The view from the NASA research planes enables him to both adopt and critically reflect the way in which the distanced view from above participates in the disintegration of nature which it charts. From being a medium to document environmental destruction, Guariglia’s use of aerial photography re-purposes this medium and transforms it into an allegory of the human attitude to nature in the Anthropocene. The high viewpoint and the huge formats enable him to give us a painfully sharp sense of the immense scale on which humans are currently changing the surface of the planet. A scale which we are ultimately unable to comprehend and to control.


In the context of the current boom of aerial photography as embodied by superstars like Ed Burtynsky or Andreas Gursky, Guariglia’s work clearly draws on the strategies of aestheticizing a landscape from above. However, he takes these strategies into a new, darker and hence more political direction. Most current aerial photography emphasizes the uncanny beauty of their objects – be it highways in the desert, artificial islands, cityscapes, or oil spills. Guariglia does not stop at the overwhelming representation of a nature transformed by human technology, even in its demonic beauty. Emphasizing the immense scale of the Anthropocene transformation by a distanced yet intimately detailed perspective, his works emphatically highlight the processes of destruction and corrosion. 


Take, e.g., the images of the gashed, decomposing surface of a melting glacier printed on polystyrene panels. You cannot tell whether you’re looking at rugged polystyrene or a dying body of ice. But in one single glance, you can see the relation between melting glaciers and polystyrene, brillantly expressed in the use of the material. 

With materials such as plastic and polystyrene and a highly permanent polymer ink his artworks reflect the fact that in the Anthropocene all human artifacts, from coffee cups to works of art, tend to have unforeseeably long lifespans. Being stuck in a hyper-object of our own making, we are neither in control of the spacial extension nor of the longevity of our ecological impact. By creating his Plasticene© artworks that will potentially last forever (just like a polystyrene cup) Guariglia transforms the ephemeral medium photography – a trace of light on a relatively fragile surface – into a material testimony to the uncannily huge time scales of the age when humankind has left his everlasting mark on the Earth. His works bear witness to this mark, both as images and as material objects. Guariglia ultimately leaves beauty behind in favor of a grittier, more dramatic but also more analytic gesture: a new, post-natural aesthetic of landscape.  


Eva Horn is professor of cultural theory in the Department of German at the University of Vienna, Austria