Is it possible to manufacture the sublime? Part 2. / by Kirk Dunkley

Is it possible to manufacture the sublime. (Part 2/2)

In part 1 of this article, I provided a practical working definition of the sublime. In order to answer the question: "Is it possible to manufacture the sublime?", it was important to define a few terms and really understand what the sublime is. If you missed the article, you can click here to read it first.

The short answer to the question is no, we cannot manufacture the sublime, nor can we artificially reproduce the experience.

However, we can create objects or concepts, which embody ideas that may lead to a sublime experience. It is not just in the concept itself that the sublime can be reached; one must be willing to admit that they are powerless and ignorant, and they must be able to place themselves within the context of a concept with that mind set. We can only create gateways to the sublime, vehicles that allow us to travel the path to the sublime if we choose to. For those of us who choose to experience the sublime, being a mere passenger in such a vehicle is not enough. One must be willing to drive into the unknown, leaving all feelings of safety and security about the known behind.

 Falling forever. 

Falling forever. 

There are examples of many so-called gateways, whether they are in physical, or conceptual form. For instance, consider the Great Pyramid of Giza- the oldest and largest pyramid in the Giza necropolis. It is generally agreed that the pyramid was constructed in 20 years and 20 days, and that there are approximately 2 million blocks of stone in it. What is not yet understood though is how the Egyptians were capable of building the pyramid to such a degree of accuracy without modern technology. Furthermore, it is thought that it took somewhere between 30,000 and 300,000 men to build the structure.

 A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex.

A view of the pyramids at Giza from the plateau to the south of the complex.

The sublime experience may come from attempting to understand just how much work and material went in to the construction- the fact is that one cannot comprehend 2 million blocks of stone, and somewhere between 30,000 and 300,000 men working day and night for approximately 20 years. 

There are numerous other conceptual instances of the sublime- for example, contemplating the notion of infinity, the fact that we have zero control over the progression of time, or maybe even the recursive nature of all things. Some might even find the notion of the existence or absence of life after death to be a very sublime topic. 

 We don't know what is out there, where it ends, or where we are within the space.

We don't know what is out there, where it ends, or where we are within the space.

So, how does all of this relate to art?

Artworks can function as gateways to the sublime as well. Some artworks are capable of transporting our imaginations to a place where we get a brief glimpse of a concept so profound, we must shift our perceptions of everything in order to accommodate a new reality. Truly sublime artwork will appeal to the subconscious mind in the way that an overwhelming dream does. In the subconscious mind, an object or an idea will become formless and boundless. Entering into the realm of the sublime shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense, logic, and intuition. The mind is driven by the subconscious to accept an impossible concept as a new part of reality. It is important to highlight that this is an entirely subjective experience; an artwork that allows one to access the sublime might not do the same for someone else. Each of us perceive life through our own unique lens that has been shaped and formed by our individual circumstances and experiences. Because a sublime experience must challenge our perception of reality, it cant be accessed in a universal way- we must find our own gateways. 

Having said this, there is a higher probability that an artwork will transport a viewer to the sublime if the following conditions are met (these are just the basics):

Scale must be challenged in a way that the viewer loses the ability to accurately gauge proportion and dimension. The artwork must create a perceptual experience that is so demanding of the senses that perception of reality is for an instant, lost. 

 Richard Serra, Band (2006) 200' x 13' (200 tons) Corten Steel Plate   The artist frequently works at a huge, overwhelming scale, forcing viewers to consider the way their bodies relate to his sculptures. They can often walk around, inside, and through the work, feeling its curves and passages mold both their physical space and their visual experience of that space. 

Richard Serra, Band (2006) 200' x 13' (200 tons) Corten Steel Plate

The artist frequently works at a huge, overwhelming scale, forcing viewers to consider the way their bodies relate to his sculptures. They can often walk around, inside, and through the work, feeling its curves and passages mold both their physical space and their visual experience of that space. 

The viewer's perception of reality must be challenged in a way that pushes them to question where the threshold between reality and imagination exist. There must be a perception of interpreting a completely impossible scenario as a rational one. 

 Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (2003) Eliason created a stunning installation in the Tate Modern, London. The work replicated the sun in an impossible space, bridging the gap between reality and imagination. 

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project (2003) Eliason created a stunning installation in the Tate Modern, London. The work replicated the sun in an impossible space, bridging the gap between reality and imagination. 

The work must push the viewers ego aside, and appeal to their empathy. When all of the egocentric ideas of self are removed from a viewer, they become a vulnerable subject and component of the whole.  

 Peter Eisenman (Input from Richard Serra), Holocaust Memorial (2005) A profoundly impacting architectural installation that forces the viewer to cope with the magnitude of loss articulated through mass and abundance.    

Peter Eisenman (Input from Richard Serra), Holocaust Memorial (2005) A profoundly impacting architectural installation that forces the viewer to cope with the magnitude of loss articulated through mass and abundance.