Interesting Artworks: Resolution by Joel Rea
The faceless businessman stands before the rising wave. There’s something uncanny about the shadows and lighting; as if the wave were merely a ‘green-screen’ and the businessman an actor. It’s no doubt purposeful. Perhaps it’s a commentary on our uncertainties regarding representation and the real? He stands, briefcase in one hand; documents in the other—as if the sea were to be called to account or subpoenaed. Other futile papers litter the sand and surf as if to say that government and the whole world of human affairs now lies in tatters—mere scattered papers—before the awesome power of this wave and force of Nature. Both stand suspended for a pregnant moment. Before the wave comes crashing down. Who is this faceless businessman? This anonymous Canute?
King Canute had once sought to teach his “yes-men” courtiers a lesson. He’d asked them whether he could stop the incoming tide. “Of course, you are the King,” they’d said. Canute listened to their obsequious and sycophantic counsel before setting his throne upon the beach. Inevitably, the tide disobeyed his each and every command. Before long, the sea water had reached his throne. His robes were wet. His authority in tatters. He turned to the pale faced courtiers. “Let this be a lesson to you all. There is no kingly power greater than that of God.”
Rea’s Resolution (2014) may be said to re-stage this apocryphal story or myth in contemporary costume. Instead of the charismatic King Canute; the ‘faceless’ businessman. Instead of kingly robes; a generic suit of the decidedly uncharismatic ‘cog’ in the ‘machine’ of business and capital. Instead of the gradual tide; the awe-inspiring wave. Of course, this may be interpreted as a metaphor for the Worldly vs. Godly or the Human vs. Nature. Similarly, ‘tide’ and ‘wave’ are political metaphors when we describe the rising tide of so-and-so or the wave of so-and-so sweeping where and wherever. Etymologically, ‘turbulent’ has long been used to describe the crowd as well as the wave. Of course, ‘turbulence’ comes from ‘turba’ as in ‘turba multitudo’. Resolution plays on precisely these binary-pairs, metaphors, and half-forgotten stories. Our contemporary fears regarding climate change re-assume the form of Human vs. Nature infused with the Worldly vs. Godly. For Nature is here imbued with something Beyond-Worldly. It’s as if our contemporary fears return in the guise of some long-repressed memory and thus in apocryphal and mythic form. Somewhere in the dark recesses of our unconscious, our contemporary fears regarding ecological destruction are replayed through the repetition of some past important event. But now, instead of the charismatic King Canute; the ‘faceless’ businessman. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) claimed that ‘enlightenment reverts to mythology.’ Surely, this same ‘enlightenment’ that gave rise to science and instrumental reason now produces this very climate change and ecological destruction? Surely, this same ‘enlightenment’ gave birth to the autonomous ‘subject’ and paradoxical ‘cog’ in the machine? This ‘cog-ego’ if you like, the mentality of business and capital, of extraction and profit…
Now, this Worldly vs. Godly and Human vs. Nature intimates Romanticism. Resolution clearly invites comparison with Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c.1818). It may even be considered a repetition of some past important painting. It is a repetition of a psychic event, i.e., the autonomous subject’s immediate reaction to Enlightenment. Isn’t Romanticism precisely this? Adorno and Horkheimer argued that ‘[i]n their mastery of nature, the creative God and the ordering mind are alike. Man’s likeness to God consists in sovereignty over existence, in the lordly gaze, in the command.’ Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology (1949) similarly spoke of Ge-stell or Enframing… Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is obviously enframed by the frame. Its perspective is also entirely that of gestell, i.e., the mastery of nature along with sovereignty over existence. The Wanderer’s ‘gaze’ succeeds where Canute’s ‘command’ had failed. It’s only when Nature is seen to be dominated by ‘instrumental reason’ and made into a ‘standing reserve’ for exploitation that it becomes worthy of adoration. It’s (aesthetic) ‘value’ only appears once its (capital) ‘value’ appears. Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog thus depicts Man—the Kantian ‘subject’ upon the verge of the ‘sublime’ whose ‘value’ will momentarily emerge in its very domination—perched upon a mountain crop surveying the sea of fog below. His gaze is directed downwards thus instantiating a simple hierarchy: the sublimity of the unknown has just been conquered; pushed from the precipice as the wanderer makes summit. Of course, the scene is yet a powerful and an awe-inspiring foe. However, while the scene is yet unknown; day breaks and dawn will enlighten before long. Simply put, Romanticism cannot be separated from the domination of Nature. Rather: the de-sacralisation of Nature brings into being Nature’s new sacred Nature. It is this that is now en-framed and now admired and thus subdued. Literally, placed in the gallery to be admired. It is a history painting of a conquest.
Finally, Rea reverses this interpretation. Nature is once again privileged over and above the subject. Canute’s lesson to his courtiers is re-affirmed. However, the ‘sublime’ is now a nightmarish phantasy. Rea’s subject stands, as does Friedrich’s, with his back towards the viewer. But he is no longer in the dominant position. Instead, he is on the verge of being dominated. This imagery recurs and recurs in Rea’s works. In See Me: Man will be crucified by sharks. In The Other Side: the circus is parodied as the obsequious trainer-cum-business woman kowtows before the seated tiger. In this re-staging our human relationship to nature, we find our authority once again in tatters, like so many papers strewn about the surf.