Enquiries on the Sublime collects works from three projects that have been undertaken since the year 2013 and which are for the most part hitherto unpublished. They are part of three series dedicated by Fernando Maselli (Buenos Aires, 1978) to a photographical enquiry on the aesthetical status of the Sublime. The works comprised are not constituted by shots taken directly from reality but, instead, they offer landscapes that were either recreated through a complex photographic staging or that were built as models. Employing both technical and formal techniques, Maselli points at the appeal of the unassailable, the cravings that humans hold for the unknown strongholds of nature. These works embrace the fantasy of an original virginity facing the calamity that is suffered by those who believe that everything is already corrupted.
If, as occurs in others of his series, the photography by Maselli directs vocationally, not just to the questioning of the fidelity of photography to reality, but to present us spaces in which the very existence of photography interrogates itself, or it is inquired on its own origin, Maselli’s recent research on the category of the Sublime, sets, as it occurs in the work by Javier Vallhonrat , an exercise on photography and landscape, but not of photography of landscape.
Between 2011 and 2013, Maselli undertook a photographic series that captured natural settings untouched by human hands in wooded areas, mountain ranges or in prominent Spanish heights. Those settings shared a common background, since they were once considered sacred by different cultural practices. This inquiry into the religious memory brought into the foreground a recognition of the mysterious, which Maselli –without dogmatism of any kind– used as a communion between man and nature similar to that embraced by the Romantics. Despite its differences with subsequent works, the series Hierophanies can be considered as the aesthetic origin that defines the series Artificial Infinity, Annunciation and Dioramas: a landscape photography that confronts the author with an overwhelming aesthetic category: the Sublime. His objective is to captivate the spectator in a moral and sentimental reflection on nature.
It is not easy to delineate the concept of the sublime since it is addressed towards a state of excessive emotional bewilderment. The treatise On the Sublime,written by an unknown author in the 1st century A.D., begins with a unique definition of the Sublime that actually does not seem to define the term at all: “a certain loftiness and excellence in language,” which produces an effect on the viewer that goes beyond mere delight –it causes the receiver to be filled with admiration. This aesthetic quality gained a special relevance during the 18th century, when the Romanticism –and more specifically, the trends developed by the idealistic German and the more empirical British Romantics–, influenced the creative activity as an elevation, as asceticism. In this sense, the sublime is a quality beyond our understanding, something obsolete that makes the supremacy of reason tremble, shaking the illusion of control that we exert over existence.
Edmund Burke stands out among the authors who have analysed this category, with his work A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in London in 1757. Maselli has been accompanied by Burke in his aesthetical quest, as shown by the resemblance in the titles of Burke’s essay and the one given to this exhibition. According to Burke, the sublime is defined by its effect on human sensitivity, as something that withdraws the individual from a state that he calls a state of indifference. In other words, the human mind is often at ease, in a state neither of pain nor pleasure. Compared with this, the sublime represents an estrangement, a removal from this state: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (I. viii).
Burke points out some of the characteristics that are necessary to achieve an artistic sublimity. He highlights the darkness that prevents a comprehensive definition of bodies and objects, as well as their great height and their even greater depth. Through the works included in the series that form part of this exhibition, Maselli has achieved a fortunate concurrence of all these features. The photo montages –included both in Artificial Infinity and Annunciation– and the models –from Dioramas– pursue the bewilderment of the sublime and embrace the elucidation of the boundaries between reality and its representation –a concern present in the contemporary photographic discourse that seems to be still in formation since the 1980s–. Likewise, the exhibition shows a giant print within the series Artificial Infinity that encourages a reflection on the cravings for the otherness that lingers in the contemporary world through its treatment as a publicity image.
The sublime is a vehicle. Both in his reconstructions and photo montages –Artificial Infinity– and in his creations –Dioramas–, Maselli offers steep mountain ranges whose semi-darkness, abundance, depth and height come together as the visual achievement of what we may call “the terrifying sublime,” which unleashes a storm destabilizing our organised everyday existence. Artificial Infinity constitutes a reconstruction in which Maselli highlights the magnificence of the mountain ranges that he had previously photographed and captured from nature –by using different techniques such as fragmentation, repetition, proliferation and superposition–. By contrast, Dioramas is a work that has been detached from reality since its very origins. It has been created, therefore, as a sculptural production thoroughly photographed in his studio, as a distillation of a manual and intellectual essence. It is as plausible as one created by a consummate craftsman, and as idealistic as the description of a landscape created by a poet from his desk, reaching the hearts of his readers.
As for the Annunciation series, it is addressed to the purely spiritual notion of the sublime. Hence, the works included in the series are founded on the reconstruction of profusely cloudy skies with a beatific sun breaking through them. In these works, Maselli draws from his attraction to the reproduction of broken skies originated in Baroque paintings. In them, it is depicted a phenomenon that fluctuates between the natural and the transcendent, and which originates in a Divine manifestation: the Glory in heaven. Although Maselli forgoes the sacred history, some of its episodes are collected in the images that served him as inspiration: the religious paintings created during the Baroque period. By contrast, the photographs in the series exclusively portray open skies. One of the most striking features of the works in the series is founded on the technical virtuosity of the use of tonal values within the chromatic austerity of the clouds. This can also be found in the photographs of the mountain ranges. However, if these were characterised by their darkness and the depiction of an imminent danger, Annunciation provides a glimmer of hope that leads towards the Light.
With his last photographic series, Fernando Maselli has succeeded in mustering a reflection on the drift of existence, on a certain tellurian impulse that is present in our hyper-industrial realm, on the necessity of being removed from this whirling path that is doomed to destruction. An embrace of the primeval need that is invoked –in a drift of a brilliant paradox– through recreations and reproductions.