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US philosopher Arnold Berleant, one of the world’s foremost scholars of aesthetic theory, is particularly eloquent on the awesomeness of nature:
The boundlessness of the natural world does not just surround us; it assimilates us. Not only are we unable to sense absolute limits in nature; we cannot distance the natural world from ourselves. Nature exceeds the human mind… The aesthetic mark of all such times is… total engagement, a sensory immersion in the natural world.
I was reminded of Berleant’s words on seeing To Leave a Light Impression, an exhibition of new works by photographer and sculptor Darren Almond at the White Cube’s Bermondsey space, one of the most hypnotic exhibitions of recent years.
Primarily, To Leave a Light Impression is an exhibition of largescale landscape photographs. Taken over a period of thirteen years during his travels across every continent, Almond’s Fullmoon images are among the most compellingly beautiful representations of the natural world available. Long exposure images taken by moonlight, the images are both bright and haunting as the colouring mutates into something unnatural, both dark and light. Rivers are transformed into billowing silk and rough shrubbery is cloudlike as the long exposure transforms any movement into the gentlest blurred forms.
Fullmoon @ Glacial Crossing is a fantastic triptych of images, marking glacial ice melt over a single night. Huge and imposing, these overwhelming photographs are quasi-religious in form. The three pieces mimic church panel paintings, interchanging the traditional crucifixion of martyrdom scenes for the fall and slow destruction of nature, capturing a quiet reverence for one of the world’s most magical and disappearing landscapes.
Whereas in Glacial Crossing man’s presence is merely suggested, in Fullmoon @ Tasmanian Tracks man’s interference in the natural world is explicit: train lines run directly up the centre of the image, disrupting the calm landscape. Although the tone of this image mirrors that of Glacial Crossing the effect is slightly underwhelming in comparison. Perhaps to hint at our place in the natural world rather than to make it the predominant marker on the image forces more introspection in the viewer; perhaps train tracks are not as visually intriguing as ice. Either way, beautiful as they are, not all of Almond’s images pack the same punch.
Present Form, another series of photographs on display in To Leave a Light Impression, explores the monumental, both through size and content. Within each image of this collection is a single example of the vast standing stones on the Isle of Lewis. Dating from approximately 3,000 BC, these standing stones are among the oldest known rock formations in the British Isles. Thought to be an astronomical observatory, these rocks are concerned with the passing of time, just as Almond is concerned with the time that has passed since they were erected. They are ravaged with age and inclement weather, covered in vegetation – a man-made monument that is returning to nature. In a clear alignment with Fullmoon, Almond is openly considering our effects on the landscape, altering and changing the world around us, the only difference between pre-historic and modern man being that our changes may not allow nature to grow back.
Recording astronomical markers and moonlight brings forth the final, otherworldly theme in Almond’s show: space travel. Not content to mark man’s tracks on the earth, Almond is also interested in our footprint byond it. Explored through bronze sculpture, this explicit look at space travel are the least commercial of Almond’s offerings.
To Leave a Light Impression, the sculptural work that gives its name to the show, is bronze street sign. A place marker, it’s a brutally obvious way to demonstrate the themes that are so subtly evoked in Almond’s photographs. How does man declare he was here? He writes down that he was. A written demonstration of our impact on the world, the juxtaposition of the phrasing compared to the object openly condemning man’s large effect on the environment. We all make a mark, but it should only be a light one.
By placing it between Almond’s environmentalist photographs and his pieces named Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 & 17, there is a dual meaning implied by this work; the other meaning of the piece, of course, being the light footprints put on the moon by earth’s astronauts.
These Apollo works are small compared to his oversized photographs. Bronze cylinders, they look scientific and unnatural. Placed on the floor of the central room they could easily be overlooked, especially if the gallery is busy. On top of each cylinder are the initials of the two astronauts who stepped on the lunar surface in each mission. They stand upright in pairings or lie flat on the ground, dependent on their namesake being either alive or dead at time of instillation. This macabre tally of living status mirrors the standing stones: time passes and man dies but the marks he makes outlive him.
Everything in To Leave a Light Impression is attractive. The messages may not be particularly understated, but the exhibition as a whole can give you many hours of enjoyment due to the sheer mesmeric nature of Almond’s images. Sure, the themes may hit you over the head somewhat, but that’s a curse of having a strong viewpoint; you can’t help but make it clear to all.
Darren Almond: To Leave a Light Impression continues at the White Cube’s South Galleries until April 13. See the White Cube website for more information.