Throughout this essay I will attempt to draw similarities between one of America’s fine artists, Vija Celmins and two philosophical aesthetics theories; the sublime and simulacra. I will discuss both the resemblances and the differences between the theories and a work by Celmins in the 1980s, “Constellation – Uccello.”
Vija Celmins is a well respected artist who was born in 1938, Latvia. She grew up in wartime Germany and moved to America at the age of around ten. She continues to work there and uses a wide variety of media including graphite, charcoal, eraser, printmaking and paint. Celmins began working around the time of the hyperrealists, a group of artists who emerged in the 1970s; this practice, and the practice of Abstract Expressionism, a post-war reaction to the movement of European artists to America, followed her through to her current work. Her subject matter ranges from seascapes to starscapes, with an emphasis on both the notion of representation and the themes of the macrocosm to microcosm.
Edmund Burke describes the sublime as “…the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful). Kant divided the subject into two ideas; the mathematically sublime being “the sublime is that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard
of sense;” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement) and the dynamically sublime where he exclaims it “strains the imagination to its utmost … in respect … of its might over mind” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement).
Celmins’ work tends to involve a lot of strenuous activity but on a small scale, she attaches herself to the subject and how it fits in with the vastness of existence by use of meticulous mark-making and complex prints. For this reason I believe she can be connected to the philosophical theory of the sublime. The sublime was a key buzzword of the Romantic period. It was rediscovered after many years; having been hidden by the control religion had on the individual and the enforced belief that such great feelings could be found through God. There was a new resurgence in finding such immense greatness in other things such as nature as religion lost support. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke wrote quite deeply into the notion and came up with interesting theories, but it is Kant’s hypothesis that I wish to compare Celmins’ work to. I believe the sublime to be a mixture of terror, excitement, nervousness and a feeling of peace, but Kant has deciphered two different aspects to the sublime as mentioned before which will be the main topics of choice in this essay.
I really feel the sublime is such an important part to Celmins’ work and practice. Her pieces focus on an individual element in the surroundings of immensity and this highlights her interest in the vastness.
Constellation – Uccello, 1983, acquatint and etching on paper (fig. 1) is a piece which is made up of two separate drawings. The one of the left is one of Celmins’ signature starscape drawings, which is a direct copy of a photograph from the nightsky.
Figure 1: Vija Celmins- Constellation – Uccello, 1983, acquatint and etching on paper
The drawing on the right is a trace from an original copy of a study by Italian Renaissance painter, Paolo Uccello, taken whilst the artist was learning about the artist in Florence. It depicts a chalice drawn in a graphical nature. The Florentine was an Italian Renaissance painter who was very interested in representing the 3-Dimensions in a 2-Dimensional surface. This will become important whilst comparing the work to the postmodern theory, Simulacra.
The process of how Constellation – Uccello is created is vital to its relationship to the sublime. The artist chooses to work in a very laborious manner on the left hand image, paying attention to minute details and spending a long time on the acquatint printing method, a technique which is very laborious and time-consuming. With this heavy workload and huge amount of effort going into creating such a small part of the universe I believe the artist feels how immense the whole of the cosmos is, and feels in awe of it. She may even feel mathematically sublime through the course of making the work. By becoming the artist of this work she comes close to being in the creator of the universe’s chair acting like an architect or a God. She has shown us how inconceivably difficult it would be to create something so massive and complex and we are to be afraid and excited by it. We are encouraged to see the whole of creation and thrive in its entirety and should enjoy being part of something so huge instead of being against something so wonderfully, infinitely powerful.
In untitled (web 1), 2001, mezzotint (fig.2) she becomes the spider; spider-Celmins presents her final outcomes of hard days works to us with pride, of course the artist
the sublime. The artist chooses to work in a very laborious manner on the left hand image, paying attention to minute details and spending a long time on the acquatint printing method, a technique which is very laborious and time-consuming. With this heavy workload and huge amount of effort going into creating such a small part of the universe I believe the artist feels how immense the whole of the cosmos is, and feels in awe of it. She may even feel mathematically sublime through the course of making the work. By becoming the artist of this work she comes close to being in the creator of the universe’s chair acting like an architect or a God. She has shown us how inconceivably difficult it would be to create something so massive and complex and we are to be afraid and excited by it. We are encouraged to see the whole of creation and thrive in its entirety and should enjoy being part of something so huge instead of being against something so wonderfully, infinitely powerful.
In untitled (web 1), 2001, mezzotint (fig.2) she becomes the spider; spider-Celmins presents her final outcomes of hard days works to us with pride, of course the artist-Celmins would have worked a lot longer than days on her works. This is all another part of the mathematically sublime, compared to the spider, the web it makes is very big; compared to us, the nightsky is big.
Figure 2: Vija Celmins- Untitled (web 1), 2001, mezzotint
In Kant’s critique of judgement, he describes the sublime as relative to the being that is imagining it, thus meaning that in the case of the spider, the magnitude it is presented with is relative to its own imagination. He writes: “imagination attains its maximum, and, in its fruitless efforts to extend this limit … succumbs to an emotional delight” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement). I am no expert on spiders but I cannot envision their imaginations being of vast power. It can be related then to the mathematically sublime that Celmins mirrors the feelings of the spider whilst creating the work, the spider would feel sublime and thus it would make sense that the artist feels she has to as well. In relation to Constellation – Uccello, Celmins has taken on the role of the almighty creator and can feel a similar feeling to the spider (relative to sizes of the being and magnitudes).
It is important to see Celmins work as snippets of life. They are presented in typical small formats that we are exposed to every day. Therefore it is impossible to feel mathematically or dynamically sublime whilst viewing the work as we cannot feel miniscule in comparison to it (the work is approximately 70cm x 60cm), and certainly do not feel fear from it. In the left hand image of Uccello’s chalice, it cannot be felt either. However the insignificance of the cup can be felt, what purpose does this object hold in respect to all infinitum? The answer being, it means something to Celmins, and maybe that is all that should matter. Considering the sublime through Kant’s visions, “we must not point to the sublime in works of art … where a human end determines the form as well as the magnitude” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement), it is impossible to find the sublime in the chalice. I think Uccello raise a point, which may have been unintentional with this sketch, but surely relates to the sublime. He has split up the angles, and faces of the goblet, and makes us try to imagine the true amount of surfaces there is. I sense this when looking at the work in comparison to Celmins nightsky, because of the parallels drawn of creation and design. It must not be overseen that in the image on the right she describes a much more simple construction, a juxtaposition of complexities and simplicities that emphasizes the two extremes, maybe alluding to the sublime in both ends of the spectrum.
Artists have been trying to capture the sublime in works since the Romantic period, but it is impossible if you follow Kant’s opinions. Artists such as Thomas Cole (fig 3) and Caspar David Friedrich (fig 4), were both prominent artists at the time of Kant who were finding the sublime in nature. Celmins works on a much smaller scale but I believe she still encapsulates the ideas of the sublime in her process. The scale of the images is incredibly important however when referring to the theory of Simulacra which is what I shall attempt to discuss next.
Figure 3: Thomas Cole- Manhood (from series “Voyage of Life”), 1842, oil on canvas
Figure 4: Caspar David Friedrich- Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, oil on canvas
The Simulacra is the theory of the effect symbols and iconography has had on modern day culture. The postmodern theorist, Jean Baudrillard, describes the three stages of simulacra in his book Simulacra and Simulation. The first is of a pre-modern era, where the representations are of inferior quality and are definitely not the original; the second is during industrialisation where representations are of equal quality of the original, they challenge them; in the third era, a postmodern one, the simulacrum is what defines that the original exists. In the book, Baudrillard draws parallels to a fable written by Jorge Luis Borges, in which an empire draws a map so brilliantly accurate of itself and of equal scale, that the citizens begin to live in the map. As the empire diminishes the map decays and rots along with it. He speaks of a modern day scenario like this and explains that the map would become the only thing that exists: “if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map” (Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation). He points out that the rotting of the map would signify the fall of the empire in the minds of the empire. This reminds me of the “Plato’s cave” story where a man is lead to believe the shadows of giant puppets is reality after being born there. I believe Baudrillard may have been enhancing on Plato’s mimetic theories.
Many connections can be made with Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra and with Vija Celmins. As pointed out prior, the artist works in incredibly small scale for her subject matter. The artist chooses to represent images and photos that she has either taken or found as well. With the application of meticulous mark-making she questions the power of the representation against the original. It can be seen to replicate the idea of the third form or simulacra where the representation became more important than the original. In the left hand image this alludes to the fact that her work may be seen as more accomplished than the night sky itself. People, instead of looking out of their windows into the sky, look at the images, both her work and the photos she has copied. This is particularly apparent in Celmins work untitled (source materials), 1999, collage (fig. 5). The artist highlights through the use of simply placing her sources in a frame both the question of why she is duplicating the photographs, and also the question of why should we look at the work itself when life is out there and we should be embracing it.
Figure 5: Vija Celmins – untitled (source materials), 1999, collage
She presents a reality at a time, and who is to say whether her work is more reality to us than the originals. It is probably true that no-one on Earth living right now will ever get to see other galaxies without looking through a telescope so the topic of representation is very potent. This is similar to when Baudrillard questioned the Gulf War; he saw that all we knew of it was through media, television and news. How did we know it actually existed? All we know of the cosmos is through images, 2D representations of a 3D concept.
The image on the right of Constellation – Uccello is very important to the images link with the simulacra. This begins with the fact that it is a direct copy of a study by Uccello. The reference to the renaissance artist is vital. Uccello had an incredible fascination with perspective and his desire to present a 3D image onto a flat surface comes across in his practice. In Battle of San Romano, 1438-1440 (fig. 6) Uccello’s interest in one point perspective and the horizon-line is evident. It can be seen in the foreshortening of the arms of the soldiers and the way in which the characters get smaller as they go into the distance. Celmins is also very interested in portraying the 3D in 2-Dimensions, but she does it with copying exactly the image so that the perspective cannot be wrong. The juxtaposition of the two images together in Constellation – Uccello, is very representative of the kind of juxtaposition that we see in magazines, or newspapers. On one page could be an article on space, and on the opposite, an advert for dishwasher tablets with an image of a crystal chalice. We, as a society, are used to this contradiction in imagery. Maybe Celmins is making a comment on the representational aspects of imagery in the media; another connection with Baudrillard’s theory. The piece can be seen as a simulacrum of a magazine spread perhaps?
Figure 6 – Paolo Uccello, Battle of San Romano, 1438 – 1440, oil on canvas
However, there are problems with the links between the piece and the simulacra. The artist may be trying to state that it is impossible to represent anything three-dimensional on a flat surface. We can assume this due to the presence of the Uccello piece of graphical drawing. She is stating the furthest one can go in presenting a 3-Dimensional object in two dimensions, and then demonstrates her own method of doing it. This completely goes against Baudrillard, as it states that no representation in books or magazines is truly a representation, it is just a picture, there is nothing that can stand against the real object, the original, and the reality.
Another clash with the theory is the argument placed that the image on the right is quite clearly a trace of an artwork by Uccello. Celmins tracing is a simulacrum of the first order, in that it does not match the original, perspective study of a chalice, c. 1450 (fig. 7).
Figure 7 – Paolo Uccello, Perspective Study of a Chalice, circa. 1450, pen on paper
This contradicts Baudrillard as it is not an exact replica of the original and does not determine that the original exists; Celmins alludes to the fact that it exists but it is not an exact copy or photograph. In fact, as none of Celmins work, besides the source material piece, is photography it can be said that she completely stands against the theorist. The images she presents are not exact replications of the originals, they have their unique marks. The writer speaks about techniques of complete replication: “the imitative object (primitive statuette, image of photo) always had as objective an operation of black image” (Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations). He speaks about black magic earlier on so I believe this “black image” is just a continuation of that interest in manipulation of the reality by some means; even photography cannot be 100% accurate.
What I think that stops each theory coming completely close to connecting completely is the presence of the other. With Kant’s theory of the sublime, Celmins makes it impossible to evoke the feeling in the viewer due to the scale he represents the work in, this is entirely essential to the ideas of simulacra. Baudrillard’s connectivity to Celmins is only interrupted by Celmins practice and her desire to find the sublime in the way she creates the work of art, this individuality of each mark defies the ideas of the postmodern theorist by going against the exact copy.
Celmins is a brilliant artist, whose art can be appreciated from many angles. It can be compared to Kant’s Sublime (both mathematical and dynamical) and Baudrillard’s Simulacra with interesting outcomes. I believe the reason it is so open for public discussion and interpretation is its cryptic nature, not too much is given away, but enough is to come to conclusions. I personally enjoy Celmins work and I believe this essay has helped me understand her in a different light.
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Vija Celmins by Phaidon Press Ltd
Another book introduction to aesthetics or something
(these links may not work as it copied on to the internet very wierdly)