Skip to main content

Painting (MA)

Sholto Blissett

Growing up in a small village in the south of England surrounded by ancient sites - such as Stonehenge and Avebury stone circle - I have always had an interest in the idyllic, the rural, and the pastoral, as well as the fictions societies create to understand their place in nature. Before attending the RCA I studied Geography at the University of Durham, where I was introduced to the concepts that would underpin much of my practice while at the RCA. I am also making work as part of the 'Future Archive RCA' project which examines new ways of viewing architecture and construction through art. 

Most recent exhibition: Open Fields, Unit One Gallery 2020

Upcoming exhibition: Tomorrow: London, White Cube Gallery  

Please email me if you have any questions about the work exhibited.  

Contact

Instagram

Degree Details

School of Arts & Humanities

Painting (MA)

The work featured in this exhibition is the culmination of a two year long enquiry in which I investigated how the Sublime has come to be experienced differently following an increasing awareness of our indivisibility from nature in the climate crisis that is the Anthropocene.  As well as standing alone in their own right, each painting featured in this exhibition develops the ideas of the previous one, so building towards a more complete theses which underpins my practice.   

The Sublime still centres on the encounter with the tension between order and disorder, and the emotions of awe and fear which destabilise the assumed coordinates of life. However, in the dawn of a new epoch – the Anthropocene – the triggers for these experiences have changed. My work refutes the notion of the death of the Sublime, as promulgated by Schiller, in which humankind is said to have power over nature. What the Anthropocene confronts us with, however, is the fact that humanity is indivisibly connected to – even embedded within – the natural world. With this growing awareness also comes the recognition of the inappropriateness of our rigid and narrow understandings of history and space originating from the assumption that humans have the potential to exist separate of nature. Furthermore, the realisation that we are entering the Anthropocene marks the next step in Walter Benjamin’s ‘traumatic shock’ theory. We will never overcome the ‘non-knowledge’ of nature and dissolve its sublimity, as we are ultimately unavoidably, and continually encountering new realities too complex to ever be fully comprehended – let alone controlled. These include the ‘hyperobjects’ of climate change, radiation and genetic engineering which form our current new realities. Through these, mankind impacts nature, but in such a way that nature responds with its own force, which in turn reminds us – despite our superficial power and technology – of our ultimate weakness in the face of the Sublime. Thus the new reality of the Anthropocene firstly draws into sharp focus the precarity of human existence, and secondly the notion of the human as an individual power altogether. In the Anthropocene humanity is not omnipotent; rather, we are coming to terms with the reality that our material development is both an asset and a liability. Our power is simply ostensible. We cannot transcend nature, only alter it. Through our inability to transcend nature we humans are inherently bound to the world and, in being so, the idea of the human as a discrete category collapses, giving way to the post-human an indiscrete category.  

Elegy for the Sublime

Has our material development safeguarded us from nature to the extent that we now deny nature the possibility to overawe us, as it did when the Sublime was first theorised by Kant and Burke? It can be asserted that humans have, through their influence, established themselves as a unique and central force of nature, as recognised by the generally agreed shift from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the first epoch to be influenced by a conscious actor – a notion which brings into question the relationship between the human individual and the rest of nature, which lies at the heart of the concept of the Sublime. Indeed, as humanity has undergone the successive revolutions in the means and relations of production, so our interaction with the natural world has increasingly been defined by the assertion of the human will over the rest of nature, as we have increasingly exploited and altered nature for our own purposes. Thus, as humanity has moved from agrarian to industrial and then to post-industrial technological societies, so our relationship with nature and our understanding of our role within it has shifted, as has our understanding of what is Sublime and where it is located.

The Sublime relies on that which outstrips our ability to comprehend. But, as Schiller argued, in protecting ourselves from the elements (attaining physical certainty), or by overcoming the fear induced by nature (attaining moral certainty), we display ‘durability’ – yet this comes at the price of losing the experience of the Sublime. Popular culture and politics have led us to arrogantly assume our dominance through espousing the belief that we could either destroy or save the world. The implication of such an understanding is that humanity is, for good or (more often) ill, the master of nature. This denies nature the capacity to overawe and therefore denudes the natural environment of its potential to be a site of the Sublime.

Medium:

Oil on Canvas

Size:

100x110cm

Reconfiguring the Sublime

In response to the ideas underlying Elegy for the Sublime, this painting explores the reinvigoration, and reassertion, of the Sublime’s dominance in the Anthropocene through the collapse of the notion of the human.

Natural disasters have continually illustrated our ultimate vulnerability in the face of the environment. The world is indifferent to thought and suffering and the randomness of its destruction. Historically, such randomness was rationalised through the belief in divine retribution. However, throughout the Enlightenment, with its focus on reason, this became a less legitimate method of explanation. Kant responded to such randomness by hiding behind ‘fortifications of self-reflective consciousness’, retreating from the unpredictability of the natural environment into the (perceived) ‘certitudes of the mind’. Kant’s argument rests on the assumption of the separateness of nature and humans. However, in the Anthropocene we are being forced to think not in terms of withdrawal and independence from nature as Kant did, but in terms of absolute immersion and interdependence. The Anthropocene is prompting a reorientation of thought, from our separation from nature to the recognition of our inextricable interconnectedness to it.

Emboldening this claim, Chakrabarty has called into question how we understand our history and the ‘story of humanity’. In ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’ (2009) Chakrabarty considers the emergence of the human as a geological agent in the Anthropocene, and how this alters our understanding of history. He asserts that our significant influence in the world, signposted by the Anthropocene, ‘fundamentally undermines the constitutive distinction between human and natural histories.’ Chakrabarty emphasises that the two modes of ‘historical consciousness’ – geological deep time and human historical time – merge in the Anthropocene. Thus, the ruin depicted here evokes simultaneously my challenge to Kant’s arrogance and assertion of mankind’s independence from nature, and Chakrabarty’s concentration upon time – specifically the smallness of mankind’s notion of time, in the face of natural time, and processes.

Medium:

Oil on canvas

Size:

100 x 110

Standing Stones

This painting builds upon the idea present in Reconfiguring the Sublime which has emerged in the Anthropocene: that – to paraphrase Chakrabarty – the Anthropocene calls into question and ultimately undermines the distinction between human and natural histories. ‘Standing Stones’ examines the idea that the Anthropocene signals the end of the ‘binary distinction between humanist and scientific knowledge’ altogether, which until now has underpinned thought since the Enlightenment. The stones came from nature, and were erected by humans, but this occurred in a moment which ultimately proves to be an ephemeral human fashion, and the stones – and peoples' actions – are subsumed into, returned to, the greater scale of the natural world (greater on both the temporal and physical scales). This merging of the human and natural calls into question a central political mission of Enlightenment: ‘the pursuit of human freedom exemplified in the form of historical consciousness that enabled both liberalism and Marxism to function as political projects.’ With the collapse of the distinction between nature and humans the foundations, on which freedom through enlightenment were built, crumble. ‘Human freedom thus threatens to undermine its own conditions of possibility, perhaps suggesting the need to found a radically different kind of politics.’ From this it can be argued that the Anthropocene signals both the end of nature and the end of humanism: ‘nature is a product of human activity, just as human activity cannot be separated from nature.’ Thus, the Anthropocene can prompt us to consider a range of critical approaches beyond the Enlightenment or modernist understandings of the ‘human’ (an artificial tool for withdrawal and departure from the world), giving rise to the ‘posthuman’ subject which acknowledges its undeniable inseparability from the world. Therefore, the Anthropocene encompasses noteworthy epistemological, ontological, political, and ethical consequences.

Medium:

Oil on Canvas

Size:

100 x 110

Garden of Hubris

Building on the ideas behind ‘Standing Stones’, this larger work examines how the collapse of the distinction between nature and humans undermines the modernist separation and division of space as compartmentalised. We continually divide space on the assumption of the distinction between humans and nature, most acutely in the idea of ‘wilderness space’. This terms refuses the absolute entanglement between humans and nature, and the collapse of nature and humanism occurring in the Anthropocene. In wilderness, a human is seen as an intruder or ‘other’, rather than another ingrained component of the natural world. The work of Chakrabarty highlights the true interconnection of human and natural histories and reveals the inappropriate modernist understanding of wilderness as a finite, bounded space, thus challenging us instead to consider how – and why – we rigidly segregate areas. ‘Wilderness space’ is regarded as distinct from humanity; it is something to look upon, somewhere that can be viewed from an edge. This perspective asserts wilderness as an already existing entity that occurs in spite of human activity. It espouses wilderness as a universal ‘truth’ and foundational, fundamental, structure that humanity is effected by, and has developed and lived in the omnipresence of. But in the Anthropocene we know this not to be the case. The idea of wilderness, while a helpful tool for conservation, is not an innocent term. It has a very particular history that reveals it as a performative cultural product that relies on the notion of humans and nature as divided.

Moreover, wilderness is a central component of the Sublime in nature, and vice versa. The two are inherently linked. In the West, ‘wilderness’ originated out of Judeo Christian texts as a space to go in order to encounter the divine and undergo a transformative experience, such as Christ in the desert. And what made these landscapes so impressive to the individual immersed in it – what made them spaces engendering personal transformation – was their unusual, extreme topography. Austere mountain ranges, for instance, were predominately regarded as ‘wilderness’. Evidencing this is the fact that in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, those areas categorised as ‘wilderness spaces’ in the formation of North American national parks were places of geographical abnormality, for instance: Yellowstone and Yosemite. To qualify as wilderness, locations must have been sites of overt physical grandeur that were subtly analogous for, and befitting of, God’s terrifying wrath, power, virtuosity, and potential for salvation and purity; thus physically embodying the Kantian Sublime experience of ‘negative lust’. Sites designated as ‘wilderness’ that did not hold the attributes, such as grasslands or wetlands (the Everglades) were not recognised as ‘wilderness’ until more recently, when greater emphasis was placed on biological significance, as well as the spectacular.

Medium:

Oil and Acrylic on Canvas

Size:

285x163cm

Anthropocene

Furthering the ideas behind Garden of Hubris, this work examines how, in the Anthropocene, the structure of the Sublime and wilderness is being dismantled from the top, down. The notion of ‘wilderness space’ breaks down as the entanglement, and not distinction, of humans and nature comes to the fore. As a result, this damns the Sublime in nature, which like ‘wildness’ only functioned so long as we understood humans and nature as distinct. In the wake of this disintegration of previously conceived boundaries is left a void of definition and the need for conceptual reconfiguration. The change from our understanding of space as bounded, to space as fluid, asserts that it is not the terrifying and seemingly alien ‘mountain over there’ that we cannot overcome that triggers the Sublime experience in the Anthropocene. Rather, what triggers our contemporary Sublime is the paralysis of knowing that though we may alter, we will never dominate the world, and in some form will always be at its mercy.

The collapse of the nature/society dualism, and the idea of ‘wilderness’, crystallises the sense of altering states, the indeterminacy and unease that typifies the Sublime in the Anthropocene. This is something which Foucault presciently realised: ‘This is the reconfiguration of the Kantian sublime, the unavoidability of the disorienting realisation that we are inseparably part of an earth indifferent to human survival.’ The Sublime has been reconfigured from that which existed as external to humans, experienced in a fleeting contact with a high force and the mingling of fear and pleasure aroused, to an experience embedded in the human in the form of our ultimate inability to absolutely transcend nature.

The traditional anthropocentric view of Earth as stable, constant and hospitable is increasingly destabilised in, and by, the Anthropocene. This renders the Anthropocene itself a ‘Sublime’ event, the trigger being the realisation of our indivisible connection to the world. This prompts us to challenge our incorrect assumption about the distinction between humans nature, leading to the collapse of the very notion of the human.

Medium:

Oil on canvas

Size:

100 x 110

Previous Student

Next Student

Social
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
Royal College of Art
Registered Office: Royal College of Art,
Kensington Gore, South Kensington,
London SW7 2EU
RCA™ Royal College of Art™ are trademarks
of the Royal College of Art