Letter from LONDONby Sherman Sam
Thomas Joshua Cooper
Haunch of Venison
May 1 – May 30, 2009
Despite the fact that we’re now nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st century, there is still much to be said about doing things the old-fashioned way.
Thomas Joshua Cooper’s dilemma is that lovers of photography find his work far too beautiful and, apparently, “lacking” conceptual grounding, while painters, who should in all likelihood admire his work, regard it as “just” photographs. The fact is that beauty is a mere by-product of Cooper’s project. It is deceptive, in fact, in that it is really much more thoughtful, emotive and encyclopaedic than it appears. True at Haunch of Venison’s new temporary quarters in the former Museum of Mankind is the third installment of his Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity - The World’s Edge – The Atlantic Basin Project.
Continuing from The Point of No Return (2004) and Ojo de Agua or “Eye of the Water” (2006), exhibited respectively at Haunch of Venison in London and Pace Wildenstein in New York (for which the Brooklyn Rail’s Art Editor, John Yau, wrote the essay), True consists of some forty images from a total of seventy-nine representing mostly the Northern and Southern Poles. The project depicts the rim of the Atlantic Ocean, or, as he says, “the edge of the world”. Ferdinand Magellan, the Spanish explorer, is one of his heroes, and the project for him is akin to being the first set of eyes to look across the vast expanse to the other side.
In the same spirit of exploration, Cooper’s methods have been—for a lack of a better term—old school. He schleps a 19th-century plate camera to very remote locations, dodging armed soldiers in one instance and all manner of treacherous geography, to make these slow exposure, black-and-white images. Each image made is singular and not editioned. One work, taken at a spot called Prime Head, where fewer humans had set foot than on the moon, does not divulge the lengths that Cooper will go through to fulfill his ambition, but on a map it is marked “uncharted dangers.”
In this exhibition, the most “awesome”—i.e. filling one with a sense of awe—images are fainter, which challenges the viewer’s own vision. Physically the creations themselves reach an edge of their own. The results are a cross between documentary photography and German Romantic painting. Cooper’s entire project, spanning a few hundred photographs and several decades of work, consists predominantly of images of the sea. Active, passive; angry and calm. Foreboding, with rocks thrusting out; tranquil, with icebergs floating like ice cubes: on the whole, it is the sea, and only the sea, that is his star. If Turner were a photographer, his work could well be like this. But unlike the English painter, these seas are devoid of signs of humanity.
Documentary photography seems concerned with describing and capturing a certain “place”; Cooper’s images seem to reach for an ideal place that is far more primal or philosophical. The photographs possess a kind of “mythological openness,” akin to the metaphysical space created by an abstractionist such as Motherwell, Still or Rothko. But here Cooper works with the sea rather than paint as a conduit for expression; nonetheless, both use a kind of physicality—paint on one hand and raw nature on the other—to strive towards a more primordial sense. This exhibition in fact ends with two images that are nearly black, and one nearly white, collectively entitled “The Dreamings”—a subcategory of spare images. Near-monochromes, they almost reach a pure materiality. The former taken in darkness, while the latter in a snowstorm—“to see if it’s possible” he says.
Hiroshi Sugimoto’s images of the sea and cinema, also created with slow, 19th-century technology, are a good point of comparison. Both artists seem to strive for the sublime, but it is the difference between Kant and Burke, where, for the latter, the sublime is terrifying, as Cooper appears to suggest. These are not the tranquil bodies of water that Sugimoto sees. The notion of “emptiness” in ancient Chinese painting and philosophy may well offer a valuable insight into Cooper’s thought process. It is the idea of a contemplative void, perhaps best explained by the Tang Dynasty poet/painter Wang Wei: “By means of a slim brush, re-create the immense body of emptiness.”
For the Chinese, it is an idea of primordial breath, an emptiness contra fullness, that the brush provides. Likewise Cooper may—at some level—be striving for something similar, it is just that he does it with light.
Setting metaphysics aside, Cooper’s Atlantic Basin projects also relate to some of the broad conceptual movements of the 70s, specifically the Earth Art movement in which photography was an important tool for documenting and highlighting activities. In this regard, Cooper is close to artists like Richard Long, but where Long emphasises his presence with marks on the scene, Cooper relies on his eyes alone.
Sherman Sam is a writer and artist based in London and Singapore.