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Enlightenment Aesthetics of the Infinite and the Sublime Spaces of James Turrell

Part 2 Dissertation 2008
Markos Portalios
Kingston University UK
In this dissertation the 18th century idea of the natural sublime becomes the departure point for an exploration of the notion as it re-emerged in the cultural topography of the 20th century. Significantly, in the work of architectural theorist Dalibor Vesely, the notion of the sublime is defined as a fragment of the Christian and Classical traditions that today can become a vessel of potentially meaningful aesthetic events, as it still bears the mark of ideas of totality or higher order.

I will look at the 18th century reformation of the idea of the sublime in Western European culture, starting with Edmund Burke`s A philosophical enquiry into the origins of our ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful of 1757, which first systematized the notion into a theory of aesthetics. In the same context, I will consider the work of painter J.M.W.Turner and his search for a deeper and more immediate representation of nature alongside the rise of the aesthetics of the picturesque, discussing the analogy between painting nature and representing nature in the Naturalist and Picturesque gardens of 18th century Britain. The trajectory of the notion is then followed in the Romantic sublimation of nature, particularly looking at the case of C.D.Friedrich`s sublime landscape paintings in relationship to the contemporaneous aesthetics of detachment, as formulated by German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant.

Finally, two pieces of work from contemporary artist James Turrell are examined for their reworking of the sublime as a disjunction between reason and reality, and the possibilities this opens for spatial experience and architecture. The existential philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty is brought to bear on Turrell’s work, as it represents an aesthetic inward shift of orientation towards the study of essences of being and the phenomenology of perception, defining a spatial poetics of embodied meaning.

Markos Portalios

This dissertation invites a rethinking of the enlightenment notion of the sublime and its relevance to contemporary spatial experience. A critical reading of eighteenth century aesthetic theory counterpointed with key works of art leads to the reworking of the sublime in the context of modernity, as a notion of considerable ambiguity and potential. The phenomenological hermeneutics of Merleau-Ponty and others form the philosophical basis for this exploration, which concludes with a precise and insightful reading of the work of installation artist James Turrell. This extensively researched and beautifully written piece engages with themes from art and aesthetics of the past three centuries and brings them to bear on our contemporary situation.

Dr Alexandra Stara
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