Saturday, 17 November 2018


Dan Holdsworth: Continuous Topography

Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland

As reviewed for the excellent free site Photomonitor

Screen shot from Continuous Topography

Dan Holdsworth’s presentation in the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art might be described as decidedly simple, yet highly academic.

It’s simple in that there are just two works, with a gallery space each, and they are easily described. Continuous Topography and Traverse (both 2018, but the outcome of five years’ development) are the first films made by Holdsworth, who is known for a twenty year photographic career which has seen him travel widely to capture remote places in an often sublime meditation on man’s relationship with the environment in the Anthropocene. Both films present glacial landscapes. In Continuous Topography we see 11 minutes of what looks like 3D modelling of ice on Mont Blanc, seen from various angles as the camera tracks around above the scene. In Traverse, we appear to be flying over an Icelandic glacier for seven minutes at a steady speed and constant height and angle. That said, the simplicity is partly brought about by this being just the first of two linked solo shows: ‘Spatial Objects’ will run 18 January 17 March 2019 – with 16 sculptural representations of single pixels marking unique points in space as the ultimate contrast to the grand aerial views of Part One.

Installation view: Continuous Topography (one of two screens)
The background to the films is academic because it turns out that a lot of research lies behind the techniques used to capture their startling detail. That is appropriate to the NGCA’s new home, alongside the National Glass Centre and attached to the University of Sunderland (which has assisted in marking the show with a spectacular and learned large format 300 page book which places it in the context of a critical assessment of Holdsworth’s whole career). Moreover, Holdsworth – in what is a first for an artist, so far as I know – has sponsored a PhD student to assist in developing the techniques used. Mark Allen is a geomorphologist, and the approach he has helped develop is the latest in ‘photogrammetry’: intense ground level fieldwork, using thousands of photographs, enables high-end software to correlate the measurements of each patch of land and model the site in virtual space. That virtual model is what we see animated in Continuous Topography.

To call the show ‘academic’, however, is not to say the experience of watching is dry and uninvolving. The glaciers of the French Alps prove surprisingly jagged and dramatic, and though millions of data points are involved in defining their geography, something of a see-through effect remains, so that the ice’s shapes look in turn, like moss mottled onto rocks, the clouds which they literally are (of data) or even smoke. The appearance is, appropriately, of impermanence. Traverse, too, fits in with the tradition of the natural sublime. Just as awe-inspiring sights shown in a way which – even in our image-saturated age – makes us see afresh, these are striking films.

Screen shot from Continuous Topography
Nor is the show so simple once probed. The number of issues raised make Part One alone deceptively complex.

It is easy to assume we are looking at films of landscapes. That would be the natural result of seeing Holdsworth as pushing forward the tradition of indexical lens-based representation – a history with which all his work explicitly engages. In fact, neither film fits. Continuous Topography’s virtual model isn’t driven by photography as indexical representation so much as its newer GPS-driven character as a means of mapping exact times and places. It is, in that way, a highly accurate representation of reality, but this landscape-as-object doesn’t look as we would expect. In Holdsworth’s words: ‘I suggest structures through the process of making the picture, rather than representing them’. 

Installation view, Traverse

Traverse is also a simulation: a monumental panorama made by digitally stitching together a huge number of images captured by drone. What we see isn’t an aerial film, but a film tracking over the digital combination of many drone-shot photographs. Technically, such a construction might be compared with Penelope Umbrico’s accumulation of internet-sourced photographs or Idris Khan’s multiple layering of images rather than Ansel Adams’ more straightforward engagement with nature.

Detail view, Traverse

The two digital journeys across ice are smooth and silent, which also removes us from the actual experience on the ground. According to Holdsworth, who has spent days hiking across Alpine and Icelandic glaciers, it is hard to navigate, given the treacherous surface and the possibility of treading in hidden crevices, and often noisy due to the ice creaking and occasionally collapsing explosively. There are also occasional glitches: Holdsworth points to an interesting difference between scientists and artists in how they deal with errors: scientists want to suppress them or explain them away, artists are more likely to welcome them as a means of exposing the process of construction and place of making. Both films might be said to visualise what we sense exists, but could not previously experience visually. They are photography as a type of scientific investigation. As Holdsworth says: ‘I want to bring a new world into being, using new means of becoming’. What we have is a 21st century means applied to what – prior to the 21st century – had been widely assumed to be a timeless landscape.

Colour, light and scale prove hard to pin down. These are colour processes applied to an essentially monochrome landscapes; Holdsworth very rarely shoots in daylight, making it hard to assess what kind of light we have here; and it is difficult to be sure of the magnitude of what we see. Continuous Topography is projected on screens which fill a large room, yet one can imagine that the models could be of microscopic elements. Traverse is shown on comparatively small TV monitors, reinforcing the possibility that these scenes might be reduced in scale, but in fact the strip continually traversed is several hundred metres across.

That question of scale has resonance. It is impossible to forget, looking at these landscapes, that they are disappearing rapidly due to global warming – that the primordial planetary processes they model are now affected by human activity. Both landscapes are much flatter and less extensive than they would have been a century back. Holdsworth sees human history spelt out in that change: ‘The industrial revolution is in the glaciers’. NGCA director Alistair Robinson sets it out clearly in his catalogue essay: Holdsworth’s work speaks to the shifting contours of ice, the vast vistas of pre- and post-historic time and our own transience, and the fragility of our ecological niche ‘made more poignant by the state of knowledge we now have about where our destructive behaviour may be leading’.

Both films are shown twice on separate screens: starting simultaneously, but running in opposite directions. That takes some puzzling out, as they seem quite different until you come to the point at which they match. That double presentation suggests a cyclical process, taking the viewer into geological time and putting me in mind of how the Big Bang led to an expansion which, one theory posits, is set to be reversed in the enormously long run through the Big Crunch – in which the average density of the universe is sufficient to halt its expansion and initiate a contraction back towards its originating state. That would be the end of the world, were it not that other threats – climate change, asteroids, the explosion of the sun – are so likely to get there first. What if you ran the cosmology backwards, I wondered, noticing how this is a show which takes you to unexpected places…


For further viewing:

Spatial Objects

Dan Holdsworth’s solo exhibition ‘Continuous Topography’ at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art continues until 6 January 2019 (to be followed by a second show 18 Jan – 17 March 2019 of Holdsworth’s ‘Spatial Objects’)

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.