Before visiting this exhibition, I considered Dan Holdsworth to be part of a school that does not often excite me. My expectation on approaching the gallery was that I would be faced with cold, lifeless representations of geographical phenomena. But what I found was quite different.
On entering the main gallery, the viewer sinks into a dark space, lit only by two projectors throwing delicate illuminations onto large blocks placed at angles within the rectangular gallery. These bold structures dominate the room, and filmy layers of pixels move across and through one another, depicting mappings of seemingly-mountainous landscapes. Benches suggest where to take in the work, and as you cross the projection towards them, your own silhouette interacts trippily with the undulating patterns. The material used to create these moving image works is called ‘point clouds’, a series of mapped numerical points, extracted from over six hundred extremely high resolution aerial images of the Argentière Glacier, in the French Alps.
The exhibition text reveals that since the images for this artwork were captured, the glacier has already changed beyond recognition — it was here I began to see what Holdsworth is repeatedly drawn to. “The glacier is the perfect metaphor for the impact humans are having on the world. From a planetary perspective it means very little, but on a human scale it’s catastrophic.” The digital lacework of the mappings speak beautifully to this metaphor, and the delicate balance we hang in as we await the true impact of the receding glaciers. “Just two hundred years ago, glaciers were seen as geologically permanent, but even in the time I’ve been visiting, the trim lines have dropped hundreds of metres.”
I met Holdsworth in the gallery, and spoke to him for over an hour, becoming more and more entranced by the work as he put it into context. He showed me the gallery’s new project space on the upper level of the Glass Centre, where he was able to install ‘Traverse’ (2018), a much newer piece still in progress, which relates nicely to Continuous Topography on the floor below. The acquisition of this space bodes very well for the NGCA programme, offering artists the opportunity to show a work that is less finished (but in this case no less polished) — it is an invitation to think through exhibiting, in a public space with a diverse audience.
‘Traverse’ reveals the high resolution images that were originally used to create the ‘point clouds’ of the previous work. On bright, adjacent screens two videos scan a glacier, this time the Hoffelsjokull glacier in Iceland. This one includes eerie silver glacial pools, and significant shelves and crevasses. The two videos slowly pan in opposite directions, revealing a surprising spectrum of colours within the ice. The scale of the image is impossible to grasp, so your understanding of the image shrinks to microscopic and then expands to gargantuan from one minute to the next.
Many of Holdsworth’s works seem to involve a slightness of production, that reveals something quite startling about the way the brain processes visual information. In ‘Blackout’ (2010) Holdsworth inverted images of glaciers to present ghostly C-type prints that confuse our expectations. Our knowledge of photographic trickery tells us that something is amiss with the photo, but our expectation is that glaciers, like cartoon ice caps, are white — what we don’t realise is that most glaciers are almost entirely black, shot through with volcanic ash, and debris. Therefore the inversion of the glacier is pure and dazzling, set against a dense black sky. In ‘Mirrors’ (2014), Holdsworth captured images of tundra, and sliced them in half horizontally, reversing the perspective in one half. ‘False topographic perception phenomenon’ is a brain function that enables us to read images as being from our own perspective, but here our eyes slide around the pane, reading several factors at once, envisioning subtle Escher-like landscapes.
Holdsworth speaks of the ‘privileged view’ of glaciers he has been able to establish, and I admire him for continually sharing this view with his audience. The technology he uses allows us to see inside and through the body of glaciers themselves. The research trips he makes are very expensive, and have punctuated his career, long before low-cost flights were introduced. You get a sense that he does not take any time spent in these landscapes for granted, indeed he feels a big responsibility to uncover new visual information, and new ways of capturing and presenting it. He speaks passionately about Clarence King, who headed up geological surveys in the late 19th Century, and commisioned both scientists and artists as part of the expeditions. “He knew that if they could help him communicate these findings to the public, it would raise awareness.”
My favourite elements of the works presented here are the digital glitches — though difficult to spot amongst the gloss, once noticed they reveal an honesty and depth. The software used to knit the high resolution images together cannot predict the geological patterns of the surfaces it’s mapping, so horizontal or vertical slices are generated across the images, cutting up the natural forms like a suddenly-halted bitmap printer. Holdsworth embraces these errors, never trying to mask or fix them, believing instead that “they reveal the underpinning nature of things — nothing is perfect.” Given that digital information is a pervasive and highly-emotive part of our lives, what Holdsworth refers to as “the relentless propaganda of images we are bombarded with”, it’s somewhat comforting for the imperfections to remind us they are just materials, just simple points of light. “I’m always asking, what do these materials mean? What’s the language, as well as the subject.” Continuous Topography certainly furthers this question, and allows visitors to sit awestruck within it.
Dan Holdsworth: Continuous Topography, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland, 26 October 2018 – 6 January 2019 followed by Dan Holdsworth: Spatial Objects, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland, 18 January – 17 March 2019.
Grace Denton is an artist based in Newcastle upon Tyne