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The sublime experience in film and installation. Research through practice on the dynamics of the Burkean sublime

Craig, Kevin (2016) The sublime experience in film and installation. Research through practice on the dynamics of the Burkean sublime. Masters by Research thesis (MA), Manchester Metropolitan University.


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This practice based MRes project examines the physiological terror-sublime proposed by Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Using the Enquiry as a manual for artistic production, and employing word charts to map the territory, this project looks to embody ideas of the Burkean sublime in contemporary practice. Simon Morley, in the introduction to The Sublime, broadly describes the subject as ‘…fundamentally transformative, about the relationship between disorder and order, and the disruption of the stable coordinates of time and space…in looking at the relevance of the concept to contemporary art, we are also addressing an experience with implications that go far beyond aesthetics… Awe and wonder can quickly blur into terror, giving rise to a darker aspect of the sublime experience, when the exhilarating feeling of delight metamorphoses into a flirtation with dissolution and the ‘daemonic’’ (Morley, 2010:12) This project uses Burke’s Enquiry as the premise for the creation of gallerybased film and installation, alongside a written comparative analysis of relevant literature and artworks, in order to identify a proposed nihilistic turn in the Burkean terror sublime. In the sublime experience, the reveal of an external annihilating power, a shift in perception or a realisation of great depth or distance, leaves us newly aware of our physical limits and the limits of our rational capacities. The possibility of art to discuss an experience at the edge, where conventional language falters, has resulted in a range of artwork, across mediums, which can be identified with the sublime. Distinct from beauty and containing feelings of awe and reverence, the rush of the sublime can be discerned in the installations of Finnish duo IC-98, Anish Kapoor’s deep, dark voids and Bruce Conner’s apocalyptic Crossroads (1976). Through a process of making and reflection focusing on the dynamics of the Burkean sublime, and with reference to contemporary writing on the subject in both aesthetics and philosophy, this MRes asks - how is the sublime in Burke’s Enquiry distinct from the Kantian transcendent sublime, what is the pleasurable terror at the heart of the Enquiry and, by addressing Burke’s ideas through the artistic process, can a pessimism at the heart of Burke’s system be traced?

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