In John Singer-Sargent’s “Bringing Down Marble From the Quarries to Carrara” (1911) I can see a geological abstraction emerging. What at first glance may be considered a relatively straight-forward painting reveals something quite different than a traditional expectation of ‘landscape.’
It is an image of a quarry: a carving space where the geological seemingly follows along nicely, obeys the will, but this is not an image of the Promethean.The human being is a geological mover and is moved by it. It is as if the human being is embedded into the geology, or emerges from it. What is of moment in Bringing Down Marble From the Quarries to Carrara is that the heap of rocks are seemingly alive, cascading down the slope as forces. The foreground and background of this painting collide together, producing an effect that is already halfway towards collapsing the distinctions among the actors. A kind of collision occurs with the figures and the ground. The humans experience themselves among the others, rather than above them. Singer-Sargent’s painting informs us of something like Levi Bryant’s “wilderness ontology.”
From this vantage we are pretty far from a painting like Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). There is the Promethean impulse that seeks control over the climate. With Prometheus the humans delude themselves about their supposed mastery, acting in a manner where all non-humans will follow along nicely, sustain themselves or carry out the actions of the rulers. We know this not to be the case: as a geological and climatological agent Gaia carries out its own actions independent of the demands of the artist’s agon.
The will is caught in that tragedy of the human/nature experience, painfully acting against the anxiety of geology, an anxiety that exposes the illusion of mastery. The regime of power between the humans and the natural world, which could be called a Landscape in art, and which adopts a hierarchy of ruler and follower, is displaced by the earth sciences and ecological knowledge. That all objects move in relation to other acting objects – and in a world that is interconnected, all that mastery may come back in ironic, destructive or often irreversible forms – grabs the attention of the artist concerned with the causal sensations. The human being as a geological-mover moves also as the earth moves. An image like “Bringing Down Marble From the Quarries to Carrara” already has these qualities of an intermingling of the human and nonhuman. It allows us to sense what may be like to be in a space of forces and flows where a figure/ground, human/nature, background/foreground binary begins to recede into an abstracted geology. Earth is its own agency, not a mere backdrop or deaden ground for the agon.