On the 24th of July, I went to the Tate Modern in Margate to see an exhibition by the artist Ellen Harvey. The exhibition contained a vast amount of her work, and there was a great deal of variety in the content and type; but also contained some work by JMW Turner, who produced a number of paintings of sunsets, including some over Margate.
I found the juxtaposition of Turner’s Margate sunsets against Harvey’s “On the Impossibility of Capturing a Sunset on Various Devices (in Margate), 2020”, really interesting.
Harvey says of Turner, “For me, Turner exemplifies the difference between the picturesque and the sublime, between an idealised relationship to the world that is all about prioritising the human perspective and one that acknowledges that the world is bigger than us.” In her piece pictured here, Harvey used 65 plexiglas mirrors, and hand engraved sunsets on to each of them. These were then displayed over lumisheets to illuminate them from behind.
I found it interesting that Harvey chose Turner’s sunsets to inspire some of her work. The title of her piece suggests that she feels even with all of our advances, we are no closer to accurately capturing the true beauty of a sunset (or any aspect of nature); because the true beauty comes from experiencing these things in real time rather than looking at a reproduction of them. The fact that she chose to show this through this medium in an exhibition which also featured a very large scale work showing the impact of mankind on the natural world (The Mermaid) makes me wonder if she disapproves to some degree of our obsession with progress.
I was surprised by the scale of the exhibition, and the different subjects of each of the pieces on display. “The Mermaid” was 10 feet tall by 100 feet wide, and took up three walls of the room it was displayed in! It is made up of aluminium panels, painted with acrylics and oils. The piece shows a satellite view of Florida, from the Bay of Biscayne to Miami Beach and the Ocean. The transition from the Everglades National Park to the greater Miami area is at the centre of the painting, dividing the work equally into the two types of landscape. The inspiration for the name comes from a Mermaid being half human, half fish; just as this image is half nature, half man-made. It is a reworking of her piece “Atlantis”, which is a 10x100 foot glass mirror engraved with a painting of the same view. Standing in front of it, I was struck by the scale of human impact on what would once have been an area totally covered by the same natural landscape as the Everglades, and the damage we have done and are doing to the planet as a species.
Another piece which I was very drawn to was “The Alien’s Guide to the Ruins of Washington D.C.”, 2013. (Acrylics on canvas board and cardboard.) In this, Harvey has created a fictional race of aliens, who discover Earth long after we are extinct. They believe that the classical and neoclassical ruins they discover are built by “the lost pillar builders of earth”, who they believe to have been a telepathic, ocean dwelling species. On reaching Washington D.C., they create a tourist attraction out of the ruins and turn a hot dog stand into a souvenir booth. For this, Harvey altered an empty mobile booth, which she covered with paintings of the tourist attractions and advertisements.
The inside of the booth had more paintings “for sale”, and the floor was littered with spilled brochures. The empty gas tanks on the back of the fast food van really added to the authenticity of the structure
On the main wall in this part of the gallery was a collection of paintings of old tourist attractions, now abandoned and ruined. Again, these were detailed and well executed, and featured sites from all over the world.
Harvey says of this work :
We live in a world that often feels as though it is vanishing before our eyes. Places we love disappear. Places we have hoped to visit cease to exist. The forces of war, time, ideology, greed and natural disaster are constantly remaking places that we love but cannot control or save. The Disappointed Tourist is inspired by the urge to repair what has been broken. It makes symbolic restitution, literally remaking lost sites, at the same time that it acknowledges the inadequacy of such restitution. It is inspired both by old postcards and by the tradition of tourist painting – both the paintings produced for wealthy tourists to take home and the touring paintings that allowed pre-photographic viewers to experience far-off places. It attempts to honor the trauma underlying the nostalgia that results from our collective and individual losses, while celebrating the human attachment to places both real and aspirational. It tries to create a level playing field in which personal losses and larger cultural losses can meet and be recognized and create a new conversation about our love for our physical environment.
To me, the meaning of the exhibition was to serve as a reminder of our unimportance. Through various exhibits, Harvey shows us that we are only on the planet for a very short time, but the mark we have left is now indelible. We have destroyed vast areas of land, polluted the seas, and driven some animals to extinction; and yet when we are gone, we will be of no greater importance in the universe than those ruined tourist attractions are to us now. And for all our progress, and striving to control nature, we cannot manage to effectively capture something as simple as a sunset.