The Colour of Nothing: Contemporary Video Art, SF and the Postmodern Sublime

Absence can be considered as a resonant field in which cultural objects such as painting, film and video art interact through an act of representational negation—the viewer experiences a thing that is both not there and there, an imminent presence. We find this resonant field in the whiteness of a canvas or in the blue and green screens of digital imaging that in turn create the spectacular landscapes of contemporary fantasy cinema, and in the conceptual architecture and production methodologies of contemporary video art. These apparently disparate examples are joined by a philosophical inquiry that begins in the 18th century and connects to art being made in the early 21st century. The colours we experience will change, but they will always be the colour of nothing.


Let us begin by considering two very different examples of the sublime in science fiction cinema. In one, a classical pictorial notion of the sublime is rendered in mind-boggling detail. In the other, a very different kind of sublime is figured not by the vistas of catastrophe, but by an absence.

In 2012 (Roland Emmerich, 2009), the world is swamped by a series of mega-tsunamis so large they crest the peaks of the Himalayas. As the President of The United States of America offers comfort to the citizenry of Washington, a low rumbling signals the advance of a wall of water. The President looks up to the crest of the gigantic wave and, as he mutters his last words, the USS John F. Kennedy emerges from the darkness slowly capsizing, its jet fighters toppling off the flight deck, the aircraft carrier dumped on to the White House.

Now let us do an imaginary jump cut to an all-encompassing whiteness.

It is a technological void that is also a prison. In THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1972), the titular character has been found guilty of unauthorised sexual intercourse with a non-designated partner. The theocratic dictatorship of a vast underground city has decreed that THX must be cast out into a technologically generated separation. As his ears ring with the thunderous sounds of nothingness, he ventures through a never-ending dead zone.

Mountain Tops, Storms at Sea, Infinity….

The sublime as an aesthetic category has been applied to the visual arts since the mid-18th century. Its roots lie in a discourse on rhetoric and poetics found in Longinus that date to the 1st Century AD [1] , but in A Philosophical Inquiry Into The Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful of 1756 Edmund Burke speculated that painting concerned with particular subjects might evoke the sublime aspect of Romantic poetry. [2] Burke was not certain that painting could necessarily equal the accomplishments of the written word, since the mind so easily conjures images where the artist struggles with mere painterly illusion, yet Burke’s hope was that the emotional impact of the sublime might somehow be translated to the visual arts through a series of subjects and effects. Burke proposed what he called the terror sublime, a category of the sublime that captured the emotional charge one experiences with scenes of unimaginable immensity, destruction, space and infinitude.

A tradition of painterly visual effects arose in response to Burke’s speculation, and to Immanuel Kant’s later extension of Burke’s theory of external manifestations of limitless nature to the internal subjectivities of experience, and which reached its apotheosis in the mid-19th century. [3] Considering the work of Thomas Cole and John Martin from the middle decades of the 19th century, one senses a pre-echo of our contemporary imagination. The works of these two artists have been retrospectively theorised as a kind of pre-cinematic visuality that connects the painterly imagining of apocalypse to an anticipation of the grammar of cinema, from wide screen scenic pictorialism to the logic of montage. [4] The work of Cole and Martin, plus that of JMW Turner, has a greater resonance today than in preceding historical periods because the popular imagination of their times was as much concerned with disaster as we are now. [5]
2012, with its guilty pleasures of mind-numbing, logic-defeating spectacle, embodies the same kind of cultural anxiety that Cole’s Course of Empire sequence of paintings did for its mid-18th century audience of apocalyptic millenarianists. [6] A comparison of Cole’s The Course of Empire: Destruction (1836) or Martin’s The Great Day of His Wrath (1851) with any number of moments in Emmerich’s 2012 demonstrates that Burke’s celebrated examples of the ‘terror sublime’—“mountaintops, storms at sea, infinity and Milton’s description of Hell in the first book of Paradise Lost” [7] —provides a checklist of the sorts of images found in a sequence of recent eco-catastrophes that includes the feature films The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004) and Knowing (Alex Proyas, 2009) as well as recent telemovies and miniseries such as Supervolcano (Tony Mitchell, 2005), Flood (Mitchell, 2007) and Superstorm (Julian Simpson, 2007). As J.G. Ballard put it: “Visions of world cataclysm constitute one of the most powerful and most mysterious of all categories of science fiction, and in their classic form predate modern science fiction by thousands of years”. [8]

In this sequence of films we experience a secular expression of a well-worn religious thematic through pre-Modernist visual language. Yet the white void of THX 1138 signifies another kind of representation of the sublime. It draws its considerable potency not from the literal presentation of destruction but from a kind of abstraction, a tradition that makes only an occasional appearance in mainstream SF cinema. Where does this tradition come from? And, perhaps more importantly, does this expression of the sublime reflect a type of art being made today that echoes the sublime in the same way those artists reflected Burke in the 19th century?

Pleasure, Pain, Joy and Anxiety

In his 1983 essay “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”, Jean-François Lyotard theorises a sublime to be found in the work of minimalist painter Barnett Newman. Lyotard claimed that the experience of the Romantic sublime was concerned with expressing a “contradictory feeling—pleasure and pain, joy and anxiety, exaltation and depression” [9] and, by extension, the same sensory experience could be found in images that were concerned not with mountain peaks and fiery destruction, but with the experience of colour. Further, Newman’s work suggested to Lyotard what he described as an always-immanent ‘nowness’ which constituted an uneasy relationship to an experience of time through the dissolution of figuration. An experience of the now is ultimately impossible, argued Lyotard, since it is always disappearing into the past, but it was this attempt to describe a sensation of time that lay at the heart of a what he called a postmodern sublime: “When (Newman) seeks the sublimity of the here-and-now he breaks with the eloquence of Romantic art but he does not reject its fundamental task, that of bearing pictorial witness to the inexpressible.” [10] Lyotard claimed that “the stake of art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to be witness to the fact that there is indeterminacy” [11] and that the anxiety of not knowing what is next, if indeed there will be a next moment at all (“is it happening?”) [12] , is central to constructing the theory of a contemporary sublime. Newman’s paintings from the late 1940s were large monochromatic canvases of dark blues and reds with a single lighter line running down their centres – what the artist called ‘zips’. In the late ‘60s, Newman explored expanses of white with lighter toned white and black lines, such as his series Stations of the Cross (1959-65).

While it might seem that abstract painting represents a radical shift in figuring the sublime, Thomas McEvilley found such a connection when he suggested that “which lies in the background of the sublime paintings such as Turner’s later works, or Gericault’s Raft of The Medusa—(suggest) that a picture of the sublime might show the entire world being torn apart. It’s only a step from that to the abstract expressionist sublime (and) the void into which one’s selfhood will supposedly dissolve …”. [13] That void is the expanse of whiteness found in the latter works of Newman, an expression of the potential for the non-existence of the viewer, the existential crisis of an enveloping and a consciousness-terminating nothingness, an anticipation of the technological sublime of contemporary video art.

Animation of Time

It is often assumed that painting, especially the abstract non-figurative art of Minimalism, represents a radically different notion of narrative to cinema. Timothy Engström’s critique of Lyotard’s postmodern sublime asks what use it has when it is separated from explicable narrative. [14] Engström’s critique turns on what constitutes a meaningful “cultural narrative’. [15] The logic of Newman’s Minimalism is understood in the context of the history of abstract painting, from the development of non-objective art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to his contemporaries and descendents. The meaning of the individual work, and therefore its greater contextual narrative, is presupposed by the viewer in the gallery in the same way that a cinema audience implicitly understands the recurrent tropes of genre narrative. Narrative without a cultural context cannot exist and, although the narrative of film (or video art) is experientially different to that of painting, the greater contextual meaning and understanding of its intention is created outside the object. An explicable narrative therefore is a common feature to these seemingly disparate forms because the cultural context of their meaning animates the audience’s experience.

Newman’s own writings on the sublime were an explicit engagement with the trans-historical potential of the sublime in the creation of his art, yet he was far from alone in recognising its potential application to art making. Indeed, the recent deployment of a technological sublime is a way of enunciating the effects of digital screen cultural objects such as video art, computer games and other screen-based art practices in a direct historical lineage that connects the Romantics to Newman to now.

But is Lyotard’s designation of the postmodern usefully meaningful? And how relevant is his essay to art being made nearly thirty years later? More troubling still is Fredric Jameson’s suggestion that the contemporary sublime is a signifier of that “demoralising and depressing original new global space” called late capitalism. [16] Is the technological sublime embodied in contemporary video art works merely “the high-tech thematics in which the new spatial content (of globalism is) … dramatised and articulated”? [17] The works I shall discuss, far from the programmatic intention of Lyotard’s avant-garde, postmodern art practice, attempt to give spirit and meaning to our technological society. These works might even be seen to respond to Jameson’s assertion that “the technology of contemporary society is (…) mesmerizing and fascinating, not so much in its own right, but because it seems to offer some privileged representational shorthand for grasping a network of power and control (…) difficult for our minds and imaginations to grasp.” [18]

Into the Blue

Another connective line joins these films and the art works that we will discuss—one that is not necessarily apparent to the viewer, yet exists as a resonant field working behind the image, an echo of a latent visuality that exists in the textual tradition of science fiction and within the digital technology used to create the effect of infinite fields. The seemingly effortless nature of the special visual effects in contemporary fantasy cinema, those images created wholly within banks of computers but given incredible verisimilitude, come at the end of an evolutionary line of special effects design and production that began in the 1960s, but began to achieve their contemporary form in the late 1970s. The terms blue screen and green screen refer to a technique of digital compositing known as chroma keying, CH a process that involves “subtracting or making transparent a particular colour or range of colours” and are named for the “background colours used.” [19]

As noted by Damien Broderick, Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977) mark the beginnings of a new age of fantastic cinema that has enjoyed unprecedented commercial success as it has woven into familiar narratives special effects sequences unimaginable only a decade or two ago. More importantly, as Broderick argues, “this (commercial) success was enabled by technical advances that finally came close to matching the immense spectacle of space travel, physical transformation, and sheer luminosity of metaphor that had always worked at a dreamlike level in classic SF.” [20]

Broderick claims that the visual language of contemporary science fiction films represents an implicit visuality within textual science fiction. Through the decades-long research and development that has taken us from the blue screen technologies of Star Wars and the green screen of The Matrix (Larry & Andy Wachowski, 1999) and now to the digital realm of computer generated images, Hollywood movie studios have finally achieved what the reader could hitherto only imagine. [21] In this sense, he argues, the images found in these disaster films, the sorts of sequences that make for their stunning trailers and signature moments, are literal interpretations of a Romantic pictorial tradition. Yet their creation depends on the removal of one visual experience and the substitution of another via a colour that cannot be seen, an embodiment through absence, a colour of nothingness.

The Resonant Field: White, Green and Black

Barnett Newman’s white canvases are evoked in the white void in THX 1138, a narrative space that describes a disturbing absence, a vacuum into which identity and measurable time disappear. Since the void is conceived in the film as something that has been technologically created, the sheer absence of any ‘natural’ feature suggests that nature as we understand it has been completely eliminated. As Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe put it, “the limitlessness of that once found in nature gives way, in technology, to a limitlessness produced out of an idea which is not interested in being an idea of nature, but one which replaces the idea of nature.” [22] Gilbert-Rolfe asserts that this technological sublime is “another idea of indeterminate limitlessness” that is “about a present rather than a potentiality.” [23]

In THX 1138, that indeterminate limitlessness is oppressively present, but is contrasted later in scenes where THX escapes with two other prisoners from the void into an adjacent passageway so crammed with people moving and jostling that the mass of bodies are like a river. The three escapees are lost to each other as they attempt to swim against the tide. The extreme of endless space is contrasted with the complete absence of available space. Although technology, as Gilbert-Rolfe argues, might conjure an interminable present, the potential of its binary opposite is always held at bay.

In The Matrix, this oscillation between immanent presence and immeasurable, intangible vastness is played out as narrative puzzle where its characters negotiate levels of perceived realities. The most curious of these is a kind-of antechamber testing ground where the main character Neo is trained in martial arts and weaponry. It is initially depicted as a white void into which Neo and Morpheus are inserted and where all manner of scenarios can be conjured, from a simple white space made comfortable with two arm chairs and a television set, to endless racks of sub-machine guns and pistols, to a martial arts dojo. Without the ability to master the Matrix, the imposed reality of the Machines, the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar deploy their own technologically-derived immanent presence as a way of overcoming another.

Like Newman’s sublime abstraction, the white void in cinematic SF is a vibrant space that implies an endless, disembodied technological non-space. Far from a state of limited presence, as Gilbert-Rolfe might argue, the metaphors of SF create potential in the void.

This oscillation between presence and absence via the deployment of technological non-space has been a rich ground of inspiration for a group of Sydney-based artists. Although there are a number of artists deploying science fictional themes in their work, notably the UK-based sculptor Mike Nelson, the Norwegian installation-audio artist Ann Liselgaard and LA-based photographer Matt Logue to name just three, this coterie of artists from Sydney make work in tune with the postmodern sublime, both in their subject matter, and in their making; their video installations reflexively contend with the means of creation, drawing out metaphors, and use science fictional themes and tropes as a way of folding back on to the viewer the same sort of self-awareness one experiences when considering the contextual narratives of minimalism.

Hayden Fowler’s Second Nature (2008), a 38-minute video installation, uses a white space as the setting for an ambiguous narrative played out between a cast of people and animals. Fowler’s previous works examined the conflicted and contradictory relationships between the human and natural worlds and Second Nature, with its humming soundtrack, air conditioning ducts and slowly shifting imagery of half-dressed figures and baleful animals, recalls the oppressive technological space of THX 1138. The narrative of the video is a series of tableaux where the ambiguous ‘is it happening?’ of Lyotard is enacted—an enormous, partially clothed woman sits motionless watching as pink goop drops out of a pipe in a white room; the camera zooms through an air conditioning duct to another room where a rooster sits on a perch observing the rotating fan; later, a half-naked man regards a pony.

Fowler’s use of the white space creates an apparent absence but it’s one that implies a greater, yet unseen, social context beyond the frame; Second Nature’s setting might be sited deep underground, on another planet, or in even on board a spacecraft. That it is designed—as seen in the white tiles and ducts – also implies that there is an intended function for this place, alluding perhaps to a dystopic future where both man and animal are genetically modified, coddled and put on show. Like the zips in Newman’s paintings, Fowler’s space conceptually folds and unfolds under the gaze of the viewer, revealing layers of narrative, all apparently running simultaneously, and, like the single black lines of Newman’s Stations of The Cross, the white space is schematic—outlines suggesting something unknowably larger.

This sense of the schematic in Fowler’s work has provided an equally rich metaphorical potential for Sam Smith. Smith’s video projects have explored the idea that green screen technology—and the technology of film and video production—create portals through which the viewer can literally travel in time and space. In 1961 Yves Klein asserted that “it is not with rockets, Sputniks and missiles that modern man will achieve the conquest of space” but that it is “human sensitivity (that is) omnipotent in immaterial reality; it can be read in the memory of nature about the past present, and the future.” [24]

In Smith’s most recent video project, a four-screen work called Permutation Set, he restaged a twenty-second, eight-shot scene from La Nuit américaine (Day for Night, François Truffaut, 1973). Smith takes Klein’s notion of an omnipotent multi-time consciousness reshooting Truffaut’s scene eight times, from eight angles. Smith transposed outdoor action to the white space of an art gallery and, with a carefully re-created schematic rendering of Truffaut’s components, created a version of vast and indeterminate parts. The permutation of the title refers to the 16,777,216 possible combinations of each shot, angle and take as Smith’s behind-the-scenes software created a permutation. The narrative of the scene, although comprehensible to the casual observer, is much like the consideration of a film from only its micro-scale components, creating in turn a puzzling non-narrative narrative.

The collaborative art duo Ms&Mr (Richard and Stephanie Nova Milne) has, like Smith, explored the metaphor of time travel and, again like Smith, used green screen techniques that have, in the decades since the R&D behind Star Wars, become available to low budget productions. Ms&Mr insert themselves into their library of archive footage creating an intriguing play between present time (the time of the making of the art work) and past time (their own histories). Familiar tropes of SF such as time travel, space travel and the now-romantic aura of Apollo era space exploration are deployed as a way of talking about their relationship to one another and to the context of their time(s).

Ms&Mr’s Study for Retrograde Motion

Ms&Mr’s Study for Retrograde Motion (1988-2008) is what the artists playfully claim is a “thought experiment in Special relativity and home movies.” [25] The work places the yellow raincoat wearing figures of the artists upon what appears to be the surface of the Moon, the adult artists interacting with the archive footage-derived images of their younger selves, the sky black and dotted with stars, the image intersected by NASA-style cross-hairs. The two-screen work plays in forwards and reverse, the disorienting effect recalling footage of astronauts on the Moon, the looping duration of the piece suggesting that time in the video work is captured, endlessly playing and replaying. The deployment of green screen in Ms&Mr’s work is an effective means to a production end but it also gives the imagery a ghostly ‘not there’ quality. The mediation between present and past time is reflexively suggested by the process of the work’s making but perhaps more interestingly, the look of green screen – that indeterminate visual field—is a startling reminder of the indeterminate sublime of Newman.

In their two-screen video installation piece After The Rainbow (2009), sequences are taken from one of the best known of all cinematic fantasises, The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) and combined with a number of fragments from other films. [26] In After The Rainbow, the child Dorothy (Garland) meets the fortune teller Professor Marvel on the road in Kansas and is offered a disturbing image of her own future: the actress’ adult self, broken by alcoholism and wracked with regret. Hurrying back to the family farm, Dorothy/Garland is swept up in the hurricane where, from her bed, she is again haunted by images from her future. Finally despotised over the rainbow, Dorothy emerges from the door of her family home to the edge of a stage where she sees her adult self singing. Horror-stricken by this image of inevitable decline, Dorothy walks backwards into her house, which is then taken back to Kansas, and where the video begins again.

Playing across two screens, After the Rainbow reflexively acknowledges its own creation through the use of manipulated footage. Although seamless in its joining of the source films, the video is marked by abrupt jump cuts and, in a sequence where Dorothy/Garland moves backwards into the house, both image and music are simply reversed. Other visual effects are more complex but brilliantly effective. In the sequence where Dorothy and Toto rush back to the family home, the hurricane/time portal bearing down, the sky is rent apart by the dissolution of the very stuff of its creation—celluloid burns out like a psychedelic supernova. Later, when Dorothy/Garland meets her adult self, a more subtle moment is played out by the cross fading of images of both adult and child, before fading to black.

After the Rainbow is indelibly marked by the pathos of mortal time—the unavoidability of one’s own death—but it also suggests that such a decline might be figured by forces beyond one’s comprehension. Like the terror sublime of the eco-disaster film, the viewer’s own mortality becomes the subject of the work. But where the excess and almost comically overplayed visuals of catastrophe in Hollywood films is foregrounded by visual effects that are both literal and yet weightless, being, after all, nothing more than orchestrated layers of luminosity, the work of Soda_Jerk, Ms&Mr, Sam Smith and Hayden Fowler recasts the sublime into a contemporary art practice that is as vital and urgent as the best art of the venerable past, yet free of its clichés and premodernist trappings.

Beyond the Infinite

Lyotard’s postmodern sublime is a way of considering and animating the practice of artists whose work picks up on many of the strands and influences of art made in the last half century. Newman’s sublime minimalism finds a contemporary resonance in video art works through their deployment of a technological absence—the technology of blue and green screen, the phantom luminosities of layered and collaged imagery – offering in turn a direct challenge to the spiritual debilitations of “late capitalism”. In the imaginations of these artists, the void is a space of potential, a cogent metaphor for dealing with those networks of power so ominously suggested by Jameson, where the technological sublime evokes not a circumscribed limit, but, like the paintings of the Romantic artists of more than a century ago, they give form to the infinite.

Works Cited

Art works

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire, 1836. Oil on canvas, 130x193cms. Collection: New York Historical Society.

Hayden Fowler, Second Nature, 2008. Single channel, high definition digital video, 36:20, looped.

John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath, 1851. Oil on canvas, 196x303cms. Collection: Tate Britain.

Ms&Mr, Study for Retrograde Motion, 1988-2008. 2-channel video archived VHS rotoscoped with HDV and animation, 0:47 looped.

Barnett Newman, Stations of the Cross (1959-66). Oil on canvas, various sizes. Various collections.

Sam Smith, Permutation Set, 2010. Four channel HD video, four stereo channels, 00:20 x 16,777,216 permutations.

Soda_Jerk, After the Rainbow, 2009. 2-channel digital video, 5:30, looped.

Films & TV

2012. Film. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Culver City, CA: Aaron Boyd, Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich, et al. Columbia Pictures/Centropolis Entertainment, 2009.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Film. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Culver City, CA: Clark. L. Paylow, Julia Philips, Michael Philips. Columbia Pictures/EMI Films, 1977.

The Day After Tomorrow. Film. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Century City CA: Roland Emmerich, Ute Emmerich, Stephanie Germain, et al. Twentieth Century Fox/Centropolis Entertainment, 2004.

Donnie Darko. Film. Directed by Richard Kelly. Los Angeles CA: Christopher Ball, Drew Barrymore, Adam Fields, et al. Flower Films, 2001.

Flood. Telemovie. Directed by Tony Mitchell. Montreal, Canada: Justin Bodle, Peter McAleese, Ewa Radwanksa, et al. Flood Productions/Muse Entertainment Enterprises, 2007.

Knowing. Film. Directed by Alex Proyas. Universal City CA: David Alper, David Bloomfield, Topher Dow, et al. Summit Entertainment, 2009.

The Matrix. Film. Directed by Andy & Larry Wachowski. Melbourne, Australia/Los Angeles, CA: Bruce Berman, Barrie M. Osborne, Eriwn Stoff, et al. Village Roadshow Pictures/Warner Bros. 1999.

La nuit américaine. Film. Directed by François Truffaut. Paris, France: Marcel Berbert. Les Films du Carrosse, 1973.

 Superstorm. Miniseries. Directed by Julian Simpson. London, UK: Michael J. Mosely. BBC Worldwide, 2007.

Supervolcano. Telemovie. Directed by Tony Mitchell. London, UK: Michael J. Mosely, Steven Reverand. Big Blast Productions/BBC, 2005.

Star Wars (aka Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope). Film. Directed by George Lucas. Marin County/Century City, CA: George Lucas, Gary Kurtz. Lucas Film/Twentieth Century Fox, 1977.

THX 1138. Film. Directed by George Lucas. San Francisco/Hollywood, CA: Francis Ford Coppola. American Zoetrope/Warner. Bros, 1971.

The Wizard of Oz. Film. Directed by Victor Fleming. Century City, CA: Mervyn LeRoy. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor, 1939.


Ballard, J.G. A Users Guide to the Millennium. New York: Picador USA, 1995.

Beckley, Bill. “Introduction: Sublimats Mobilis.” Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. New York: Allworth Press, 1999.

Broderick, Damien. Unleashing the Strange: Twenty First Century Science Fiction Literature. Rockville MD: Wildside Press/Borgo Press, 2009.

Burke, Edmund . A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful & Other Pre-Revolutionary Writings. London: Penguin Books. 2004 (1757).

Dahl, Curtis. “The American School of Catastrophe”, American Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn 1959) 380.

Engström, Timothy H. “The Postmodern Sublime?: Philosophical Rehabilitations and Pragmatic Evasions.” Boundary 2, Vol. 20. No. 2, (Summer 1993). 195.

Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. New York: Allworth Press, 1999.

Hollander, Ann. Moving Pictures. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso. 1991.

Kelly, Doug. Digital Compositing in Depth. Scottsdale, AZ: The Coriolis Group, 2000, 136.

Kelly, Mike. “In Conversation with Thomas McEvilley.” The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery/Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, 2010.

Klein, Yves. “Truth becomes reality.” The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art. London: Whitechapel Gallery/Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, 2010.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.” The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991.

McEvilley, Thomas. “Turned Upside Down and Torn Apart.” Sticky Sublime. New York: Allworth Press, 2001.

Natali, Maurizia. “The Course of Empire: Sublime Landscapes in the American Cinema” in. Landscape and Film, ed. Lefebvre, Martin, 91-124. New York/London: Routledge, 2006.

[1] Thomas McEvilley, “Turned Upside Down and Torn Apart” in Sticky Sublime. Beckley, Bill, ed. (New York: Allworth Press, 2001) p.57
[2] “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger; that is to say whatever is any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling.” Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into The Sublime and Beautiful & Other Pre-Revolutionary Writings. (London: Penguin Books. 2004 (1757)) p.51.
[3] McEvilley, p.63.
[4] See for example, Ann Hollander, “Watercolour; Turner, Martin”, Moving Pictures. (New York: Knopf, 1989.) pp.262-289, and Maurizia Natali, “The Course of Empire: Sublime Landscapes in the American Cinema” in Lefebvre, Martin, ed. Landscape and Film. (New York/London: Routledge, 2006),pp.91-124.
[5]“From about 1810 to 1845, an influential though now half-forgotten group of American poets, novelists and painters (…) developed an almost morbidly avid appetite for the sublime terror of huge devastation. Their jaded palates, unsatisfied by even the most frightful individual tragedy, demanded the horrible ruin, preferably by cataclysmic super- natural forces, of whole cities, nations, races or indeed of the world it- self.” Curtis Dahl, “The American School of Catastrophe”, American Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Autumn 1959) p.380.
[6] Ibid p.380. 
[7] McEvilley, p.63. 
[8] JG Ballard. “Cataclysms and Dooms” in A Users Guide to the Millennium. (New York: Picador USA, 1995) p.208.
[9] Jean-François Lyotard. “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”, in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, trans. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991), p.92
[10] Ibid, p.92 
[11] Ibid, p.101
[12] Ibid, p.107
[13] Mike Kelly, “In Conversation with Thomas McEvilley”, The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art. Simon Morely, ed. (London: Whitechapel Gallery/Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, 2010), p.202
[14] “Yes, we do have concepts of infinity, horror and excess. The question is whether we have places within our cultural narratives and/or aesthetic styles that can figure them in a way that has the desired effect. Otherwise it is difficult to understand how such unpresentables have any function or intelligible effect without narrative context being presupposed or without figural representation.” Timothy H Engström. “The Postmodern Sublime?: Philosophical Rehabilitations and Pragmatic Evasions.” Boundary 2, Vol. 20. No. 2 (Summer 1993), p.195. 
[15] Ibid.
[16] Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso. 1991),p.89
[17] Ibid, p.89.
[18] Ibid, pp.78-79.
[19] Doug Kelly, Digital Compositing in Depth. (Scottsdale, AZ: The Coriolis Group, 2000), p.136.
[20] Damien Broderick, Unleashing The Strange: Twenty First Century Science Fiction Literature (Rockville MD: Wildside Press/Borgo Press, 2009), pp. 44-45.
[21] And, it might be added, filmmakers have now achieved the ability to animate and create in convincing detail the sorts of images once only possible through the painter’s craft. 
[22] Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime. (New York: Allworth Press, 1999),p.67
[23] Ibid, p 68.
[24]Yves Klein, “Truth Becomes Reality”, The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art. (London: Whitechapel Gallery/Cambridge Mass: The MIT Press, 2010), p.72.
[25] Ms&Mr. “Study for Retrograde Motion”, in Selected Artworks (Ms&Mr) (accessed July 27, 2010) 
[26] The complete list of films sampled in After The Rainbow: Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001), Easter Parade  (Walters, 1948), Judy, Frank & Dean: Once in a Lifetime  (Jewison, 1962), The Manson Family  (Van Bebber, 2003), Meet Me in St Louis (Minnelli, 1944), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me  (Lynch, 1992), Planet Terror  (Rodriguez, 2007), Vertigo  (Hitchcock, 1958) and The Wizard of Oz  (Fleming, 1939). For further discussion, see Stephanie Van Schilt, “After the Rainbow”,

About the Author

Andrew Frost

About the Authors

Andrew Frost

Andrew Frost is an arts writer who contributes to Australian Art Collector, was the conceiver-presenter of the ABC TV series The Art Life (2007/9), and is the author of The Boys (Sydney: Currency Press, 2010). He is currently doing his PhD at College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales (Australia).View all posts by Andrew Frost →