Until The Cows Come Home

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I’ve been left uni over a year now and only now am I finally starting to come round to the idea of creating again. The system sucked my creative flow right out of me rather than set me free. Not that I’m not grateful for my piece of paper that tells me I’m officially a certified artist, whatever that’s supposed to be.

The problems that arose from being in an environment that pushed me to explore the boundaries between life and art, is that I was left even more confused about what is my ‘art’ and what’s just my life.

My interests naturally feed into my artwork but sometimes it’s difficult to express those interests in a way that fits into my own idealisms of what my artwork should be.

But… I’ve had a while to think about it now and my new clean living lifestyle is definitely having a positive impact on my want to create, and I’m starting to look forward to seeing how things pan out.

A sneak preview of what’s to come:

Until the Cows Come Home

Finding Sublime Transcendence in the Artworld

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Bill Viola
Bill Viola


Finding Sublime Transcendence in the Artworld
An exploration of the work of Anish Kapoor and Bill Viola

This essay explores selected works of Bill Viola and Anish Kapoor discussing how they
explore the notion of sublime transcendence and whether they paradoxically provide a
sublime transcendent experience to me as their audience. This is based on the
understanding that the literal definitions of both ‘sublime’ and ‘transcendence’ can be
explained as a quality beyond the limitations of human comprehension.

I would first like to explain the contradiction of achieving sublime transcendence and why I
believe such contradictions are present, by exploring the different interpretations of their
meanings. I would like to take each word singularly and then discuss sublime transcendence
together as a field of inquiry. I will then be analysing and comparing selected works of
Kapoor and Viola in relation to sublime transcendence and discussing whether I think their
artwork provides a sublime transcendent experience.

The word sublime comes from the Latin word sublimis, where the prefix sub means “under,”
“below,” “beneath,” “just outside of,” and lime meaning “threshold.” (Kernerman Webster’s
College Dictionary 2010) Simon Morley in The Sublime whilst discussing the meaning of the
sublime explains that it is “addressing an experience with implications that go far beyond
aesthetics” (2010: 12). I would like to use the definition that sublime is an ‘experience’ for the
purpose of this essay.

The literal meaning of sublime is an experience that is “just outside of” the “threshold” or
boundaries of our known experience. This would therefore suggest that to represent the
sublime with visual or audio experiences would be paradoxical as the sublime is outside of
the threshold of our known experience yet seems to be experienced by many of us,
otherwise there would be no use for such a word. And as I will discuss later in this essay,
Viola and Kapoor do seem to attain an interpretation of the sublime in their artwork.
Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the
Sublime and Beautiful described sublime as being “productive of the strongest emotion
which the mind is capable of feeling.” Burke then discusses however, that he is “satisfied the
ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure” (1757:
53 – 54) so his interpretation of the sublime is suggestive of an unpleasant experience.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in Critique of Judgement was also under the impression that the
sublime stemmed from the negative, but it is experienced as negative as a consequence of
our lack of comprehension of it: “The feeling of the sublime is thus a feeling of displeasure
from the inadequacy of the imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude” (1790: 141)
Robert Rosenblum (1927–2006) described the sublime more in terms of religion that to seek
the sublime is to “seek the sacred in a modern world” (1978: 218) On the other hand, the
artist Fred Tomaselli tells us that he has only ever been able to “access the sublime
chemically … It’s a major subject in the history of art and it also happens to be the major
component around drugs” ( 2002) In another example, artist Mike Kelley
relates the sublime to a psychotropic experience as well, but also a self-reflective

 “psychedelia was sublime because in psychedelia, your worldview fell apart. That
was a sublime revelation, that was my youth, and that was my notion of beauty. And
that was a kind of cataclysmic sublime. It was very interiorized, it wasn’t about a
metaphysical outside; it was about your own consciousness.” ( 2005)
It seems that the sublime has been used to define everything from pain to godliness, nature
to drug culture and everything in between. To discriminate the elements which constitutes
sublime from these many different sub-divisions I would like to look at the meaning behind
transcendence before looking specifically at sublime transcendence. (2008) advise that transcendence is: “the realm of thought which
lies beyond the boundary of possible knowledge, because it consists of objects which cannot
be presented to us” Whilst the American Heritage Dictionary tells us that transcendence is
“Lying beyond the ordinary range of perception” or in religious terms “Being above and
independent of the material universe” (2000)

Transcendence comes from the Latin prefix trans-, meaning “beyond,” and the word
scandare, meaning “to climb.” ( 2013) ‘To climb over’ is the literal
translation of the Latin equivalent both of ‘transcendence’ and ‘transcendental’ (Oxford
University Press: 2013) although Kant (1751) in Critique of Pure Reason differentiates
between ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendence’ where ‘transcendental’ is more concerned
with the way our brain perceives whilst ‘a priori’; being able to apply a “process of reasoning
without reference to particular facts or experience.” ( 2003)
I am concerned more so with his definition of adjective version of transcendence
‘transcendent’ which Kant believes to be “that which goes beyond any possible knowledge of
a human being” So rather than being able to grasp something without necessarily
experiencing it, transcendence is beyond that possibility, beyond us as human beings and
the material world. This interpretation also compliments‘s religious
definition of transcendence.

From these definitions, I would like to present a calculated definition of sublime
transcendence (in order to discuss whether Kapoor and Viola achieve it) as an experience of
great magnitude never before experienced, outside of the material world and beyond the
bounds of human knowledge or understanding. This can be relative to aesthetics, religion or

We have heard Burke and Kant on fear and the sublime and I would like to look at how this
relates to the use of fear in Viola’s water videos and Kapoor’s voids. Burke recognizes that
“Infinity has the tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most
genuine effect and truest test of the sublime” (1757: 67 – 68) I would also like to discuss
Kapoor and Viola’s use of infinity in relation to fear and the sublime.
Fearful in itself, Viola’s early near death experience of drowning in a lake seems to have
influenced much of his work with the obvious use of water and figures submerged in water,
Ascension (2000) for example. Like Kapoor, these works of Viola’s use fear as an
exploration of the sublime. In Fire Woman (2005) we are confronted with a scene of
complete terror – a burning inferno with a black figure that comes towards us as then falls
into a pool of water that was previously unnoticed by the viewer. The flames are aggressive
and overpowering and the audio is equally powerful. The whole scene is an illusion and “you

we’re seeing from the very start an image of an image…this was someone disturbing their
own self-reflection and of course creating beauty and mystery at the same time…. things are
not what they seem” (Viola: 2010) As we heard from the American Heritage Dictionary
(2000) regarding transcendence consisting “of objects which cannot be presented to us” this
illusion transcends us from seen to the unseen, the known to the unknown.

Kapoors use of voids is a good example of how he uses fear. (Such as Descent into Limbo,
1992; a large room with what looks like an infinite black hole in the middle) Kapoor tells us
“What interests me however is the sense of the darkness that we carry within us, the
darkness that’s akin to one of the principal subjects of the sublime – terror” ( 2003)

Not only do Kapoor’s voids give a feeling of an experience beyond our material world; of
something that is not there “because of the lack of ordered structures or codes,”
( 2010) but their “darkness generates an illusion of the infinite, which is
intrinsically related to the sublime” (Crone & Von Stosch 2008: 26) This is also the case for
the continual loops of Viola’s installations such as Five Angels for the Millennium (2001)
where the sequences seem to go on infinitely in varying directions. The size and scale of
both artists work; of sizeable proportions generally, only emphasize the infinite experience.
They also evoke the sublime through their magnitude. Burke cites: “Greatness of dimension
is a powerful cause of the sublime” (1757:72)

As well as the physical and metaphysical, there are also obvious religious connotations in
both artists work. Religion is also talked about in relation to the sublime, as
has already defined; “concerned with religion or religious purposes,” (2013) We can also
relate transcendence; where the previously quoted American Heritage Dictionary defined
transcendence as “Being above and independent of the material universe;” (2000) a
definition that could happily define a deity.

Viola and Kapoor are both known for their religious backgrounds and although neither of
them overtly emphasize religious references in their work, they both admit that they are
there. Viola discusses his work in relation to spirituality: “I use the term spiritual, which I
know makes a lot of people cringe, you can call it anything you want, but it’s an awareness
of your place in a larger whole.” ( 2012)

Where Kapoor’s religious links are more subtle, Viola is recognised for the religious themes
in his work. He has won the Religion and Arts Award and also an award from the American
Academy of Religion and was commissioned to create a piece for St Paul’s Cathedral.
( 2013) The titles of the artists’ works illustrate how obvious the religious
connotations are; Kapoor need some explaining: “I showed a work at Documenta in Kassel,
in Germany, in ’92, in which a work called ‘Descent into Limbo’, after Mantegna – Christ
descending into the limbo of the nether world.” ( 2003)

Viola’s Five Angels (2000) directly references spirituality in its title, but it also uses religious
symbolism with regards to the ritual of baptism where the figures are submerged in water
“The action of Viola’s figures… encourages comparison with the Christian sacrament of
baptism.” ( 2010) Both artists also bring in eastern religious influences. These
highlight the transcendent qualities in their work: Kapoor (2012) talks about Cloud Gate
(2004): “I think about the kind of space that there might be in an image of a meditating
Buddha, where all attention is focused inwards” Viola “also cites Zen Buddhism, which he
practised during his year-long sojourn in Japan in 1980–1, as having a particularly strong
influence on his outlook and practice.” ( 2013) The main focus of Buddhism is
the journey to enlightenment and is parallel to a transcendent journey. To become
enlightened is to reach “a blessed state in which the individual transcends desire and
suffering and attains Nirvana” (American Heritage Dictionary: 2008)

I would finally like to discuss both artists’ exploration of death, which could be seen as the
ultimate sublime transcendence; a transcendence from this material world. Transcendent
also of our human knowledge as none of us know what it feels like to die. A lot of Kapoor’s
work appears to represent death and its associated components; blood and the body.
Kapoor tells us: “Red is a colour I’ve felt very strongly about….of course it’s the colour of the
interior of our bodies” (2008: 47) Examples of relevant works include his use of fleshy
looking, blood red in Svayambh (2007) and red pigment in To Reflect an Intimate Part of the
Red (1981) and the red, almost vein-like structures Taratantara (1999) and Leviathan (2011)
Kapoor also comments: “Somewhere in the work there is a real search for love and death,
blood and guts.” ( 2008)

Many of Viola’s work have an air of death lingering over them, but Nantes Triptych is
particularly haunting. It is a triptych of a birth, a figure floating in water (to represent the
suspension between life and death (Viola: 2010) and his mother on her death bed.
Non-space, fear, infinity, religion and death; these have all been discussed in relation to
sublime transcendence and these elements have been truly explored by Viola and Kapoor.
The magnitude and illusionary structures of Kapoor’s do seem sublime to me and Viola’s
bold and beautiful approach to death and religion and the fear that his work strikes in me
transcends me into the world of the unknown and fills me with awe. To answer my original
query on whether I think their artwork provides a sublime transcendent experience to me as
their audience however, would be to create another paradox. Like my exploration of the
literary world of definitions, my own personal experience of their artwork cannot be bound by
the limits of language; then again maybe in that statement you can find my answer. I can of
course only speak from personal experience as one member of their audience, so I will leave
you with quotes from others, who back me up with claims of their own experience of the
sublime or transcendence or both from Viola and Kapoor’s work:


“Anish Kapoor’s monumental Marsyas, made of stretched PVC, managed to convey

a more affirmative experience of the sublime – a kind of post-religious state of

emotional transcendence” (Morley: 2010)


In his art Viola is holding a mirror up to the viewer and is showing the full force of the
sublime.” (Arya: 2013)