Across the Water

Dan Hays

The vanishing point is the elusive goal and the inevitable end, both a Zen thing and the result of existential crisis. It is physically and metaphorically approached ever closer through the ecstatic speeds and exponential scales of technology, ever receding in perceptibility, increasingly out of control.

The digital sublime is the ultimate short-circuiting of the infinite and the intimate, the instantaneous and the timeless.

In the film Vanishing Point disgraced ex-cop and war veteran Kowalski collects his Dodge Challenger from Denver, Colorado, and takes a bet that he can drive it to San Francisco in less than 15 hours. So a petro-chemical, mechanical celebration of speed, escape and self-annihilation ensues. I watch clips on YouTube, instantaneously transmitted over the Internet. Virtual adrenalin isn't quite like the real thing, but it's all I have. Spectators at the final scene just walk away after the show is over, yet we can return to watch re-enactments in a multiplicity of versions, both fictional and real.

Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of the surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire. Speed creates a space of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind. Triumph of forgetting over memory, an uncultivated, amnesiac intoxication. The superficiality and reversibility of a pure object in the pure geometry of the desert. Driving like this produces a kind of invisibility, transparency, or transversality in things, simply by emptying them out. It is a sort of slow-motion suicide, death by an extenuation of forms -- the delectable form of their disappearance.

Jean Baudrillard, Vanishing Point, from America, Verso.

I discovered another Dan Hays, living in Colorado, USA, through an Internet search in 1999. His website consists of numerous photographs of the Rocky Mountain landscape surrounding his home, as well as a live web-cam. With his permission a series of oil paintings derived from this imagery was initiated: "As for my images feel free to use whatever you wish, consider them yours and original if you wish. If I didn't forget they were up there most of the time I would probably take them down because they are so blurry etc..."

So an arduously slow and robotic painterly collaboration was embarked on.

Visual material is now collected from across the whole of Colorado, and it's essential to the project that I have never physically visited. Is this to dodge the overwhelming challenge of the real thing? Or does this leave space open for romantic or virtual projection?

Collectively titled Colorado Impressions, this on-going project is concerned with the immateriality of digital imagery and the surface of the screen, combined with painting's traditional focus on the paradox of representing light in coloured substance. Ironically taking hundreds of hours to paint, these meticulous and mediated reproductions of low quality images are necessarily flawed, claiming back for paint fragments from the infinity of digital photographs on the Internet.

(It's also with some sense of irony that they are returning here to their source).

The vanishing point is not a symbol of our destiny, but signifies its absence: if it is at all a symbol, it is of infinity, of the very idea of the unreachable.

Hanneke Grootenboer, Perspective as Allegorical Form, from The Rhetoric of Perspective, University of Chicago Press.

The vanishing point is the technical means of constructing illusionistic space through linear perspective. It has infinite distance and zero dimensions. It fixes a hypothetical, monocular viewer in one position. In terms of the dimension of time, it can be taken literally the point where something ceases to exist, or could it mark the onset of timelessness?

So, it is both the vehicle for the fabrication of a supposed scientific or objective view, and the point of temporal disappearance. These meanings converge through the realisation of the near instantaneous speeds of electronic communication, and the ability to perceptually travel anywhere at the click of a mouse. The virtual gaze can reach a multiplicity of vanishing points, thereby reducing the significance of the individual human subject to zero in an infinite diffusion of finalities.

Modernist painting's emblematic grid is now the ubiquitous matrix through which we perceive digital information. The grid's ambiguous nature, offering a sense of the scientific at the same time as the metaphysical, functions as an activator of the surface, offering painting's ontological self-reflexivity, a veiled reaction to the emptiness or falsity presented by the foundational zero-point of perspectival space. Yet considered as an allegorical form, perspective has always faithfully represented metaphysical vanishing points in temporal, psychological or existential senses, offering multiple metaphorical viewpoints. There's the oblivion behind the every-day in Dutch still life; the frozen transience of the picturesque; and the awesome, incomprehensible forces of nature in the romantic sublime. Painting authentically depicts our subjectivity: our nostalgic and dislocated relationship to the natural or historical, presenting distractions from, and fabrications against, entropic inevitability and non-existence. Through its very fixity, perspective represents the fragility of illusionism.

Paintings work by revealing and synthesizing the paradoxes of representation. They simultaneously present the fluid coexistence of surface and illusion of depth. Our sense of them is physical, our relationship to them embodied in three-dimensional space. We approach the surface and the illusion is dispelled; yet we become acquainted with its materiality. So through the activation of the surface, by way of expressive or mechanical application of paint and other materials, the artifice of painting is always exposed, celebrating the partial, yet authentic, vision and gesture of the individual in reaction to existential dissolution in the face of a notionally perfect reproductive technology.

...Composition under realism is this shifting of forms between two and three dimensions, subject always to the Gaze, the fused epiphanies, in which both sets of dimension equally participate: in the Gaze, the image is both the depth of the founding perception, and the flatness of the picture plane.

Norman Bryson, Vision and Painting -- The Logic of the Gaze, Yale University Press.

Painting is an exemplary literal and metaphorical field in which to explore the duality of perfect resemblance and absolute chaos engendered by entropy and its digital negation or simulation. For we are lost to the garden, removed from nature, and painting is a distillation of negative entropy, of life. It operates as a technique to reconnect to the primal, a way of transforming immaterial representations back into physical objects.

The noise of flawed painting styles, film grain, half-tone screens or digital compression artefacts are carrier waves for the tangible, the longed for in-between space, the reassurance of atmospherics. Yet there is a widening void in the middle through the dissolution of the human through perfect simulation, the virtual realisation of uninterrupted perspectival space, and the absolute flatness of the screen.

In their form and function, digital images are fugitive bi-products of systems of genetic and socio-economic determinism and control, the seamless coalition of the global and the personal, and the perpetuation of empty signs and products. How is it possible to navigate this vortex of information? We need to find or invent refuges, and visual analogies for these.

The painter and object of attention are in a relationship. This is one of a possessive kind of love - a romantic attachment. Colorado chose me by chance, initially through the channel of Dan Hays's website. My devotion to it has given rise to a sense of ownership or colonisation that is mutual. This love is, necessarily, unrequited. The act of physically going to the real Colorado would destroy the reverie of what has become a mythic place, the land of COLOR, inhabited by an alternative Dan Hays. In this way I lose myself and find myself, subject and object become fused, consuming each other, realising the desire to become one with nature, a figure in landscape, between the 'real' world and the implicated vanishing point of ultimate projection.

In terms of landscape depiction, remote web-cameras seem to offer an extreme, possibly exemplary demonstration of the Internet's promotion of the aesthetics of functionality. They are placed in the landscape simply to relay information, offering low-resolution telepresence and supposed authenticity. Artistic notions of the picturesque do not come into the frame. Updated every few minutes or seconds, they spew out thousands of unique images every day, fleetingly existing on the phosphorescent screen of a computer monitor. They are representations of landscape free from painting's history, so suggesting a more objective visualisation of the world. Yet these pictures are not free of painterly qualities.

Digital photographs are generally compressed to limit the use of computer memory in storing files. Processing functions without regard to a hierarchy of forms, as grids operate as both democratising and distancing agents. Areas of contrast are accentuated and colour is simplified, giving rise to accidental effects known as blocking artefacts, which produce surprising abstract forms, generating visual interest at the pixel level. This process is equivalent to the Impressionist imperative to capture the essence of a scene as quickly as possible with a restricted palette of colours, regarding the scene as a whole, employing brushstrokes of a similar size, and returning to the same view in different light conditions. This is a special relationship, where we can see digital photographs as proto-paintings, abstracting visual information, creating painterly effects several removes from the world. We can zoom into these images with a similar wonder to the experience of approaching the surface of a painting, seeing how the illusion is generated. The agent for this is noise, a product of chaos and chance; the anomalies of entropic disintegration through flawed or mediated reproduction.

... A natural eye forgets tactile illusions and their convenient dead language of line, and acts only in its faculty of prismatic sensibility. It reaches a point where it can see reality in the living atmosphere of forms, decomposed, refracted, reflected by beings and things, in incessant variation. Such is this first characteristic of the Impressionist eye.

Jules Laforgue, Impressionism, 1883

The Internet represents a near infinite expansion of the mail-order catalogue, amateur snapshot or surveillance video; a way of collecting visual information where the aesthetics of simple functionality or mediocrity is observed, as there is virtually no material cost involved. Now it would seem that found images are all we have thanks to the Internet's primary function as consumer and diffuser of information, a generator of simulacra. Paradoxically, this infinite source seems to have more veracity due to its comprehensiveness and intimate humanity, at once both universal and local.

Crucially, it is the immaterial equivalence of all digital information, from the virtual infinity of the Internet down to the pixel or bit, via discrete objects and catalogues, that lends noise of mistakes in the collection and reproduction of sensory data equal value with the supposedly accurate depictive material. This offers a more simultaneous, ambiguous and three-dimensional convergence of the illusory and the surface, the subjective and objective. The digital realm is a shadowy, ethereal, parallel world - an endlessly refracted trace of humanity. We can only engage with a few fugitive images that emerge, half frozen, from this endlessly reproducible, unverifiable, and immaterial source. The analogy is memory.

The title Across the Water was used for my recent exhibition at the Nunnery in London. In the context of the Colorado Impressions, it most directly refers to the land of the New World across the Atlantic Ocean. Yet it is also suggestive of Northern European mythology, in particular the Isle of the Dead, a subject tackled by romantic painters of the nineteenth century. Tennyson's Lady of Shallot is cursed to reside in an island castle on a river, only viewing the world through a mirror, "to weave the mirror's magic sights" into the form of a tapestry. The poem is often read as an allegory for the work of an artist and the dangers of personal isolation as opposed to direct experience, and has echoes today in our increasingly remote and mediated vantage points through the agency of the Internet.

As a transparent vehicle, the window is that which admits light -- or spirit -- into the initial darkness of a room. But if glass transmits, it also reflects. And so the window is experienced by the symbolist as a mirror as well -- something that freezes and locks the self into the space of its own reduplicated being. Flowing and freezing; glace in French means glass, mirror, and ice; transparency, opacity, and water. In the associative system of symbolist thought this liquidity points in two directions. First, towards the flow of birth -- the amniotic fluid, the "source" -- but then, towards the freezing into stasis or death -- the unfecund immobility of the mirror.

Rosalind Krauss, Grids, from The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Popular Myths, MIT Press.

Today that mirror/window has its equivalent in the TV or computer screen, with elemental associations to the flood of images generated by the Internet (the digital wilderness, to romanticise), and the fluidity of the space between the virtual and actual. Below the shimmering surface there are a multitude of invisible agencies in the generation of what comes to our perception, suggestive of the spectral realm. These range, for example, from the complex and often arbitrary cataloguing processes of search engines down to the abstracting effects of data compression and corruption. Veracity, transience, expression, timelessness, physicality, uniqueness, and all qualities that are used to explore the entwined relationship of painting and photography are dissolved by a medium that can both simulate painterly effects and function as an impartial collector of information.

The other Dan Hays is the real Dan Hays. I am his shadowy double, his virtual ghost, his Second Life avatar. I have no materiality - just a two-dimensional painter-parasite, skimming the surface of the mirror.

This mirrored existential trap offers deliverance from self. This is the vicious and virtuous circle: freedom from responsibility at the same time as a disembodied communion with nature - sublimation within the digital wilderness.

A synthetic vanishing point is located where distinctions between surface and illusion of depth, instantaneity and timelessness, interiority and exteriority, and substance and essence, disappear.

So we have the allegoric quest for the Holy Grail or Mother Nature, necessarily unrequited, and destroyed in pursuit, as arrival at the vanishing point is death. Thus we're left with this Sisyphean purgatory of retro-modernism, Ouroboros, a perpetual whirlpool, cage and sanctuary both. Through ritualized repetition, the myth of eternal life is virtually achieved.

Interminable re-enactments of the outmoded: an eternal twilit uncanny of Midnight Cowboy, Dawn of the Dead, and Woodstock. Nostalgia for a Yogi Bear wilderness that never was, yet its realisation as the Internet, parallel nature, nomadic dream-space and Hell, Heart of Darkness as road movie or canoe trip -- Deliverance and Lost Highway, the linear and circular, both at the same time. A Vorticist marriage of individualism and capitalism consummated through instant sublimation of desires and fears, feeding the code, the Sea of Solaris. All dissent is futile, computed, negated by repetition. Fearful symmetries.

It only leaves the dislocated refuge of Monkey Island. Like Freeman Lowell in Silent Running, we wait for the flood - origin and oblivion. Rowing against the tide when we know we should never have left home.

The present system of dissuasion and simulation succeeds in neutralizing all finalities, all referentials, all meanings, but it fails to neutralize appearances. It forcefully controls all the procedures for the production of meaning. It does not control the seduction of appearances. No interpretation can explain it, no system can abolish it. It is our last chance.

Jean Baudrillard, Seduction, or, the Superficial Abyss, 1987, from The Ecstasy of Communication, Semiotext(e)

The vanishing point can be achieved through sincere and perfect dissimulation, born of the supreme paradox of self-indulgence and self-annihilation.

(Or finding allegories for this seductive conundrum).


Old postcards from Colorado sourced through Walt's Postcards: (based in San Francisco).

Screen captures of Dan Hays's website:

Oil paintings in order of appearance (excluding repeats and details):

Colorado Impressions 6, 10a, 10b, 7, 11b, 11a & 11c (after Dan Hays, Colorado), 2000-03, 60"x80"

Twilight in the Wilderness (after Dan Hays and Frederick Church), 2005, 60"x80"

Colorado Impression 14 (after Dan Hays, Colorado), 2005, 30"x40"

Colorado Impression 13a (Pike's Peak), 2006, 80"x60"

Time Machine, 2007, 16"x25"

Modern Kitchen, 2007, 20"x20"

Colorado Impressions 16c, 2006, 48"x64"

Colorado Impression 16b, 2007, 54"x72"

Colorado Impression 16a, 2006, 60"x80"

Colorado Impression 12a (Sunrise, Beaver Creek, 11 September, 2002), 2003, 60"x80"

Colorado Impression 12b (The Gore Range), 2004, 60"x80"

Transcendental Meditations (Royal Gorge Jellystone Park Camp Resort), 2006, 60"x45"

Self-Portrait, 2005, 30"x40"

Dan Hays, 2005, 30"x40"

Colorado Snow Effect 4, 2007, 48"x64"

Colorado Impression 16d, 2007, 48"x64"

The End of Time, 2007, 60"x60"