The world can seem to shift its size around us. Sometimes it is vast enough to leave us feeling utterly insignificant, and then again it may shrink to the point where we are magnified. Each state brings its own unease. The drama of vastness, the enormity of mountains, sheer cliffs, wide skies, and of falling darkness as it opens up a gateway to the world of the unseen, are all present in Chance, Clea van der Grijn’s most recent body of work; just as they are also implicated in Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime:
Whatever, is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in 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 which the mind is capable of feeling. 1
For Burke, awe, terror, horror and the promise of pain are the source of the most powerful emotions possible, and his Romantic era colleagues sought out situations where exposure of their human vulnerability might open the door to such experiences of pure feeling. The results were art, music and literature that enabled the armchair traveller to experience it too, and yet which, especially in the fields of visual art and writing, can seem somewhat dated today (for some reason, Romantic period music translates better across time). As an anti-Enlightenment movement, Romanticism made sense, for there was only so much that rationalism could explain, and too much thinking thwarted the human need to truly feel. But is there any space for it now, in the 21st century, when we have got both our thoughts and our emotions under control, and claim to understand their, and our, place in the world?
To have any chance of making sense of things, as we are still discovering, the rational and the romantic must be understood in relation to one another. And, paradoxically, advances in science are leading to the realisation that language and mathematics alone are not enough to explain everything that we can now observe. When, late last year, scientists claimed to have detected the infinitesimally tiny neutrino breaking all the laws of physics by travelling faster than light, the anxious question was asked: but what does this mean for the world? The rational/romantic answer, of course, is: absolutely nothing. If neutrinos do indeed travel faster than light, then they have always done so. The only thing that has changed is our ability to apprehend such a wonder.
Contemporary artists, including Clare Langan, Willie Doherty, Hughie O’Donoghue and Gary Coyle have been exploring this state of being, in the space at the hinterlands of the logical, with work that hints at something to be discovered beyond the experience of the rational. Here, we at last begin to realise that we can know nothing, unless we once again bring feeling, emotion, and the ability to sidestep the drive for complete comprehension, back into the quest. Van der Grijn’s new works movingly explore this territory; they also move the question on, to ask what else art might reveal to us about how mind, body and spirit interact, and where we might look to come closer to terms with our place in the world?
An intrepid traveller, van der Grijn’s journeys have been reflected in bodies of work based on trips to far-flung places, including Venezuela, Cuba and Italy; but Chance draws inspiration from closer to home. Living and working in Sligo, Ben Bulben broods over the town, and the artist’s imagination; it appears here in three large night time coloured canvases where the visible is lost in blue and blackness under a hanging moon. Meanwhile, images from Kerry’s Ballinskelligs, and the sheer rock faces of the Skellig Islands themselves, prove that experiences of awe can still be translated through painting and photography, as van der Grijn’s images reconnect to a wonder discovered in the extraordinary everyday.
The Romantics weren’t shy of beauty or scared of aesthetics, and a series of smaller paintings, including To Puzzle Out Eternity, Sweet Unrest and Dreaming Nights use beauty as a Trojan horse, to smuggle the ideas behind the work into our subconsciousness. One of these ideas is elucidated in the title: Troubles (“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” John Keats). Another is to be found in the spaces the paintings occupy, on the knife-edge between the sublime, and that other state of being – magnification – where a more accurate mirror of human experience is exposed.
Even though Burke accepted that beauty could exist in the small, there was no space for the small in his idea of the sublime. Small could be beautiful, and excite love, but not those wild passions that the Romantics sought. William Blake, born the year in which Burke’s treatise on the sublime was published, took a different view. Revolutionary and visionary, Blake’s position on the small was summed up in his poem Auguries of Innocence (1803), which opens with the lines:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
nd eternity in an hour.
Almost two hundred years later, Gaston Bachelard returned to this idea, further connecting the small with the sublime. “Miniature,” he wrote, “is one of the refuges of greatness.” It asks us to focus and take up an intensified way of looking, that sees through, beyond the object. “The miniscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”2
van der Grijn’s smaller Chance paintings take the human figure and set it against a circle that may stand for an eye, or may stand for the world itself. The world becomes miniscule, and the paintings themselves become Bachelard’s “narrow gate”. They pull off the difficult trick of simultaneously expressing both the miniature and the magnificent, where man is both alone, and yet also in company with the world. Again, this is not necessarily a comfortable state, to become “king”, as Patrick Kavanagh wrote, “of banks and stones and every blooming thing”.3 It carries the risk of being sucked into the eye of the world, and there to see what Burke described as the ultimate condition of the sublime, the “king of terrors”, death.
This begs another question: at the hour of our death, how will the world look? Will it be vast, or diminished to a pinprick of existence as, for a single moment, it is defined in the eye of a mind about escape its confines? This is another question that the rational alone is not equipped to answer. Just as she is not afraid to use beauty, van der Grijn also balances this awesome sense with something sweeter to the imagination. If we draw back from the abyss, we can instead see the miniaturised world through the eyes of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince:
But on your tiny planet, my little prince, all you need to do is move your chair a few steps. You can see the day end and the twilight falling whenever you like…
“One day,” you said to me, “I saw the sunset forty-four times!”
Maybe, lurking somewhere in the enormity of it all, is a suggestion of heaven. Elsewhere in The Little Prince, the fox, meeting the prince, suggests to him that “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
So what does all this mean in relation to the post-Romantic, and to these paintings and photographs? The title, “Chance” itself refers to the coincidences that can bring us into proximity with the sublime and with the small. It relates to the danger of circumstance and the unexpected, and also to those accidents of time and being when we suddenly look at something in the right way, in the right frame of mind, at the right time to see the world anew. In their beauty is a form of redemption, and these paintings and photographs render, through the medium of art, a visual space to see the essential. They make the invisible, for a while at least, visible to the human mind.