Thursday, 14 November 2013

The Sublime.. It's in the Stars Don't You Know...

Earth and Space - Highly Commended:

Snowy Range Perseid Meteor Shower by David Kingham (USA)


A Personal Appreciation of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013 at The Royal Observatory Greenwich (from 19th September 2013 - 23 February 2014) and the Sublime.


It started as a sunny, October Sunday when I started to drive the not altogether pleasant route to Greenwich from South West London. Then almost as soon as I left the rain came and came and came. It was very wet rain... wet, large drops that leave everything saturated and heavy, not the lazy drizzle almost unnoticed by Londoners. 

Very soon the water ran arrogantly down the streets - fuck your drainage systems - poured over my car - it's wipers almost rendered futile and London was all grey streams and reflective surfaces . Why had I decided to break the mould and actually do something more than stumble upon roast and red wine on a Sunday, I admonished myself. I was driving though, so I hoped I'd be able to park near the Royal Observatory. 

I hadn't reckoned with my total reliance on my google maps app in an area I don't know at all - it lead me to a parking spot that required a walk. I began to walk it, a token scarf tied over my already soaking hair, my pumps slapping and squelching in what I can only describe as the pond I was walking through. I ducked into the National Maritime Museum, which had clearly been the idea of several others and the smell of human damp and sweat under cagoules and the water running down my face was almost enough to make me give up and drive straight back home. I called my cousin, a Greenwich resident, who I was meeting and who I was already one hour late for... "It's OK... You can drive here.. Just go back along the main road." Back through the rain, back in the car and I did make it. The car park was so close that I barely had to go outside - ironic given my already sodden state.

Perhaps my rambling introduction of how hateful I was feeling when I entered the free exhibition, will give some idea of how not-in-the mood I was. Wet, ill-tempered and miles from home, guilty that I was late, sliding all over the floor in my ballet pumps, aware that the building closed in two hours so we would have to rush. 

People and Space - Category winner: Moon Silhouettes by Mark Gee (Australia)

And then we went to see the photos. 

Overall and Earth and Space winner: Guiding Light to the Stars by Mark Gee (Australia)

I should mention that I am no scientist, whilst I proffer a mild interest in the sciences, it is mainly in basic biology - anything that links into art and literature or anyone that does. I hate Chemistry, though I comprehend it. I can't understand Physics and I don't pretend to; the only part I really enjoyed at school was Space and the Universe. That does interest me. 

Deep Space-Category Winner: Celestial Impasto: sh2–239 by Adam Block (USA)

The images ranged from depictions of the transit of Venus, comets, nebulae, aurorae and more and some pictures include parts of our tiny earth in them showing further scale and perspective. Winning entries have come from all around the world and this year was a record breaking year, with more images entered than ever before.

As I knew before I visited, every image was stunning, in the literal sense.   

When I saw this exhibition was on, I had to see it. Not just because of the sheer magnitude and art of the images but because of the feeling of smallness in the world that looking into the sky at night (and depictions of it) gives me. Some people hate that, I love it, it thrills me, a reflective thrill - sometimes slightly melancholic, but a thrill none-the-less. It does what views of cityscapes do (also called sonder); what vast natural and rough landscapes do, what outpourings of international emotion - good or bad- do, what great machines or lavish buildings do. It relaxes me, it scares and delights me and it makes me feel insignificant and I love it. It's like a drug. 

The term sublime was originally coined as an adjective in the 1st century AD but I came to it in 18th-century terms at university through the philosopher Edmund Burke musings on a sort of pleasurable terror in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke’s definition of the sublime focuses on such terms as darkness, obscurity, privation, vastness, magnificence, loudness and suddenness. Mostly though, I studied it through the Romantic poets, Coleridge and Wordsworth who recognised the redemptive powers of nature, but also the vastness and turbulence of the natural world and the human response to it. 

Young Astrophotographers - Category winner:

The Milky Way Galaxy by Jacob Marchio (USA), aged 14

The modern philosopher, Alain de Botton says:
"It had been the icecaps, the deserts, the volcanoes and the glaciers that had given us a sense of finitude and limitation and had elicited a feeling in which fear and respect coagulated into a strangely pleasing feeling of humility, a feeling which the philosophers of the eighteenth century had famously termed the sublime."
And Richard Holmes, the Romantics biographer says:
"Physical vision - one might say scientific vision - brings about a metaphysical shift in the observer's view of reality as a whole. The geography of the earth, or the structure of the solar system, are in an instant utterly changed, and forever. The explorer, the scientific observer, the literary reader, experience the Sublime: a moment of revelation into the idea of the unbounded, the infinite."
To be honest, at uni, I didn't really get it, the literary language and fussy poetry took all my attention from identifying the feeling. It was really on my own, that I realised what it meant and grew to love the feeling of incredible smallness and insignificance. 

In the modern world, as I said it is not just in nature and the stars but in the way we live our lives, in seeing the wider picture and our role in a living breathing world of which you are just a tiny part. See below the definition of Sonder, which is supposed to be a sad feeling, I think it is wonderful.

It is why I loved this exhibition and all the talented photographers involved in it. It is why I think that sceptics who ridicule astrology and say - how can these stars and planets affect us, it's ridiculous, are a little ridiculous themselves. I mean how can they not, we are tiny, they are huge, the sun lightens our hair and darkens are skin and naturally wakens us. I am not endorsing the daily horoscope but simply looking at the unquantifiable vastness of these rocks and gas balls, surely they must have a little affect.

I'd recommend all to see the exhibition, whether you want to see a pretty picture, enquire over the techniques used or get off a little on how large and amazing our world is.

The Royal Observatory Greenwich is proud to present the winning images of Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2013. This free exhibition showcases some incredible images of the sky, ranging from within our solar system to far into deep space.
 Quote 1: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton
Quote 2: The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, Richard Holmes

Images are all (C) the photographers and

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