“Our human power of observations rests between these worlds and it cannot acknowledge either of them fully by sight. We must remain content with our dull labor and horizons and accept that without the invention of superior optics, we are blind to these worlds”
There is a world that exists in an unobservable form that directly mirrors the emboldened and sublime reaches of the cosmic order of what we can see above us. It is a world below us, in us and occupies every surface of the planet. Our human power of observations rests between these worlds and it cannot acknowledge either of them fully by sight. We must remain content with our dull labor and horizons and accept that without the invention of superior optics, we are blind to these worlds.
One of these worlds is so grand that the human eye cannot fathom its reaches. Its stretches above our heads and into our solar system and our galaxy is lodged in a seemingly unimportant corner of the cosmos, like so many others. We can understand that it is present and yet without technical instrumentation, we cannot record or divine its image beyond its immediate stars, moon, sun and hints of planets be-jeweling the night sky. These jewels are visible only on a conditional set of circumstances. We are fallible creatures with optics to match. At present, much of the far reaches of the heavens have been accounted for or imagined and cartography has been enlisted to metric its reaches. The invention of telescopes and the enabling of physics have given the world above us a shorter reach. We may not see it directly, but we may now perceive it and therefore begin to image and approximate it.
As per the second world, it is a world sequestered in multitudes. It blankets our form and is part of everything that we know and imagine on our piece of floating rock. We cannot observe it with our naked eye much like the heavens above. It vibrates, salutes and permeates every state of animus. Everything and everyone that we know is divisible by this second world. We are the summation of many of its fine parts and machinations and yet, we potentially know more about the world above than this world of which we are made. This second world is host to an architecture undefined. It reasons from the interior and it melts into a soluble liquid or gas which may re-combine, grow and nurture newer and ruder forms of organic disciple under the guise of biological evolution.
This world is not born of fissure, nor tectonic slip. It is born between the elements and assembles itself over millennia of mutations. This world is microscopic and it pulses with the core elements of life on this planet-each assembled piece sacrificed to a nothingness short of perceivable order. Our understanding of its mechanical necessity is relegated to the fine print of biological assumption. What we understand of this world is understood in wide patterns of guesswork. We have sculpted an understanding of it it in theory, but ever-so-often, it defies our knowledge of its mechanics and distorts our perception of how our intimate world functions. It does this by providing a new and elegant molecular experience. It reminds humankind of its will to build, to co-opt and destroy. This is why you are sitting at home today reading this while the plague rages, a contribution from lung to lung.
What strikes me about the evolution of Stephen Gill’s process and his books, is that just when you think the artist might stop, hit a rut or repeat himself, he comes back with a passionate project completely out of left field and one that makes sense in his evolution without the critical problem of repetition. I have watched over the past years as Stephen’s work has continued with his experimental projects. I have seen his always present interest in the natural world take hold more and more in the work. From Night Procession and The Pillar, you begin to understand quickly how Gill has gotten to Please Notify The Sun (Nobody Books, 2021).
If you look back over his catalogue, you will see other titles that hint at his interest in nature from Hackney Flowers, Pigeons, Talking to Ants etc. The theme of the natural world has always been of interest to Gill. But, with the last trilogy of work, something more primal has been unleashed. The same emphasis on experimentation with cameras and process remains, but the emphasis has shifted to become something unique in each volume. Each volume is a singular idea carried out in linear fashion. That should sound like too much of one thing, but this is not the case. You can think of it like sheet music where the notes look similar, but when only assembled do they present the song to be sung or orchestrated. This is incredibly important as it shows the artist unencumbered with extraneous variance. It suggest a streamlined and strong vision of someone at the height of their work.
Please Notify The Sun is the real fish story of photography. It is a body of work that centres around Gill’s fascination with the natural world, and it has been executed over a 10-week period of time during 2020 while the world raged with a pandemic that it could not see. Please Notify the Sun in essence is not a pandemic story, but it is a brilliant metaphor for it. The world(s) presented inside the book through Gill’s colour photographs come from a microscopic study of one fish that he managed to land and freeze in April of 2020, Gill began his investigation like an errant and excitable ichthyologist over a ten week period. He allowed most of the fish’s form to decompose over ten weeks all the while making studies of the microscopic level of its “progress”. He ate an amount of the fresh fish (for clarity of usage) prior. The images that came back are about as sci-fi as one can get. You cannot recognise the fish. Instead you recognise vast and seething worlds filled with black-boned alien architecture not without feeling in some images like they could adorn a Frank Herbert novel or are perhaps act as a late reference for H.R. Giger. Perhaps it is an accidental ode to Piss Christ-dare I-Fish Christ.
Glorious hues of crepuscular orange adorn many of the images with small circular debris floating through the image not unlike the moons of Jupiter. You can imagine a satellite crossing the path of a red planet. In this is a fantastical representation of the micro-sublime. Perhaps it is not just about scale and in the metaphor of the dissolving fish is spoken something larger of pandemics, midlife and the persistence of time. I am left thinking of these ideas as much as I am given to thinking of John Benjamin Dancer’s microphotographic glass slides or The effervescent snowflakes of Wilson Bentley or the apocalyptic painting of John Martin. If you think about it, we are consumed with images that help define out horizons and our heavens. Rarely do we chance a look at decay on the microbial level for to do so would ask questions of the viewer so direct as to render them paralysed.
“I am given to thinking of John Benjamin Dancer’s microphotographic glass slides or The effervescent snowflakes of Wilson Bentley or the apocalyptic painting of John Martin…”
Please Notify the Sun is a book that draws the reader into the precious and beautiful world of decay. It opts for a unattainable palette which asks the viewer to try to convey a sense of its abstraction while all the time feeling that at its heart is something organic and even potentially nemesis in value. You see hints of spines, ribs, and blood along the travel of these vistas. You sense there is something bruised about the affair, as if the heart-shaped bruise on Nan Goldin’s leg and the blood in her battered eye have finally been seen up close. For me, this is possibly the most curious of Gill’s work. It is not easy as abstraction never is and knowing the background of the fish story makes the worlds within a little more disturbing. The reward in looking through this book is an acknowledgment that extends past death into the sublime and to acknowledge, even if laterally, the importance of the volume both in Stephen’s career and in our present moment. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Stephen Gill)