Tears of ecstacy

Danielle Thompson
Stills Gallery, Sydney

The real measure of a poetic image is in its reverberations. – Gaston Bachelard[1]

Bachelard evokes a wave-like image to define the poetic–and he assigns this reverberation a sonorous quality. Such a description allows for the consideration of time, space and movement in the contemplation of certain types of images. But it also suggests that the first point of perception is a bodily one. Sonority is a quality heard and felt, it is a vibratory response that arises first from the senses before being intellectualised. Poetic reverberations might be experienced as small, imperceptible ripples of sensation or as a full-bodied upsurgeance–a wave of feeling. Whether it is an undulation of pleasure or the vertiginous lilt of confusion, such a resonance will necessarily be subjective.

What strikes me when viewing Danielle Thompson's photographic work, Tears of Ecstasy, a series of Type C photographs of the sea, land, sky and the surrounding elements, is this relationship between perception and subjectivity. Thompson's work, which moves from realist depiction to abstraction seems to provoke a contemplation of self. Descriptions of the exhibition refer to the 'sublime' to suggest the mode of transcendence that might be experienced during the act of contemplation. Another less ethereal way of accounting for this is the difficulty in rendering these images in words–the watery vistas are not overtly placed in a social or political landscape, they contain no figures beyond the often hallucinatory forms of rocks or curves of land through fog and haze. Perhaps it is simply the sheer volume of water that prevents a kind of grounded response to the work–it seems to require an associative technique, description by metaphor rather than literal engagement. For me these images provoke thoughts of the necessarily subjective act of contemplation and of the movement between depth and surface (explored in the content) or on another level, between consciousness and the unconscious. For it is the effect of light in these photographs that suggests the slipperiness of any truth-the known world is torn up in its illumination, obliterated by the effect of brightness or shadow or by the use of line and colour.

Thompson's subject, at first glance, is the sea and the elements that surround it. But what is striking and at other times lulling in these images is the extent to which this much-represented part of the landscape is rendered afresh through the play of unfamiliar colour and light or in the unexpected solidity or dissipation of previously familiar forms. In the larger works of 'Suite 1', Thompson focuses primarily on the multiple effects of light on the water's surface–undulating stretches of water become coruscating illuminated planes or expanses pricked with tiny geometric particles where the light has separated. At other times the sea appears almost solid. And though it is possible to glimpse the occasional luminescent spangle of a postcard scene, these alluring surfaces almost threaten immersion because they are composed without the anchoring bulk of land or the orientating lines of horizon. When the land is depicted, it shimmers insubstantially in the distance, chimerical.

Ironically it is this intensity of light in the large images that also prevents transcendence. Thompson 's work seems to invite us to dissolve the borders between the miniature oceans encased in our own skin (we are after all bodies of water) and those within the almost metre-square frames. Hence the references to the sublime,-defined here by Edmund Burke as 'when the mind is so entirely filled with its subject that it cannot entertain any other'.[2] But the diffractive and reflective properties of white light on the water, and the shiny echo of this in the glass of the frames might jolt the viewer abruptly back from transcendence, or from the loss of self as his/her own reflected shape is glimpsed. This reemphasises the necessarily subjective 'reverberations' of the image: a slight shift in the gaze effectively allows you to 'resurface' from the meditative state of immersion as you are returned to the boundaries of your own 'frame' shimmering darkly on the glass. We might be reminded of the 'first watery element of our existence in the womb'[3] or of the salty content of our own bodily emissions: blood, sweat, and of those markers of sentiment, grief or despair referred to in the exhibition title–tears. Or we may remember that it is the salt content of the water that bears us up when swimming. It might be possible to dive in for a moment, these works seem to suggest, and lose yourself but at the same time, in the subtle reminders of artifice- the inclusion of a ragged seam of frame around the print, or in the inaccessibility of a fixed point to anchor, we are tweaked back from reverie or float back up to see ourselves reflected there in the sun's lurid path along water that leads only to more water or to a tiny insubstantial slip of sky or sand but to no sturdy solace of land.

All the elements in Thompson's work––earth, cloud, sky, horizon, sand, mist, foam, rain, vapour––appear to blend, or to have swapped their familiar characteristics and it is her subtle ability to tip the works into abstraction that compels. Thompson's skill in capturing all the degrees of movement from fine rain to pounding wave and the range of tones and light conveys the energetic nature of the ocean and the looming sky. And it is the movement in her own body as she activates the shutter that produces the abstracted effects we see. With this technique she is equally able to demonstrate the sculptural qualities of liquid or other intangible substances. In the smaller square images of  'Suite 11' and 'Suite 111' (12.8 cm), Thompson depicts the same subject matter in a remarkable range of colours, in fact it is difficult at times to remember these are photographs. Her photographic technique is shown to great effect in these pieces where the tones bleed into each other at the points of connection between earth, water, horizon and sky, and again it is not clear where the one begins and the other ends. The passage of time is made evident in the juxtaposition of the images, each displaying a different array of colours that evoke the effects of light from smudged yolky dawns to the decaying plums and purples of twilight. The works of 'Suite 111 ' are softer-hued and have a painterly quality reminiscent of Caspar Freidrich or Turner.

Mark Rothko claimed 'the familiar identity of things has to be pulverised in order to destroy the finite associations with which our society increasingly enshrines every aspect of our environment'[4] and there are elements of Thompson's work that remind me of his rich, sombre toned and textured planes, though on a far smaller scale. Rothko's claim suggests a violent aspect, but his call to 'pulverise' the cliches of representation is one that might be described today as a necessary deconstruction. It is my hope we have moved on from the view that the land is simply a resource to be eked out or exploited for capitalist or consumer gain, and Thompson's depictions provide us with an alternative vision. For me, her work prompts the thought that we cannot be complacent about what we assume to be the essence or character of our environment. In her strongest pieces it is not clear if we are gazing on water, air, sky or land and those elements that we presume possess integral, reliable qualities are rendered anew through abstraction. We are made aware of artifice, via the seductive painterly qualities in the smaller works or in the choice of framing and this is what makes the works contemporary. What resonates for me on viewing these images is discovering what I do not know, in allowing new perceptions to surface and alter the more deeply embedded assumptions about what the land and sea might mean or invoke. It is this that produces the poetic, those very specific and embodied reverberations.


[1] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. by Maria Jolas, Beacon Press, Boston, 1969.

[2] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Columbia University Press, New York, 1958 cited in Mark Rothko 1903-1970, Tate Gallery Publishing, London, 1996, p. 12.

[3] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, HarperCollins, London, 1995, p. 247.

[4] Mark Rothko 'The Romantics were prompted', Possibilities, Winter 1947-48.