“The work in Topographies II stitches together a fictional place from multiple shooting trips – locations linked by light, heat and geology but separated physically by continents,” says Gough
As if positioned at the bottom of a chasm or cave, we are looking upwards towards an out-of-sight aperture in the rock-face above. Sunlight streams inwards, illuminating the pock-marked surface of the cavern walls, slanting diagonally and downwards. The bottom right of the image [above], however, is consumed in darkness, so that we can’t tell how far the terrain on which we are standing extends: it could be centimetres or dozens of feet. The absence of clear perspective, as in lots of the images in Jess Gough’sTopographies II, seems to push us up against the surface of what we are seeing, as if the camera were mapping the contours of the environment rather than photographing it. Only in a few shots, which seem to tactically bracket the sequence, does the sight of sea or sky give us our bearings back.
Topographies II is part of an ongoing project presented as a series of artist’s books. “[The sequence] uses the camera to explore landscapes and study their particular textures, moods and kinaesthetic qualities,” says Gough. “The work in Topographies II stitches together a fictional place from multiple shooting trips – locations linked by light, heat and geology but separated physically by continents.”
We are not meant to know precisely where we are – though a kind of barren, sublime northerly wilderness is implied – which adds to the disorientation achieved by flattened perspectives. An emphasis on engrossing and uncanny textures pulls focus further from the three-dimensional world, while also unsettling our sense of what elements we are encountering: solid, liquid, and gas are often hard to distinguish amid the mass of pattern.
Gough’s broader practice considers “how the natural world can be represented at this ecologically critical point”. The questioning of our capacity to infer qualities of scale, distance, and density seems an important aspect of this investigation: it subtly confounds the centring of human perspective which has been a hallmark of landscape art since the Romantic era (embodied in the all-seeing gaze of Caspar David Freidrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog).
Crawling over the luminous, moss-blanketed surface of lava fields, plunged into caverns, sucked towards the black depths of geysers, Gough’s camera foregoes such a panoramic vantage point. And, as the nature of what we are seeing becomes harder to fathom at close range, our sense of ourselves as the seeing entities becomes oddly fuzzy at the edges.
The trick of taking the viewer right up to a visual surface to disorient them is not new. We find it in everything – from novelty online quizzes (of the ‘can you guess what this is?’ type) to the abstract expressionist photography of artists like Aaron Siskind. But in this context the techniques are put to a different, ecologically-minded use, suggesting a rejection of the anthropocentric gaze. We are nudged instead towards an imagined non-human gaze that is ground-dwelling and primordial. In this sense, Topographies II renders a kind of speculative intimacy with non-human life, and indeed with non-living geological forms, which is both vital and arresting.