The Myth Of Progress
When he sent me a selection of photographs in order to prepare for this essay, Jeremy Blincoe also sent me a curveball. In a brief cursive note there it was, a brief throwaway line: “Have you read John Gray by the way?”
There was simply no way that Blincoe could have known that I had spent the last year seriously immersed in the work of this moderately obscure contemporary philosopher for research into another project. Indeed, the coincidence, like Blincoe’s work itself, hummed of arcane coincidence bordering on the uncanny.
Gray isn’t that obscure, of course. He writes regularly and concisely for such publications as The Guardian and The New Statesman as a fearsome book reviewer. But in philosophical circles he is best known for two books: Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2003), and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), tomes which carefully dissect and then go on to annihilate traditional assumptions of humanism, utopianism and, most witheringly, religion.
Light reading it is not.
Born in New Zealand and based in Melbourne, Blincoe studied photography at Massey University in Wellington and went on to hone his craft via advertising photography. The patina of advertising aesthetics remains; he is a bravura technician and perfectionist when it comes to composition, but that is where the influence comes to an end: In fact Blincoe’s interests are the antithesis of those of advertising. Contemplating his subjects, his lighting and his colouration, one becomes immersed in a distinctive world-view saturated with that most dangerous of terms; “spirituality.”
His works are inevitably set at dusk, that non-time between light and dark, the interzone between wakefulness and slumber where the imagination tends to wander, creating chimera from shadows. Set in the Victorian wilderness, he drapes his actors in garb that he himself designs, creating a sense of arcane ritual that, like Gray’s philosophical questioning, give one pause. However the real ‘stars’ of these fabulous tableaux are in fact the settings: Regardless of the activities undertaken, with their hints of religious ritual, it is nature itself that dominates, almost belittling the human participants. The result is a sense of the surreal. As John Gray notes in Straw Dogs: “We think our actions express our decisions. But in nearly all of our life, willing decides nothing. We cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dreams, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so.” Blincoe portrays such actions only to create a sense of slippage. As he himself acknowledges in an artists’ statement, his works are “set in or against a variety of strange and mysterious natural settings that I either shoot on-location or edit in during post-production: limestone and rock caves; the undulating dunes of a sandy desert; an ice-covered lake in front of a spectacular cliff-face; the cracked and blackened-earth shores of a dried up lake…. While adding dramatic visual impact, they also function as signifiers of the beauty and/or degradation and destruction our natural environment suffers through human intervention and natural disaster.”
This aspect of Blincoe’s oeuvre comes to the fore when he eschews humans from his imagery, when he allows eagles and owls to dominate the picture plane; creatures in flight soaring above the ritualistic mise-en-scènes below them, indifferent to the petty ceremonies below.
After viewing the works with Blincoe, the artist sent a text message that succinctly summed up his intentions: “I wished I’d explained the inclusion of the bird images. I was thinking about spirituality, that it is not the quest for meaning but rather the detachment from it and fellow animals. Like the eagles without possessing a sense of self are blessed in a way rather than big brain humans who are irrational creatures of many contradictions. Also our detachment from nature is always a thought on my mind.”
Blincoe titled this series ‘The Myth of Progress.’ It is unfortunately an apt title, for the word ‘progress’ suggests improvements or developments, a ‘myth’ indeed when one begins to take for granted a world in which the very climate seems hell bent on global devastation due to human indifference to the world in which it lives.
As Freud noted in Civilization and Its Discontents, the “fateful question” for Humanity is whether the instinct for aggression and self‐destruction” will dominate, noting that: “Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent… [that] they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man.” Freud hailed this as the cause of a general “mood of anxiety,” and there is indeed a degree of anxiety in Blincoe’s work, albeit expressed with poetic beauty.
– Dr Ashley Crawford