Declan Long 2015

Clare Langan: The Floating World

‘Time and again, said Janine, vast dust clouds drifted through Flaubert’s dreams by day and by night, raised over the arid plains of the African continent and moving north across the Mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula till sooner or later they settled like ash from a fire on the Tuileries gardens, a suburb of Rouen or a country town in Normandy, penetrating into the tiniest crevices. In a grain of sand in the hem of Emma Bovary’s winter gown, said Janine, Flaubert saw the whole of the Sahara. For him, every speck of dust weighed as heavy as the Atlas mountains.’
from W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

Early in Kenneth Clark’s classic BBC series Civilization — a patrician scholar’s personal celebration of the achievements of Western art and culture — we are brought to the Atlantic edge of Europe: to the island of Skellig Michael, eighteen miles beyond the coast of County Kerry. Clark takes us to this remote, long-deserted location to marvel at what was once an extraordinary site of religious refuge: a place of self-imposed seclusion for Christian monks fleeing to the “inaccessible fringes” of the known world during the dark ages. Looking back in the wake of “the great civilisations of 12th century France or 17th century Rome,” Clark says, “it is hard to believe that for quite a long time … Western civilisation survived by clinging to places like this.” Clinging couldn’t be more apt. Skellig Michael is an unapproachably sheer and jagged rock: a desolate concentration of dizzying crags and daunting cliffs; not so much inhospitable as anti-hospitable. Contemplating the type of terrible exile once experienced there, Clark is compelled to acknowledge the inevitable precariousness of civilisation (as he understands and values it). And yet, as the camera coaxes us to scale and survey the vertiginous Skellig terrain, to climb the island’s elaborate man-made causeways, to study its rough stone crosses and simple dwellings, Clark nonetheless makes an optimistic case for civilisation’s essential tenacity. Way out here, against all odds, a meaningful manifestation of human civilisation — recalled from a position of late twentieth-century privilege — is thought to have just about prevailed.

Clark’s account is full of understandable awe. As a place of escape and spiritual contemplation, Skellig Michael is both deliberately out-of-the-way and dreamily out-of-this-world. It is like nothing else on earth. But crucially, in Clark’s history, the island becomes an inspiring symbol of human striving on earth. In Clare Langan’s meditative and mesmeric new film installation, The Floating World (2015), Skellig Michael is also approached with reverent wonder. Captured in disquieting, ‘unreal’ black-and-white infra-red — and presented within a dislocating montage of shifting, separating or mirroring perspectives across three sizable screens — the island is apprehended in insistently other-worldly terms. At the same time, as the title suggests, a definite but ambiguous worldliness underpins its depiction. For in The Floating World, the initial focus on Skellig Michael — followed by studies of evocative territories in the hyper-modern, determinedly globalist city of Dubai and on the Caribbean island of Montserrat — partially arises from troubled reflection on the present and future conditions of our own lived-in, worn-out world. And as we have seen before in Langan’s self-consciously sublime cinematic studies of landscape, nature is here pictured in a manner that heightens both its majesty and menace. Gradually, as the cameras range across the strange, magnificent Skellig setting, a mood of melancholic unease is established — an atmosphere which is steadily intensified by the low-end rumbles and eerie harmonic drones of Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack. (Jóhannsson’s beautifully stark music is combined throughout the film with sound pieces by Jana Winderen: compositions often based on field recordings from extreme natural landscapes.) Watching, we might well gain the unsettling sense that this is a world in which something cataclysmic has occured. The way the snow, or what seems to be snow, wafts over the island (seeming at times to fall, then to float into the air again, as if nature’s most fundamental laws of time and space no longer apply) brings to mind descriptions of the devastated earth in Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road: “The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air.” As the Skellig sequence of The Floating World concludes, we see from a distance and through a dense mist, a tiny, lone figure ascending a narrow path towards one of the island’s peaks. Perhaps, like the monks of Skellig Michael’s distant past, the character is a solitary exile from contemporary chaos. Or, as with the frightening near-future scenario of The Road, this figure might be imagined as a lonely survivor, one of the remaining few. And so, in contrast to the confident belief in humanity’s capacity for survival that characterizes Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, Langan’s film quite possibly brings us to the speculative threshold of a post-human future. In this way the distinctive, dramatic presence of Skellig Michael becomes in The Floating World a landscape offering awe without optimism, beauty without belief. The potential for solace and uplift suggested by pilgrimage to such a hallowed place is, maybe, both yearningly declared and sadly disavowed.

But even if such a recognition is well-grounded — in Langan’s evident alertness to today’s ecological realities, for instance — it is surely too dispiriting and clear-cut a conclusion. For an important effect of Langan’s purposefully open-ended film — with its formal dispersal of fragmented images across a trio of screens, with its commitment to a plural vision of territory, leading viewers from one ostensibly fixed and unique location to another, creating new linkages between zones of geographical and cultural distinction — is that of an enriched, expanded and amplified experience of being in the world. In the two following sections of The Floating World, we move to entirely dissimilar locations, that are nevertheless explored in terms that connect with the stirring mysteries of the Skellig footage. We see the extravagant skyscraper city of Dubai from above, with the tops of the towering buildings jutting through a bank of thick cloud. With no ground visible below, this might be an audacious futuristic dream: a floating city-world in the clouds. Equally, were it not for the sight of numerous cranes reaching into the sky — suggesting that building work is ongoing and that a particular version of progress continues to apply — these scenes could represent a differently toned and timed sci-fi vision. Monumental presences among the mist — with no urban population visible — these skyscrapers might be the architectural leftovers of a long-lost civilisation: future relics of our own, forever over-reaching, present. (In this regard, these images bring to mind a late scene in Steven Speilberg’s underrated A.I. when the android protagonists fly through the ruins of Manhattan: “the lost city in the sea at the end of the world”.) There is nothing definitive or dogmatic in Langan’s filmic engagement with this simultaneosly real and unreal location. A final sequence, filmed in Montserrat, appears to be more directly bleak, but it too opens up spaces of engrossing uncertainty. Tracking across unforgiving desert ground, wandering through unwelcoming areas of stalled or abandoned construction, inspecting the trashed rooms of derelict buildings, we are in a world of all-consuming dust. (Notably, Langan read McCarthy’s The Road during her first visit to Montserrat.) Again, however, there is no single way to comprehend our movement through these places. We can trust no straightforward measure of time’s passing. Here and there in this passage of the film, we reflect on the apparent finality suggested by the settled dust. At other points, we see dust rise spectrally from the ground — the film seeming to spool backwards — leaving us to wonder if this implies a situation of reversal or ulimate termination. Is this the beginning of a return to a prior moment of life — and even civilisation — or is this an occasion of absolute finality, of the eventual disappearance of all things? It is, in the end, somewhere between such extreme possibilities, between such contradictory versions of what these visions of the world might mean, that we find ourselves ambiguously located: waiting, dreaming, floating.

A.I., Directed by Steven Speilberg. London: Warner Home Video, 2002. DVD.
Civilisation, Written and presented by Kenneth Clark. London: BBC, 1966. DVD 2005.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. London: Picador, 2006.
Sebald, W.G. The Rings of Saturn. London: Vintage, 2002.

Declan Long, Art Writer and Course Director of MA Art in the Contemporary World
Published on the occasion of The Floating World at VISUAL Center for Contemporary Art, Carlow 2015.

A publication for the exhibition is available from VISUAL:

© 2015 Declan Long and Clare Langan