Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century, my essay for:
Barometer Gallery, 13 Gurner Steet Paddington
27th September – 11th October 2014
Storm Clouds of the Twenty-First Century
I’m sure Rowan Conroy wasn’t the only person photographing the sky from the bottom of Glebe Point Road that Thursday afternoon of 17 October 2013. As the dense smoke from the fires raging in the Blue Mountains rolled back over Sydney, I’d bet that plenty of people were using their cameras or iPhones to photograph the blotting out of the sun. Stranger may have even talked to stranger about the phenomenon, perhaps muttering under their breath words such as ‘awesome’, ‘apocalyptic’, ‘sublime’ or ‘portentous’. In a human gesture that goes back to the time of Stonehenge they all, including Conroy, looked deeply, and anxiously, into the sky. There was a sign there, the sky was telling us — the human race — something, but what? The sky portended doom, certainly, but what kind of doom exactly — was it nothing more than the business-as-usual doom of a cruelly cyclical mother nature, simply enacting the familiar Australian narrative of drought and flooding rains; or was there an additional doom, where climate change had already permanently pushed the weather into new realms of extremity.
Conroy’s carefully printed photographs are probably more terribly beautiful than the souvenir snaps other people took that afternoon. In some of his images, pewter-coloured puffs of smoke in the foreground chromatically shift the flame-tinged smoke in the background from copper to gold, giving the image a scaleless virtuality, like you see when you stare into the coals of a campfire for too long. In other shots, taken looking up towards the sun, we get the vertiginous feeling that we are a medieval sinner staring down into the bowels of hell. Still others stack up horizontal banks of cloud like an aerial geology that compresses the ragged remnants of dusky blue beneath. But each of the different terrible beauties of these photographs poses the same question — a question that worries many people: what is happening to our world?
Another worrier who looked into the skies was the nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin. To Ruskin nature was the origin of beauty on every level: aesthetic, moral and spiritual. But, in the early part of his career Ruskin warned his readers against a poetical conceit he called the ‘pathetic fallacy’, where weak people who are ‘over-clouded or over-dazzled’ by passionate emotion falsely attributed human feeling to nature itself. However to Ruskin this mistaken projection onto nature, where a flower is not a flower but a ‘a star, or a sun, or a fairy’s shield, or a forsaken maiden’, was still higher than the dull perception of an unfeeling person for whom the flower could never be anything but an unloved, symbolically inert organism. But, on a level higher than both these states, Ruskin placed the perception of one who was able to see the natural fact of the flower simultaneously intertwined with the spiritual associations and human feelings it evoked. Conroy does not succumb to the pathetic fallacy, his clouds are more than empty symbols of a fantasy apocalypse, they are also observed meteorological records, but records demanding a human response: this day happened, and it told us something.
About thirty years after writing on the pathetic fallacy, and towards the end of his life as he began to suffer bouts of mental illness, Ruskin wrote about the skies he had been observing and painting for decades. In the lecture The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century he claimed to have observed a new meteorological phenomenon that had arisen in the early 1870s. He called it the ‘plague wind’: a ‘dry black veil which no ray of sunshine can pierce’, looking as though ‘it were made of dead men’s souls’. When it blew, it blew tremulously, and made the leaves of trees shudder with a fitful distress. Its clouds, made of ‘sulphurous chimney-pot vomit’, were ‘thin, scraggy, filthy, mangy [and] miserable’; they did not redden the sun, but instead blanched it. In the scientific record of England’s climate there is scant actual evidence for the phenomena Ruskin observed (although temperatures in those decades were slightly lower than usual and rainfall slightly higher). But Ruskin’s observations weren’t scientific, they had succumbed to something like the pathetic fallacy he had previously condemned. His lecture, though based in close and highly-tuned personal observation, does more than just record the effect of industrial pollution on the environment, it also claims to see the moral and spiritual decay of England actually written in the sky.
Ruskin’s lecture was slightly mad, certainly, but it is a compelling, and relevant, read even today. In the last paragraph Ruskin says: ‘What is best to be done, do you ask me? The answer is plain. Whether you can affect the signs of the sky or not, you can the signs of the times. Whether you can bring the sun back or not, you can assuredly bring back your own cheerfulness, and your own honesty.’
Standing at the beginning of the climatic revolution of the twentieth-first century, rather than in the middle of the industrial revolution of nineteenth, perhaps ‘cheerfulness’ is no longer the best word to describe the ongoing communal resilience that will be required of us, but ‘honesty’ certainly is the best word to describe the change needed in our public discourse. To respond appropriately, and scientifically, to the threat of climate change we may need to embrace something like the revelatory vision of Ruskin. Conroy has.
John Ruskin, ‘Of The Pathetic Fallacy’, Modern Painters, Volume 3, Part 4, 1856
John Ruskin, The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century, 1884
Brian J Day, ‘The Moral Intuition of Ruskin’s ‘Storm-Cloud’’, SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Volume 45, Number 4, Autumn 2005, pp917-933