Review of John Timberlake
Solo exhibition ‘Another Country’ at Margaret Harvey Gallery, University of Hertfordshire
for The Future Issue 01
2002
The difference in the speeds of light and sound means that an event at a distance, which is both luminous and loud, will be seen before it is heard. There will be a gap between seeing and hearing: a gap of quiet and of anticipation. If the event is a nuclear explosion, the sound will be carried on the violent, burning nuclear wind, along with nuclear fallout. And then there’s the longer gap, for those not too close, waiting for the effects of radiation to mutate and mutilate the body.

In ‘Another Country,’ at the Margaret Harvey Gallery of the University of Hertfordshire, John Timberlake has constructed pictures of this gap, this pause, between the sublime image of a nuclear mushroom cloud and the impending destructive force of the explosion. These are large photographs of model figures standing in a model foreground, with their backs to the spectator, looking at a painted backdrop. The painting is a Romantic landscape over which a nuclear cloud rises in the sky. Each Romantic landscape is a transcription of a painting by a Romantic artist, such as Friedrich or Turner; each cloud is a transcription of a documentary photograph of a British nuclear test. A British test but an explosion in another country.

Located in the gap between seeing the image and experiencing the effects, these are ostensibly scenes of rural tranquillity. But there is another gap here between what we see and what we know. It is our knowledge of the impending destruction, of inevitable consequences, that makes this scene of tranquillity a pictures of apocalypse. The only way to attend to these pictures is with a sense of anticipation: to see what is not yet there.

It is unclear what the figures in the pictures think they are doing or experiencing. Like other figures in Romantic paintings they can see more, are closer to the landscape, than we are. Proximity here is not necessarily an
advantage. They are paying attention to the landscape and the dramatic event therein. They are all white men, as were the scientists and soldiers who set up and witnessed the British nuclear tests. Infamously, soldiers were used as guinea pigs to measure the effects of radiation, without their knowledge. But these figures are dressed in casual clothes. If they represent the instigators of the explosion, they also seem to be innocent of its effects, of the impending catastrophe about to surround them. Which is to say, they seem to be victims, too. The ambiguity of their passivity is a sign of their inaccessibility. Their proximity marks our distance.

This work is full of displacements and dislocations , which make it difficult to know what you’re looking at. Once historically imminent, the nuclear has been put elsewhere. Despite the continued presence of nuclear weapons across the world, as a political issue it is as out of date as the cold war: old fashioned and politically remaindered. Which is to say it is of little ideological value. The spectre of nuclear explosions is no longer felt in the British landscape: it haunts distant, foreign lands.

In reproducing an archive of British nuclear tests abroad, and placing them in a familiar landscape, John Timberlake dramatized the historical and ideological gap that’s opened up since the cold war ended. This collision of landscape and skyscape is also a geographical displacement. In the cold war, the fear was of nuclear explosions at home. The reality was that nuclear explosions happened elsewhere. The distant reality merely reinforced the imminent, spectral potential for it to happen at home. Now that threat is perceived to have passed, these images become remote: as if nothing to do with us.

Looking at these pictures is to be paying attention to dislocation: to see the gaps in-between. This is furthered by the way they are made. Rather than collaging sources directly, the skyscapes and landscapes are copied together in a landscape painting. This painting is then photographed, with model men, in proportion, in the foreground. So we have a photograph of a model, which includes a painting, which is as a combination of another painting and a photograph, each of which is of its own real (if constructed) scene, we assume. This sequence of interruptions and degradations invite
possibilities of distraction and mis-recognition.

John Timberlake is bringing the repressed on home. If the Enlightenment idea of the sublime allowed the subject to face the terrible power of nature, the presence of the nuclear explosion renders this fortitude obsolete.