by M. Gnanasihamany
M. Gnanasihamany is an artist, writer, and curator in Tio’tia:ke. Their practice explores the political world of pictures through their dissemination, collection, and reproduction, examining the image’s capacity to at once mirror and enforce the conditions of its production. Their written work can be found in Leste, Peripheral Review, BlackFlash Magazine, SNAPline, and elsewhere, and their mini-chapbook, Unconscious Method, was published by Ghost City Press in 2021. M. was most recently co-curator of The Equivalence of Alloyed Gold with Morgan Melenka, a year-long experimental commissioning and exhibition process hosted by Critical Distance Centre for Curators, and in June 2023 they will be part of a residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point.
Have you ever seen the sunset? It goes like this:
Since the advent of the heliocentric model of the solar system, the earth has been a planet on rotation around a star. They are bound by a relationship with oscillating terms of ownership: this is the sun’s planet, but it is our only sun. Likewise, off the side of earth is the moon, which belongs to the larger body by virtue of its orbit; in living in moonlight and visiting tides, the moon places us here, in its debt. The entire structure spins, rotates, and encircles. Down on the planet’s surface, we are privy to a play of angles starring waves of light and wandering particles. Night after night, the production commits to an illusion: day ends, and sun drops off the face of flat earth in a spectacle of navy, gold, and brilliant rose.
When we look up out into the universe, past the ceiling of heaven and into the concept of expansive space, there is a disconnect between what we see and what we know. The sunset is a visual phenomenon and a temporal period: day ends, night begins, twilight intercedes. Light scatters through atmospheric particles in a calculable array of colour, the streetlights come to life.
What you see is different from what you know. In spite of definitions and diagrams explaining Rayleigh scattering and hemispheric calculations, the neon pink of sunset over the tennis court by my apartment seems entirely unrelated to the Wikipedia page for “sunset.” The sun sets tonight, again tomorrow, again yesterday, and yet somehow still: isn’t there something miraculous in the world which ends over and over in a pretty enough form to compel you to stop and take a picture?
Last February, I set out to capture the sunset. Every day, I would draw from a photograph someone else had taken, stripping colour from form through pencil, charcoal, pen, and ink. The images I drew from were solicited on Instagram: friends and internet acquaintances sent their favourites, rescues from the graveyard of iClouds and Google Photo accounts. I sorted images by sender; those who I didn’t know well enough for their name to be an obvious referent were labeled in my photo library with their handles. The result was a digital archive of coppery pinks and indigo blues set to phone screen dimensions. Slivers of sun caught from apartment balconies joined improbable clouds, rendered peachy and plush in the reflected, waning light. Every sunset is beautiful; every photo tried to make that known.
There was of course selection bias in my data set of sun sets; no one photographs the common and unspectacular instance, no matter how beautiful it may be. It happens every night after all. Every morning the earth turns and day breaks over the horizon, and every night we spin away, eclipsed by the planet’s own great shadow, facing outward and away from the centre of our solar system until we’re back in the favour of the light. The mundanity of the thing—night after night —is reflected in the plethora of material made possible through commodification: Sunset Mug, Sunset Towel, Sunset Poster Print. A variation on Sunset Poster Print is Sunset Inspirational Quote Poster Print, a genre of pithy inspirational content that features apocryphally attributed quotes about wanderlust, darks before dawns, and new days ahead centred over flickering fuchsia reflections on ocean shorelines and bright licks of lilac behind dim-lit peaks. Reflections of the eternally inspiring world that, in its glory, compels us to cliche.
Cliche functions like shorthand, distilling the grand and intangible into bite-sized and easily reproduced. To boil the sunset down to a one-liner about hope and beauty necessitates scraping of the surface, leaving nearly everything behind. An archive of cliches though, reveal a pattern. Every popular iteration of culture traffics in aesthetic conventions, particular to the temporal, spatial, and emotional present in which the material is produced. Together, these conventions speak to the underlying subjective feelings, fantasies, and values shared within a time and place, offering a way forward to think about what happens when the sun, mid-set, turns beautiful enough to warrant taking a picture or to render in poetic language, oil, graphite, acrylic, or ink.
Picture the sun setting over the ocean. The photograph is efficient. Beauty captured quick: filling your heart and eye with gray-green, lavender, and orange as the sun falls below your line of sight. At its furthest points, the horizon echoes the sky with burnished light in the flat water and highlights on its striated crests. Distant hills and skylines have the dull violet of atmosphere, the highest recesses of the sky, a pale, domed blue. Every part of the water is moving at once but the effect of all that movement is to make a flat, wet surface, allowing depth for a moment to exist only in theory. The sun falls into the water and every shade picked out in light doubles in the mirror in motion, a 2-for-1 deal available every evening for the lucky and opportune.
Like drawing the ocean itself, the monumental sunset stretches out into the blurred edge of the earth at a scale no sketchbook or canvas can approach. In the middle of my month of sunset drawings, wiggling charcoal into the shape of water for a sunset over Vancouver Island, I remembered a woodcut that I had seen years before by the artist Vija Celmins. In Vija Celmins’ ocean woodcut, tight waves of ink stretch back in detailed, delineated pulses of ocean water. Celmins articulates her own work as “re-descriptions,” a translation of the temporal subjectivity within the encounter of nature. Re-describing: the first description is a byproduct of being, the ocean describes itself. The second description occurs in our experience of it through time, and this descriptive work is documented most accurately through the dedication of drawing and printmaking, a minute-by-minute exchange of witness for labour. In Celmins tight cuts, the flickering light is literally described. It looks like every brush of air over water has been accounted for, every wave fully present. But even the hand with the tightest grip on its tool leaves its mark. By nature of the occurrence, a sunset cannot really be consumed. It cannot be touched, tasted, pressed between pages of a book to be preserved. The only effective net to catch a sunset is generative—in art and image—and always, some part of the original subject goes missing in the process of redescription.
The sunset is beautiful, but it is not art all by itself. Art is made through work. It is an expression of that which resides beyond straightforward language, offering evidence of a sensed world that someone tried to do anything with other than follow the shortest line from A to B. The warm haze of the fire-season sun nestled at the end of the street, dead ahead in a ride with your back to the eventual dawn, is not art, but if offers up material which could be. When art and beauty intersect though, it is worth fostering a criticality that the risings and settings of suns and tides do not compel.
The sunset, we can all agree, is beautiful. Scientifically, it is likely to be most visible and brightly coloured under conditions of clean air, minimal pollution, and a low presence of extra-environmental atmospheric particles. The island of Hawaii, occupied by the United States of America since 1898, is lauded on hotel websites and faded travel brochures for its beautifully captured sunsets. Israeli tourism guides for occupied Palestinian territories recommend gorgeous sunsets, visible from the “most Instagrammable spots” in the settler colonial state. It is not the sunset itself that serves the oppressor, but its image. In its production, distribution, and display, the beautiful object is refigured into a plot device, a vital twist in the construction of a story about rightful and natural dominance.
In a 1995 commencement address at Howard University, Toni Morrison spoke about fascism, not as an end point, but as a pathway: a process of solution-making to a problem of power at expense of all else. Alongside economic, criminal, and pathological moves to suppress and destroy the constructed enemy of fascistic political bodies, Morrison offers two analyses on the role of art. One, that art will be used for “demonization and deification”, with all other purposes “discredit[ed] or expel[led]” and two, that good citizens will be rewarded with distraction, illusory treats in the form of entertainment, fantasy, coddling, and indulgence. For how better to appease than through beauty.
Nature and its description into image—whether, photo, drawing, or painting en plein air—has long been conscripted in the propagation of a historical myth. The untouched and glorious earth primed and waiting for your eyes and yours alone to appreciate, to capture in an image of your own. In the early 20th century, as the fantasies of Canadian art and identity were in its infancies, colonial governments invested in deification and small pleasures. The paintings of the Group of Seven and others who preceded, followed, or worked as their contemporaries presented the then-fledgling nation as a place of fierce and spirited beauty; long, pristine landscapes fed the myth of an unoccupied expanse set to be settled. Not that our phone-sized sunsets have the reach to operate on the level of settler colonial tourism propaganda or nation-building in isolation, but even the single, beautiful little image is not neutral or divested from political life.
Our images are personal, and in their dissemination from phone to storage to post, they do a kind of aesthetic, political work. But even the relocation of a sunset from my Instagram DMs to camera roll to Google Drive to Are.na archive results in a compression that eats away at whatever claim to a mythology of immortality the original photo might have had. This degraded, digital picture common to the (decontextualized / depersonalized) zones of file sharing, is described by artist and critic Hito Steyerl in her essay, In Defense of the Poor Image. You know this kind of image: it’s grainy, the pixels beginning to wear thin as the translations through oceans of data transportation and download-upload configurations in file type unravel the seams of the fixed and shimmering picture that appears on a computer or cell phone screen. This “poor image”, graceless and unbecoming, is a symptom not of the deleterious prospects of the internet or the specter of digital piracy, but of sociability. Its quality speaks to the political reality of a shared life: no longer an object of permanence, pressing the present into an infinite string of shares and reposts, the poor image emerges from networks, connected through cell towers, wifi armatures, and data centres. In its failure to live up the promises of glossy mimesis of its subject, the poor image undermines its own authority, grounding its “conditions of existence” in social life.
There is an appeal in an object that proclaims its falsehood all on its own. What political ends do even the most innocuous of images serve, what fantasies and possibilities do they promote? The image that proclaims “I am decaying already and not to be trusted” clues us into the false promises of perfect photos: the photo-op, the cover image. Steyerl’s poor image is digital, a product of copy-paste, but there is a parallel, in the work of re-picturing the natural world by hand-done means. Both file sharing and art making are processes of reproduction. Just as the poor image refocuses on the social, on the chains of attachment that ferry an image from source to share, the art image attends to a human experience of time, inducing a sociality of its own as the new image may be viewed, interpreted, copied, and reimagined. Whatever seduction a stunning sunset photo might have held is diminished with every transformation and transfer. To draw from the shitty iPhone photo then, is to double this work.
There is a pervasive optimism that binds attempts to memorialize the sunset, whether that process is one of framing the shot through a 2 inch by 3 inch phone screen or one of redescription. No matter the method, something of what you see is lost in translation. Your flattened artifact documenting the sun is saved, but for what purpose? Each night the sun sets for no one in particular, and yet, in archiving its image, it becomes apparent that the sun sets for those with the good fortune to see it.
It is not so difficult to miss the sunset. An entire universe of infinite phenomena and over 100 million kilometers between earth and its life-giving star, the wonders of the internet inside our phones, the obstructive forces of weather, city planning, or circumstance that might hide the glowing horizon behind rain clouds, high-rise condominiums, or an especially big hill. Usually though, it is not a big hill or an especially compelling post that forbids us from witnessing the sunset. Most days, many of us are working through it.
Among my loved ones are a lot of artists, musicians, writers, performers, and photographers, which means that in order to live my loved ones are also cooks, cleaners, bar tenders, sex workers, gig-economy customer service agents, independent-contractors, make-work administrators, students, teachers, and un- to underpaid student-teachers, residents, interns. Even if this week’s schedule allows for the work day to end before dark, the hours left are oversaturated with potential needs and desires: childcare, eldercare, pet care, groceries, cleaning, paying for everything, washing up, winding down, and making time to phone a friend, smoke on the balcony, water the plants, or catch the light before it fades. The hours left for meaning-making are cruelly slim.
In their 1997 monograph Cruel Optimism, cultural critic and philosopher Lauren Berlant defines optimism as any force that moves you out into the world in pursuit of desires that cannot be met by an inward turn, desires related to the type of person one wishes to be held as, the desire to have an impact on our environment and to be impacted in turn, the desire to have meaning, a place in history, a life. By this definition, optimism is not simply a faithful attitude that the arc of living bends towards the up and up, but any force with a sense of futurity built in: anticipation, hunger, curiosity, lust. Tracing optimisms of the post-war period in America, Berlant examines “the good life”, a fantasy confabulation shored up on promises of upward mobility, political and social equality, security, safety, and health, that, during the neoliberal turn of the 1970s through to the 90s, began to fracture.
Sunsetting: the mandated and scheduled end of a service or provision. Protective mechanisms fade out in the quiet machinations of privatization meted through bureaucracy—no cuts, no quick deaths.
The mythic “good life” is integral to the very concept of citizenship. It is what we are bound up with when we subscribe to the dread of never achieving a better paying job or the hope of finally renting an apartment with a view of the setting sun for less than a half month’s pay. In determining cruel optimisms—the drives to act in pursuit of the “good life” which, in their resultant actions, actually impede our ability to grasp that which we aim for—Berlant confirms us not as fully rational actors, capable of surmising every motivation and desire that guides our actions, but as subjects faced with such a bleak and flickering semblance of what passes as the “good life” to work towards that sometimes our best option is just to get by. Not to affirm life, but to feel a little less or a little more, to feel a little bit beautiful ourselves in the midst of a crush that denies us even the time to sit with the sunset long enough to re-describe it into art.
Every night the sun sets and someone, somewhere finds it beautiful enough to take a picture. What optimisms are inherent in that moment? In the extended present of lingering over an extraordinary, diminishing sliver of sun until it dips off entirely into the night, in deciding to take a picture even though you’ll likely never look at it again, never show it to anyone—what good life do we hope for then? If there is a fantasy of consumption, it is latent and ineffectual. The sun sets again tomorrow and the day after, no more yours for having witnessed and pressed it into pixels than any ocean or skyline, however named and administered over by the settler state and its collaborators in private property and land speculation.
But still, a small claim might be staked on the temporal present, if nothing else, in the act of taking a photo. In that moment, the present expands: there, in the phenomena of refracted light and reflective clouds rendered into flat image is an elongated second. It is a proof, in effect, of having experienced the world. In spite of all else, in that image is evidence of living a life that is more than its labour, a life of beauty. The day ends with a prism of air and water vapour, and from our viewpoint on the ground the heavens erupt in golds and shades of petal-pink, violet, tangerine; pale, shimmering greens where the yellow of the lost light meets with gathering blues; warm grays and hints of neon pink and yellow where the last, brilliant spread of sunlight hits the undersides of clouds before dissipating into the velvet of night sky. Even at its least glorious, there’s a little streak of orange, the bizarre, Microsoft blue of the winter sky just past sunset, ready to be shared.