Unpresentable Landscapes and the Art of the Index

PhD completed 2011


This practice-led PhD determines an aesthetic approach through which a sense of the 'unpresentable' may be exposed within camera-based representations of the industrial landscape. Through an interrogation of contemporary lens-based media, it proposes ways in which experiences problematic to representation such as the sublime, the uncanny and the traumatic might be revealed within photographic/filmic images of such landscapes.

The culmination of the practical element of the project is a 25-minute narrative-based, single channel video piece entitled Re: Flamingo, which combines HDV and Super-8 footage with digital and traditional still photography. The narrative structure of the work is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's short story The Sandman (1816), which Freud cited in his essay The Uncanny (1919). Re: Flamingo is a semi-autobiographical variation on that tale, consisting of an email conversation between the artist, his father and the fictional 'Clara'. Through this correspondence, the piece reveals correlations between themes in The Sandman and Ridley Scott's science fiction film Blade Runner (1982) (e.g. traumatic memory, a fascination with eyes/sight and each protagonist's obsession with mechanized life). It reflects upon how the industrial landscape of Teesside, which inspired many of the visuals in Scotts film, has been remembered in different photographic media by three generations of the artist's family.



There are a number of recurring ideas and motifs that provide a contextual 'spine' for the project's argument. Of these, perhaps the most important is the hypothesis that lens-based media in its contemporary form(s) offers intriguing possibilities for figuring registers of the unpresentable. In the wake of digitization, the camera-image's retention of a sense of indexical veracity, allied with its increasingly limitless capacity for manipulation and construction, has facilitated a uniquely promiscuous approach to the opposing ideas of subjective and objective. It is the uncertain space between these two ontological categories, I believe, that constitutes this project's most compelling area of enquiry.

Research Questions

Through interrogating the inherent properties of contemporary lens-based media, this research project aims to determine a form or set of forms through which a sense of the unpresentable may be exposed within camera-based representations of the industrial landscape.



An important aspect of my approach to creative practice is that what I explore in the studio remains open to 'aesthetic intuition' - that it does not become theory driven. This formal impulse transfers to the work, allowing its sensible presentations of the 'unpresentable' to touch the viewer directly, rather than simply present 'illustrations' of intellectual concepts.

My artistic impulse is based largely upon a tacit understanding of the concepts of ineffability and 'unpresentable-ness' examined throughout this project. Allowing my inquiry to remain open to aesthetic intuition means that a valuable aspect of that practice remains intact - informed, but not encumbered by theory. As the documentation of a creative, practice-led research project, the written element of my submission reflects upon what is explored in the studio and gives it theoretical context, but it does not seek to define it. As David Lynch, that preeminent purveyor of the unpresentable in cinema so eloquently suggests, "[i]t's a dangerous thing to say what a picture is... [i]f things get too specific, the dream stops" (quoted in Woods 2000: 176).


This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Further information about Matt Smith's work can be found via his video production website, where more about his research and his doctoral submission film can also be viewed.