Death and decay, the precarious fate of humanity, our disregard for the environment; it would be easy (though complacent) to see The Abyss Gazes Into You as an exhibition seeped in cynicism. It doesn’t help to dissuade this impression that Nietzsche, a philosopher with a notorious reputation as a nihilist, is quoted for the exhibition’s title. However, while a sense of desolation and existential despair may be a strain running through the work, it’s the wider sweep of existence and how we relate to it that Spencer Murphy is captivated by, and eager to explore.
Greatly influenced by the 18th century Romantic Movement, especially the landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, Murphy expresses a similar fascination for the majesty and intangibility of nature. Like Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1817), the exhibition includes a number of photographs in which lone figures look thoughtfully over wild, sprawling landscapes. In Kurt and Jara, Lighthouse Beach, Tasmania, 2010, a man stands atop his van staring out over the ocean as the sun starts to go down, in an assumed communion with the natural world. Elevated as such, his diminished aspect contrasts against the vast stretch of sky. In capturing these contemplative figures reflecting on the natural world, attention is in turn drawn to their significance in the grand scheme of things. In contemplating the external world, they are forced also to contemplate themselves.
As Murphy explains, nature is both divine and dangerous, “the creator and potential destroyer of man.” This uneasy relationship is perfectly encapsulated in Dawn, Bewl Water, 2009. Taken on a winter’s day, four men stand in the middle of a frozen lake, chatting on the body of ice which stretches across the frame. Their presence in the photo is vaguely incongruous. Despite the incipient danger, their casual posture and body language suggests young friends hanging out on a street corner. This photo illustrates the delicate balance between us and the natural world; evoking its beauty but also the possibility that it could collapse under us at any moment.
His work also explores our interdependency with the world and the idea that “although we are a part of the natural world, we see ourselves as separate from it and somehow as higher beings”. In other words, we see ourselves as inhabitants on earth but not of being “of” the earth. Our symbiotic relationship with nature is evident in both the photos Fox By a Pile of Tin, 2006 and Tin Mountain. In the former, human activity is indicated by the pile of rusted metal in the junk yard, a single fox sitting at its edge. In the later, the populousness of the human race and our wastefulness is suggested by having disused tin fill the frame from side to side, bottom to top, with just a small slither of sky to make clear its towering proportions. These images highlight that, as much as nature can be vast and destructive, our own actions can be as foreboding and disastrous to the ecology we inhabit.
The work presented here is beguiling, mysterious. Partly about how we relate to the world and how the world relates to us. As Murphy himself admits, the essence of the collection is difficult to articulate, “as it’s more about a feeling or emotion that strikes us in those moments [of contemplation].” It would seem then that the aim of his work is embodying those rare instances of enlightenment when, like a Rubik’s cube finally fitting together, the universe silently whispers its secrets in your ear and everything makes sense, if only for a second.
Daniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University and continues to indulge his abiding interest in the arts. He has enjoyed writing since a young age and currently produces articles for a number of online publications. He keeps a blog called The End of Fiction, consisting of his poetry, prose and other creative work, and is currently looking to forge a new career in the creative industries.
Dawn, Bewl Water, 2009. From the series ‘The Abyss Gazes Into You’ © Spencer Murphy
Memento Mori, 2009. From the series ‘The Abyss Gazes Into You’ © Spencer Murphy
Andy at the Abandoned Airfield, 2009. From the series ‘The Abyss Gazes Into You’ © Spencer Murphy