We may think of the horizon as something mundane – Horizon is the name of a hamlet in Saskatchewan, Canada, east of Assinoboia on Highway 13 – or glorious and firmamental, per Neil Armstrong, who said, of viewing the ‘brilliant surface’ of the world’s edge from such great heights, ‘I recommend it.’ The place where sky meets land or water is a useful touchstone for escaping modernity’s hall of mirrors, claustrophobic with #selfies and petty grievances enlarged beyond all proportion. In other words, thinking about horizons restores to us the dignity of distance, a bit of breathing room, and a damn fine view at the end of the day. Consider the humble dung beetle: Scientists only lately noticed that this insect family roll their little spheres in alignment with the glow of the Milky Way – a reference line as immense as can be imagined but so rarely noticed by modern humans. Even with the horizon we do register, writes the Chinese-American photographer Sze Tsung Leong, the range of the known can drift. ‘The distances separating near from far, familiar from foreign, inside from outside, iconic from quotidian, extraordinary from mundane, picturesque from unsettling, are never constant.’ How like an artist to ‘complicate’ such a seemingly straightforward thing, but it’s indeed the tug of the new, the unforeseen and the unforeseeable, that quickens the pulse. The world is so very big, the future so elastic, and in the right frame of mind we can absorb these uncertainties with equanimity, curiosity, and hope.
Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license, was born into poverty in Texas, in 1892: a decade before the advent of human flight and less than thirty years since the end of American slavery. After training in France she returned home to the triumphant welcome of the black press, and the cold indifference of most others. A second European stint polished her stunt work, and allowed her to excel in the dangerous mélange of human and aerial acrobatics known as ‘barnstorming’, which had become an American craze. As did many contemporaries, ‘Queen Bess’ inevitably suffered a serious crash; but she continued to fly, thrilling crowds and inspiring a generation of airmen (and a few airwomen). However, a later accident proved fatal: a mechanic’s wrench jammed her plane’s gearbox and Coleman was thrown free in an earthward plummet. Looking for a clear, unhindered view of the landscape in advance of the next day’s show, she had removed her seatbelt.
A classically trained pianist born in South Korea, SooJin Anjou graduated from New York’s Juilliard School in 2002, studied further in Budapest and Berlin, and displays the same joyful, fleet-fingered ease with Mozart and Chopin as she does with new works by contemporary composers Valentin Silvestrov and David Del Tredici. Recently she participated in a ‘multi-sensory’ culinary concert with the chef Joseph Rupp and debuted a recording of the complete piano works of Morton Subotnick. Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, made with a Buchla modular synthesizer, was released in 1967 and included in the National Recording Registry by the U.S. Library of Congress in 2010. The album established him as a pioneer of electronic music, and he has found a worthy interpreter in Anjou.
Sze Tsung Leong has cast himself far and wide to take pictures of horizon lines across the globe, foregrounding what is usually far in the background. In the straightforwardly titled series ‘Horizons’, which he began in 2001, the lines fall at exactly the same level in print after print. Placed side by side, the landscapes become jarringly contiguous, and one imagines a distant figure stepping straight out of the Seine into Venice. A lunar spit of land and water in Cuidrach, on the Isle of Skye, sits adjacent to a ribbon of river in Skeitharársandur, Iceland. Leong likes to shoot at shadowless noon or when the sky is overcast, and he is intrepid – to find the right angle on Cairo he once climbed to the top of the city’s most venerable garbage heap.
Our private compasses might seem identical, deposited by the long arm of Google right into our pockets. However, Katharine Harmon’s collection of eccentric cartography, You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, reminds us that we can only ever guess which way is up. In one map inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Joyce Kozloff mixes media and forms to channel aspects of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, while William Wegman’s Vacationland layers vintage postcards into a fond map of sight-seeing spots. Fonder still: Two pastel-hued hearts, modelled after Victorian lithographs. The male heart features a ‘Land of Living It Up’ and a ‘Memory of Mother Moat’, the woman’s a ‘Monument of Hero Worship’ in ‘Love of Love Land’. Seeing romantic tropes where we expect ventricles renders the stereotypes rather more tongue-in-cheek. Neither fixed nor disinterested, the maps in You Are Here shape-shift, drift, and accumulate baggage depending on the perspective of their makers.
In Taiwanese artist Yuan Goang-Ming’s video Disappearing Landscape, a triptych of tracking shots presents a roving panorama that glides forward and backward through an upscale urban apartment before dissolving to a decaying approximation of that dwelling, then to the under-canopy of a tropical rainforest, then to a car chase through the boulevards of Taipei. The cameras then drift back through the now-familiar apartment to find an elderly man apparently practising Qi-Gong – or perhaps waltzing with a ghost? This work is an unlikely companion to Chiho Aoshima’s hallucinatory animated video City Glow (2005), or a Tarkovsky composition freed from the weight of poetic intentions. Goang-Ming contrives to be a little cheeky even as he stirs and stills the imagination, dealing in tricky perceptual themes such as incremental change over time and the thousand unnatural shocks of our engagement with technology. He is a master of repetition with arresting differences.
When the Spanish writer Javier Marías was a boy, his mother lulled him to sleep by reading the Iliad. No surprise, then, that Homer is among those whose style he mimicked in his second novel, Voyage Along the Horizon (Travesía del horizonte). Published in 1973 when Marías was a precocious twenty-three, it involves an un-named narrator telling the layered tale of an unpublished novel about an expedition to Antarctica by a group of scientists, artists and writers intent on creative collaboration (the novel’s dead author among them); the setting’s elemental vastness is frequently obscured by more pressing concerns, such as kidnappings, murder, and duelling. Thirty-three years after its release, Marías asserted to The Paris Review that this early work was still in print because it was ‘not autobiographical’, ‘not pretentious’, not trying to do ‘something unheard of or new’, and because it was ‘readable and fun’. Writers among us, please really do take note.
A blank horizon is perhaps the most abstract visual entity we can encounter in nature, the more so because we tend to trust the misleading, perfectly level line of draughtsmen and artists. But find a place with enough empty space and you’ll see the curvature. Then find a few points of reference and you'll get your bearings. In Sirmilik National Park, navigable horizons are both stark and richly differentiated: icebergs, mountains, glaciers, valleys, and red-rock hoodoo spires perched along the Arctic Cordillera, the fractured mountain ranges between Ellesmere Island and the Labrador Sea. The brief window for visiting falls between March and May, when fjords are still frozen and passable, and the sun, according to Inuit legend, is no longer weighed down beyond the edge of the land by the ice and lethargy of winter. For your personal Inuktitut phrasebook, two likely necessities are iqaluk (the toothsome Arctic char) and qiuliqtunga (‘I am cold’).
In 2016, Jeu de Paume’s Satellite programme included the exhibition ‘Our Ocean, Your Horizon’ at CAPC Musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux. One of the works featured in this quartet of sound and video projects can still be seen until 29 January: Egyptian artist Basim Magdy’s No Shooting Stars. Many of its video landscapes could almost be from Sirmilik, offering a similar reverie of solitude. Such resounding, open distances seem a natural progression for Magdy, who has often dealt with the gulfs between people, even those who might at first appear to be in each other’s intimate foreground. In this context, his work seems to accord with Sze Tsung Leong’s assertion that ‘To drift towards the horizon implies approaching the outside, the unseen, the unknown, the foreign.’ No matter the light years between stars, assemble enough of them and you have a galaxy; for humans this is a poignant metaphor, and for dung beetles it’s an excellent compass.