In 1681, the philosopher Thomas Burnet published the first part of his Telluris Theoria Sacra (‘Sacred Theory of the Earth’), a treatise on the history of the Earth in which he put forth a rationalist explanation for the Biblical narrative of the Great Flood. His idea was that the Earth was made of many layers, including one that was aqueous. This was the source, he reasoned, of the vast amounts of water that God summoned forth as punishment for humanity’s sins. When the waters receded, mountains and continents were revealed – the scar tissue where Earth’s once smooth and perfect surface had ruptured and cracked. Gone was the perfection of Creation; in its place was a world ‘lying in its own Rubbish’.
Though Burnet was the first to use the term ‘theory of the Earth’, philosophers had for centuries offered explanations for how the Earth had been formed. Many, like him, used a mythological model of the Earth as a primordial egg from which civilization had hatched – Burnet called this the ‘mundane egg’. What made his proposal revolutionary – and indeed controversial – was not only the notion that the landscape in which humankind dwells is merely the detritus of the deluge, but also the idea that Earth had taken shape through a series of catastrophic changes. The implication was that the Earth must be significantly older than the 6,000 years that contemporary interpretations of the Bible dictated. Yet, while theologians voiced their outrage, some scientists began to put forward their own theories that engaged with Burnet’s suggestions, developing a concept known today as ‘deep time’. In doing so, they effectively laid the foundations for the field of study that we now know as geology.
In the two centuries following the publication of Telluris Theoria Sacra – through both the Enlightenment and the French Revolution – numerous theories about the Earth’s history emerged, yet still elements of Burnet’s treatise endured. Léonce Élie de Beaumont, professor of geology at the École des Mines in Paris from 1835, was among those who revived Burnet’s catastrophist approach. In a paper given in 1826 and published in 1852, he presented his idea of a ‘pentagonal network’. Using the symbol of a withered apple, he suggested that mountain ranges were formed by cataclysmic upheavals, which caused the Earth’s crust to rapidly cool and shrink, leaving behind a rumpled skin – the mountain formations –criss-crossing its surface.
While aspects of Burnet’s ideas continued to resonate among natural scientists, his prose garnered a different audience. Whatever its scientific merit, Telluris Theoria Sacra is a literary epic, and its doom-laden tales, baroque prose and sweeping narrative arc held great appeal to the Romantic poets from the late eighteenth century on. Among them was Samuel Taylor Coleridge – fittingly, a climbing devotee – who expressed his desire to translate Telluris into a poem. As the literary scholar Marjorie Hope Nicolson pointed out in 1959, Coleridge had classed Burnet’s grand style, had even classed him with Plato, stating that they both provided evidence that ‘poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre’.
The fact that Burnet excited the minds of individuals working in fields as diverse as those inhabited by Élie de Beaumont and Coleridge is not at all surprising, if we consider the close relationship between the arts and sciences in the intellectual imagination of the time. In Paris and London, artists and poets were alert to scientific developments because they offered the potential to expand the mind. As historian John Tresch explains in his recent book The Romantic Machine, in the first decades of the nineteenth century technology was generally regarded as a fantastical extension of human capability that was consistent with, not in opposition to, the development of the Earth itself. The laws of progress worked to shape ‘not only organisms but geologic formations, governments, and ideas’, and were something that:
humans could contribute to … by remaking the landscape and altering nature’s material order; by framing and arranging phenomena and concepts; and through the activity of perception, conceptualization and imagination. At each of these levels, the modification of nature was aided by machines, eroding the dichotomy between nature and the artificial.
Among the highest qualities that anything could possess, then – regardless of whether it was natural or man-made – was the potential to induce transcendence or transformation: to reshape thought, remodel labour and, through these, reorganize society. The need for new instruments and machines to reach as wide a public as possible made theatre, in this respect, as significant a forum as academies and salons. In the auditorium, the mass spectacle – with its offer of phantasmagoric, multisensory experiences conjured by new technologies – held new and special significance.
As theories of perception played out in the scientific and theatrical spheres, the painter and stage decorator Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre became a prominent figure across both disciplines. During the 1820s, he earned his reputation as one of the inventors of the diorama. In this mechanically sophisticated version of the panorama, audiences around three hundred strong would file into a specially designed theatre to experience a 360-degree landscape painting animated with motion and lighting effects. Just as the public marvelled at the illusion, scientists marvelled at what the diorama told them about optics and perception, while later writers analyzed what this dance between the technological and the fantastic represented for the newly modern society. Looking back on this period from the vantage point of the early twentieth century, the literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote:
Announcing an upheaval in the relation of art to technology, panoramas are at the same time an expression of a new attitude toward life … In panoramas, the city opens out, becoming landscape – as it will do later, in subtler fashion, for the flâneurs.
In 1839, when the mathematician and politician François Arago presented the daguerreotype – the first widely available photographic process – to the Académie des Sciences in Paris on behalf of his friend Daguerre, he employed his characteristically awe-inspired, awe-inspiring tenor. Certainly, the daguerreotype had utilitarian uses, he conceded, from mapping territories to providing reference material for painters. But Arago also explained the daguerreotype as an artificial eye of sorts, which could make even atmospheric matter and celestial bodies visible. He had long been fascinated by optics, once describing the moment when an object registers on the eye’s retina as something akin to transcendence. Thus, in his rhetoric, the importance of the daguerreotype lay not only in what it reproduced, but also in what it was capable of producing in the viewer’s mind.
In 2017, when Goudal began the research that would result in her bodies of work ‘Telluris’ (2017), ‘Soulèvements’ (2018) and ‘Démantèlements’ (2018), she had recently completed, in fairly quick succession, three series informed by early philosophical and mathematical systems for understanding the sky: ‘Observatoires’ (2015), ‘Towers’ (2015) and ‘Southern Light Stations’ (2015–17). In her new work, she wanted to turn her gaze in the opposite direction, to theories regarding the history of the Earth.
It seems significant – revealing, even – that this research, which began with Burnet, would lead Goudal, via Élie de Beaumont, to the period in the mid-nineteenth century when developments in the field of optics were advancing in such close proximity, in both intellectual and cultural arenas, to theories of the Earth. Anyone who has seen Goudal’s exhibitions over the past seven years will recognize affinities between the potential of the diorama and daguerreotype and the use of geometry, perspective, scale and perception that is central to her practice. This link applies not only to her stand-alone installations and her photographs of constructions, but also to her designs for the exhibitions themselves.
In many ways, Goudal’s technical enquiries can be traced back to 2012, when she included in her exhibition Haven Her Body Was a number of stereoscopes that she had taught herself to make. This device through which near-identical images are viewed side-by-side to read as one three-dimensional scene exploded in popularity in the mid-nineteenth century, and among the subjects that held the strongest appeal to this early audience of armchair travellers were mountains – incidentally, the very same subject that Goudal chose to depict. Shortly after her first stereoscopes, she created an architectural trompe l’oeil, ‘In Search of the First Line’ (2015), consisting of four photographs of Gothic architecture, each around two metres high and wide, that she exhibited in cavernous industrial spaces. For Study on Perspective I (2014), she created a metal frame two metres across modelled on a diorama card, within which she suspended fragments of a photograph at different depths, so that they cohered only from a frontal view.
In Goudal’s photographs, too, the construct is equally important, as shown in the photographic prints exhibited in Haven Her Body Was. Some of these featured her own photographs of lush landscapes hanging in abandoned buildings, each image printed on individual pieces of A3 paper before being taped together. Others are photographs of sites that appear to have been constructed by Goudal, but weren’t (Combat  is a World War One bunker; Well  is an abandoned shipping container); or photographed objects that look real but aren’t (Iceberg  is a block of polystyrene). For ‘Observatoires’ and ‘Towers’, Goudal looked to astronomical observatories, including the collection of nineteenth century instruments at the Jantar Matar site in Jaipur. For these, she photographed buildings, or fragments of buildings, and reproduced them across multiple sheets as backdrops around two metres high before setting them up and shooting them in coastal locations. Finally, in ‘Southern Light Stations’, she floated giant, moon-like, paper orbs into overcast skies above oceans or mountain ravines.
Importantly, in these two-dimensional photographs Goudal almost always includes a visual clue that signals to the viewer that what they’re looking at is a construction – folds in the paper, say, or ropes tethering the ‘moon’ to the ground. These clues are gestures extended from artist to viewer, inviting us to look again, look closer, to spend time in the landscapes and indulge in the oddly compelling pleasure of knowing that our brain is reading the image as something we also know it is not.
In French just as in English, the word soulèvement has a double meaning. It denotes the circular movement of one thing around another, for instance the Earth revolving on its axis, but also signifies an overthrowing, as in uprising or insurgency, or a gradual change that continues until everything that once was is transformed.
In a practice that explores both historical systems of understanding the elements and the ways in which we look and what we see, could there be a more apt subject for Goudal than the mountain? Few natural forms reflect the philosophical, scientific and political belief systems of any age so well. The nature writer Robert MacFarlane suggests that our responses to these landforms are no more than cultural constructs: ‘What we call a mountain,’ he writes, ‘in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans – a mountain of the mind.’ MacFarlane explains that, in the three centuries since Burnet’s Telluris Theoria Sacra, a ‘tremendous revolution of perception occurred in the West concerning mountains’. As science advanced, so the ‘steepness, desolation, perilousness’ for which mountains were once feared came to be among their most attractive qualities. (And it is worth remembering, too, that one of the most significant of these shifts in attitudes took place in the 1830s, when mountaineering became popular and Alpine tourism emerged as a fledgling industry – and when Coleridge, Daguerre and Élie de Beaumont were all active.)
The wooden cubic frames in Goudal’s ‘Telluris’ series represent the different imaginations that have shaped understandings of the Earth’s history over time. She chose this shape because the square has often been used as a traditional symbol for the Earth, and because it brought to mind the English idiom of putting something (or someone) ‘in a box’ – applying order, classifying and ultimately simplifying, so as to make a subject easier to understand. Looking at Goudal’s towering arrangements of cubes stacked one atop the other, I am also reminded of how the geologist William Glassley describes the place of the scientist contributing to the field as ‘a building block in an ongoing refinement of the story of how a landscape evolved.’
If Burnet was central to Goudal’s concept, so too was the revolution that followed Nicolaus Copernicus’ theory, published in 1543, that placed the Sun, not the Earth, at the centre of the universe. But her research also took her much further back, encompassing such sources as the historian Xanthus of Lydia who, in the fifth century BC, concluded that the presence of shell-shaped stones far inland indicated that an area had once been the sea, or early Chinese legends that explained fossils found on mountain tops with the idea of ‘stony swallows’ that took flight during thunderstorms. It must have been tempting to focus on the romance of these early ideas, yet there is little room for whimsy even in the towering frameworks of ‘Telluris’. Shot in the California desert, where the searing light renders the images as precise as etchings, their careful arrangements seem to suggest logic, lucidity and a certain clarity of thought.
Of all the attempts to structure knowledge of the Earth that Goudal has explored in her recent work, by far the most eccentric is that of the nineteenth-century architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. An advocate of the Gothic Revival, he is best known for his restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris. He was also a keen mountaineer and, finding Paris claustrophobic, sought the solace of high altitude at every opportunity. In 1868, Viollet-le-Duc embarked upon a sytematic mapping of the Mont Blanc Massif, ‘its geodesical and geological constitution; its transformations; and the ancient and recent state of its glaciers’, following the geometrical network proposed by Élie de Beaumont. He made elaborate panoramas of the terrain, drew up plans and elevations, and – eight years and at least one near-fatal descent later – completed a 280-page study in which he revealed the crystalline structure that regulated the mountain’s entire formation. Discovering this structure was like finding the key. According to Viollet-le-Duc’s logic, if an underlying order could be identified in a ruin, it follows that it could be restored – and the same method could apply to mountains as to architecture, just on a grander scale. This endeavour was not without practical application – the crystalline structure became a characteristic of his buildings – but nor was it without folly, even hubris. It was a fellow advocate of Gothic architecture, John Ruskin, who grounded things somewhat when he said: ‘C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la géologie.’
If, then, the structures in ‘Telluris’ represent humanity’s attempts to determine order and regularity within nature’s apparent chaos, those in ‘Soulèvements’ suggest the inherent absurdity of that endeavour. A first glance at these photographs and we see mountainous rock formations. A second and it becomes clear, from the fine grids of light that shine through the formations like crevasses, and from their often wildly irregular edges, that the rocks were never in fact there at all. To create this illusion, Goudal fixed a stack of around twenty mirrors around each rock at different angles, then photographed this ‘edifice’ so that we see in the resulting image the many reflections of the rock’s surfaces as one. Her constructions symbolise the great uplifts that create mountain ranges, but they also suggest the intellectual revolutions that can shatter the status quo and change a field of knowledge beyond recognition. Slippery to behold, they are a reminder that everything we believe to be true can be turned on its head in a minute.
This sense of, if not motion exactly, then at least the movement associated with change is evident, too, in ‘Démantèlements’, where the image of the mountain dissolving (a result of the hydrosoluble paper on which it is printed) could also represent the dismantling of ideas or attitudes over time. As the title suggests, this gradual taking apart – this disassembly –itself implies the act of putting back together in an improved form. It can seem paradoxical to speak about mountains in the same breath as movement, yet in Goudal’s photographs – so unerringly still and quiet, the structures they depict so resolutely ‘there’ – there is the reminder that in photography as in mountains, layers of movement and indeed time are present if you know what to look for. In a photograph, this might not be the deep time of the mountains – years counted in the millions or billions – but it can be dizzying to think of all the same.
In ‘Telluris’, ‘Soulèvements’ and ‘Démantèlements’, then, we have not only elegant abstractions of the mountain’s physical form, but also visual responses to of the ways in which mountains have been understood, or misunderstood, over time. Reading these photographs through the context of Goudal’s research, and of the various moments in history at which she has alighted, draws attention to a paradox in the prevailing attitudes to mountain ranges that appear to have set in over the past two hundred years. On the one hand, the mountain is a promise of escape and transcendence, whose energizing, mind-bending effects our ancestors sought to replicate with optical illusion, and to domesticate in the form of the photograph. On the other, the mountain is an entity so complex to fathom, so mammoth to comprehend, so precarious to traverse, that we are foolhardy to even try. ‘Nous sommes si petits’, wrote Viollet-le-Duc, in his introduction to Le Massif du Mont Blanc – ‘we are so very small’.