History – the last territory to be explored

In a world seemingly fully navigated, our experience of travelling and its relationship to time and space has altered. The hyper-accelerated nature of 21st century communication processes means our perception of movement from one space to another has changed. Thanks to Google Earth (previously known as EarthViewer) viewers can visually navigate the earth’s terrain at the touch of a button. Users can search for addresses for some countries, enter coordinates, or simply use the mouse to browse a location.

A number of enhancements have been made to the standard Google Earth application, including ‘Street View’ (which provides 360° panoramic street-level views) and ‘Ocean’ (which allows users to zoom below the surface of the ocean and view the 3D bathymetry beneath the waves). However, one of the most intriguing developments has been ‘Historical Imagery’, which allows users to traverse back in time and study earlier stages of any place.

Memory and how it shapes and informs the present has become a key topic of discussion for numerous contemporary artists. From Paul Rooney to Henrietta Simson, practitioners are utilizing methods more akin to archaeology than the visual arts. Rooney’s Thin Air, a repeatable pre-recorded sound lecture, blends documentary and fiction, creating something of an expedition into the past that in turn highlights current experiences. Similarly, Simson splices together landscapes found in present-day newspapers and old war photographs, stripping forgotten corners of early Renaissance paintings to create new narratives.

In The Rings of Saturn, the writer W G Sebald discusses the philosophical notion that the future exists only in the shape of our present apprehensions and hopes, the past merely as memory. It appears that in a present seemingly fully documented, artists are increasingly looking to the past as the last terrain to conquer. In the same way Sebald felt he could unlock the doors of time through his walks, in buildings, relics, and with the people he encountered, is it now the time to step back in order to move forward?

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