JOHN SEAL | THE RUINS OF THE DAY

I met a traveller from an antique land, who said— “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert. . . . near them, on the sand, half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown, and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, tell that its sculptor well those passions read which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, the hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed; and on the pedestal, these words appear: my name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.”Study for a Monument to Man’s
Triumph Over Nature, 2018
oil on canvas, 167,5 x 137 cm

At first glance, John Seal’s mysterious pair of paintings appears innocuous, peaceful, almost kitsch. In the first work, the painted cups, adorned with ships and flowers, tower in the foreground of a lush and overgrown forest. In the second, the tower has collapsed to the ground and the cups lie like ruins amongst blades of grass, while the surrounding landscape has wilted and decayed. The rather banal motifs painted on the cups remind us that ideal nature can only exist as an image: it’s very conception is only ever fulfilled in the pictorial. The cup itself, an everyday receptacle, both elevates us from nature and detaches us from it. This realization alone, necessarily calls all civilizing achievements into question.Perhaps the Birds Will Still Sing
in the Morning of Our Night, 2018
oil on canvas, 162,5 x 127 cm

Seal unites the work’s tautological motifs through the words of the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Quoting his poem Ozymandias (1881), Seal’s work magnifies the struggle over the age-old question: What can endure time and temporality? And who is the worthiest opponent of vanitas? Is it culture? Or is it nature after all? In the poem, a traveler tells the tale of the great ruler Ozymandias, whose shattered statue lies half-sunken in the desert sand. All that remains of his grandeur is the disintegrating statue and an epitaph. The ruins of his architectural pursuits have long since returned to sand, his glorious deeds long forgotten. And yet, what does remain and finally endures is an image—broken though still legible—one that produces further images, and so becomes a receptacle for the legitimacy of human vision and desire.

© Text Anna Redeker