Thomas Joshua Cooper: The World’s Edge

Artist Audio Commentary

On view from September 22, 2019 to January 26th, 2020 in the Resnick Pavilion, the exhibition comprises 140 works, showcasing Cooper’s The World’s Edge—The Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity, a project to chart the Atlantic basin at its most extreme northern, southern, eastern, and western points that he began in 1987. 

Listen to the stories behind the work through our streaming audio commentary tracks, recorded with the artist himself. Audio transcriptions are also available below.


Audio Guide Icon

Labels for selected works in the exhibition include numbers for reference with the Artist Commentary.

Audio Transcription

The project that very kindly Los Angeles County Museum of Art has decided to show on my behalf is covered by the overall title The Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity.

Thirty-two years ago I had this daft idea that I could potentially circumnavigate the entire Atlantic Basin and travel through all five continents surrounding it from the cardinal edges of all the great points; cardinal north, south, east and west of all the continents surrounding the basin. Thirty-two years later I finally managed to do most of that and here we are with an exhibition, called The World's Edge, at LACMA, and here's some pictures from it.

Audio Transcription

The picture that we're looking at is a dark picture with white horizontal marks across the bottom half of it. Those horizontal marks are waves in windblown action. The picture describes an area near the birth site of one of the great Celtic-Irish Saints, Saint Brendan the Navigator, who is the patron saint of navigating for all sailors and also it could be said the Patron Saint of The Atlas of Emptiness and Extremities, my project.

It was one of the early pictures that I made. It's very near the westernmost point of Ireland which is a very weather-beaten part of the island. It was an inspiration to actually be near the site where the young Saint Brendan started out to make his first sea voyage of contemplation and pilgrimage and meditation. 

It became the hallmark picture for the project to set oneself off into unknown emptiness and also within that, the uncertainty of actually ever arriving at a goal, getting anywhere, possibly not actually even surviving the journey. 

It became absolutely both the inspiration and the metaphor for everything that I've tried to do since.

Audio Transcription

I’m looking directly due north and there is land in between me and the North Pole and what you see on the rock is bird markings and sea ice with a looming wave coming up in slow motion around it and in a bowl of light that’s caught in the trough of water. It was extraordinary that the light took on this physical form that was the reverse of the hardness of the rock. 

Maybe the place was saying I wasn't such a fool after all for trying to walk to it. Mind you, it took me 49 hours all together just in walking solid. 

I'm determined that in making pictures outdoors as I do that the minute you put a horizon line in, you create an automatic exit point for the eye and body to move. But by removing the horizon, I interiorize all of my pictures. What I try and do by interiorizing these pictures is insisting that the outdoor world is familiar to us, it's not foreign. It is as familiar as a living room.

Audio Transcription

This next picture is titled Drowned Trees Along the Mississippi but what's really important about it to me is it's a weeping willow on one of the exact sites of the disembarkation points of the Cherokee Nation from their homeland and their forced exile along the Trail of Tears. My father's family was Cherokee. So, this is as personal a picture as we're going to be speaking about. 

I fell into a sinkhole making this picture and I couldn't understand why the camera was staying level and I was somehow finding myself lower and lower than the camera and I was sinking in this sinkhole and I didn't know what to do. This sort of flutter of white butterflies started to circle my head and I thought this is potentially the end for me. I'm going to smother. 

As it turned out my guide lassoed me, tied me to the back of the pickup and pulled me out. I never let the pictures go or I go with them.

Audio Transcription

This picture is made from the Northwest- most point of the island of Great Britain and of the country of Scotland. I'm 158 feet in the air on the very, very tip toe edge of Cape Wrath facing into the wind thus the water patterns in the sea but it's a dead drop.

There's a series of wave motions that create this, sort of, flat triangular marker through the bottom to the upper middle of the picture that point towards the emptiness in the sea but that emptiness also directs you directly towards the North Pole. 

This is one of only maybe three to five sites that allow a directly uninhibited view of any landmass from the point that, for instance I'm on, Cape Wrath, directly to the North Pole. It was this multi- thousand mile touch from one place to another to say, "Hello. I'm here again. I remember you with affection."

Audio Transcription

I made this picture in Panama. It's the remains of the colony that Scotland set out to found in 1700. This colony was completely, totally, and thoroughly obliterated. I'm on the exact point of rock which Puerto Escocés was founded in 1700 and from whence it was obliterated.

While I was there, although I had written tribal permission from the High Chief of the San Blas people, I was assaulted by one of his Lower Chiefs with the machete for trespassing and there wasn't a damn thing I could do except for have my guide bring out his machete and you have this macho thing of somebody's going to get chopped up to hamburger meat when all I really want to do is make the pictures.

That shaking limb wasn't the only thing the shaking. I am quivering behind the camera but nothing stops the picture.

Audio Transcription

The picture’s called Wild and Bewildered, Ojo De Agua, which is Spanish for eye of the water. It's made a very particular point in the, what I call the Hump of Brazil a place called Cabo de Santo Agostinho. It's the place where paleo-geologists have determined that the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana, broke up the form the countenance of South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, the island of Madagascar, and some bits and pieces as well. It broke up at the exact point I was standing on.

I'm on a sea cliff about somewhere between 55 to 65 feet above the ground. And I'd warned my guide that it's very treacherous sea currents and big, big unexpected waves come and I asked him to keep an eye on me, but he went to sleep and all of a sudden I'm hit from behind by what turned out to be a giant wave. 

The camera was sheared off the tripod. I'm holding onto the cable release. I must have clicked the shutter because I never saw this picture. It happened at the point at which the camera was torn off the tripod by the wave.

It was a remarkable place for perhaps one of the most important pictures I've ever made to occur but I don't actually think I can claim credit for making it because I didn't see it. It happened to me. But also how beautiful and how wonderful the unexpected can be! What a treat to be prepared for a gift like this that could have been lethal but turned out to be magnificent for me.

Audio Transcription

I made this picture dreaming of Antarctica during a polar cyclone at the south most point of Cape Horn. We set out in in a 10-meter sailing motorized sailing boat, so small it's the size of a living room. We get halfway out when polar cyclone hits. We had no choice but to go forward, we’re just a little bit further than halfway. We’re just being beaten. 

I thought, "I can make this picture. I'm never going to get to Antarctica but this arrow is looking directly towards Antarctica and I can make this picture in the middle of a polar cyclone."

We are trying to leave land and our dinghy overturns. We're being pushed back to the landform and the propeller of the engine’s going out of the water or somebody's going to get hurt or killed. The captain, if he'd had a gun, he would have killed me on the spot for endangering everybody, but we get all the stuff back. We managed to break through the mountain of waves to get offshore. 

Captain was so angry in the first thing he does is he knocks me flat down one punch direct to the jaw and urged me not to get up. But you can't not take risks when pictures are required of you. 

Audio Transcription

In 2007, I'd managed to hitch a ride on a Russian icebreaker. It’s the biggest horsepower nuclear engine in the world. It's never been stopped in the ice. 

I'm allowed to get out onto the ice cap of the North Pole. I'm slip-sliding away and I get just out of sight of the bloody boat. I fall through the ice, carrying a 16 kilo tripod on my back. I'm on the edge of this hole that I made in the ice trying to clutch onto anything that won't break. The ice breaks and I finally get a handhold. I think, God I'm going to go straight down. 

I don't really swim. I managed to get the tripod off, throw it up on the ice and then very, very, very fortunately found a way to slither myself out of the ice hole.  I just wanted to find a place to make a picture. 

I had the sense that there, the world rounded itself for me and I could see over the edge. God, it was totally, completely thrilling.

Audio Transcription

The picture we're going to see next, it's the north most point of Continental Antarctica. Weirdly, I'm the ninth only of 10 people, the 10th being my captain, who have ever been and stood on this point. It took three weeks. I decided we had to get there. My captain said it's impossible.

In that picture you see a black line at the bottom, that's the bedrock of the continent, the living rock that makes Antarctica, if you will, breathe through its ice. I'm on a sea shelf in a survival suit up to my probably chest the camera on the tripod in the water.

The place was everything it could possibly be. I was able to say thank you to the continent, to a continent for allowing me to touch it because that's what I did. And I was deeply touched by it...one of the miracles of my working life.

Audio Transcription

This is my very first ice picture. The site, it's called L'Anse aux Meadows and it's the exact site that Leif Ericson first hit of the new Northern world of North America from Greenland in the year 1,000 becoming the first known European to touch land.

I'm in the water. I must have been in the water for 45 minutes. Of course, after a while I lost sensation of my feet. I didn't think anything about it. I made the picture and I put the film away and then I realized I can't actually move my legs. I ended up getting frostbite on three toes as a result but I didn't know any better. 

I'm the only artist that's ever made pictures from both the North and the South Poles which seems strange in an era where everything is immediate and instant to say that some old punk pop like myself who works with the camera that was made in the end of the 19th Century has done something like. But I’m it. There is no other.

Audio Transcription

I'm in Senegal with this fabulous guide named, Ansumana Badjie, spoke eight European languages, and 15 tribal languages and was my guide the entire time I was on the Cape Verde Peninsula. I'd heard about this site and Mr. Badjie said, "It was behind the fortified walls of the fort protecting the City of Dakar.”

We tried to cross the French Foreign Legion territory that could lead to it. Out of the blue, machine gun bullets strafe our feet and of course, it was bloody French Foreign Legion people. Then Ansumana said, "Look, very carefully, drop everything to the ground slowly and take your passport out and put it open on your forehead."

By making this picture I hope I’ve added something that both the place and the people might see it might understand as an offering rather than a removal of anything.