Doug Hall
The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described, 1987

This large-scale video, sound, and mechanical installation takes its title from Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Hall expresses states of awe and revelation that are traditionally associated with the sublime through a tumultuous vision of the contemporary landscape.

Multiple video monitors and projections present televised imagery of storms, fires, floods, and industrial processes in a fast-paced confluence of the natural and the mechanical. A blackened steel mesh fence tips precariously toward the viewer while a Tesla coil intermittently discharges arcs of lightening. The artist perceives weather conditions as concrete forces of destruction and renewal that symbolize the erosion of our social and emotional lives.

Artwork Info

Artwork title
The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described
Artist name
Doug Hall
Date created
video installation
three-channel video installation with sound, electronics, steel, and Tesla coil
144 in. × 360 in. × 480 in. (365.76 cm × 914.4 cm × 1219.2 cm)
Date acquired
Collection SFMOMA
Purchase through a gift of the Modern Art Council and the San Francisco Art Dealers Association
© Doug Hall
Permanent URL
Artwork status
Not on view at this time.

Bay Area artist Doug Hall used a functioning Tesla coil, multiple video monitors, and a projection to depict the unsettling forces of nature and industry in The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described (1987). Hall describes the origins of this work and explains how his interest in the “technological sublime” grew out of an experience with a natural disaster.

Audio Stories

Hall’s electrifying ode to the sublime

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In The Terrible Uncertainty of the Thing Described artist Doug Hall addresses the philosophical idea of the sublime. Through a powerful, almost overwhelming barrage of images and sound, he explores what it takes to transfix us with amazement or awe.  


In the installation, you’ll see video monitors and video projection, as well as other striking visual elements, including a huge Tesla coil. This coil discharges one and a half million volts of electricity in spectacular streams of sparks and light every thirty minutes. The footage shown on the monitors documents various natural disasters– floods, tornadoes, a forest fire– as well as man-made spectacles, like a blast furnace.  


For over twenty years Hall has been examining how power in both nature and society is shaped by technology, primarily that of television. In this piece, he brings us face to face with the contrast between electricity in its raw, unharnessed form– the Tesla coil– and electricity as a finished product– the image on a TV screen. He shows us that art isn’t always an expensive commodity, or a unique object. Here, instead, it’s the experience of a series of dynamic events and images.  


The title of this piece comes from philosopher Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Origins of our Idea About the Sublime and the Beautiful. For 19th century poets and artists, embracing fear and uncertainty was seen as the only way to find beauty or transcendence. By fusing nature with technology, Hall creates a truly sublime experience for his viewers. 

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