Art Critic/Historian/Theorist Dr Gary Willis on Ralph Kerle’s Gold in The Desert Dubai UAE Exhibition

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“In the hands of the wise the earth turns to gold – Rumi..”

These magnificent photographs by Ralph Kerle reflect the glittering essence of Dubai’s golden dream that lay buried in its sands for centuries.

I have known Ralph for 40 years now and been a keen follower of his journey into photography since its inception. This is, in fact, the second catalogue essay I have written on his work. But Ralph’s images of Dubai are profoundly different to his images of Sydney. In these shimmering reflections of Dubai arising from the depths of its own ingenuity, Ralph seems to have reinvented himself as an alchemist – transforming all that he sees into pure gold. Clearly these are images of a dazzlingly smart city, built from the good fortune of black gold – oil, but in Ralph’s mirror of Dubai we witness the transformative act of an alchemist at work in ‘the richest gold mine in the known universe’ – the imagination.

At origin the word Alchemy derives from ancient Arabic sources in the word Kimiya meaning – black – and has given rise to Al Kimiya – Alchemy - and the metaphysical search for that which brings life into perfection; the spiritual act of the self-transformation from formless base matter into pure gold. This is the production that the alchemists call ‘the hermetic wedding’ which produces ‘the son of the sun’ – The Philosopher’s Stone in whose radiant light we appreciate the alchemical significance of Rumi’s famous line,

In the hands of the wise the earth transforms into gold.

However, although long since discredited as a pseudo-science, the alchemical act of self-transformation remains as mysterious as ever. The 16th century physicist, astronomer and mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, began his research as a alchemist in search of The Philosopher’s Stone and as an early alchemist Newton identifies as an arcane and spiritual man, who believed all natural phenomena were motivated by spiritual forces, not merely physical events. Alongside his examinations of natural phenomena, Newton catalogues alchemical phenomenon such as 'Neptune's Trident', 'Mercury's Caducean Rod' and the 'Green Lion'. Today we are in no doubt that gold is a rare element, that which requires a cataclysmic thermo-nuclear event to forge the nucleus of its sub-atomic structure.

The Big-Bang produced carbon and oxygen, but it takes the collapse of a star, such as our own sun, to create a thermo-nuclear event required to produce hydrogen and helium. Such an event is called a supernova. But still it requires the collapse of a star five times the size of our sun, to initiate the thermo-nuclear event required to emit Iron (Fe). The collapsing core of such a supernova becomes a neutron star, whose nucleus is compressed into unbelievably dense matter. For example, just one teaspoon of neutron star matter would be heavier than the entire mass of Mt. Everest.

However, to produce gold it takes the further collapse of two such neutron stars in what is called a kilonova event. Only a kilonova event is capable of forging the sub-atomic structures of a neutron star, to create the heavier elements of the periodic table, such as Gold (Au), Platinum (Pt) and Uranium (U).

In October 2018, for the very first time ever, astrophysicists detected such a kilonova event, as a gamma-ray burst emanating from the other side of the universe – 130 million light years away. This cataclysmic merger of two neutron stars generated ripples in the time-space gravitational field surpassing astronomer’s expectations but confirming their theoretical modelling. The radioactive debris emanating from this cataclysmic kilonova began as plumes of the lighter elements, such as Silver (Ag), but soon gave rise to the heavier elements, such as Gold (Au) and Uranium(U). Scientists have since quantified the amount of gold produced in this single event at about 200 times the mass of the Earth and confirmed the kilonova as the only possible origin of gold in the entire Universe.

So there goes any idea that an Alchemist could produce real gold. However Ralph Kerle’s golden photographs of Dubai, reflect the gold of the human spirit. In this regard we must return to the recollections of Rumi – the thirteenth century Islamic scholar and poet.

“What's the point of bringing gold to the gold mine, or water to the ocean? There’s no point in giving you my heart and soul because you have them already. So I bring you a mirror to gaze at yourself and perhaps remember me.”

This, I believe, is the gift that Ralph Kerle’s photographs of Dubai offer – the gift of self-reflection.