Light Show: what is real and what is not

You and I, Horizontal (2005) by Anthony McCall

Anthony McCall: You and I, Horizontal (2005)

In London last week, we went to see Light Show at the Hayward Gallery, an exhibition that both delights the senses and stimulates the mind with questions about perception and the connections between art, science and technology.

Throughout history, as the exhibition guide reminds us, artists have been fascinated by the interplay of dark and light, and the nature and behaviour of light: think of Joseph Wright of Derby, Vermeer, Caravaggio or Atkinson Grimshaw, to cite just a few cases that spring to mind at random.Indeed, the curators of the British Museum’s current Ice Age Art exhibition suggest some of their exhibits – between 20,000 and 40,000 years old – reveal ways of encapsulating movement which are the precursors of modern animation and cinema, while the artists who painted in caves such as Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira deliberately adapted their paintings for viewing in a deep underground darkness illuminated briefly by the flickering light of burning torches and fat lamps.

However, it is only in the last 50 years that artificial light has become a recognised medium for art, and that a new genre – light art – has come into being. As technological changes advanced from the electric lightbulb to neon tubing, and computerised control of complex lighting effects became possible, artists began experimenting with light as both material and subject. The 1960s marked an initial burst of creativity, with artists such as Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, and James Turrell creating sculptures and environments out of diffuse light or radiant fluorescent and neon tubing.  These pioneering works included dynamic light displays which directly involved the viewer.

Light Show in one sense offers a conducted tour of the light art story, beginning with the 1960s when a creative interplay between art, science, technology and industry led artists in America and Europe to explore how light could transform space, and alter perception. Light Show also reveals artists exploring scientific and psychological questions about perception: how we experience and psychologically respond to illumination and colour. Nearly all of the 25 works use artificial light to conjure a sense of sculptural space that messes with our minds – calling into question our perceptual responses to ‘what is real and what is not’. But, let’s be clear: Light Show is also great fun, a highly entertaining selection of mind-boggling, witty and dazzling works.  Take Ceal Floyer’s ‘Throw’ for example, in which a splat of light is thrown on the floor like spilt paint. The illusion is created by a theatre lamp fitted with a gobo, a mask which controls the shape of the emitted light. At the same time, because the mechanics of the projection are completely visible, the nature of the illusion is made transparent.

Ceal Floyer: Throw (1997)

Ceal Floyer: Throw (1997)

The first work you see on entering the gallery is Leo Villareal’s ‘Cylinder II’ (2012) which features light and movement. An array of reflective hanging rods arranged in concentric rings is laced with nearly 20,000 white LED lights, orchestrated by complex computer programming to create endlessly changing patterns and shapes.  The lights shimmer and glow, and appear to rise and fall.  Villareal says that when you approach his work you needn’t feel you’ve missed something: ‘it’s never going to repeat the same progression of sequences again…it’s like an elaborate shuffle scheme, being reassembled dynamically’.

Leo Villareal: Cylinder II (2012)

Leo Villareal: Cylinder II (2012)

The oldest works here are by the American pioneer of light art, Dan Flavin. ‘Untitled (to the innovator of Wheeling Peachblow)’ is an installation of upright and horizontal fluorescent tubes angled across a corner, a work that marries colour and light, bringing them into three dimensions. Flavin has combined daylight, yellow and pink fluorescent tubes to create what he described as ‘the colour mix of a lovely illusion’, mimicking the distinctive hue of the 19th century Peachblow glass produced in Wheeling, West Virginia.  Flavin softens the edges of the corner and tints the air with coloured light, one hue staining the next, leading one commentator to call it ‘the electrical equivalent of watercolour’.

Dan Flavin: Untitled (to the innovator of Wheeling Peachblow), 1966–8

Dan Flavin: Untitled (to the innovator of Wheeling Peachblow), 1966–8

There was one piece here that we had seen before: in 2006, there was an exhibition of James Turrell’s work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  It was there that we saw ‘Wedgework V’ for the first time. It’s an experience that begins with a an arms-extended, groping walk down a pitch black corridor leading. Turning a corner, you find yourself in a room where an entire wall glows red and appears to reveal a further room beyond. It seems as if you are looking through three planes: light glows around the border of the first and second planes, and seems to emanate from behind a third.  However,’Wedgework V’ is a flat projection, simply a space with fluorescent light and light-reflective paint added. But it challenges your perception of depth, colour, light and space. ‘Wedgework V’ was one of Turrell’s early works, created in 1975.  He says:

My work is about space and the light that inhabits it. It is about how you confront that space and plumb it. It is about your seeing. [...] My desire is to set up a situation to which I can take you and let you see. I am interested in light because of my interest in our spiritual nature and the things that empower us. My art deals with light itself, not as the bearer of revelation, but as revelation itself.

James Turrell Wedgework

James Turrell: Wedgework V

Andrew Graham-Dixon reviewing the exhibition of Turrell’s work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2006 wrote:

His creations are commonly described as sculptures, but the term is misleading because it implies an ambition to turn things seen or imagined into permanent, three-dimensional objects.  Turrell’s art is dematerialised and ungraspable, present to the eye but undetectable by the other senses. His devices are not those of the conventional sculptor, but of the theatrical metteur-en-scène and lighting designer. He is an arranger of carefully stage-managed experiences, creating tricks of the light to play on his audience’s sensibilities. [...]

‘Wedgework V’, the last of Turrell’s three works here, which is also the most pictorial in its effects, might be seen as a metaphor for the illusory nature of all optical experience. It consists of a series of projections, this time using red light, that collectively resemble a series of abstract paintings. These figments of light are arranged at oblique angles within another of Turrell’s theatrical spaces of indeterminate extent, rather like the pages of a book. The shapes that they conjure  … are beautiful ghosts projected in a cavernous space as bewildering as the Cave of Shadows famously dreamed up by Plato.

You could see observe how certain exhibits turned adults into children again, as we gazed in wonder or stretched out hands and fingers to try to make palpable the apparently intangible.  You felt this as soon as you entered the room containing Anthony Mccall’s ‘You and I, Horizontal’ (top of this post and below in a Vimeo video).  Mccall created the first of what he called ‘solid-light’ films in the early 1970s.  ‘You and I, Horizontal’ (2005) is effectively a large sculpture made of light which can be walked around, into, and through. In a pitch-black gallery, a single white spot gradually grows into a beam and eventually into a vast hollow cone. You reach out your hand to touch a beam that seems to be a solid bar. Enter the cone of light and you feel as if you’ve walked through a wall. Inside the cone people seem to disappear, but from the outside it appears bewilderingly solid.

Jim Campbell’s ‘exploded views’ also conflate elements of sculpture and cinema, stretching the moving image into three dimensions. ‘Exploded View (Commuters)’ (2011) was, I thought, very clever – like one of those puzzling dot patterns used to illustrate perception in psychology textbooks.  Seen from most angles, it looks like a random array of lights that blink on and off. But if you stand in just the right place, a discernible image emerges of shadowy figures (the commuters, I suppose) that dissolve  as you move to a different position. The effect is created by over a thousand LED bulbs suspended on a grid of wires. Each light flickers like a pixel, but collectively they appear to coalesce as an image. Campbell utilizes the way in which the human brain yearns to resolve ambiguity, creating an image of something that isn’t really there.

Light Show at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 27/1/2013.

Jim Campbell: Exploded View (Commuters) (2011)

Brigitte Kowanz’s ‘Light Steps’ (1990/2013) is another installation that sets your brain a puzzle. It consists of an ascending sequence of fluorescent tubes that the brain resolves into a solid flight of stairs, the sequence seeming to expand the place that they occupy, generating an ambiguous virtual space.  Kowanz began using artificial light in her art in the mid-1980s, and her work since then has investigated light’s relationship with space, language and time, utilising its ability not only to create spaces, but also to make them vanish.

Brigitte Kowanz Light Steps (1990)

Brigitte Kowanz: Light Steps (1990)

You are required to slip on shoe covers before entering Carlos Cruz-Diez’s ‘Chromosaturation’ (2008), three connecting rooms lit by pure red, green and blue lights.  Step from one room to the next and you soon become aware how our perception can be manipulated into seeing things that aren’t there. Two cubes are suspended from the ceiling.  In reality, I suspect, they are white.  But as we move from the red room to the green, and then to the blue, the cubes – which are not in the same room – change colour as receptors switch off and the brain struggles to compute. Carlos Cruz-Diez explains:

‘Chromosaturation’ is an artificial environment composed of three colour chambers, one red, one green and one blue that immerse the visitor in a completely monochrome situation. Since the retina usually perceives a wide range of colours simultaneously, experiencing these monochromatic situations causes disturbances. This activates and awakens notions of colour in the viewer, who becomes aware of colour’s material and physical existence. Colour becomes a situation happening in space.

Carlos Cruz-Diez 'Chromosaturation'

Light Show at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 27/1/2013.

Cerith Wyn Evans’ ‘S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E’ (2010) evoked light and heat: a series of columns made of lighting filaments running though glass tubes pulsate on and off, generating quite an appreciable amount of heat when you stood next to one. Wyn Evans characterises the slow sequential lighting up and dimming down of the illuminated columns of  as a sort of ‘breathing’. This, together with the intermittent heat generated by the columns’ lamps, reflects the unearthliness of the text that forms the parenthetical part of the work’s title: ‘Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill…’ which is, apparently, taken from an epic 560-page poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, by James Merrill about evenings spent at the Ouija board with his partner, first published in 1982 and composed from messages transmitted by spirit voices during the séances. The connection? Wyn Evansexplains:

Because of the way [the columns] are made to behave, they are relatively invisible. They are in suspension, between heaven and earth. They have a life of their own.

Cerith Wyn Evans: ‘S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E’ (2010)

Back to science.  Conrad Shawcross describes ‘Slow Arc inside a Cube IV’ (2009) as ‘a metaphor for the discipline of science’. The work involves a complex play of moving light and shadows created by a small LED mounted on an arm that rotates inside a cube of metal latticework.  It was inspired by an anecdote about the complicated process of mapping the molecular structure of insulin by the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin. Shawcross had read Hodgkin’s description of the process of examining the diffraction pattern of X-rays bounced off the protein’s atoms, which she compared to decoding the shape of a tree from the shadows cast by its leaves.  He describes the constantly moving shadows in ‘Slow Arc inside a Cube IV’ as ‘radiant geometry’.

Conrad Shawcross

Conrad Shawcross: Slow Arc inside a Cube IV (2009)

Towards the end of the exhibition you encounter one of the most striking works – Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Model for a Timeless Garden’, which uses stroboscopic light to trick your eyes into seeing what we can only see normally through stop-motion photography. Along one side of the gallery are arranged a series of fountains and waterfalls spouting water in delicate arcs, chunky spumes and blobby gouts. In the flickering strobe light they are all frozen in motion.

Eliasson is the artist who created ‘The Weather Project’ at Tate Modern in 2003, but a recurring feature of his art has also been the use of flashing stroboscopic lamps which have the effect of appearing to reverse or immobilise movement. When a strobe light is used to illuminate flowing streams of water, the cascade appears as individual ‘droplets’ of liquid. By adjusting the frequency of the strobe, the droplets can be made to seem as if they have frozen in mid-air.

After all these works playing with our perception, it was jolting to encounter two committed political pieces.  Ivan Navarro’s  ‘Reality Show (Silver)’ (2010) uses the disorientation experienced by the participant to make a powerful political statement. You step inside a box to discover that the illuminated space above, around and below you seems to go on for ever in a series of infinitely-reflecting mirrors. But you disappear.

The work was inspired by Navarro’s is childhood in Chile under Pinochet’s brutal totalitarian regime, and conjures with the one-way mirrors used in interrogation rooms. Navarro grew up hearing about the disappearances orchestrated by Pinochet’s regime in Chile.

Jenny Holzer’s ‘Monument’ is a column of LED lights spelling out declassified American government documents from the ‘war on terror’. Alternating bands of pink and purple LEDs rotate endlessly, transmitting over 35,000 words recording the testimonies of soldiers, officials and detainees, punctuated by marks indicating redactions by government censors.

Reviewing the exhibition for the theartsdesk, Steven Gambardella commented:

The curatorial coup here is anchoring these sensory investigations into the deep, dark waters of power. The inclusion of Ivan Navarro’s Reality Box (Silver), 2010, a phone box-like structure that feels like a torture chamber out of the pages of 1984, opens up questions about the punitive use of sensory disorientation, the deliberate unravelling of our senses to erode or extinguish our sense of self. Navarro’s experience of Pinochet’s Chile lingers in his unsettling work –  we disappear to ourselves in his mise en abyme chamber while remaining fully visible to others.

Also tackling torture and power is Jenny Holzer’s Monument, 2008, a tall stack of LED displays which relays declassified statements from the war on terror like a sinister stock exchange ticker. Its column-like form gives its technology a monolithic weight and intensity which melds with the ticker’s authoritative power as pure and indifferent information. It strobes manically and scrolls a little too fast for us to keep track of the information that it darkly relays. These last two works cast a shadow over the other works like a twist in a novel, and this exhibition would not be as interesting without them. You suddenly feel unsure in your relationship not just with the environment around you, but the world itself.

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One thought on “Light Show: what is real and what is not

  1. Thank you for your once again comprehensive review. We went to the exhibition today, and enjoyed it, although I would have preferred a much quieter visit with far fewer other folk. I have once again linked your post to mine today.

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