Seldom have different episodes of this reviewer’s life been brought into such brutal conjunction as by a recent visit to the Light Show at London’s Hayward Gallery.
When training to be an art historian, if the artwork was deemed worthy of consideration (by no means a given), much time and thought was devoted to it. Its value was determined by its context: its relevance to the development of an art movement, or to the artist’s career, or to the political perspective of the Feminist or the Marxist, of the Structuralist or the Freudian. This did not worry me: as a liberal empiricist, I put the artwork, and my reaction to it, at the centre: the analyses provided by the various political approaches were all grist to my mill.
Things were different at the Arts Council of Great Britain, however. There, each art form took a different approach. The Art Department’s was the most extreme: it was assumed that no-one who was not professionally involved in contemporary art could possibly have any interest in, or anything interesting to say about, any artwork. The trouble was that we were allocating public money to the arts, and some interest in the reactions of visitors to funded exhibitions seemed to me to be literally essential.
The average visitor should not have to be so deeply knowledgeable about in the context of each artwork exhibited. And, once you strip away the context, there can be alarming instances of the emperor’s new clothes, that are picked on by the media with ill-disguised glee (Carl Andre’s bricks at the Tate, for example) in order to ridicule the arts in general.
Many years later, at Cameron Peters Fine Lighting, we are selling lights – works by the very finest architects and designers of the 20th century, some made by the very finest craftspeople. But the objects that they design and make have to survive with no context: specifiers and their clients have no interest in who designed something or who made something, and they don’t see any reason why the objects should be accorded respect or time. The light maker is therefore in the same position as the busker, who may be playing in a concert hall one evening (with all the cultural focus that the venue generates) and on a street the next (as all classical musician students are encouraged to do), where the members of the public are trotting by. If, as they trot, they find what they hear interesting, it is because of the intrinsic characteristics of the work being played, not because of its context.
Why is this relevant to the Light Show? Because quite a large space was carved out of the Hayward Gallery to create a dark room in which a naked lamp could be hung, quite near the floor (Katie Paterson’s Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight of 2008)....
...with a rack of 289 lamps on the wall outside. That is all that most visitors will see and it will not enrich their lives. Ironically, the naked light bulb is a powerful trend at the moment, in the work of light makers and of the designers of the interiors of bars. The former (e.g from Davide Groppi) aim to make the most simple light source also the most beautiful, elegant object. The bar designer is aiming at an industrial and/or consciously low cost effect. Both are thrilling in the quality of the full spectrum light created by an incandescent light source, and in the iconic shape of the GLS lamp.
So what is behind Katie Paterson’s work? According to the catalogue, she “...produces conceptual works that dialogue between the Romantic sublime and the ordinary everyday. Investigating the vastness and intangibility of space and time, she employs technology to highlight the endless processes of entropy and rebirth to which the cosmos is subject, revealing the intimate connections between things.”
Specifically, Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight “...evokes the poetic associations of the moon, relating it to human mortality...a grid of 289 bulbs is displayed as part of the work." The catalogue adds that “there would be no moonlight without the light of our sun, and Paterson is equally conscious of the darkness of deep space, which, like death, is ultimately unknowable.”
There are no rights and wrongs here, just a chasm of apocalyptic vastness worthy of John Martin. The artist and the arts council are one side of it. Most visitors to the exhibition are on the other, as are the specifiers of decorative lighting and their clients. It would clearly be absurd for me to encourage them to use a naked light bulb because Erik of Tekna (another source of an excellent exposed lamp design – his Thorn Pete) is highlighting the endless processes of entropy and rebirth to which the cosmos is subject, revealing the intimate connections between things.”
So should you go to see the Light Show? Absolutely you must! It is a very well curated, very well displayed, exhibition that gives an overview of the history of artists working with artificial light and summary of who is doing what now.
Some of the exhibits are interesting because of how uninteresting they are. Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation (1965 – 2013) comprises three spaces that are totally white (you have to take your shoes off before entering), each one lit by a single colour; blue, red or green. What is it like to be in a space that is only green? No more interesting than you would imagine it to be, is the answer. (Not quite true: I’ve never been so aware of the number of floaters that are in the soup that is in my eye balls. Also, moving from one colour space to the next, you experience a new kind of hurt – your eyes really hurt but there is no pain.)
With other works, visitors wait, expecting something to happen, as in a theatre. It is necessary to take the time for your eyes to adjust in James Turell’s Wedgework V but nothing is going to move. So the effect with which visitors are left is of anticlimax, of ho-hum mild disappointment.
Standout works that justify the time and the ticket include the first in the exhibition (and the first image in this post) – Leo Villareal’s ever-changing Cylinder II of 2012 (much more magical if you are short-sited and take your glasses off) and the last, Olafur Eliasson’s Model for a Timeless Garden, in which, in a totally black space, a very varied series of water jets is lit by strobe lighting so that the water is momentarily frozen still at each flash – a wonderful space which was mesmerizing. People smiled as they left it.
There are two Dan Flavins (the early the nominal three (to William of Ockham) of 1963, and untitled (to the “innovator” of Wheeling peachblow, 1966-68) which, superficially empty, quickly demonstrate a power that exceeds most of what else is being shown, justifying his reputation as having been the leading exponent of light art.
Jim Campbell’s Exploded View (Commuters) of 2011 fascinates – grids of suspended LEDs apparently flash on and off at random but, when seen from the right angle, the effect of people walking past is revealed.
Conrad Shawcross’s Slow arc inside a Cube IV (2009)...
...confused and delighted in equal measure. People were losing their balance whilst standing still (tip: lean against the wall) even though the cause (a machine rotating a light inside a box made of grids) was clear for all to see, and fascinating in its own right.
Cerith Wyn Evans' S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=C=T=U=R=E (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motive’s overspill) of 2010 was made up of columns of linear incandescent lamps.
The visceral joy generated by their full spectrum light and the radiant warmth was evident in visitors’ faces and gestures, made all the more poignant by the fact that politicians will soon be making such experience illegal. (What else do they think will replicate the life-giving power of the sun when it is dark?)
And we were delighted to find a room dedicated to Anthony McCall (his You and I, Horizontal of 2005), about whom we posted so enthusiastically last June.
Not one exhibitor has any connexion to the world of lighting – partly because those chosen inhabit the world of Art (one side of that vast chasm) and partly because they are dealing with light and lamps, not luminaires. Nevertheless, one might at the very least have expected to see something from Ingo Maurer.
So, what is this liberal empiricist doing now? Well, in posts to Fine Lighting News, trying to interest people in the Context. Though, I’m embarrassed to admit that it looks suspiciously like connoisseurship – enough to make Berenson or Lord Clark of Civilization proud (we like to think that it is very well informed connoisseurship). Maybe it is the condition to which all art criticism returns, once the monotones of artificial political perspectives have died, crumbled away to dust....