Enlightened Spaces

A survey of light art from the 1960s to the present day at The Hayward Gallery, London, charts a transformation in the way we think about architectural space, environments and phenomena as artworks in themselves.

For thousands of years, human artworks have engaged with the phenomenon of light. From Greek and Roman sculptures to early Islamic art and architecture, from Bellini’s sumptuously coloured Renaissance landscapes to Louis Daguerre’s pioneering developments in photography and Pierre Bonnard’s lavish experimentations with light cast on interiors, illumination has compelled and transfixed innovators at some of the most important junctures across multiple histories and traditions of art. However, as The Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition Light Show demonstrates, the interrogation of light remains not only a major preoccupation for artists of the last five centuries but also an artistic medium its own right. Featuring a wide survey of artworks that use electric light sources as their principal material, Light Show encompasses an international selection of artists, all involved, in one way or another with the transition of light from a principal concern in art to a sculptural phenomenon in itself.

By focusing on artworks produced from the 1960s onwards, Light Show centres on light art as sculpture. However, as curator Cliff Lauson points out: “Light Art is not a movement. It developed across artistic concerns as a medium rather than a movement and has its origins across the 20th century, such as in theatre and performance and in works including László Moholy-Nagy’s famed avant garde Light-Space-Modulator (1930), which is typically understood by art historians as a crucial touchstone for the development of Light Art.” The specific historical period represented in the show mirrors the emergence of installation art and the corresponding emergence of light installations as art.

One of the medium’s pioneers is the American minimalist artist Dan Flavin, who from the early 1960s onwards developed a tightly structured exploration of electric light and colour through his poetic and atmospheric sculptural installations using found materials. Flavin’s practice of using electric light in his work grew out of twin early concerns: abstraction and found media. Working as an abstract painter, he interrogated colour and form, while also making assemblages and collages from found street detritus such as tin cans. However, it was when he began using electric lights that these dual interests profoundly converged. Lauson comments on the “remarkable” contributions of Dan Flavin to Light Art: “Flavin is a key figure in the development of Light Art. He set himself this constraint of using only what he could find. That meant off-the-shelf fixtures that you could get from the shop down the street – standard tube lengths of four different types, and circular ones, with different colours for different lights. He conceptually defined his palette and then made a whole oeuvre and career out of what sculpture could be and how it could engage with the space. So even though he constricted his material in this way, he ends up with an almost unlimited palette of colour combinations, gradations and intensities.”

Light Show includes two early works by Flavin. Untitled (to the innovator of Wheeling Peachblow) (1968) was Flavin’s first colour “corner piece”, an important precursor to his experimental series of light installations that challenge and engage with the space an artwork can inhabit and the ways we can inhabit the space of an artwork. Taking its title from the distinctively coloured and renowned art glass manufactured by the Hobbs, Brockunier and Company of Wheeling, West Virginia, from 1886-95, Flavin borrows the Wheeling Peachblow colours and transposes them into a light installation featuring readily available commercial fluorescent light fixtures. Delicately mixing and combining the colours, the corner of the gallery becomes a dramatic space for the artwork, using the luminance of the electric light to open up new spaces for art. Lauson explains: “One of the remarkable things about Flavin is that he moved his artwork from where you would hang a picture, i.e. at eye level, to the floor, the corner etc. The square of light becomes a frame for the mixing of colours on the canvas of the corner wall.”

Integral to almost any consideration of light is the phenomenon of colour; the spectrum of perceived effects of light on the retina. A pioneering work in this regard is Venezeulan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation (1965), an installation in which three separate rooms are saturated with a single monochrome light: one red, one blue and one green. Creating what Cruz-Diez calls “colour chambers”, this work experiments with and distorts our usual experience of colour and light. Whereas our retinas are normally adjusted to experiencing many different colours from different sources all at once, the immersion in a single colour environment is a disorientating experience, designed to generate receptivity to new experiences and ways of seeing things.

This is an approach that is also taken up by the American artist Nancy Holt, who employs narrowed fields of vision through ingenious use of holes and cylinders in her work, providing the spectator with limited or framed perception of light objects and sources. Working across natural and artificial light, both indoors and out, Holt’s works focus on the relationship between what we see and what is actually there, encouraging us to think about what it is that might be obstructing, framing or limiting what we see in a wider sense.

Taking a contrastive approach to colour and light, the British artist David Batchelor makes illuminated sculptures through a restricted arsenal of found commercial light sources. Lauson credits Batchelor with “an overwhelming interest in the bright colours of plastic”, his readymade fluorescents giving off an intensely impure artificial glow. Magic Hour (2004-05) is a tangled conglomeration of wires, light boxes and plastic, emanating from the keyboard-like power of an enormous multi-socket extension lead. In the gaps between each light box, and surrounding the sculpture as a whole, a technicolor halo is both intriguing and disturbing, glowing like kryptonite.

A similar sense of technological advancement going hand-in-hand with degradation and kitsch is also present in the work of Philippe Parreno, whose doorway marquees make use of Motion Picture Theatre tropes to create a highly theatrical sensation of Hollywood glitz and glamour. Taking light as one of the “make believe” technician’s most essential tools, Parreno’s marquees explore some of the ways in which the development of light as an artistic medium runs parallel to its development in advertising, commerce and the entertainment industry. Generating significant heat, these neon-heavy marquees give the viewer a flavour of the experience of being on a flashing television set or walking into a crowd of camera flashes, quite literally “under the lights.”

Theatricality is also a fundamental element of Ceal Floyer’s piece in the exhibition, Throw (1997), which makes use of a single theatre spotlight and a shaped gobo within a darkened room. The gobo is cut so as to create the shape of a smashed object when the spotlight casts on to the floor. This dramatic piece seems to draw something of its simplicity from a comic-book aesthetic and its title is also lighthearted; a pun on “throw” as a verb to describe the emission of light and also “throw” as a description of what might have happened to result in the smashed object on the floor. Floyer interrogates light’s illusory capabilities: what we wilfully read into the shapes cast by light. A similar, but less overt, approach is undertaken by Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, whose works create immersive environments through a theatrical manipulation of sensory equipment such as light, sound and temperature. On the subject of his artworks, Eliasson has commented that “my artworks are about you.” This deceptively simple equation masks what is fundamental to the development of light art, namely the environment and experiences that depend on the perception of viewers and spectators in order to recognise themselves fully as artworks.

While the entertainment industry is one example of electric or neon light being utilised to influence individuals for commercial benefit, advertising and marketing, of course, adopted the neon light virtually as soon as it was invented. It is this aspect of electric light that most fascinates the American artist Jenny Holzer, who has consistently interrogated light as a medium used to convey messages in language. Using LED signage and ticker displays, as well as illuminated signs, as her material, Holzer enlarges and alters these signs and positions them in relation to other signs, images and architecture to create a critical and political reading of the messages they convey.

One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the way in which artists working with electric light have called into question what constitutes a sculpture. This is particularly true of the work of British-born artist Anthony McCall, now based in New York, who makes use of a digital film projected through an artificial haze in his work You and I Horizontal from 2005. Projected in a dark room, the use of this haze gives the impression of light having tangibility and volumetric form, like light through dust or smoke. As the title encourages, the viewer is literally able to interact with the light, placing a hand into the haze to disturb the projection or transfer the beam. McCall’s filmic light works question the paradoxical relation to light as a sculptural medium, which he calls attention to by naming an influential series of installations Solid-Light.

Also intrigued by light’s intangibility is artist Ann Veronica Janssens, whose 2007 sculpture Rose makes use of seven theatrical spotlights and an artificial pink colour filter alongside a haze to cast a soft and ephemeral sculptural star or flower which exists between the light emitters. Inescapable with this work is the sense that the sculpture itself exists outside the source of the light. Gradations of colour and intensity depend not only on the distance between the light cast and the light emitter but also on the ways the beams interact with each other. The reliance of each spotlight on the others to create the light sculpture engenders a calming, transient and minimalist aesthetic.

By drawing attention to the paths of light beams, both McCall and Janssens investigate the ways that light interacts with its immediate architectural space and environment. This has been a primary concern of light artists throughout the 20th century, including members of the Light and Space movement James Turrell and Doug Wheeler, both of whom are represented in the exhibition. Influenced by geometric abstraction in the works of West Coast artists such as John McLaughlin, the Light and Space group was profoundly interested in light as an environmental phenomenon. Both Turrell and Wheeler create intricately measured and managed light environments that produce specific sensory experiences using both natural and artificial light.

Also investigating architectural space and light, the second work by Flavin to be included in the exhibition is nominal three (to William of Ockham) (1963), in which three vertical light fixtures in cool white are spaced in relation both to each other and to the specific measurements of the gallery in which they are displayed, creating a sculpture that alters every time it is reconstructed. By dedicating the artwork to the 14th century British theologist and philosopher William Ockham, Flavin aligns his work with a tradition of nominalism and conceptualism – the idea that only individuals exist, rather than universals. Resisting light’s tendency to exude a sense of the sublime in favour of a mathematical relation of component parts, there is something defiantly “matter of fact” and individualist about Flavin’s nominal three that is ultimately in tune with Ockham’s thought that nothing exists except in space and time.

Bringing together a diverse range of artistic practices and approaches, Light Show is the UK’s most generous survey of the medium to date, opening up both its development throughout the past five centuries and its potential for present and future explorations. Of his Light-Space-Modulator (1930), Moholy-Nagy wrote that “this piece of lighting equipment can be used to arrive at countless optical conclusions”, and the artists in Light Show appear to be encouraging the viewer to do the same, constantly testing and retesting our experience and perception of perhaps the most fundamental element that is available.

Light Show runs until 28 April 2013. www.southbankcentre.co.uk.

Colin Herd