"And as much as I'd like to believe there's truth beyond illusion, I've come to believe that there's no truth beyond illusion. Because, between 'reality' on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle, and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.." Donna Tartt in The Goldfinch
"Mysticism in art is hard to pull off. As time goes by, though, I'm wondering if the core issue surrounding artmaking is finding ways of creating immanence without being corny or naff or a long list of adjectives." Douglas Coupland in Wildest Dreams (Douglas Coupland in Conversation with Daniel Birnbaum - Art Forum Nov. 2017)
I've recently spent a lot of time thinking about the role of light in contemporary art. I'm not speaking about "Light art" - which is a topic, and a field - in itself. However I am interested in embarking on a short exploration of how we can think of light in a subset of today's art production, specifically because in my recent forays as visual arts curator for the Day For Night festival, I've had a chance to see the production of - and the reaction to - light driven art very closely. As I see people flocking to sources of light, I wonder what is so seductive about light in pieces of art, what makes it so desirable and powerful to audiences, and mostly why it is hard for critics to decode it as more than eye candy?
So what is it? Is it necessary to fly through a quick historical overview to understand it? Were medieval cathedrals with their stained glass windows initial forms of light art? Or would it be accurate to say that nature is in fact the ultimate light artist, with it's endless light shows?
Without being too facetious, we would only really need to start a contemporary exploration of light art at the point in time when light became "controllable", i.e the spread of electricity as a commodity, and of lighting fixtures as a basic necessity of our daily lives, something that we literally cannot live without. The process of "lighting" being something that is not the prerogative of nature alone, but is fully in the hands of humans. This becomes even more true when lighting devices start becoming designed specifically for the purposes of control by professionals, in the worlds of theater, film and photography.
However these fields - in which light is used professionally - are still not the realm of light art per se. Light is being used to illuminate, but it only illuminates the other, not itself. Light has not yet engaged in a love affair with itself, hasn't yet become obsessed with it's relationship to presence and space.
And this is where we can really dig in...Because in essence, light is what makes visibility possible, but it cannot be seen in isolation, it has to interact with physical matter. As Mark Taylor says quite nicely : "Rather than rendering (the) all transparent, light harbors a darkness that makes vision possible yet leaves it incomplete" - ("Refiguring the Spiritual. Beuys/Barney/Turell/Goldsworthy", p.103, 2012, Columbia University Press). In other words, there isn't any way light can "just be" - in a vacuum. We know this because light is so tied to our ability to see that we never question it's presence. We do however fall in awe of light, as with air, when we need it the most.
Without going too far into the obvious spiritual meaning of light, which we can all relate to from the dark rooms of childhood to exposure to any religious teaching, we can safely say that light invokes the immaterial that grants visibility to the material. Contemporary art has had it's fair share of artists manipulating light, but we rarely read this work as a quest for an understanding of "being". I would venture to argue that some artists today have in fact a desire to do something just like that. What the Light/Space movement of the late 20th century (Turell, Irwin et al.) explored was a form of phenomenology, not, as I'll argue, an ontology.
I realize that I've gotten away, so far, without mentioning any particular artists within the field of "post media art" that make predominant use of light in their practice. So to correct that, let's say, and in particular from the Day For Night 2017 roster : UVA, Nonotak, Tundra, and AV&C + Houze. These artists would probably cringe at the mention of philosophy consciously imbuing their practice. Nevertheless, to develop this theory, one has to understand some of the cultural currents these artists are exposed to, and deal with.
One of these currents is the excess of currents. There is too much to pay attention to, so much imagery, so much media production, that we see a "reductio" process at hand. What is behind all media? What makes media possible? What is still there if you strip all the attributes of media's presence in the world. Two things : thought and light. Everything else is decoration, gestures of embellishment. Far from me the attempt to discredit any of these gestures, I'm in love with so many of them. But, they reached a point of such saturation that there now are media about media that are themselves about media. When we are put in this type of infinite recursion, we need a exit, a retreat, a calmer place. This is not so different from the efforts of a Kasimir Malevich, with his extremely reduced paintings (such as "White on White" from 1918).
Another current, aside from this desire for simplification and return to a form of "essence" of things, is the relationship between viewer and artwork. The art world is still enamored with the idea of the passivity of the viewer, of a controlled distance between viewer and work. This applies to film, television, museums, and in general the majority of the work being produced at this point in time. But what this supposes is the continuity of the somewhat antiquated subject-object dynamic that has driven the majority of western thought since the emergence of rationality. It also supposes that time is somewhat frozen for the object once it has been created. It will be there, ready for your gaze, in 100 year or more, if the conservation department does it's job right.
This is something that barely applies to installation based light work. First of all because the work is not static, neither in time nor in space. When it is well done, it in fact is closer to Heraclitus' river, never the same each time you step in it. It requires you to enter into a space, with other people, and experience a moment in the life of the work. It isn't possible for you to even have the illusion of embracing it completely, because another viewing of it will not yield the same results. In a sense, it is as if the artwork was a subject as much as the object. The very talented artists of Troika say it well in the introduction of their book Digital by Design : " [..] the field having been variously called new media art, digital art, techno design, technocraft or physical computing, yet they are the imaginative products of non-linear thinking, where technology is re-invested with subjectivity and play and triggers thoughts just as a book or a film can do".
Said differently by Francisco J.Ricardo in "The Engagment Aesthetic" - "None of these kinds of work is "already" finished, each has its own character, yet each is remade every time it is invoked, produced, viewed, or read. To experience such works is to look, read, thing, and feel differently [..] because the aesthetic focus is not on heightening our sense of an object or a work, but one what comes between us and the work-the act of engagement itself"
This also brings up the final point I would like to make about the conditions that define the elusive type of work we are exploring : a reliance on computation. Because a particular connection between software, hardware, mechanics and space are key to the execution of these works, we have to accept by definition that they are not fixed (the software can be modified, or it can modify itself in the case of generative works), but also that the definition of authorship is changed. The artist is more of a gardener than a mason, his/her constructions are defined by the way in which ideas are planted, rather than the exactitude of the plan they follow. And this gets enhanced further when interactivity becomes part of the equation.
So if we sum up these points as an erosion of the relationship between the artist, the audience, the medium and the conditions of production of the work, we can see that there is a drive towards something more and more immaterial, less and less "anchored". And the parallel I would like to draw as form of conclusion is to the Pre-Socratic philosophers. Their quest was towards the essence of things, what was left if we boiled down the world to its essence? Water for Thales, Fire for Heraclitus, the Apeiron of Anaximander etc...In our case : light. Light as the condition of visibility, and the closest thing to pure thought, removed of it's adornments, beyond shape and form.
At this point the obvious correlation would be Plato, with his allegory of the cave. Because is it not "light" that casts the shadows the prisoners of the cave see and believe to be the only reality? Even though, for Plato, the question was really about the pure "ideas" and their shadows on the wall that represented the lesser incarnations of these ideal types, the Sun (light) was the synonym of truth and higher knowledge. I think that often the feeling ones get looking at the work of Nonotak or UVA is almost of a literal exposure of this process. There is nothing "beyond" light, it is the purest, simplest, most elemental modality of vision. Light is what makes other art forms visible. So dealing with light is in fact dealing with the conditions that make any art possible.
This hopefully makes clear that the type of metaphysical endeavor I refer to when saying it is the (potentially subconscious) attractor that drives the efforts of new media artists dealing with light. There is an effort to boil things down to their essence, which has always been a task undertaken by either philosophers or artists. There is an attempt to cut through the layers of mediation that has only become possible because we have become experts at understanding how mediation works, probably through our own overdose in it.
These artists aim at clarity. And I think that that, in itself, explains a lot of the attraction that the pieces they produce are so successful, regardless of your level of aesthetic training.
There is a copious amount of literature existing about light art, in particular the type created by artists such as the Light/Space artists, as being in essence art that brings forth the act of perceiving itself, and thus dissolving the viewer and the art in a "unified field". As much as I appreciate this phenomenological train of thought, I don't think it can be copy/pasted to the works of these present day artists, who deal with issues that are not so much of an "explicit" spiritual nature. What we are seeing is, in my opinion, a reaction to a certain saturation of mediation, and a thirst towards a cleaner ontological ground, even if no commitment is made towards is solidity - it is suggested, never embraced.