The power of light has amazed humankind since 1879 when Edison found the way to artificially control it according our needs. Very quickly it became an indispensable part of our lives and the research to understand how it works and how to make the most of it hasn’t stopped since then. The more we know about light the more it amazes us. Light covers a wide range of fields of study from psychology of perception to high technology and it is being used both for health benefits and for less benevolent intents as torture.
Natural light has been used in art as a means for painting through the use of the camera obscura and for staginess purposes in Baroque sculpture. After the invention of artificial light the avant-gardes experimented with it but it wasn’t until the 60s, when Minimalism burst in, that artificial light joined the list of potential materials for sculpture. Dan Flavin’s neon tubes had an impact that still resonates today and have been formally repeated since then under the most diverse conceptual premises. Not much later, other artists shifted their attention towards perception aspects related to light and color and their ability to create spaces.
All of these examples can be seen these days at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney at the Light Show, an exhibition organized in association with the Hayward Gallery in London where it was showcased two years ago. Although some prominent names featured then are not present in Sydney, the exhibition shows a fair selection of the artists that use light as the main element of their work to create sculptures, installations and even atmospheres that cover all the subjects mentioned above. To give a sample of the diversity of approaches displayed here, the first work that we come across belongs to the youngest artist in the exhibition, Katie Patterson, who presents a catalogue of slides showing all the possibilities of darkness in remote points in the universe. As in previous works Patterson has worked with highly specialized experts, in this occasion to capture the blackness of the cosmos in a life-long project, History of Darkness, taking daily photos of the universe and handwriting on each slide the distance from the Earth where it’s been taken.
On the other hand, from a much more worldly perspective, David Batchelor seeks the color and light that is already there in the atrezzo of any urban landscape and very often neglected. The Magic Hour presents a tower of found light boxes facing the wall so that we only see the not at all glamorous back panels with all their wiring, but also the reflection on the wall of the colors of the lights.
Between these two opposite approaches, the exhibition shows two renowned pieces by Dan Flavin and from veteran artists as François Morellet, Carlos Cruz-Díez and James Turrell, the last two with emblematic pieces that challenge our perception of space and color when we immerse ourselves in a monochromatic environment. The use of technology and software to activate sequences of light is also present in the sculptures of Jim Campbell, Exploded View (Commuters), and Leo Villarreal, Cylinder. Anthony McCall’s You and I Horizontal is an installation where projected beams of light create the feeling of a three-dimensional light. There are also other pieces in which the use of light is a means to express other concerns as the governments’ abuse of power as in Ivan Navarro’s Reality Show and Jenny Holzer’s MONUMENT.
Light Show is completed by another small exhibition of light-related artworks belonging to the collection of the MCA. Luminous shows the work of five Australian artists among which Jonathan Jones stands out with his recent installation naa (to see or look) made of white fluorescent tubes on a big wall displayed in the same way as the star trails of Sydney’s South-Eastern night sky. This work is inspired in the notebook of the first Fleet astronomer lieutenant William Dawes who recorded his conversations with the local Aboriginal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of the land where Sydney is located.
By Paula Llull
Click here for more info on ‘Light Show’
Click here for more info on ‘Luminous’