In one of the entries in his magisterial journal of the world, Mirrors, Eduardo Galeano pays eloquent homage to the architecture of the 9th century fortress, the Alhambra: “Back in the year 1600 something, sculptor Luis de la Peña wanted to sculpt light… he spent his entire life trying and failing. It never occurred to him to look up. There, on the crest of a hill of red earth, other artists had sculpted light, and water too.”
Two years before Galeano, in the sleeve notes to the 2007 flamenco/jazz album Patchwork, Gabriel Omnès likens the music of ensemble Jerez Texas to the architectural design of an Andalucian patio, “bursting with light, blending the heat of the sun with the coolness of the water, the finely sculpted stones and the luxuriance of the vegetation.”
Light itself is the medium of art at the Light Show in London’s Hayward Gallery. Owing to photography (literally ‘writing with light’) the British artist, Anthony McCall, describes his form of light manipulation as film. ‘You and I, Horizontal’ (2005), presented again at the show, fashions solid cones of white light from air by means of filmic projection. Cinema is reduced to its bare minimum; there is no screen, no image. Only a projection of light–a vast hollow cone– passing through time across a dark space. I enter it and instantly feel I’m walking through walls. The light is hazy and I rip sci-fi-like, as it were, through a gossamer material. Interacting spectators around me appear only to vanish again. From the outside the sculpture stumpingly appears solid.
The Karachi-born British artist Ceal Floyer ’s ‘Throw’ also plays with the conventions of light changing and transplacing how it inhabits our everyday. A theatre stage light on a tripod innocuously projects a comic-strip splat on the floor: a white puddle of paint, a splash of milk if you want, giving the installation a half-serious but radioactive feel.
The highlight for some is Danish-Icelandic Olafur Eliasson’s sensational ‘Model for a Timeless Garden’ (2011). Sculpting space in darkness, it is a night garden of flashing fountains and sparkling spumes. It takes us back to black-and-white cinema, but this time in true 3-D. The question that inevitably springs to mind and body is: is the pristine white water virtual? Its viscerality, real or staged, inviting the hand to witness. I could see a guard eyeing me as I gingerly extended a time-stopping finger forward. The immersive installation took me back to an Elliasson solo in Berlin two years ago where a room completely befogged in red and pink mist generated an instant vertigo and I was quickly lost. I recovered my bearings only when someone else suddenly appeared before me in collision mode.
Known as a pioneer in using advertising and billboards in New York and many other American cities, Jenny Holzer’s ‘MONUMENT’ (2008) stands as a shimmering LED column that gathers texts from declassified US documents. As the scrolls spew out the feed, as in the New York Stock Exchange, one reads details of operations, abuses and interrogations in the ‘war on terror’.
In the Chilean artist Iván Navarro’s ‘Reality Show’ (2010), I enter a Tardis-like phone booth where I am instantly disorientated, stoned, trapped in an elevator shaft. The illuminated space above, around and below (most disconcertingly in the last case) appears to go on endlessly, for ever and ever. I lose my reflection even as those around me proliferate ghostlike a thousand times. Navarro grew up during Pinochet’s totalitarian regime with its dreadful disappearances; it is hard not to see a moral and political point in his deployment of optics here.
Other parts of the globe where artificial light is a luxury may find solidarity amongst those suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). James Turrell’s ‘Wedgework V’ (1975) provides some calming comfort in his glowing rectangles of light. I emerge into this after entering the blackness of a long passage (feeling its wall as instructed by the usher). Relucent and rose-tinted, the undefined space, chopped into geometric wedges at different depths, in front of me swims, fluctuates, and strangely soothes.
Cerith Wyn Evans’s S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E, (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill underlying motive’s overspill…”) generates heat as well as light. The double take in the title is a quote from James Merrill’s apocalyptic epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover. As the array of tiny bulbs on Evans’s three columns come to life, a welcome wave of heat fills the space.
Some of the exhibits may be dismissed as gimmicky and wasteful. But the show is marked by brisk attendance in a manner that I have never seen before. Interactive in the best possible way, it also encourages you to see how people react to each other, how moods change among strangers. How playful art can be. I even ended up exchanging–as our retinas collected light– notes with the stern guard.