The visible source of invisibility
by Kristin McIver
Jacques Derrida described light as the founding metaphor of Western philosophy, scientific and philosophical, referring to the origin of light as the precondition of life, seeing and knowing.[i] We know this to be true, for light is the energy source that allows life to exist. Humankind is drawn toward light like sunflowers turning toward the sun; our own physiological receptors seduced by the warm glow of the sun’s radiance. However it is this very power of seduction which renders light as a potentially deceptive beacon. While light has the power to illuminate, it also has the power to obscure. The frozen inevitability of a deer seduced by a car’s headlights; seduced, mesmerised, and beckoned toward an unknown but tempting future.
The sun and its cycles provided, according to Derrida, light and dark, presence and absence, clarity and obscurity[ii]. Light has been known as synonymous with truth, but Derrida illuminates the duality of light. Are we enlightened by light, or blinded by it? The very things that seduce us can also render us unable to see clearly or objectively. The human race has become too easily blinded by instilled beliefs, media persuasion, the seduction of fantasy, and blind to the destruction these desires are causing to our planet.
The Enlightenment period of the 18th century, embodied the linkage between lucidity and rationality. The cultural movement, whose name derives from the concept of light and clarity, supposedly brought an end to the moral obscurities allowed by religious dogma and outdated social systems. Freedom, democracy and reason were finally acknowledged as the primary values of the civilised world. Modern society embraced capitalist values, the scientific method, human rights and religious tolerance. However with the emerging capitalist society, came choice; and with it, desire. The worship of the sun’s cycles were replaced by a search for individual prosperity, and the Enlightened society became subject to seduction and manipulation through the same means by which they had previously sought survival. Light’s truth in the wrong hands became a deception.
The Sun. Our primary source of life, a physical embodiment of the sublime. Humankind’s very existence relies upon this fiery mass, which provides light for vision, and energy for synthesis, allowing life to occur. From the dawn of history, pagan rituals worshipped The Sun and its cycles. Religious deities embodied this sublime life force; the gods Apollo, Ra, and Sol all created in the sun’s image.
Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, a giant Sun constructed in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, is an immersive, atmospheric “weather art” installation, a giant representation of The Sun whose golden hue “rose” and “set” like the daily cycle of our Sun. The installation quickly became more than merely an artwork, but an environment of religious and spiritual proportions, where those with even a limited appreciation of art could congregate, relax, stage rallies, enjoy picnics, or meditate, as on a warm summer’s day. The Weather Project fulfils the need for spectacle, extravagance, and fervour of a public hungry for pleasure and amusement.
But can an artificial Sun be greater than our own? Using a constructed artificial light source, and swirling, vaporous mists, Eliasson creates a completely artificial environment, that denoted the trend towards spectacularisation and expansionism that has dominated art in the 21st century. The artist does not attempt to conceal his artifice, a mirrored ceiling exposing his deity as a semi-circular disk of light tubes. In revealing the mechanics behind his environment, the artist revokes the sublime nature of The Sun. Visitors to The Weather Project are enchanted, mesmerised, and seduced by the magic of engineering and allusion of nature. Eliasson highlights our intrinsic connection with nature, while at the same time exposing our rejection of the natural world. Humankind has become more attuned to the man-made environment than to the natural environment.
It is this type of spectacle that has drawn increasingly record crowds to the TATE, as viewers yearn for larger than life experiences that cut through today’s image saturated urbanity. The experience of scale and wonder previously reserved for gods, kings, and heroes, has become a necessary ingredient of entertainment. The Weather Project indicates that humankind would more likely cherish the experience of sitting beneath an artificial Sun, than enjoying that provided by nature. Our race has been seduced by its own creations, becoming blind to nature’s wonders and rendering it another victim to our throwaway excesses. The Weather Project highlights that despite The Sun being a source of life and vision; even its very representation can invoke awe. But just as the sun can burn, its warming light can blind.
Aside from its illuminating presence as energy source, light as an external force reveals physical matter. The exchange of light and shadow against various surfaces renders our visual perception of the world. Derrida’s acknowledgement of light’s role in the presence and absence of objects, are highlighted in Dan Graham’s Two Adjacent Pavilions. Light’s transparent nature means that we can never really know light itself; only through its interplay with the environment can we know of its presence.
Graham’s sculptural installations make a mockery of purist modernism, which chose glass as the preferred material due to its complete transparency. Graham reminds us that while glass can reveal, it can also reflect, resulting in an ambiguity of form. Two glass cubes installed in a forest environment, borrow key elements from modernist architecture, used in such a way as to impart disorientation and visual uncertainty upon the viewer. Two Adjacent Pavilions, constructed of two-way glass, change appearance throughout the varied light of day - from semi-transparent, whereby the viewer can see through the structure to the forest beyond, to completely opaque allowing the surrounding environment to reflect back at the viewer. Through this measured manipulation of The Sun’s daily cycle, the viewer’s sense of vision is impaired. It is not immediately clear where the sculpture ends and the forest begins. Is this a formal structure, or a picture plain reflecting the world back to us? Graham’s structures use natural light to vary the perception of these objects and highlight the ability for light to deceive.
Two Adjacent Pavilions subverts the modernist ideal that perfection in architecture could lead to perfection in its inhabitants. Modernism proposed rationality, transparency, and purity of form, just as The Enlightenment promised an end to social injustice. Like most social experiments, modernism had its flaws; Le Corbusier’s ideal of a “machine for living”[iii] could never live up to the real life situations inherent in the human drama. Modernism stands as a potent reminder of dystopian ideals that is unfolding in the corporate standardisation of the global condition, and the potential for transparency as a device of concealment.
Inspired by the Op Artists, Jim Isermann’s wall-based installation, Untitled, also borrows light’s properties to create a visual disturbance. Untitled uses Op Art techniques to reference the trend toward amorphous architecture in the 21st century, which uses advanced design and engineering to enhance the viewers’ perceptual and physical engagement with space - both internally and externally. Unlike strictly 2-Dimensional Op Art which activates retinal vibrations through optics and physiology, Isermann’s 3-Dimensional illusion extends this disorientation to alter the perception of space.
The work is constructed from vacuum formed polystyrene components, each of which recedes at calculated angles to a pyramidal concave shape. Arranged within the installation, these angular components influence light and shadow within the space, visually transcending the 2-dimensional plane of their construction to create the effect of a giant wave sweeping across the room. Isermann’s apparently voluminous wave of light and shadow makes it difficult to determine which areas recede, and which advance toward the viewer. The front aspect lends the appearance of a structure protruding from the wall in large sweeping curves. However viewed from the side, the structure appears flat against the wall. The angled shadows within the foam components combine to create this formal deception. Isermann’s monochromatic palette heightens the optical effect, rendering the viewer uncertain as to the spacial boundaries of the gallery.
Untitled successfully employs the dualism of light and dark inherent in Derrida’s observations of The Sun, to create illusive architecture. Isermann shows us that in vision, truth and illusion are difficult to separate. Objects, and indeed space, are often not what they seem; with light’s deceptive aid, we see what we want to see, or what we are encouraged to see, rather than what is.
Carsten Höller further overturns our visual perception by triggering alterations in the subjective experience. The viewer is always the central participant in Höller’s work, often viewing the work from within rather than as contemplative observation. Höller’s Y tunnel is constructed with 960 light globes which pulsate to create an almost hallucinatory experience. The tunnel is constructed with circular hoops reminiscent of circus props, fashion runways or the casino spectacle. Seduced by warm light emanating from the myriad of globes, the viewer is enticed to walk the tunnel from one of two entrances along the Y axis. As the viewer moves through the sensory installation, the tungsten rings gently flicker, causing a loss of balance as the viewer is funnelled, bewildered, toward the junction. Peering down the tunnel, it appears to extend to eternity, reflected back in pulsating agitation by a mirror placed at the tunnel’s terminal.
With Y, Höller plays with our desire for spectacle, drama, and propensity to altered perception. His work evokes the seduction of casinos, entertainment complexes and shopping malls. Just as casino lighting is engineered to deceive the mind through eternal daylight, over-stimulation and deliberately concealed exits, Höller’s light installation manipulates the body’s physical response through its aggregation of movement, space and light; Derrida’s clarity and obscurity are clearly at play here. In the artist’s words, Höller’s installation “questions humanity’s dubious perception. Can we accept what we perceive as real? Can we rely on our senses? How dependable and believable is the visible?”[iv] Like a siren beckoning its viewer, Y’s seduction quickly leads to visual confusion and physical disorientation.
Bruce Nauman also challenges the dependability of the real in Green Light Corridor. Visual perception is based around light, and how it bounces off physical objects. Green Light Corridor negotiates this perceptual space, manipulating both light and colour to create a physical and spacial misconception. The iridescent green light lures the viewer towards the sculpture, a seemingly passable tunnel, bathed in a fluorescent green light to create a deceived perspective. As the viewer navigates the sculpture, its tight passageway appears narrower; the tunnel seemingly too narrow to pass. The glowing green hue heightens the sense of enclosure, inducing claustrophobia. With his elusive sculpture, Nauman uses the contrast between perception and the physical object to psychological effect. He reveals light’s combined role with colour, as powerful tools of persuasion; our eyes, while enticed, do not always reveal a dependable image.
Examples of perceptual manipulation can be witnessed elsewhere in the daily urban environment; nowhere are we immune from the seduction of illusion. Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent comments on the bourgeoning culture of mass-consumption, through an icon of capitalist values, the supermarket. A product of mass-suburbanisation following the war, the supermarket allowed sprawling new suburbs to become self-sustainable. Bulk buying allowed greater availability of cheap products and the warehouse format provided greater efficiency of staff. The resulting landscape of product on mass, as illustrated in 99 cent, creates a desire-inducing patchwork of dazzling colour, each individual element competing for our attention. Gursky’s seductively detailed, large-format photograph demonstrates how saturated lighting and visual repetition are used within supermarkets to enhance the appearance of products, and direct the unassuming shopper toward lucrative shelving space; unaware, as within Green Light Corridor, that their sensory responders are being manipulated toward predetermined choices.
Through 99 Cent, Gursky proposes that humankind has lost touch with the natural order of living; growing vegetables, slaughtering livestock, and selecting edible foods from those that may harm us. Vegetables are now found in a freezer, meat is conveniently sliced and packaged, and the myriad of choice available due to globalisation has rendered us unable to discern seasonal varieties according to The Sun’s natural cycles. Food choices are no longer governed by nutritional requirements, but by the glaring visual seduction of discounts, specials, bright lights and attractive packaging. The Suburban landscape and its conveniences have gradually rendered us blind to what it means to be human. We have become consuming machines, eager to be guided in our choices, easily seduced by the lure of bright lights and saturated colour.
Part of her “truisms” series, Jenny Holzer’s Protect me from what I want is also concerned with the seduction of saturation in urban society. Initially created underground as anonymous messages posted in the streets of New York, Holzer’s texts used the very media which promoted capitalist ideals, to transmit her own messages on the same. Holzer’s truisms have brandished posters, billboards, park benches, T-shirts, bumper stickers, tattoos, moving LED displays and television networks. The artist emblazons her messages directly into the context of which they make a mockery.
Holzer does not limit her texts to her own opinions; rather she bombards her viewers with a wide range of often conflicting viewpoints that reflect the diversity and contradictions found in the modern cityscape. She exposes the fundamental fear and longing that is exploited by profiteers in contemporary society. The artist’s messages read like spiritual mantras, preaching liberation. If desire has replaced religion and spirituality, then the street is our chapel. The city and the experiences gained within, now form our source of spirituality, happiness, philosophy, influence and aspiration. Nowadays we look upwards, not to the decorated ceiling of the cathedral, but to the heaven-reaching buildings of commerce and their prophetic adornments of advertising billboards. And we do so without question, allowing corporate manipulation to prey on our desires and perpetuate the impetuous consumption of products.
Crucial to Holzer’s practice is working both within and outside of art institutions, as it is on the city streets where her message is likely to have the most profound effect - Holzer not only comments on blind faith in capitalism and urban spirituality, she aids her viewers to see where they were previously blinded by urban indoctrination.
Martha Rosler’s Gladiators, from the series entitled Bringing the War Home, highlights how our ardent consumption is not limited to products alone. The artist exposes how the violence and destruction of war is neutralised and packaged for audiences back home, providing the drama while sparing us the emotional horrors of war. First created during the Vietnam War, then recontextualised to comment on the Iraq War, Rosler’s collages juxtapose horrific images of warring soldiers into a sanguine, suburban lounge room. Flaming skies threaten the exterior, and harrowing depictions of torture hang, neatly framed on the innocuous beige wall.
Rossler’s inclusion of two sparring gladiators alludes to the tempestuous age of the pre-Enlightened Roman Empire, when conquest, torture and violence were consumed as family entertainment. Today’s armchair consumption of War is no less savage, rendering us blind to those injustices which occur behind the camera’s selective gaze; the exploitation of the poor, environmental devastation, the violence and tragedy of death, and the degeneration of post-Enlightened moral values. But although television viewers are denied the full perception of events by the media, there is also a participatory denial on the part of the general public. It is easier to observe these horrors from afar in short, palatable bursts, than to confront the harsh realities of War head on. War as viewed through the safety of a screen, remains a horror that happens in someone else’s backyard. Martha Rossler rejects this blind denial, forcing her viewers to confront these fearful images, which can in life be readily dismissed with the flick of a remote control.
Gladiator highlights War as simply another product to be consumed. The medium of television paints war in a captivating light, the consumption of which acts as mere pre-dinner entertainment. Our sheltered suburban existence, complete with glossy furnishings and wide-screen televisions, shield us from the injustices of the less fortunate. The more we buy, the more comfortable our existence, the easier it becomes to disregard the grim actualities of world politics. Rossler exposes the media’s role in this dissimulation of truth, but also our own willingness to turn a blind eye, consuming only the agreeable constituents of global events. Rossler overturns the asylum provided by media consumption, interweaving Derrida’s suggestion of presence (participation in the event) and absence (viewing with the refuge of distance).
Marco Fusinato’s Aetheric Plexus is a blinding and deafening sculpture that engages the viewer in direct participation with the work. Activated by motion sensors, this industrial rigging of construction scaffolding, stage lights and sound system are triggered to “explode” in a cacophonous blast at random intervals. The inclusion of a warning sign at the entrance to the gallery adds to the nervous anticipation as the viewer awaits the impending event. As the structure sits silently within the gallery, viewers can be observed cycling through the corporeal emotions of nervous anticipation, expectant giggles, frustration at waiting so long...and finally TERROR, as the quiet construction suddenly explodes in a blinding flash of light accompanied by the horrific sound of tearing, ripping metal. The effect is not dissimilar, one imagines, to the sensory aftermath of a real explosive device. However the benefit of foresight and the security of acknowledged illusion render this terrifying performance as nothing more than a light show, an entertainment device.
With Aetheric Plexus, Fusinato uses extreme light and sound to draw attention to our thrilled consumption of terror in the context of perceived safety. Fusinato’s viewers are an integral part of the work, animated muses playing through the mixed emotions of shock and trauma, reactions which are frequently imagined in this age of terror. Fusinato’s work begs the question, have we moved beyond our Enlightened values, or simply redirected our thrill-seeking desires? The stimulation of violence and adrenalin, virtually absent in contemporary suburban life, is now sought through entertainment. Increasing violence in film, television and video; is exposing generations to a plethora of gruesome, yet illusive images. This artificial terror, along with frequent worldly brutality, imparts a desensitisation to violence itself. Entertainment seekers require increasingly extravagant stimuli, making it increasingly difficult to separate real terror, from illusion.
Fusinato reminds us that the real events cloaked behind the enacted light and sound performance of art installation, video game or blockbuster film, are not cause for elation, adrenalin or entertainment - these traumas are exactly that. Destructive, horrific, fatal.
The Sun, both real and metaphorical, source of light, presence, and clarity, veritably presents two opposing truths. That which appears enlightened, can, in turn be shrouded in darkness. Given that The Sun’s light itself has no presence, only it serves to represent what lies before us, then its power to deceive is great. The light which seduces us can also lead us astray.
We are living in a blind society. Never before have had we greater means to see, to envision, to communicate, to access information, yet never have we been more in the dark. According to Plato, light is the invisible source of visibility[v]. However, in the twenty first century, it could be argued that the opposite is true; light is the source that renders the truth invisible.
[i] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, London, Routledge, 1978
[ii] Jacques Derrida, Critical Thought, edited by Ian MacLachlan, Hampshire, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2004
[iii] Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, translated by John Goodman, London, Frances Lincoln, 2008
[iv] Carsten Holler, Y, 2009 Catalogue essay, http://www.tba21.org/program/exhibitions/62/artwork/160?category=exhibitions, Accessed 29th August 2009
[v] Martin Heidigger, Pathmarks (Plato’s Doctrine of Truth), translated by Thomas Sheehan, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998
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