Light Art, which began in the 1960s, is mainly concerned with exploring artificial light; it is a relatively young, but increasingly independent genre of art.
»Come over me, proud light, wild light, burn deep.«
László Moholy-Nagy, 1917
Light Art. Art made with light? Precisely. With artificial light? Yes. Non-self-consuming, constantly available—electric—light is one of the basic prerequisites for what we refer to as Light Art today.
Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), who wrote the words quoted above, was a teacher at the Bauhaus, which was founded in 1919. The Constructivist is regarded as one of the »fathers« of Light Art. Light and moving sculpture are the components of his Light-Space Modulator (1922–30), in which perforated metal discs and grates are moved by a motor. Spotlights shine on the sculpture, causing it to cast continuously changing shadows and reflections on its surroundings. Moholy-Nagy associated his Light Art with Kinetic Art, an art form that also began to emerge in the early years of the twentieth century (kinetics: a branch of science dealing with the effects of forces on the motions of physical bodies).
Light, three-dimensional form, motion, motors or machinery that may serve not only as a technical aid but also as an integral part of the presentation—these basic elements of contemporary Light Art are also found in the work of Moholy-Nagy. The era of experimentation came to an end with the rise of the Nazis to power and the outbreak of the Second World War. A Light Art movement did not appear again until the 1960s. Yves Klein, Jean Tinguely, and Lucio Fontana were its most influential pioneers. Canvas paintings and traditional sculptures? No, these three artists were intent upon liberating art from its ivory tower and making it a part of everyday life, and that meant integrating all of the space in which art is perceived. The »Zero« group founded in Germany by Heinz Mack and Otto Piene in 1958 soon attracted other artists, including Günther Uecker. Devoted to the principles of peace, the group sought to heighten awareness of natural processes. In Otto Piene´s Mechanisches Lichtballett (Mechanical Light Ballet, 1960), light flows through fabric balloons and perforated metal discs, creating a play of light and shadow throughout the darkened room (and not only on a screen or stage as in the cinema or the theater).
Light artists in France formed the »Groupe de Recherche d´Art Visuel« (GRAV) in 1960. François Morellet and Julio Le Parc were among its members. Their work revolved around new technologies, the relationships between light and motion, and efforts to demonstrate visual phenomena through experiments.
The Op Art (Optical Art) movement is equally important in this context. Op Art focuses on visual perception and the process of seeing as such. In calling attention to these phenomena, the representatives of Op Art—including Victor Vasarely, Heinz Mack, Günther Uecker, and the artists of the GRAV group—used structural reliefs, matrices of light and letters, and color contrasts intended to overstimulate the viewer´s eye.
In the U.S., the Minimalist Dan Flavin (1933–1996) presented his Light Icons, empty wall spaces framed by light bulbs. He later became quite famous for his installations comprised of commercially available colored neon tubes which take control of their surroundings, often blocking viewers´ movement as Light Barriers, and creating colored light spaces that evoke sensual experiences. James Turrell (*1943) lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona—when he is not digging underground passages and rooms in the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert, where he has been working since 1977. Where these tunnels and chambers find their way to the surface, visitors are treated to a totally new experience of light, the sky, and the horizon, which Turrell calls »the other horizon.« Light spaces created out of darkness and »art as an exercise in perception through light« are the themes of his work.
Keith Sonnier (*1941) has been working with artificial light since the 1960s—often within the context of architecture. For the underground passages at the headquarters of Munich Re, Sonnier designed a fascinating lighting system consisting of neon tubes that immerse the sober passages in a sea of yellow, orange, red, purple, and other colors. Another spectacular project features colorful neon snakes that wind their way through a glass cube perched atop the new church in Steyr, Austria.
One of the best-known contemporary Light artists is also from the U.S.: Jenny Holzer (*1950). In a wide range of settings—on airport advertising signs, on billboards at New York´s Times Square, on long LED electronic displays that run up the spiral ramp of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum or through the stairway of the Hamburger Kunsthalle—Holzer combines language and light to present pithy, social-critical messages, such as Money Creates Taste (at the Las Vegas airport!), and encourage passers-by to stop and think. Her first work of this kind was Truisms (1977–79). Holzer´s most recent project features texts projected with neon spotlights on buildings, squares, and even rivers.
Wafting fog penetrated by diffuse yellow light from an artificial sun—visitors to »The Weather Project,« an exhibition at the Tate Museum of Modern Art in London (2003) could hardly believe their eyes. And that must have pleased the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson (*1967), for his theme is the relationship between nature and our perception of nature, between the artificial and the natural—in short, »perceiving what we know and knowing what we perceive.« Many of the light and mirror installations he designs in this context resemble set-ups for scientific experiments.
A warm glow followed by a glaring flash, clear tones followed by mechanical noises, and even temperature changes (in White Noise)—the installations of Berlin artist Gunda Förster (*1967) also relate to the perceptions of visitors. Viewers never know what to expect next. Motion is also the focus of attention in the rapidly moving sequences of Gunda Förster´s videos and retouched photographs.
»Vision in Motion« is the title of an essay written by Moholy-Nagy in 1947. The early Light artists were fascinated by this phenomenon-made possible by film. They strove to open themselves to this mode of vision by incorporating kinetic elements into their art. Today, vision in motion is taken for granted as a part of everyday life. The new contribution made by Light Art is the creation of light spaces that address not only the sense of vision but that of hearing and touch as well. They permit the viewer to set himself in motion by moving about within the space, to perceive himself through his own motion, and thus to achieve a higher level of self-perception, to experience consciously how he sees, hears, and feels.
Olafur Eliasson, "360° expectations", 2001, detail
Carola Eißler (*1966), studied art history, modern English literature, and American language and literature in Tübingen and Swansea, Wales; DAAD grant for study in Great Britain. She has worked as a freelance journalist and author in the fields of art, psychology, and social studies since 1996.
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