Mention the Festival of Light in Sydney nowadays and most people will think of Vivid rather than the Reverend Fred Nile’s wowsers. This is only natural, as Sydney has always embraced hedonism more readily than morality. In seven years, Vivid – a festival devoted to “music, light and ideas” – has established a monumental presence.
“Light” is the most original and puzzling part of Vivid’s appeal. One might think that events such as Sculpture by the Sea, Head On or the Sydney Writers’ Festival held more obvious attractions, but we are drawn to light like helpless insects. Set off some fireworks, project jazzy patterns onto the Opera House, or light up the Town Hall like a Christmas tree, and the streets are full of people – wide-eyed, slack-jawed, awestruck.
This year the Museum of Contemporary Art has joined the party by hosting Light Show, a survey of light art put together by the Hayward Gallery in London, where it proved to be one of the most successful exhibitions ever seen on Southbank. Next stop was Auckland, where it also drew the masses.
If asked to define the appeal of Light Show, it’s not that different from wandering around the suburbs in December looking at the Christmas lights. Despite the political and scientific baggage associated with individual pieces, this show is an entertainment. It’s tempting to say ‘a light entertainment’.
This is not the case with light itself, a topic of the most profound speculation for scientists, philosophers, mystics and poets. God got everything underway when he announced: “Let there be light: and there was light.” In most religions it seems that the Word of God has traditionally been viewed in terms of illumination or enlightenment; or perhaps as a battle between the forces of light and those of darkness.
In Christian art holy figures were identified by haloes of light, while stained glass windows combined religious symbolism with a physical impression of illumination. All the great painters, from Caravaggio to Rembrandt, Turner to Monet, were masters of light; or rather, masters of creating the illusion of light. Even today, most painters would probably say that light is the most important part of their work.
The MCA show is a cut-down version of the Hayward Gallery display, with a smaller number of works and nothing at all by Olafur Eliasson, Fischli & Weiss, Nancy Holt, Philippe Parreno and Doug Wheeler. This is disappointing, but it’s a familiar problem with touring exhibitions. Light Show is one of those rare cases in which bigger might have been better. With so many one-liners it would’ve been best to project an impression of teeming, carnivalesque variety. Even with 17 artists, the MCA version feels a little light-on.
Light Show concentrates on those years in which technology allowed artists to incorporate artificial light sources into sculptures and installations. The Modernist experiments of figures such as László Moholy-Nagy are discussed in the catalogue, but the earliest pieces in the exhibition are Dan Flavin’s Minimalist sculptures made from coloured fluorescent light tubes.
These works, which were controversial in their time, now feel like classics. Flavin bought his light fixtures from commercial suppliers and fiercely disavowed any metaphorical interpretations. “Symbolism is dwindling,” he once said. And again: “I like thinking here and now without sententious alibis.”
If some viewers had a deep spiritual experience with these coloured tubes that was never Flavin’s intention. He wasn’t averse, however, to a little philosophical tease, titling one piece, The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham) (1963). It consists of three vertical arrangements of white tubes in a one-two-three pattern.
Ockham was a late medieval scholar known for the principle called “Ockham’s razor”, which argues that when choosing among competing explanations one should always opt for the simplest. This was the kind of doctrine the Minimalists could appreciate.
Most of the works in Light Show subscribe to this no-nonsense approach. These are pieces to be experienced with the senses rather than mined for hidden meanings or symbolism. This is certainly true of James Turrell, the iconic artist in the field, whose retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia has just closed after a run of almost seven months. At the MCA Turrell is represented by one of his Wedgeworks, a room-sized installation that creates the illusion of a wall set at a diagonal, saturated in a red haze.
There is a slightly dutiful aspect to Turrell’s inclusion, which reveals only a small part of a complex oeuvre. A less familiar, long-term exponent of light art is Anthony McCall, whose You and I, Horizontal (2005), features beams of light projected into a darkened room filled with a fine mist. The beams, which look strangely solid, can be crossed and interrupted by the viewer. It’s the closest one may ever get to walking through walls.
Another guaranteed crowd-pleaser is Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation (1965-2013), which allows the visitor to experience rooms drenched in bright colours that slip and slide as we move from one area to the next. No matter where one looks it’s an ever-changing assault on the retina; an immersive environment in which we feel ourselves cut off from the normal world of sensory experience.
One would struggle to find a social or political angle in the works by McCall or Cruz-Diez, but Iván Navarro’s work deliberately conflates the rigid structures of Minimalist art with authoritarian politics. These pieces owe a debt to the years Navarro spent in Chile during the regime of General Pinochet, but his metaphors have universal relevance. In Reality Show (Silver) (2010) he invites visitors to step inside a small chamber lined with one-way mirrors. Inside this futuristic phone-booth one experiences an infinite recession of reflections. When the door is closed the world contracts to the size of this vertiginous space, but you are clearly visible to everyone waiting outside.
Jenny Holzer, herself one of the most over-exposed artists of our time, uses her trademark LED messages to relay declassified U.S. intelligence information. It would be more impressive if the data was still top secret, but then Holzer might have had to ask if the Ecuadorian Embassy in London had another spare room. Her piece plays on the idea of bringing the state’s dark secrets into the light, but this is not a revelation, merely the kind of anodyne political gesture one sees everywhere in the contemporary art world.
Should we think more highly of Holzer because of this political dimension? She may have the moral edge on an artist such as Bill Culbert, whose Bulb Box Reflection II (1975), featuring a switched-off light bulb that is lit up in a mirror, is a clever conjuring trick. Her installation may be more socially engaged than the geometrically based works of Francois Morellet or the hyper-decorations of Leo Villareal, but in the context of this exhibition, a political message comes across as ‘just another thing’ that can be done with light. Sensory deprivation or disorientation may be used as forms of torture, but here they are diversions.
Because it deals more often with perceptions than materials there is always a touch of the sideshow about light art. The metaphorical pedigree of light may embrace the cosmos but its physical reality is the most common thing on earth. One thinks of the words attributed to Goethe on his deathbed: “More light!” How wonderful it sounds, but apparently the great poet really said: “Open the second shutter to let in more light.”
It’s the same with this exhibition, in which sublime illusions are built on prosaic foundations. Most of the work in this show makes no attempt to conceal its debt to technology and industrial pre-fabrication, but the art disappears as soon as we pull the plug.
In the midst of Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation one feels almost disembodied, but step outside and it’s only an arrangement of walls and projectors. Villareal’s Cylinder II (2012) is a shower of sparkling lights, but doesn’t induce further reflection when we have left the room. The mind rarely lingers on those things we know to be ephemeral, yet perhaps we are evolving in a different direction: for an increasing number of people who prefer to live in the moment, the spectacle may be sufficient unto itself.
Museum of Contemporary Art,
Until 5 July
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 13th June, 2015