Friday, 3 May 2013

Light Show

Hayward Gallery
30 January  6 May 2013 

Detail from Model for a timeless garden by Olafur Eliasson. From here.
Appreciation of the effects of light appears to have gone missing from contemporary art, and this selection of works from the last 30 years or so confirms this.

Simply celebrating light over darkness (or better, absence of light) has been central to our visual culture. Poets, musicians and philosophers may celebrate night but mostly reacting against what for most of us is our unquestioned preference for daylight.

The artworks here also celebrate light, and as the curators point out, are indeed comprised mostly of light, but it is dispiriting that the light in question is entirely manufactured, either lightbulbs or neon or LEDs; nowhere is there actual light from the sun, or the moon, or from candles / fires.

The quality of light links to another observation.

Depicting light’s effects in paint, or managing its effects in sculpture and architecture, is a critical part of representational art, at least in the Western tradition and since at least the Renaissance, but probably on-and-off in all regions and across much larger epochs.

I’ve just returned from Venice, whose painters and architects specialised in depicting and exploiting the effects of light in their city.

Clearly this assumes that when we look at a Canaletto, we see Venice, rather than small gradations of oil. Promisingly, the artists in this exhibition use light itself, directly, rather than attempting to represent light through oil.

Unfortunately the results are usually extremely crude, with little of the refinement of earlier masters.

Three rooms in lit by different colours: a work of greater subtlety than most in this outrageously popular exhibition. I accept the visceral effect of walking from one light-infused section to another is impressive, and the work also highlights our subjective experience of colour, how this changes relative to our context.

But is that it? Doesn’t Monet make the same point in infinitely finer style, to name unfairly just the greatest of possible comparisons?

Two works here are definitely worth experiencing.

Wedgework V by James Turrell is a genuine sculpture in light, similar to Barnett Newman’s paintings in the Tate, but even more hypnotic. But the artist requests 15 minutes of contemplation for the work to achieve full effect, which seems exorbitant, and nobody else managed it when I was watching.

Model for a timeless garden by Olafur Eliasson is stunning, various mini water spouts illuminated by white strobe lighting. For once, the cold ambience of the lighting really helped, turning the water droplets into gleaming crystals. It is the kind of marvel about which fables are written.

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