This paper will predominantly focus on discussing specific artworks from Dan Flavin and James Turrell, comparing their work with other artists and ultimately my own. In an attempt to explain and understand how the simple use of light can be art.
My ambition is for it to aid me with my studio practice and to find my own unique standpoint on the genre. I will closely examine how their work was made, the links between their artwork and mine, the visual perception, and take account of how their peers viewed their art.
I will begin to look at a piece from my studio practice (fig.1) and compare it with a piece of artwork from Turrell’s Projection Series, Afrim-Proto (fig.2). James Turrell’s work has been described as a way of, “leading us into the fringes of perception. He shows us that with our culturally informed conventions of dealing with light and seeing we cannot make any headway in certain situations unless we begin to feel- even with our eyes.” (in Hausler, 2000, 63). This only begins to touch on the understanding behind his work which, in comparison to mine, was about experimenting with the idea of ‘painting with light’. The essence of my work involved using a lamp in a dark space and used a piece of paper as a silhouette. Placing these shapes in the corners of the room allowed me to generate new shapes with the one silhouette. Although there are similarities visually, the explanations couldn’t be further apart. As you can see in fig.2 Turrell has projected a rectangle in the corner of a room, which has produced a new shape. This gives the illusion that it is a three dimensional cube. Because of the use of geometrical shapes there can be judged to be a link with Donald Judd (fig.3). Furthermore both Turrell and Judd involve the architectural space with the artwork.
And like Judd, Turrell is interested in the perception of the viewer; and this perception becomes a part of the work. Robert Morris was also interested in the viewers perception, as he understands, “One sees and immediately ‘believes’ that the pattern within one’s mind corresponds to the existential fact of the object. Belief in this sense is a kind of faith in spatial extension.” (in Dimarco, 2008). Where as Judd was interested in the object as an object, I understand that James Turrell’s use of light as art is about creating an illusion, or questioning perception. One can also make some interesting comparisons with this piece of work and that in fig.4.
fig.4. James Turrell, My Brother’s Window, 1991, (open and closed)
This piece is about involving the viewer with the work, as Turrell explains, “ [I] dealt to a greater extent with the architecture of the space occupied by the viewer,” he also explains that his work is, “not hypothetical but actual.” (in Noever, 1998, 73). Which is a reference to my early understanding about creating an illusion in his work. In my opinion, his work is not just about the experience of the viewer but our physical relationship with light, he confirms, “… My work is on the relationship we have with light. You can feel the light with your body and when your eyes are open, your feeling goes out of the eye like a touch.” (in Hausler, 2000, 55). In fig.4 and fig.5 one may notice another visual similarity via the use of fluorescent tubes. It is also worthy of note that there is a lack of direct light from these tubes but instead a use of a glow generated by the tubes.
Turrell describes this piece as a, “play with the viewer’s perception of space,” (in Noever, 1998, 73). I can identify a subtle link between my work and this statement. When entering the dark space in Fig.5 one has to initially simply adjust to their surroundings before they begin to figure out where the artwork is in the room. Both pieces of work however, provide a good argument that using a small amount of light or glow can be just as visually powerful as flooding a room with light, Turrell justifies, “the dimensionality of the physical limits of the space and the glow of the reflected light that permeates the entire room make the illusionistically worked, hypothetical space one with the room space.” (in Noever, 1998, 73). As a way of viewing Turrell’s art it is worth questioning the use of ‘darkness’. Apart from the practical and visual aspect that allows the artwork to be seen, why is it so prominent and in some cases required? One would expect that the darkness surrounding the work is equally important as the work? One reason for this could be, as Turrell said, “that only in relative darkness can our eyes really open and feel the space.” (in Hausler, 2000, 62). Jiri Svestka has a different take on how to view Turrell’s art, “they are not intended for contemplation, analysis, decoding or interpretation, but they represent only themselves and thus perception as such.” He continues to say, “they are works of art that should not be viewed from a distance, but machines through which perception itself can be examined.” (Svestka, 1992, 5)
Fabrizio Corneli is another artist that uses light as a medium. As you can see in fig.6 he doesn’t use the light directly but as a tool for his final piece and plays with the viewers perception with light and it’s shadow. Corneli finds links with light and thought and thus concludes that, “Rationality and light come together in sight, the sense that has most guided human intellectual development.” (in Barzel, 2005, 64).
Donald Judd once said that, “it isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyse one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, it’s quality as a whole, is what is interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense, clear and powerful,” (in Meyer, 2000, 13). For me this statement is the most appropriate way of describing Dan Flavin’s art.
Fig.7, Dan Flavin, the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Robert Rosenblum) 1963. Cool white fluorescent light 1.244 cm [8 ft]
Fig.7 was the first of a series of instillations that just used fluorescent lights. This saw a change in the way the public view art in the gallery space into an experience where a viewer would cast a shadow from Flavin’s artwork and unintentionally become a part of it; an aspect of his art that has been the main influence on my work.
In fig.8 and fig.7 you will notice the similarities with the use of Fluorescent lights. If one were to look closer at the light in fig.8 they will notice how the glow stretches its physical boundaries, become aware of the coloured plastic sheets and recognise how they control the colour of the glow from the light but not effect the colour of its origin. This leads me to query why didn’t Flavin use other materials in his work? My understanding is that he wanted to eliminate unnecessary elements so the viewer would concentrate on the singular experience with the light, Dan Graham explains, “…Light is immediately present in all places; the sensation is optical and singular.” (In Goven, and Bell, 2004, 72).
LEFT Fig.9. Dan Flavin, untitled, 1996. Installation view, Richmond Hall, Menil Collection, Houston, Texas, Long term installation. RIGHT Fig.10. Angela Bulloch, Progression of 8 Perverted Pixels. 8 plexiglas dmx modules
It is also possible to see the visual links between Flavin and Angela Bulloch’s (fig.9 & fig.10) use of colour. Bulloch’s work however, adds an extra geometrical depth behind the use of light. In fig.10 the box-like shapes combine with the use of light and shade to create unique shapes with differing levels of depth. Personally, I am intrigued by the reflection underneath the boxes as they add an extra visible plane, an extension of the shape. Via this use of light the shape makes a seamless transition from a hard edge design into a new realm of light and space that allows the viewer to make a connection with the shape without physically touching it, similar to Flavin’s lights.
After looking at all these artists and considering their work it became apparent to me that the use of light is a mechanism for the artist’s vision. A vision that explores the relationship between the artwork and the viewer, whether this is a vision of perception or creating an illusion or perhaps it’s a case of eliminating any unnecessary entities to force a viewer to concentrate on the singular aspect of the piece. Although the artworks examined here may look similar visually, the ideas and processes are different. Overall this essay has sought to open up new ideas and a fresh understanding of light as art, furthermore it has helped me to understand and appreciate my own work as well as others. My work involves the viewer in a visual experience that I have created; the viewer is the third person in a voyeuristic sense where they become a part of my experiments with light, they will unintentionally view my art as if they were, ‘looking over my shoulder’. The viewer will inevitably have a different perspective on my artwork; it then becomes an interaction and a constant interplay between the viewer and the artwork. Similar to Flavin, Judd and Turrell the viewer’s perception of the art becomes a part of the work.
Barzel, Amnon (2005) Light Art. Traduco S.N.C. Italy,Skira
Dimarco, Heather (2008) ‘CVCS Perception and Knowledge Robert Morris’.Online Ressource acsessed December 2008 : http://heatherdimarco.wordpress.com/cvcs-perception-and-knowledge-robert-morris/
Govan, Michael and Bell, Tiffany (2004) Dan Flavin, ARetrospective, New York, Dia Art Foundation
Hausler, Wolfgang. (ed.) (2000). James Turrell, lighting a planet, Nielsen, Camilla, Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, Hatje cantz verlag.
Meyer, James (2000) Minimalism, London, Phaidon
Noever, Peter (ed.) (1998)James Turrel, The Other Horizon, Brian Holmes, Marget Millischer, Werner Rappl, Claudia Spinner. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germeny, Hatje cantz verlag
Svestka, Jiri (ed) (1992) James Turrell, Perceptual Cells, Hugh Beyer, David Britt, barbara Fohrer, Gudrun Harms, Brigitte Kalthoff,Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, Edition Cantz