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A single source of light can transcend an atmosphere, casting a glowing net onto viewers and architecture, altering the spectator’s environment and perception. Artists have embraced this awareness since the earliest paintings, but the wider availability of electric light in the 1960s introduced a new consideration of light as object, rather than medium. In conjunction with Hayward Gallery’s “Light Show” exhibition, I spoke with the curator, Dr. Cliff Lauson, on his survey of work that uses light as sculpture.
WHITEWALL: “Light Show” spans work from the 1960s to the present — decades-old rarities combined with contemporary work using cutting-edge LED technology. How have light-based installations evolved over this course of time?
CLIFF LAUSON: The show surveys five decades of light-related artwork, and it does focus specifically on artists who use light as a sculptural medium. Generally speaking, I think this link between artists who use light and technology is a solid one; as technology has progressed, a number of artists have been interested in embracing what is most readily available. I also think sometimes the opposite happens, whereby artists are interested in technologies that are becoming obsolescent or outmoded, and it becomes more of a historical research and aesthetic statement when using outmoded technology — [for example] Cerith Wyn Evans, who is using old-style filament bulbs that radiate a lot of heat, because their bulbs are technically very inefficient. The quality he is interested in is the mix of heat and light, so you feel the sculpture as you see the sculpture, so there’s another layer of tangibility there.
WW: This sensory experience allows viewers to interact with ephemeral, sometimes intangible, sculptures of light. How would you say the work is capable of altering the viewer’s psychological perception?
CL: The whole exhibition will be a myriad of sensory optical experiences, and different artists are interested in the idea of perception and light at different levels. An artist like James Turrell is quite famous for his almost scientific interest in what happens when your eye is exposed to light, to the point that his art practice has become about constructing environments in which the show of light makes these effects happen in people.
Carlos Cruz-Diez is interested in what happens to your eyes when you spend much time in areas of concentrated, colored light, so as your eyes adjust to a new white balance — if your eyes were like a camera — then as you move between spaces, the way that you perceive the colors actively changes in front of your eyes. When artists are working with light, it is almost the first thing they need to consider; how it is affecting perception and going from there dictates all manner of things.
To read the rest of the article, please pick up Whitewall’s summer 2013 Design Issue, out in June.