Immersive Light

Light is one of the most powerful tools that artists use to create aesthetic immersive environments. James Turrell and Dan Flavin make this kind of abstract work, and are profiled in this episode. We also meet Anthony McCall and Anne Katrine Senstad, whom one could describe as sculptors of light.

AIRED: April 08, 2020 | 0:26:26





Lowry: The interest, I think, in experiential work today

is also largely grounded in the radical work

that those artists were doing already in the '60s and '70s...


...redefining how we might think about what a work of art is

beyond any sort of traditional idea

of what an object could be, what a single artwork could be.

That is immersive, environmental,

requires time to experience, needs a lot of space...


...which crossed stylistic boundaries

and are really much more about kind of an immersive experience,

an embodied experience of a work of art.




He started in 1963.

He was making these kind of objects.

They were almost, like, pop art objects.

Some of them had, like, light bulb shapes,

but they weren't necessarily illuminated.

Some of them consisted of a group he called the icons,

which were monochromatic canvases

that were animated by electric light.

And then in 1963, he put a diagonal light bulb on his wall.

He mounted just a store-bought unit

that he had in his studio directly on the wall

at a 45-degree angle from the floor,

and he realized when he turned it on.

It projected into the room,

but it had color and sort of visual texture,

and so it operated somewhere

between a painting and a sculpture.

It was what he called an image object,

and it sustained visual interest without any other augmentation,

and that for him was a real breakthrough moment

where he realized a work of art

could be both a painting and a sculpture.

It could also be both static and kinetic,

immersive and yet painterly.


What's kind of radical about Flavin

is he relied on the store-bought unit.

It was for him about deploying an existing system...


...and that I think is one of

the kind of fundamental differences

between Dan Flavin and some of his peers

who started using neon light at the same time.

Neon is a fascinating material

because you can draw with it in space.

Right? You shape it according

to whatever your vision for how the light should look is,

whereas the fluorescent units Flavin was using were fixed.

He had to play within that fixed system.

Within that, there was kind of infinite variation.

Infinite number of combinations were possible.

Those combinations could even be immersive and environmental

if increased at scale.


This idea really interested him,

this tension between expansion and containment,

and it led him to a series

of what he called barrier sculptures in the 1970s

such as you can see behind me.

This is an untitled barrier

in which he arranged repeating units of electric light

so that they would physically bisect a architectural space.

In that way, the work literally had architectural presence.

It has sculptural presence in the space of the room,

but at the same time,

it projected beyond its physical limits,

so it truly incorporated the envelope

of the entire gallery space.


Already in 1983 Flavin is thinking about this idea

of an immersive environment,

that you could have a space that's kind of organized,

orchestrated with a choreography that the viewers can move

between these kind of totally encompassing experiences.

Some of the works you can see through.

Some of the work is more barrier-like,

and so this idea of an environment

that one is completely subjected into, immersed into.

Of course, his environmentally scoped ambition grows

as his practice develops, so, you know,

he begins with more sort of single objects on the wall

and eventually the Marfa installation,

which is kind of a total environment.





Even the walls become part of the installation.

Right? Not only is he thinking about

how light projects onto the walls,

or how light can be a physical intervention in the space,

but how the space itself can respond to light.



Flavin, when he spoke about his work,

spoke about it in very specific terms

that had to do with its materiality and its form.

He was uninterested in inviting a conversation

that he would participate in

that had to do with any kind of external meaning

beyond what is physically present.

At the same time, he was quite deliberate with his titles,

and they frequently reference

either people who were important to him in his life,

important art historical figures,

or in some cases,

sociohistorical events like the Vietnam War,

so in this way, Flavin kind of leaves us as viewers today

with these kind of crumbs of a narrative to piece back together

and to make our own assumptions about.


I think one of the things that Flavin's work offers

that makes it so relevant for today

is precisely an experience that is visually spectacular,

but that reminds you

that you are also a physical being in space.

Yes, we see people Instagram the work

like everything at the museum,

but often I actually see people putting their phones away

and sort of looking at the way

the light can project onto their own bodies,

the way it changes as they move through this space,

or as in our case because we're naturally lit,

the light changes, and the work reacts to that.

I think there's something really beautiful

about the kind of embodied experience Flavin

both invites and demands of the audience,

and how that is experienced today is different than,

of course, it was in the '60s

because we live through our digitally mediated worlds,

but it's a reminder, actually,

to kind of put away your phone and be present with the work.

Senstad: I came into lights through the technical side.

I was a photographer, and I was also in Norway

studying social science and politics,

and then I took a course,

or it was a 6 months technical course

to be a cinema projectionist like in the film

"Cinema Paradiso,"

so I had to learn all aspects of what the light consists of,

what the cinema, the projectors' light bulbs consist of.

It was really fascinating.

I mean, it was a very powerful experience

to be at a young age a cinema projectionist

because it was like being in charge

of a lighthouse or something.


So I started using lights

as subject material probably late '90s.

I kind of inherited these 8-foot or 2-meter-long office lights,

so I started to use those as a sculptural elements,

and then I brought them outside,

and I put them in the landscape and documented them,

and I called them instant sculptures,

so I kind of started very early transforming the environment

using the city and then architecture as my palette.


It's a process that entails research

and understanding what the building is,

where I'm going to install, what I want to say with that

and marry that with the content of my art.

It's a dialogue with a space.


Traditionally old-fashioned neon

was to be used in the public space

to seduce or to sell something or to glamorize,

you know, or to accentuate,

so it has a very powerful presence,

and also I think it's a very beautiful light.

It emits color and light itself in a very different way

than LED light, which is artificial.


The idea of a grid or in perspective

is that I'm creating an illusion of space,

and when we move within this sort of matrix

or this kind of geometric space,

the visitor is then becomes part of it,

part of the artwork itself.

It plays a bit with your brain and your cognitive system,

so your experience of space alters as you

gradually become one with the piece.


So the longer you're inside the piece,

the more you kind of merge with it,

and I think that's what immersive art is really,

so it could be...

The simplicity of it is it's more precise, I think.

It's almost kind of surgical.


I've been invited to create a very large one

in Tallinn in Estonia

that opens in January in the new art center

called Kai Art Center.


It's very exciting because it's a former factory from 1911.

It's massive with a beautiful vaulted ceiling,

so it gave me the idea to create the experience of the north.


With these installations,

the neon sculptural installations,

environmental installations, I change each one,

and I challenge myself for each time,

and also according to the space itself.

[ Indistinct talking ]

The installation I had in Abu Dhabi

consisted of lots of hanging fabrics and transparent,

very thin silk and multiple projectors,

and then I do the sound, surround sound,

so the experience is all of these colors changing,

and also vertical colors in different-colored tones

and nuances and color combinations,

so those change very slowly,

so you have the illusion of you're not quite sure

where what is in space also because the fabrics move,

so when you project onto transparent fabric,

you don't see the fabric, so it looks like these colors

are just floating in space like that.


It's also creating a sense of beauty, too,

and also a very sort of calm space as well,

so then I also added in aroma,

so since I was in the Middle East,

so I added in Arabic aroma, and I had seating around

so you could sit there as well as walk in between it.



The installations are about perceptional space,

which means us, too, so about how we are in the world,

and how we perceive the world.


To create an artwork in the space, you define space itself,

so light is the most ephemeral, light and sound, I guess.

The idea to stop light, to arrest light

or to capture something either moving through time

or in space or changing a space, charging a space,

and in a way solidifying light itself and using it as a tool

for creating a manifestation of an artwork.


The force of light or sound or even sculptures,

modernist sculptures, or in abstract art, you know?

Those remove words.

They remove the figurative,

so you have to use a kind of different sense of your system,

your perceptive system and your brain

and not necessarily try to analyze.


I'm cutting away.

I'm going to the essence of the experience

and taking away the noise.


McCall: Yeah, the word immersive has become widely used

for these kinds of works of art

or works of theater which in some way

seem to physically involve the spectator more directly.

To separate, rather than having the row of chairs

and the object, you have some kind of interaction.

The word immersive doesn't sit comfortably with me personally.

I'm not sure why.

I just find it's a word that's doomed

to become a cliché quite quickly

because in the end, all works of art engage,

and whether they engage physically or intellectually

or aesthetically doesn't seem to be of primary importance.

Engagement is the word I would use,

and I like to think that my solid light works

incorporate the spectator.

There's no question that the spectator

is inside the work as well as outside it.


This is the earliest solid-light piece that I did,

and it's called "Room With Altered Window,"

and this was 1973.

I'd had the idea for a solid-light film

and had not actually tested to see if the idea would work,

and so I covered the window with black paper

and cut a slit, south-facing so the Sun came round,

and what we see here is a plane of sunlight

coming into the room,

visible because I smoked a cigarette.

A few months later, I made the first solid-light film

called "Line Describing a Cone,"

and the original idea behind it had been the idea of a film

that only existed at the moment of projection.

It existed in the same present tense

as the people looking at it,

and indeed in the same room as people looking at it.

If you think of almost any movie, any movie whatsoever,

by definition what you're seeing happened in the past,

and it also happened in some other place

than the movie theater in which you're sitting,

so the idea of a present-tense film appealed to me.


I was thinking about a film.

I made a film, but at the end of the day,

I'd also made something that was sculptural, three-dimensional.

It occupied three-dimensional space,

and there was a kind of performative aspect.


Although I didn't realize it,

since I was working in old warehouses and lofts,

those old warehouses and lofts were full of dust,

which was stirred up by people being there.

Also in the 1970s, far more people smoked,

so between the cigarette smoke and the dust in the air,

the solid-light works were visible,

but when I began showing in contemporary art museums

where the air was very clean

and smoking was prohibited, they vanished.

The films were completely invisible.

It occurred to me that perhaps

I'd made a gigantic aesthetic error

and that this was just not a viable area at all,

and so I stopped making them.

That period of not making them lasted about 20 years,

then certainly things changed.

One of them was that video art

had been embraced by museums and galleries,

and the other, perhaps the most important of all,

was the invention of the haze machine.

The business of getting exactly the right amount of haze

in the room is not as simple as it sounds.

Haze machine is perfectly accurate as a machine.

The problem is that every large space has what I call weather.

They have air currents.

They have humidity changes.

They have all kinds of things going on that you can't see

until you want to direct a steam of mist in that corner,

and you find there's something resisting it,

and so you have to get to know the weather of the space

and then try and make friends with it.

If you have a wind coming at you from over there,

then I would want to place my haze machine over there

and let the wind bring it in,

and so all those things become part of the installation process

and can take quite a few days to get right.

You know, I really only use about three different forms,

straight lines, circles and waves.

there are so many other things that you play with

when you're making a solid-light work,

you know, considering the three-dimensional aspect

over the almost architectural shape,

the speed of sequencing and what actually happens,

kind of making something that's closer to sculpture

than anything,

and if you have too many complex overlapping lines

on the screen,

they do not translate well into three-dimensional space.

It just becomes a three-dimensional muddle,

and so I found that keeping it very simple

is the best way to work.


There's something else very important about

when you're working with sculptural space.

If I make the work, the forms move too quickly,

then the visitors there immediately stop moving.

They stay rooted to the spot.

They step back, and they watch...


...whereas if they think the form is barely moving

or not moving at all, they understand it as sculpture,

and they do what you do with sculpture,

which is in order to understand it,

you move your own body around the space.

You go inside. You stand on the outside.

You go underneath.

You turn around.

You do all those things that you do

when you work in three-dimensional space,

but if that same form started moving really fast,

those same people would just stop moving,

and they would watch a movie.

It turns out that slowness is a virtue.


Once you realize it, you realize

that you're in a sort of double dance.

You're moving your own body around,

but the form itself is shifting under your feet, so to speak.


My work is not site-specific, but it is site-sensitive,

and I'm very interested in the architectural space

and placing the works within the architectural space,

and I spend a lot of time if I can looking at the real space,

but then also looking at the plans and the elevations.


The absorption of the spectator into the object

is something I think certainly makes it different

from sculpture made of, say, steel or wood.

I may have difficulty with word immersive,

but I also have difficulty with the idea of a light artist,

and I'm not sure that I am one, you know?

Even though it's quite obvious I do work with light.

What's producing the emotion that people describe?

And I have to say that my conclusion is,

it's not the light itself.

It's the light embedded in a durational structure.

In other words, temporality is the primary medium,

the one that's sort of invisible in a way

but is actually producing the reason

that people stay in there for an hour or 2, as many people do.

In the end, I just like to think I'm an artist, you know?


The young audience, you know,

to see 30 kids advancing on one vertical light sculpture,

leading with their smartphones and taking pictures

and immediately sending them off to friends

and so on is, you know, that's a very new moment,

and 15 or 20 kids with smartphone screens

add up to an awful lot of light,

and even one smartphone is brighter

than the membrane of light they're looking at,

so there's a sort of problematic aspect to it, of light.

I'm engaged in a ongoing discussion

about this with friends.

I have a filmmaking friend, for instance, who says,

"No, you don't let people have smartphones

inside movie theaters for my films.

I mean, you can just say, 'No smartphones,'"

but I'm a little reluctant to do that, actually,

because something is going on, which is important and is new

and, you know, I quite like to see how it's playing out.



Technology is a tricky thing.

It cannot be more or less important

than any other element you work with,

the shape of the line, the speed at which you move,

the size of the projection.

Yes, technology is important,

but I'm not waiting for the next thing to come around the corner.

I mean, I know projectors will get better,

and the blacks will be blacker, and the whites will be whiter,

and probably I'll like those things a lot,

but fundamentally, what I do now

and what I did in the 1970s is very similar,

which is I'm projecting a plane of light

across a three-dimensional space,

making it visible and turning it into an object to look at,

and that's the same whether it's a film

or whether it's a digital projector.

Fundamentally, it's the same idea.

That's it, and, you know, I'm grateful

when tools come along that make things easier,

but I'm not holding my breath.



The world is so stressful, and people need

that sense of relief with a place to forget

or to be stimulated

or to find a place of calm and kind of realign yourself,

so I think there's a need for it.


Lowry: I think that's one of the most beautiful

and most profound things art has to offer,

which is a reminder that we are in the world physically.

Now of course, the digital world

has done wonders for many people,

and it's in many ways an incredible gift,

but also to be reminded that we still exist.










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