We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot.
That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.
Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.
Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot.
How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.
In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.
It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.
To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Excerpted from a commencement address delivered by Carl Sagan on May 11, 1996.
Image from Voyager 1, 1990.
Bruce Nauman uses light as a medium because of its interesting paradoxical nature. It’s ephemeral presence is both communicative yet unclear. It has the ability to make the spectator involuntarily submit to it, yet if we were to scrutinize this submission we would realize that it’s emotionally and psychologically driven. This paradox mirrors Nauman’s artwork, in that under superficial glance they appear to be devoid of artistic substance, however under closer inspection we start noticing nuances of critical subversion, particularly in the commercial signage.
These neon installations serve a critical, poetic, and often uncomfortable commentary on the elusive signs within the advertisement industry. Overwhelming, spectacular signs that demand the passive viewer to enter into a commercialized prison of ‘Looking’, ‘Coming’ and ‘Buying’. This device is so powerful because it manipulates what we consider most sacred; our desires, emotions, and inhibitions.
However we are unaware of this manipulation because within this environment of commodified fetishism, a rupture is created within our logical understanding of space and time; everything is immediate. With this immediacy comes the dismissal of authenticity. A ‘decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing’. Therefore if these demanding signs ‘appear’ to offer the spectator an ‘illusion’ of a better life, we will submit to it.
This submission has two possible explanations, the first historical the second poetic. The first is due to the rise of the Industrial Revolution which completely re-shaped the city into a modern capitalist economy. It quickly started becoming a highly commodified society, and with that came the birth of the spectacle. Therefore, our relation to this commodified society is not only ‘visible’ but is ‘all one sees’, in other words its our only choice. However, a poetic reassurance to this submission is that it is not involuntary. Perhaps we acknowledge and accept this illusion of a plugged-in paradise, because of its momentary promise of a ‘better, or at least, a more exciting life’.
This illusion is dissected, subverted, and criticized in Nauman’s installations, such as Eat/Death, The True Artist,and One Hundred Live and Die. All three examples include conceptual word play as the main critical tool. This linguistic manipulation parallels the verbal and visual language of commercial signage. However once its detached from its overly-saturated environment and appropriated within an established museum, it gains an added layer of meaning. This decision to isolate the installations from their conventionalized surrounding destroys their originally demanding presence. The signs no longer command a passive spectator but urge the reader to wake up. This awakening goes hand in hand with the subjects transition from a passive consumer to an active interpreter.
The first example, DEATH/EAT is visually similar to the EAT HERE neon signs that are found on cafes and diners. He deconstructs the word in order to emphasize on the eat within death in order to represent the cyclical routine of eating as a form of survival that is dependent on killing. It could also have a more figurative interpretation where the predator/prey relationship is reversed. In this case, we, the starving consumer prey (EAT) are being literally engulfed within the consumerist predator (DEATH). However, this relationship although hierarchically structured is inter-dependent, which is clear in how the word ‘EAT’ completes the word ‘DEATH’. Another interesting observation is that once this installation is lit, the immediate word we see is EAT followed quickly by DEATH. This shocking transition is then normalized and our eyes shift quickly from one word to the other. This perhaps reflects the way our sight reacts in a highly commercialized urban landscape. In that at first we receive an immediate disorientation from the bombarding visual stimuli, however we quickly adjust to this perceptual intrusion.
The second example called The True Artist creates a tension between the medium and its content. The profundity of the statement ‘The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths’ contradicts its fragile neon representation. A fragility that is both literal and conceptual. Literal in the instability of the medium and conceptual in the readers conditioned association with it as the visual language of advertising and therefore deceit. We are left wondering whether the artist believes this message, or does not, or both believes it and disbelieves it simultaneously. Perhaps the most interesting and startling phrase is ‘mystic truths’ which signifies everything we assume advertising is not. It therefore opens up the possibility that spirituality and consumerist spectacle are not that far apart. Both seem to offer an exalted phantasmagoric impact on the believer or acceptor. An impact that is made possible through the use of light. Whether it is synthetic light that reflects a man-made spectacle or natural light that reflects divinity and spiritual invigoration.
The third example called One Hundred Live and Die consists of four columns of brightly colored neon phrases with statements such as ‘Touch and Die’ juxtaposed with ‘Touch and Live’. At a distance, this installation clearly reflects the overwhelming power of commercial language. The vibrant colors and repetitive arrangement disorients the readers perceptual navigation. It does not have a logical narrative and so all our senses can decipher is a mass of lit shapes. This interesting sensation contradicts Nauman’s earlier work which relied on isolating phrases in order to give them verbal and visual prominence. However, in this case our ability to comprehend and articulate comes much later, after we process and resist its bombardment. This resistance is aided by the simple, yet powerful statements, that begin with ‘Live and Die’ and end with ‘Pay and Live’. It almost foreshadows the inevitable cycle of a person born into a capitalist society. This desensitizing of the human condition reflects the almost robotic impassivity of the common consumer. Therefore, whether intentional or not, this work serves as a slap out of this passivity. However, a slap that is not accompanied by an alternative lifestyle but rather by a poetic awareness of the existing one.
James Turrell works with light in a manner that challenges our perceptual experience. It re-defines the very nature of seeing by beautifully collaborating sight with the other senses to create impressions of spiritual awakening or re-birth. Light is no longer a vehicle of information but rather is the content in and of itself. This creates an experience where the quality and sensation of light is given a sense of tactility, so profound that the experiencer can almost touch the light.
One of his projects, called Skyspaces, consist of structures with an opening in the architecture that rely on this juncture between the interior and exterior space in order to bring the sky down to the plane of the ceiling. This literal opening allows the viewer a metaphorical access into their own perception which is then translated to the sensory impressions of the entire body. This links the viewers subjective visual experience with the outside world that’s looked at and the inner world that’s looked into. This creates an interesting relationship, because the viewer is essentially peering into a framed infinity. One that is not static, but rather shares a transcendental conversation with the viewers body, mind, and soul. These interesting explorations contradict the preconceived notion of light as an immaterial source of illumination. Instead of using light to reveal other things, Turrell focuses on the way light can become the revelation itself. This emphasis on the physicality of light is perhaps the reason why its influence is so profound, since it is literally introducing new emotions and sensations we have never experienced before.
Another example is the Alien Exam, which consists of a six-sided chamber with a semi-spherical dome that is reminiscent of spaces used for medical experiments and cult structures of ancient civilizations. The subject is shown in by two attendants who are in complete control of the alternation in the light phenomena. After the subject is seated, they perceive light through the dome not as an optical impression but as a phenomenon that envelops and affects their entire body. The structure of the space is very interesting because it requires the subject to climb a few stairs before laying down on the solid table. This act clearly references an altar, where the subject is metaphorically sacrificing themselves; their perceptions, psychology, emotions, and desires to the magnificent light above them.
Initially, Turrell’s exam room creates a Ganzfeld effect, which is a sort of disorientation or discomfort that occurs when a viewer gazes steadily at a completely undifferentiated, monochrome color field devoid of forms and movement, without a center and without edges. After a while, the viewer starts to lose visible external and internal points of reference. It is as if the eye and brain are indistinguishable, and one becomes immersed within color sensations that are compared to visions that appear in moments of euphoria or intoxication. Slowly, these changes in color also become indistinguishable; and the overriding impression is of an autonomous light continuum. This shows how when faced with light, all other visual stimuli, such as color, are subordinated. All these different experiences leave the viewer completely and solely immersed in the activity of seeing. Even the moods that are induced are ways to connect this pure act of seeing with other, more familiarized conditions.
A final example that demonstrates this complete perceptual immersion is the Light Space project. These floating projections made of even, colored light give off the illusion of depth. A three-dimensional illusion that is essentially considered a ‘clear space’, or a space we can step into-visually and conceptually. This completely shatters our tangible understanding of space by re-defining it into something that can be imagined. This is primarily triggered by its seductive brightness, which offers the observer, standing in that dark room an opportunity to escape to a different world.
Centre Pompidou houses a vast public library, the National Museum of Modern Art, and a centre for music and acoustic research. The architecture is very cold and industrial as opposed to the brightly colored tubes that transform this museum from an elitist monument into a popular space for social and cultural exchange. This fresh approach is appropriated into the signage, which uses brightly colored LED light that is reminiscent of circus and carnival lighting.
By using the visual language of entertainment, it completely transforms the space and our experience with that space. We no longer have a static or passive relationship where we are simply fed information; rather it becomes an interactive space of entertainment. It is also interesting to imagine stepping into this place for the first time and being confronted with these light installations. Our first attempt is to contextually familiarize these codes and since our immediate link is that of the field of pleasure, we will subconsciously carry these sensations as we walk through the space. This is further instigated by the high positioning of the installations and their large scale which all add to this experience of the spectacular. The way it guides us by forcing our perception upwards mirrors our reaction to the sublime, which is an element exploited by the field of entertainment. This is perhaps one of the reasons why light is used so excessively because it has the ability to create this feeling of awe not necessarily through physical grandeur but through its imposingly ephemeral presence.
This is particularly relevant in this case, where the presence of the installations re-define our understanding of a museum. It is no longer a space where the masses are spoken down to; rather it becomes an entrance to a world of play. A world where carnivalesque sentiments are not only appropriate but also encouraged. This is interesting because these sentiments are usually attributed to nightlife and the fantastical aura that aids it. However, with this rupture in convention, space, is not only challenged, but also time. It is as if these artificial light installations are declaring the irrelevancy of day and night, since both are momentarily replaced within this museum. A replacement that is evident in the promise of whimsical space that is occupied during the day but borrows its visual language from the night.
Another interesting element is the illuminated content, which is essentially informational, whether linguistic or iconic. This places the content on a pedestal since our navigational ability is completely dependent on its representation. However, in the carnivalesque context the lighting is merely aesthetic, an entertainment for the eyes. Therefore, its integration into the field of guidance poses the possibility of a higher form of entertainment; one that satisfies the eye while simultaneously feeding the mind.
The Weather Project is, essentially, a vast optical illusion. As the visitor enters the building, he is confronted by what looks like a gigantic illuminated orange disc suspended from the ceiling at the far end of the hall. Discreetly placed humidifiers pump a mixture of sugar and water into the air to create a fine mist.
Seen through this soft haze, the light of the great disc is filtered and diffused so that it looks like the flaming ball of the setting sun. Then, as we start to walk down the long entrance ramp, we realise that the entire ceiling is covered in what appears to be a single huge mirror. The tiny specks of humanity we see far, far, above us are our own reflections.
That is the illusion. The reality is that Eliasson has hung a semi-circle of light from the mirrored ceiling in such a way that its reflection creates the appearance of a full circle. There is not just one mirror on the ceiling but hundreds, fractionally offset where they are joined. This makes the edges at the upper (illusory) half of the great disc appear slightly jagged or uneven, which is what makes the ball of light look so uncannily like the sun. Had the mirrors on the ceiling been level or flat, we would see a perfect circle and the whole thing would have looked unreal.
What the artist began, the audience completes. It is the visitors that make The Weather Project unforgettable. From any distance at all, people in the Turbine Hall are seen as tiny black silhouettes against a field of orange light. Minuscule in scale and robbed by the orange glow of their individuality, they are diminished by the spectacle they have come to the Tate to see.
Paradoxically, the less we look like individuals, the more aware we become that we share a common humanity, that we are all members of the same species. Against the cataclysmic beauty of the evening sun, we sense our insignificant place within the infinity of our solar system.
When I first saw The Weather Project, I thought of the sun rising through vapour in one of J M W Turner’s landscapes. But, late on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, when hundreds of people stand mesmerised in the face of the glowing disc, the work becomes truly frightening, a modern interpretation of one of John Martin’s or Francis Danby’s apocalyptic visions of the end of the world. A close encounter of the third kind.
Not only does the audience help to create Eliasson’s work of art, but, in the weeks since the exhibition opened, the behaviour of that audience has added another layer of meaning to it.
Visitors respond not only to the circle of light, but also to the mirror above their heads. Adults and children lie on their backs staring up at the ceiling, often moving their arms and legs in a sweet, sad effort to find their own reflections in the swarming mass of undifferentiated shapes in the distance.
It is as though some deep primeval instinct compels us to do something – waving our hands, scissoring our legs, huddling in groups, forming shapes with our partners – to reassure ourselves of our individual existence in the universe.
What this great artist has done, literally, is to hold up a mirror and shown us who we are.