Bright Lights

A visit to the current Dan Flavin exhibition in the Vienna Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK) evokes a number of interesting questions as to the art of light and the related domain of photography, often also described as “painting with light” (as if e.g. oil paintings would not equally need light as a quintessential element). The exhibition is placed in a very reduced environment so that the visitor often finds him- or herself alone with the light source (which uniquely consists of neon light tubes of different colours). This reduced-ness makes for a visually very interesting backdrop to photograph, and one is suddenly tempted to photograph other people’s art, expecting to create with this one’s own. This fallacy can not easily be contoured, even if one tries – as I have done here – to include other people, but it is equally difficult to not press the shutter when confronted with such clear lines, overpowering colours and otherwise lifeless, wide-open spaces.

Light art has existed for a long time in such artistic spaces as architecture – only to mention here stained glass windows in churches and mosques – but it only came into its own as a singular form of expression with the ascent of the artificial light bulb. Since then, it has entered modern art as a defining feature, whether as projections, sculptures, light installations or ephemeral firework displays. A very interesting recent example is also the video painting project by Sweatshoppe.

In terms of photography, light is obviously fundamental. But the deliberate and conscientious use of light as a method goes beyond this. Surrealist photography such as the work of Man Ray prepared the ground for this, and in more recent times artists such as Trent Parke or Alex Webb integrate light as a defining part of a picture. Webb’s latest publication, “The Suffering of Light”, is harking back to Goethe’s Theory of Colours, which ties together the nature of light, shadow and colours and has exerted a direct influence on the arts.

The strong emphasis on light and colour is by far not undisputed. Aside from the group of photographers who – mostly unthinkable in the world of painting – expressively confine themselves to the “realism” of black and white, there are many who refuse to have light dominate form and content, and shy away from strongly lit or highly contrasted subjects, since the play of light and shadow would artificially detract from the meaning of the picture.