In November 1966 the artist James Turrell, then aged 23, embarked on a master’s degree at the University of California. He rented two rooms at the old Mendota Hotel in Ocean Park, Santa Monica, and set about converting them into a studio. Turrell was working from a hunch, having recently completed a sculpture of sorts titled Afrum that involved projecting light into the corner of a room so that it seemed to become three-dimensional – a solid hovering cube. Now he was intent on studying the properties of light and working out the extent to which he could control it; at the Mendota he began painting out the windows and building pure white walls – a room within a room – at whose edges he installed fluorescent lighting. At night, with the lights off, various apertures let in a little of the city: “The path of the moon, cars, street lights and shop lights.” Turrell had begun to explore what he later called “the thingness of light”.
The young artist already had a degree in perceptual psychology, and in the wake of his Mendota experiments Turrell became involved with the art and technology programme at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There he met Edward Wortz, a psychologist working on life-support systems for the forthcoming lunar missions. Together they began to investigate states of sensory deprivation, and in particular the Ganzfeld effect: the disorientations and even hallucinations caused by immersing yourself in a uniform field of light and colour, without the anchors of horizon or objects. That research has nourished Turrell’s art ever since. He is best known for gorgeously unsettling installations: total environments saturated with light and colour, or rooms open to a framed sky that seems to have become a slab of pigment or a floating sculptural monolith.
At the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition Light Show, devoted to artists of the past 50 years for whom light itself is a medium, Turrell is represented by Wedgework V (1974), one of a series in which rooms are bisected diagonally by a light that looks frozen, as if you could reach out and touch its lucent surface. As the exhibition reminds us, Turrell is just one – albeit the most ambitious in terms of scale – among several artists who in the 1960s started to conceive of light as a malleable substance or vehicle for sculpture.
His best-known contemporary in that regard is Dan Flavin, whose 1963 piece The Nominal Three (to William of Ockham) is also at the Hayward. Like Turrell, Flavin first thought of his light works – composed, in his case, of bare fluorescent lights – as discrete objects rather than environments, or as if the technological support, rather than the halo it projected, constituted the work. The earliest of Flavin’s fluorescent pieces were attached to the gallery walls as if they were pictures. But he soon began to place them on the floor or use the glowing tubes to circumscribe a lit space; The Nominal Three consists of six vertical white tubes spanning a wall like Roman numerals: I … II … III.
An art made only of light – it sounds airy, not to say metaphysical. But as Hayward curator Cliff Lauson points out in his catalogue essay, the light artists of the 1960s and after were not at all engaged in a pseudo-spiritual exercise. Light was material, not revelation. A work such as Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), with its cinematic beam of “solid light”, depended on the grubby reality of a dusty and smoky atmosphere even to come into visible being. And as Flavin said of his own work: “It is what it is and it ain’t nothing else. There is no hidden psychology, no overwhelming spirituality you are supposed to come into contact with. It is as plain and open and direct an art as you will ever find.”
Flavin was perhaps asserting the solidity, even mundanity, of his own and his generation’s light art a little too starkly. If it was not exactly a matter of spiritual enlightenment or occult emanations, there was nonetheless a more abstracted level to the work, and a philosophical backdrop – as for others among the minimalist artists of the era – in a phenomenology of perception borrowed from the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
In terms of a broader history of art and light such as the Hayward show sketches, you are easily reminded of the intimacy between light and modernity that Walter Benjamin posited in his Arcades Project. To be modern, in the consumerist paradise of the 19th-century mall, meant first of all to be bathed in encouraging rays. The modern city aspired to seethe with light – in 1889 the engineer Jules Bourdais proposed a Sun Tower, 360 metres tall, that would illuminate all of Paris with powerful arc lights.
In the early decades of the 20th century modernity was frequently summarised as a sort of disorienting coruscation. Think of Joseph Stella’s 1913 painting Battle of Lights (Coney Island), or Marcel Duchamp’s assertion the same year (during an unlikely stay on the Kent coast) that his as yet unfinished Large Glass ought to be “illuminated like Herne Bay pier”. Others began to investigate the role of light in sculpture and on film. László Moholy-Nagy‘s Light Prop for an Electric Stage, completed in 1930, was a curious revolving metal and glass machine that threw startling shadows and reflections on the walls around it as it clattered and spun. (When the artist and designer took his “light space modulator” to the US in 1937, he had trouble explaining to customs officials just what it was – in the end he passed it off as hairdressing equipment.) In Moholy-Nagy’s 1932 film of the thing in action, A Light-Play Black White Grey, it whirs away like the chance meeting of an orrery and a cinema projector, surrounded by constellations of splintered light.
At the Hayward there are several works that recall, maybe consciously, both the rigour and the faint end-of-pier quality of Moholy-Nagy’s light machine. Conrad Shawcross‘s kinetic sculpture Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV (2009) consists of a dense metal cage from whose interior a fiercely bright light practically spits abstract shadows. But the most economical homage – also the funniest and most moving – is Fischli and Weiss‘sSon et Lumière (le Rayon Vert) from 1990. Atop a motorised cake stand a plastic cup with mock-cut-glass markings lies on its side and tumbles unpredictably as the turntable spins; a small electric torch shines through the cup and casts ever-changing arabesques of light on the gallery wall. Son et Lumière is at once delightfully simple and absurdly beautiful, a miniature spectacle of Romantic import confected out of the most abject industrial materials. Its subtitle suggests – via Jules Verne‘s novel The Green Ray and Eric Rohmer‘s film of the same title – that we ought to be on the lookout for the miraculous flare of a dying sunset among those dancing lights.
Son et Lumière is a coolly comic instance of another direction that artists working with (or in) light have taken in recent decades, away from the sensory estrangements of the 1960s and towards a light art that is more oblique or self-revealing than wholly immersive. Katie Paterson is one such artist; the Hayward exhibition includes her Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008); a single bare bulb manufactured to match precisely the colour and intensity of moonlight shines in the gallery, alongside a stock of spare bulbs calculated to last an average human lifetime – 66 years at the time the work was made. Equally elegant, though decidedly more wry, is Ceal Floyer‘s Throw, from 1997: a theatrical light that projects a cartoonish splat of illumination on to the gallery floor – light become not just material but the stuff of slapstick pie fights and pratfalls.
Floyer’s is one example of a tendency that perhaps definitively separates more recent light artists from the purveyors of environmental light half a century ago. It exists in a frank embrace of the support or ground on which all this light-play happens: the technology that produces it. And not only in the work of artists such as Leo Villareal, with his use of spectacular computer-controlled LED displays. There are works at the Hayward that manage to be both sublime and determinedly, physically present, as in the case of David Batchelor‘s ravishingly coloured light-boxes, stacked in towers and turned to the wall to reveal the clunky obsolete technology on which they depend. Perhaps it’s simply another way of saying, like the light artists of the 1960s, that we are not in the presence of the spiritual. As Batchelor puts it: “There’s always someone who will mistake a bright light in a darkened space for a religious experience. If you can see the plug, then it stops you getting mystical.”