PRINT January 1985

A Light Opportunity

TO TELL THE TRUTH, THIS ISSUE BEGAN with editorial discussions about the failure of the recent spate of big international shows to intelligently meet the development of contemporary art, and about their tendency instead to carelessly throw all “the names” together in an expensive but cheap hanging spectacle of so-called international pluralism, willy nilly, irrespective of individual concerns, differences, and achievements. The American shows have failed because of naiveté, superficiality, and too passive a relation to the hypes of the mass media, while the European exhibitions, almost exclusively directed by men, have evidenced a particular brand of politicking and careerism; either way the artists and the perception of the art have suffered. The theory seems to be that as long as these exhibitions have a few Italians, some New York or Los Angeles Americans, a smattering of Germans, the rare French artist who’s deemed good enough, and lately, some Austrians, Spaniards, and Australians, and as long as one or two of the most famous are excluded to symbolize independent thought and judgement, the day’s work of keeping up to date is done. This bureaucratic attitude on the part of committees of organizers is why the United Nations, originally the meeting place of hope for the nations of the world, eventually became a travesty and a joke. The same type of general default on the curatorial obligation to contemporary art represents a major loss, because the art that has come surging forth in threats five years offers a crucial model of individual and collective identity in combination. Such a model is radically different from the homogenizing controlling laws of the “international style” that occurred earlier on in this century, and from its stepchild, the basically American international art of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

The current bundle of pictures that turns up in the exhibitions, in the year books, in the magazines, in the conversations, is symptomatic. It reinforces the idea of the at as so much matter, as just a bunch of stuff—dead, decorative, with no meaning. The withholding of critical methodology, of analysis, which is what has occurred, and the replacement of this cultural responsibility with information and reportage, have contributed to the voiding of meaning. We decided to take on the symptoms by simulating the current ubiquitous picture book syndrome, and to try to ind generative meaning rather than a destructive amassment parading as meaning. Instead of looking for the differences among the seemingly never-ending emerging repertoire of styles, cross styles, quotations, and images (a task that certainly should be done), we decided to search for a common point that we felt was subliminally integral to the art. We wanted to find an element in matter that can’t be reduced to matter. Light is not matter.

We’re sure it’s no surprise that we landed on light, a subject that has been celebrated as early as the first page of the Bible and has been suspected to have made its rounds before, but it’s interesting how it’s not noticed as a force in the new work. It’s noticed almost to the point of clunky literalism when it’s part of the visible content of an art such as Dan Flavin’s or Robert Irwin’s, but not enough when it’s the structural glue. If you pay attention to light in recent painting, you find that it is a technique that appears in an enormous variety of forms, without being pigeonholed to the “look” of the different periods it is often used to deliver. One of its most intriguing and useful aspects is that it’s a measure to weed out a lot of paintings that are just fillers. Light is a basic, evident element of perception. If one makes something visual and doesn’t bother with the effort to understand the selective surface that everything visible has, one doesn’t know one’s craft, one’s medium, or what one is communicating through.

As our sense of space has diminished in our living environment, the variety of lights and light conditions has increased. We now have constant availability of light, and this is generally reflected in the work under discussion. In a way, some of the iconography and the hyper stylistic plays are not as intriguing an area of change as certain aspects of light shifts.The dynamic exchange of light habits in the relationship of painting and photography is a crucial clue. (Photography lives on and off light.) We should ask, for example, what happened to the representation of light painting when photography was invented; what has happened now, over a hundred years later, to the light in painting, because of the permeating influence of photography and reproduction; and what has happened to the light in photography because of the influence of abstraction. Photography and painting are measures of each other’s light shifts. The ability of the flash in photography to violently tear an image out of the darkness in an instant has most certainly influenced the way that a lot of the images happen in contemporary painting. It is as if they appear for just an ephemeral second, as found figures snatched out of the darkness, like Weegee’s harsh, highly defined images, grabbed from totally undefined, chaotic situations. In addition, however, a lot of painting also shows other possible points of focus, other lights. Perhaps this is why the spectacle of firework images, with their split-second, non vertical, multiple lights, takes on the resonance that it does today.

The very idea of light opens up the limiting and hopelessly dangerous concept of nationalism to the notion of terrain. Terrain, mental or physical, is shared by experience, not by passport. It was there, before the fences, the iron curtains and the Berlin walls. With light you can soar above turf—above where you happened to be born, above art-world turf, ownership turf, etc.—and get into terrain. With light you enter a broader sphere of time than history which is notoriously shady, merely following the recording needs of each civilization and the myth of selfhood of each culture. In fact, you can look at history in terms of light instead of in terms of events. We decided to start our work our way, and began to compile lists from art history in terms of the different representations of light from the different chunks of the globe, and thus to expand upon the large body of work done by art historians basically studying the “tradition of the North.” Our working lists were titled, “the tradition of the North,” “the tradition of the East,” “the tradition of the West,” and “the tradition of the South.” We assigned art to categories based on instinct and feeling more than on already existing associations. We noticed patterns emerging almost instantly. We wondered how the new work differed from these patterns and how it confirmed to them, and we began to refer to this question as the N.E.W.S., and to light as our meter. The flash, artificial light, limelight, the static light of the television, and the laser are but a few of the obvious newer lights, and the divine light, the sublime light, the Enlightenment, mirrored light, lightning, and mosaic light are a few of the more traditional ones, but our aim with this issue was not to do a research on on light. Light is our protagonist, our searchlight, contemporary art, our subject.

The notion of living on borrowed light was not invented with the splitting of the atom, or with the latest star-wars episode of light as a defensive weapon, but rather goes back thousands of years to when we learned about the relationship of the sun to the planets. Our sun neither comes up nor goes down. We borrow light when it hits us; it’s not our light. We live on borrowed light, as well as on our vast systems of simulated light. Today it’s only artifice that we can claim as our own, and today the fact of borrowing and simulation is generally stressed. Your can borrow or copy anything—an image, a style, even your self. Borrowed light is a nice metaphor for this issue because it is not copyrighted per se. The fact that you can borrow light implies that you can ask for it. This is what we did.

We dived a structure similar to a game in which artists are invited to contribute work according to the different lights that traverse pour terrain. The North and South were thought of as discrete regions with accumulative reservoirs of tradition, and the East and West as a spinning belt of technology and tradition in which the global blink of day and night loops in on itself. None of the artists knew what the others were doing; they were kept in the dark, and came up with light.The rigor of light has always been in terms of its relationship to the dark. The coordinated global glow of the artists’ contributions in a reign where cultural timing identities of terrains speak the tongue of light.

Edit deAk and Ingrid Sischy