PRINT September 2009

Tom Holert

IN 1826, VENICE’S TEATRO GOLDONI, a venerable establishment near the Rialto Bridge, obtained the first gas chandelier in Italy. With this bit of history in mind, the theater seemed just the right place to host No Night No Day, 2009, an “abstract opera” created by artist and filmmaker Cerith Wyn Evans and sound artist Florian Hecker. Chandeliers, particularly those made of Murano glass on the Venetian island of the same name, have been components of Wyn Evans’s work for the past few years: Since 2002, the Welsh artist has deployed light that is reflected in pendants shaped by Murano masters and programmed to flash mysterious Morse-code messages. It’s an anchoring motif in a repertoire of light-manipulating strategies—involving mirrors, disco balls, fluorescent columns—by which he transforms exhibition spaces into sites of luminescent, poetic hermeticism.

In this case, the site—a typically baroque and filigreed teatro all’italiana—lent itself more readily than most to poetic flights. For the opera, which was staged on three consecutive evenings during the opening of this year’s Biennale, a film by Wyn Evans was projected onto a screen over the stage while a twenty-four-channel, computer-controlled “spatialization system” provided the all-embracing aural infrastructure for Hecker’s electroacoustic score. These two primary elements of the work, which had no live performers, were produced independently: Neither artist knew what the other would bring to the collaboration. This mutual nonknowledge became a constitutive factor of the project; its methodology hinged on anticipation and speculation, on empathizing with the partner’s decisions. When approached about the commission by Francesca von Habsburg’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation, Wyn Evans initially asked for complete freedom, demanding to “do absolutely what I want to do without any interference from your side whatsoever,” as von Habsburg recalls in a conversation with the artist printed in a brochure handed out at No Night No Day’s premiere. Wyn Evans used this autonomy to continue and deepen his recent investigations, rather than veer from them. In No Night No Day, the subject of light—its varying intensities and absences, its immateriality and its mythology—featured prominently. The film is an exercise in the compositional use of light values, of extending and receding, intersecting and superimposing, shapes and areas that gain and lose scale and brightness in a sort of perpetual, confluent mottling. It invokes the modernist histories of experimental and structuralist film from Hans Richter to, say, Samantha Rebello and may even allude to Four Stories of White and Black, a 1926 cycle of abstractions by František Kupka. And yet it constitutes a definite departure from the elegant interiors and dandyish complexities commonly associated with an artist who constantly searches for ways to integrate the conceptual and the decorative, convinced of the possibility of their fundamental mutuality. No Night No Day is neither elegant nor especially decorative. Instead, it is a perplexing piece of audiovisual innuendo as well as, and not necessarily paradoxically, a somewhat aggressive, or regressive, refusal of meaning. This refusal takes the form of a touchingly gentle dance of amoebic radiances and darknesses, pulsating blotches à la Jean Arp that remain within the gray scale for most of the opera’s forty minutes, with only a passing moment, toward the end, when the screen is tinted blue.

Sustaining this near-Dadaist subversion of sense, Hecker deviated from his trademark piercing frequencies and cortex-grinding experiments in wave geometry, familiar to his fans and common to many artists on the genre-defining record label Mego. The speakers, dispersed among the Teatro’s balconies, generated a multiplicity of digital sound bits that often bore a certain and at times almost cutesy resemblance to “natural” sounds: rustles, hums, drones, sizzles, smacks, whirs, clatters. Though utterly technical in its production, the interaction of sounds and imagery thereby ineluctably invited projection.

Despite the ovations from the audience at the premiere, No Night No Day left many viewers—even Wyn Evans’s devotees, of which there were many present—puzzled, if not baffled. It is a work of subliminal provocation: It does not operate on the level of decipherable histrionics but nevertheless is rooted in desperation about the impossibility of abstraction. In this sense, the title holds a key reference. Wyn Evans borrowed it from his former mentor Peter Gidal’s 1997 16-mm film, and Gidal has always uncompromisingly viewed abstraction in terms of pure negation, conceiving its task as a relentlessly critical rebuttal of metaphor, illusion, and representation. “The dialectic of the film,” he writes in his 1976 essay “Theory and Definition of Materialist/Structuralist Film,” “is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented. Consequently a continual attempt to destroy the illusion is necessary.” The double no of the title of Wyn Evans and Hecker’s and Gidal’s works follows this line of argument and abnegates any illusionary or indexical link to any natural “night” or “day.” The only thing the “abstract opera” (a denomination the artists seem to be only half-comfortable with) affirms may be its own “difficult” (to use one of Gidal’s most cherished terms) nature, or ontology. A masterpiece? A joke? Wyn Evans and Hecker both have changed gears in this collaboration, turning away from Broodthaersian wit and Mego’s aural austerity to a realm of unprecedented gestures. Playful and slightly silly, utterly void but undeniably moving, alienating and begging for empathy, No Night No Day offers an affective politics that is hard to pin down. But it certainly resonates in the memories of many who experienced it during one of those promiscuous Biennale opening weeks in which, as in Tennyson’s “Lotos-Eaters,” it never seemed to be day or night but rather always afternoon.

Tom Holert is a Berlin- and Vienna-based critic.