Yann Kersalé

Espace Electra

Yann Kersalé’s first “Expédition lumière” (Light expedition) goes back to 1984, when the French artist set up two giant projectors in a metal-working factory on the Normandy coast in order to translate the rhythm of the smelting furnace into beams of light. In the intervening ten years, Kersalé has developed some seventy projects for lighting up the night, and more than a third of them have actually been carried out, either in the form of self-initiated “Light Expeditions” or, more often, as public commissions.

This exhibition, designed by the artist himself for the spacious quarters of the French electric company’s art foundation, could best be described as a retrospective with an eye to the future. Ten previous works (six temporary, four permanent) were documented through video projections on the mezzanine level, but pride of place was clearly given to the five elaborate scale-models of future projects.

Miroirs, Mirrors, 1990, for example, would (temporarily) line New York’s Central Park with two avenues of light beamed into the sky along the imaginary axes joining Sixth and Seventh Avenues on the southern side with Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and Lenox Avenue on the northern side. The intensity of the light would vary with the surrounding traffic patterns, which would be captured by giant mirrors at the four nodal points. A similar but more ambitious project, Complex 34, 1987, would create a “ballet” of light on the abandoned Apollo launching pad at Cape Canaveral by monitoring and mirroring the movements of the site’s present inhabitants: ants. And on the interplanetary level, Lumières d’ondes (Wave lights, 1992), conceived for the world’s most powerful radiotelescope at the Arecibo Laboratory in Puerto Rico, would generate (and record for posterity) light images from photon signals originating light years away.

However ambitious these projects, their underlying preoccupations are consistent with the artist’s other works. Kersalé’s light installations are above all a form of visual dialogue with an environment in motion. Two years after the Normandy project, another “Light Expedition” to the Pointe de la Torche on the Brittany coast, Le songe est de rigueur (Dreaming is a must, 1986), used a sophisticated bank of computers to translate the movements of the tides, the currents, the wind and so forth into light patterns projected over the ocean. With the urban projects that followed, light became the visualization of human movements as well.

What is undoubtedly so engaging about such works is their persuasive but intangible presence. For all of the complicated technology they require behind the scenes—sensors, cameras, computers, projectors, fiber optics—their essential components remain the night, the light, and the rhythms of everyday life. The one problem with such “expeditions” is, of course, recycling them back into a traditional exhibition format. Kersalé’s solution—video projections flashing onto mirror-covered pyramids and blue light emanating from the baseboards, not to mention giant steamer trunks used to present the scale models in a painfully literal “expedition” metaphor—seems more suitable for a disco than a gallery space. In fact, even without such misplaced theatricality, the inherent difficulties of materializing the immaterial, of reducing the environment to a scale model, of documenting chance on a video monitor, and above all, of relegating the potential participant to the role of spectator would still present themselves. But these very frustrations can also be taken as a welcome sign of a new (public) art that is not simply conceived for public spaces but inseparable from them—and from the public itself. In the age of mechanical (and electronic) reproduction, this amounts to a singularly original work of art.

Miriam Rosen