Art Shedding Light on Vision

The place where art meets the science of perception is a fertile one for collaborations between artists and scientists. And Light Show at the London Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery captures this in a brilliant exhibition that makes your eyes hurt and leaves the outside world looking ever-so-slightly dull. It is not that the exhibition is scientific per se, but that the art in this dazzling show (ok I’ll stop with the puns now) uses light in extraordinarily creative ways to affect the way that we perceive our world. Time and again, works in this exhibition tricked my brain, and even when I managed to figure out the illusion, I had only to blink to find myself once again under its spell.

Since they are innately interested in the way that we see the world, artists have long been fascinated by the science of light. Through an exploration of the myriad ways that light can be reinterpreted and represented to us, Light Show presents a perfect stepping stone for a discussion of some of the science that inspires and underpins art in unexpected ways.


What colour is that ACTUALLY?!?!!

Carlos Cruz-Diez
Chromosaturation (1965-2013)
©the artist/DACS
Cruz-Diez Foundation
Photo: Linda Nylind

The Chromosaturation installation by Carlos Cruz-Deiz draws on the notion of Wolfgang von Goethe that colour is not just an objective phenomenon, but also a subjective perception. The installation consists of three rooms, each, of which is illuminated by strong green, red or blue fluorescent light; and because our retina is used to taking in a wide range of colours simultaneously, it is profoundly disorienting to be immersed in a monochromatic environment.

What colour are the walls actually? I asked myself upon entering the first room. No matter how close I got to the wall, I couldn’t quite figure it out since the shade of the primary colour seemed to be constantly shifting. It is only after a few minutes in the room that you begin to realise that the walls are white, and you only realise this because your vision has been so saturated by a single colour that your perception begins to filter it out. Move into the next chamber and the process begins again. In all, Cruz-Diez’s challenge to our understanding of vision and colour is a boggling and beautiful experience.

Seeing ourselves sensing

My personal art hero, James Turrell, is amongst the best out there when it comes to producing environments that tweak our perception of reality. He has a fascination with our perception of light and colour and so was a natural choice for this exhibition. With a background in perceptual psychology, Turrell creates environments that draw our attention to the nature of light and space.

Light Show presents one of Turrell’s famous Wedgeworks, in which a room is divided in a way that seems tangible using nothing more than soft beams of light. The ability to create what feel like physical spaces with light is underpinned by a deep understanding of the behaviour of light, geometry, and the way that our brains process this information. When viewing Wedgework V, I marvelled at the plane of red light that seemed to bisect, like a curtain, what I knew was a rectangular room. I wanted to reach out and touch it, but knew I’d touch nothing but a bare, right-angled wall.


Recreating natural processes

Photorealist painters attempt to paint pictures that are so close to reality that it takes a very close examination to tell the difference. Now imagine doing that…. but with moonlight. Not painting moonlight, but creating a light that is indistinguishable from moonlight. This is the task taken up by Katie Paterson in her poetic piece, Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight.

 Spectral memberships were taken under a full moon in order to match the moon’s light in its intensity, colour and temperature. A single light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a little like the moon hanging in the sky, bathes the viewer in a cool, slightly blue-ish light. While we stood looking at Paterson’s work, a young child bolted away from his parent, directly towards the light bulb. Everybody gasped, but it seems that the child was only trying to touch the moonlight.


 Out of Plato’s cave


Conrad Shawcross
Slow Arc inside a Cube IV (2009)
©the artist
Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London
Photo: Linda Nylind

Conrad Shawcross presents yet another take on light with his piece Slow Arc Inside a Cube, which features a small halogen lamp at the end of a robotic arm that moves in a narrow ellipse around the inside of a mesh cube. Befuddled? This is perhaps the only piece in the show directly inspired by science—when Dorothy Hodgkin pioneered techniques in X-Ray crystallography to determine the structure of the complex protein chain of pig insulin, she compared it to deciphering the structure of a tree based only on its shadow.

Of course, understanding the world through the long shadows that it casts also points towards a long and distinguished philosophical tradition: the allegory of Plato’s Cave suggests that what we see as reality is actually only the shadow of a perfect truth. In Shawcross’ work, as the robotic arm prowls inside its cage, we are unmoored.

One of the things that I loved about Light Show was how the artworks play with our perception of reality, but in intelligent and not unnecessarily flashy ways.  Be it through the subtle shadows or an impossible pane of red light, the artworks fool us; but unlike the dislocation we feel in a funhouse, here we know that the works are toying with us and they are entirely open and visible about the ways in which they are doing so. Time and time again, I told my brain that what I thought I was seeing wasn’t so, and yet I was nonetheless completely spellbound. In this way, artists, such as James Turrell, are making real contributions to our understanding of perception through their art, and thereby making our lives all the richer.

Light Show is at the London Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery until 28 April 2013. Advance booking of tickets is strongly recommended.

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