Robert Irwin, Installation at the Spruth Magers in Los Angeles, 2018.
A BRIEF APOLOGY FOR LIGHT
THE TALE OF THE HAPPY POET
“The secret is for the happy, says Schiller. The same could be said of poetry – that it, too, is for those who are happy. Yet where are the happy ones in a time which has parted from its past and its present, and which cannot make its way into a different time – the true future? Should there be a poet in such a time, he will surely be capable of collecting in his spirit all this discordance of the time…” –
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling
It is not enough to look. One must – see. From time immemorial, the visual in art speaks to the regard. More precisely, the looking that can see.
Some regards are empty. That makes them desensitised.
There are acts that have eyes. They look at us.
In some acts, in spite of their visibility, (the impression is) one cannot see a thing.
Is it always so?
Every time has its own chimaeras. The time we live in is enamoured of technology. There with it are (inevitably) economics and politics.
These three (politics, economics, technology) constitute the (actual, ideological) power triumvirate. They rule the world. All our lives take place in their shadow.
Art (every art, even visual art) has significantly lost in importance.
We mistake progress for acceleration. We nourish the cult of superficiality. We believe in the truth of the apparent image of the world.
We are choked with a hyperproduction of visual garbage. We need a cleansing. We could use some visual silence.
We are driven to sickness by information.
We are an easy prey to the widest possible spectrum of (media, ideology) brokers.
Our experience of the world suffers from a chronic reality deficit. That is why we require such an oversaturation of the senses. We are the unreal ones. The world we live in is unreal.
We don’t have an exit strategy. We are trapped – in his own time, Schelling anticipated this – in history. We have parted from the past and the present, and we can’t seem to make our way into the future.
It is difficult (almost impossible) to make a clear distinction between the new and the different; between the important and the unimportant.
We blabber. We lack the capacity for reflection. As a culture, we have stopped thinking a long time ago. Reality has (for us) become (a virtually non-committal) fiction.
Such a fiction is in an irreconcilable opposition to the other kind of (creative) fiction, at the foundation of artistic creation.
Everything around us gets faster. And multiplies. Knowledge has lost its connection with thinking. Never before have people known so much and thought so little.
We chase after excitations. And that is all.
Our reality is, for a significant part, statistical. Altogether submerged in probabilities. Our lives as well. What is important is the (scalar) mass, the combinatorics of large numbers. What is important is – the algorithm. We can plan. We can gamble.
“Thanks to statistics,” says Urlich Beck, “we live in a risk society.”
And – what is most important – the risk is calculable.
Visually, everything comes down to tables and graphs. There, we believe, truth resides. Every other visual quality is susceptible to (some kind of) trivialisation.
It has become inappropriate (superfluous, almost impertinent) to wonder about the meaning of what is happening to us. If you do, someone is bound to accuse you of something. Symptomatically, the notion of meaning has been all but exiled from public discourse. We talk of possibilities, degrees of risk, trends.
What is usually considered sufficient is a calculation of the difference between profit and (possible) loss.
The world has become predictable, monotonous. Among other things, people find life incredibly boring. They are empty. They constantly need someone (or something) external to animate them. This may be the source of that desperate need for an unbroken array of new excitations.
Important differences are flattened out. We are living in a world of colonial (pseudo-) cosmopolitanism.
Basic humanity backs away from (an often ideologically motivated) hypocrisy.
The game gives us big money and a not inconsiderable amount of dishonest politics. What else is there for the little man than to try to find some kind of place in this kind of world? To adapt. And to lose his soul.
Never before have we seen such an emergence of discourse on difference, on otherness – and yet, never (in effect) has there been so much uniformity. This uniformity is incredibly broad. It seeps through all the cracks of private and public life. And, what is most important, as such it covers (almost completely) both the symbolic and the imaginary. All is contaminated with sameness. There is no place for otherness.
Such a uniformity is a bad soil (a dead, barren land) for art. At source, the creative spirit of the arts has nothing to feed on.
The other side of uniformity is emptiness. Emptiness can have a multitude of faces.
Let us remember Freud and his (nowadays altogether worn out) tale of the uncomfortable in culture. In classical totalitarian systems, repression was dominant. People suffered. They felt enslaved. Repression is, as we know, a neurotic mechanism. . It induces the discomfort. Times change. Today, in this no-longer-analog but digital world, in the world, one might say, of a new uniformity, what rules is the fatally psychotic mechanism of foreclusion.
Hence the said emptiness.
Accordingly, our life in society (i.e. culture) is not primarily the agent of discomfort, but of a uniquely peculiar form of reality diminishment.
Where once was suffering, now is — nothingness.
Our lives, whether we like it or not, are controlled (usually artificially generated) images – colourful images that change rapidly. With it all, of course, come many (different, peculiar) colours. And noise. And blabber.
Many are the tales around us, but they are mostly empty; short-lived.
As in Balzac, someone keeps counting coins before us.
Everything is reduced to a moment. To a piece of information. To an image. Instead of thinking, looking. Instead of living, following those images. We are reflected within them. We swallow information. Narcissism has become the last bastion of our survival. We have become selfish and intrusive. Passive and depressive at the same time. Like I said, empty.
Voyeurism intertwines with exhibitionism.
To be seen (i.e. to look like something), and to see, have become for many the pinnacle of (narcissistic) passion.
The idea of intimacy is devalued.
Our bodies have become unreal. They are cluttered with plastic. It seems they are objects of eroticism. How so? Mostly through an iconography (of false, unreal) desires.
There, too, we often lack additional excitation.
The big question is: can there be a body without fiction? In other words, is visual art at all possible (real) in a world in which bodies (above all, people, but also animals) are not real anymore? But that will be discussed later below in more detail.
Everything is on a factory line, everything comes down to production of some kinds of images and objects.
Our everyday life is ruled by machines.
In the end, so few people actually die these days. People simply pass away. From one row in a ledger to another.
To have a desire of one’s own, even an unfulfilled one, is a great privilege.
James Turrel, “Space that sees” (1992), installment in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem 2014/2015.
The word has lost its former dignity. And its power of persuasion.
And don’t get me started on mysticism.
So little is said these days. So much is blabbered.
Our culture is becoming progressively and alarmingly decontextualised. Equalised and reduced. Poor in content. Almost no one reads books anymore.
People used to read. And to write. And, after all, once they used to think. Or at least they tried. Now it’s all about – looking. And keeping track of what there is to see. And keeping track of what there is to see. It seems obsessive…
We are threatened by a new age of barbarism.
Statements like come and see for yourself have today acquired a completely new meaning. The same goes for notions of enjoyment, or (interpersonal) communication.
Meet someone! Exchange something with someone!
Find something out.
Nothing needs be (real), to be experienced. Cognized. And exchanged. Quite the contrary.
Freud, back in the day, shook the world with the thesis of a subject for whom the gap (i.e. disparity) between the conscious and the unconscious is inherent. Truth be told, some people don’t realise that the subject and the individual are one and the same. In addition, everything became more complicated with his introduction of the topic of (above all, infantile) sexuality.
A new tribulation is upon us: how to think a world (and thus the experience of and within a world) so detached from reality? In other words, a world which is (in spite of all of its transparency and tangibility) so transparently non-real.
Furthermore, how can one (in the same key) think a world which, in spite of all its tangibility (of its reality) is so susceptible to apparitions from the world of the not-existing? The fictitious. The virtual.
It is not hard to guess – the problem is VR. However, AR is a much greater problem. When I say problem, I really mean tribulation.
You can fly, dive, run, skip, make friends with unicorns, fight aliens, do God knows what else – and not move an inch away from your armchair. At the same time, you can (really) walk along a (real) street, be in a park, at a rendezvous – who knows where? – but still surrounded with virtually generated apparitions.
How can life come out of it?
Can (any kind of art) come to fruition in such a world?
There is so much that we don’t know.
The paradox of the moment we live in, reads as, among other things, the absence of a clear answer to the question of the work of art.
Or even, what is Art at all?
We lack (new) terms. We have exhausted the old ones.
The borders are uncertain and diffused. Misplaced.
The last outpost in the metaphysics of beauty has long been abandoned.
The priorities are different. The sensibility is different.
At a fundamental level, a serious cut has been made. The connection between art (every single art, including the visual) and poetry, that is, creation – has been broken. Specifically, the bond with ποίησις
Ποίησις on its own, doesn’t necessarily mean composing verses. On the contrary; originally, ποίησις could refer to verse-writing alone, but also to every other (artistic) pro-duction. So, construction. Creation. . One ‘poet’ might construct with words, another with sounds, or colours, or shapes, and yet another with acts and movements. And all of that is ποίησις.
However, like I said, things have changed. It’s no longer expected of the artist simply to be a creator – specifically, a poet (ποιητής) in the original meaning understood by the Ancient Greeks.
Acting has got the upper hand over creating
There’s talk of experiment and provocation, exploration, simulation, installation, performance. A lot of things are being tried out. Amongst all this, there’s VR and AR. The scene unveils manifold, multicoloured. Blurry and disconnected. Much of it goes. The new media and materials, techniques and technologies are being mentioned. There’s a lot of politics. Perhaps too much.
Pretence is not viewed askance
Someone is successful. Someone else is less successful.
What we insist on is social activism. The narrative wins over the iconic. Questions are asked, problems are pointed to. Stances are taken. One is being more or less witty, inventive and convincing.
The imperative is – to connect to the world, to follow the trends.
Is that bad? Or is it good? It’s hard to tell.
The iconographic has been rid of secrecy. It has been rid of spirit as well. Inflation has done its work. It has become cheapened, expendable, momentary. It has been reduced to a mere artefact of technology (or some art of) production. Of what? Of a convincing ruse.
The technologies of VR and AR (I speak of them purely in the context of aesthetic reproduction) are merely the extremes of a wider (more epochal) process.
There is no more magic.
Everything is reduced to a simulation.
Such a development must come with serious consequences.
Ideation is (seriously) decontextualised from subjectivity.
Man is no longer the one creating the fiction. He is only its consumer.
A rather passive consumer.
Even worse – he is its object.
Fiction is depersonalised. It has become an aesthetical (virtual) consequence of technology.
Man, once a craftsman, a shepherd, a tiller in the fields of being, becomes more and more a mere object of different (interconnected) control networks.
What is important is – Light.
It is a miracle. Light (on this planet, at least) is a miracle. And no little one at that.
There are no miracles without a secret. There is no secret without a force which (at the same time) obscures by revealing and reveals by obscuring.
Every art, especially the visual arts, must take that into consideration.
The key word is photosynthesis.
Plants are not the only forms of life that have this capacity. In a way, this capacity can be found in the works of artists which (in the radiance of light) are revealed to our gaze. In them too a strange alchemy of light takes place.
Plants in the presence of light emanate oxygen. We breathe it. Works in the presence of light (at least ideally) emanate beauty. Or something at least. Something important to our lives – some kind of power…
This power can be upsetting. It can be calming. Ennobling. In any event, it doesn’t leave us indifferent. There are many examples of this.
Something else. Logically, the question arises: in the case of visual art, what stands for chlorophyll? Unfortunately, we don’t know.
In any event, nothing happens without the aid of light.
Light is one of the key elements of the essence of visual expression.
It has always been so. Light is the ray of the gods.
Gods (especially the good gods) like light.
Light is a mythical figure playing its part in creation. In light. Darkness points to destruction. Many are the ancient tales of the clash between darkness and light.
The Vedic cult of fire; Persia; Egypt; Olympian gods basking in the light. The (all-creating) God of the Old Testament first creates Light. So we learn from the Book of Genesis. The Christian God reveals Himself to mortals in the light of the Theosis – the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
The root of the Greek Ἅιδης (Hades) is ἀϊδής. It is important to add, the meaning of ἀϊδής is: non-visible. Condensed darkness. Light does not enter the kingdom of Hades.
It helps to remember that Ulysses himself spent some time there; it’s one of the much-repeated motifs of the XIth book of Homer’s Odyssey.
Theophany is a matter of light.
Mysticism is a matter of light.
According to St. Symeon the New Theologian, “It is not that knowledge is light, it is that light is knowledge.”
Originally, art is not a purely human endeavour. On the contrary. It is something between humans and the gods.
The origin of art is neither indolence nor politics. The origin of art is the cult.
The Old Masters knew this to be true beyond the shadow of a doubt.
It has always been expected of the (visual) artist that they understand light (knowledge of the laws of optics used to be merely a speck in a far wider firmament of knowledge), and that they respect it – in some way, even serve it; to participate in its cult.
The essence of the work corresponds to the essence of light. Light shines on the work, making it visible.
A fair warning: the word hubris should not be taken lightly.
Historically, by a dark circumstance of our own design, we have fixated on the word ‘taboo’. It could be because it accords with the authoritarianism of our society and institutions. Hubris escapes us completely.
Serious hubris is any (intentional or unintentional) slighting of light on the part of the visual artist.
The actuality of the visual culture of our age, I’m afraid, suffers seriously from its obfuscating light – from a light which has forgotten itself. It seems to me this could be a serious problem.
Light is (quite apart from the great myths and theological speculations) a fact of the world. Not only of the physical world. Before everything else, the world of the living.
Light invigorates form. It makes movement (visually) possible. And real.
Light is that which gives (pictorial or plastic) form a unique dynamic.
Light reveals space. Gives it fullness and depth. In the darkness, we have a serious problem with space. We feel our way. We stumble. We fall.
If there were no light there would be no colour.
Where there’s light there’s shadow. Where there’s shadow, there’s a secret.
Without a secret, there is no art.
In Aristotle’s words, light is ὑποκείμενον (that which is necessarily under-lying ontologically), the very being of the iconical.
Light is not a mere existence of physical space. It is an active agent. The fabricator.
Light has its source. Light is energy
There is sun. There are clouds. And fire, shimmering candlelight. Electrical light comes much later.
And, the question arises, what does it really bring?
Robert Irwin, 1o 2 o 3 o 4o (1997), installation in the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 2011. Photo: Pablo Mason
Light is so much more than mere illumination.
Originally, I repeat, light is — a matter of cult.
For both cult and art, reducing light to the level of bare illumination assumes the status of a perverse act.
The question of illumination is a question of simple logistics. The question of light is ontological. Logistical practice is based on the technology of installing art in (an already existing) space. The tale of light is far more serious.
The reality of the cult is a matter of ritual.
Much more is expected from both a ritual and a work of art. A liveliness, an effectiveness. Reality is what is being expected: a symbolic reality.
Following the logic of being, the reality of ritual cannot be reduced to physical reality. The reality of ritual stands within the (paradoxical) reality of the mystical; that is, in the performative effect of symbolical (theurgical) practice.
Something like that doesn’t happen outside this world.
The fictional (that is, mystical) nature of ritual reality actively changes the reality of the concrete world.
Many stories have been told about Chandrakirti, one of the most significant Madhyamika-Prasanghika scholars of Mahayana Buddhism and the legitimate heir to the great Nagarjuna.
He lived in the seventh century AD. He taught at Nalanda University, famous at the time.
He was an ardent logician, a radically daring analyst, an ascetic, a profound thinker, an excellent debater, a great interpreter of his predecessors’ works. Additionally, traditional accounts (Indian, as well as previous Tibetan accounts) attribute to him an excellent level of expertise in tantric skills and knowledge.
According to one story, being the way he was, he could do the following: he could draw a cow – and not only that – according to many supposed eyewitnesses, he could also milk that cow.
What could be said today about this (tantristic) AR of Chandrakirti?
No technology is present. The miracle is. The world is present as well. The miracle happens in the world.
The light illuminating (“in-luminare”) the miracle.
The logistics of the miracle remain a secret.
It’s hard to imagine a ritual that would be acosmical. Or ahistorical. In its own way, every ritual affirms the world, and works towards its preservation, or even salvation.
Outside of the world (and thus outside of light), the ritual is (like a work of art) unimaginable.
In fact, meaningless. Barren.
As space is to music, light is to visual art.
A musical piece presupposes spatiality, an iconical work presupposes light.
Music happens spatially. The iconical happens in light. The experience of the spatial quality of the iconical is a function of the dynamic of light.
The temporality of music is spatial. The temporality of the visual is essentially dependent on light.
Think of Wagner.
Among other things, the Holy Grail is a visual object. If you (like Parsifal) are worthy of it, you can see it. As such, the Holy Grail resides within the bowels of a mythical castle.
At the entrance into the inner sanctum of the edifice where the Grail is kept, one can hear the verses
Du siehst, mein Son, zum Raum wird hier die Zeit.
(You see, my son, here Time becomes Space.)
Space is that which (or, if we’re faithful to the Platonic terms, space is ‘she who’) contains.
It/she is χώρα.
And from its side of things, Light is – ἐνέργεια. Meaning: activity.
What would Scriabin say to this? Or Messiaen? Unfortunately, that must be left for a different time.
The origin of light or its place of emergence cannot be left to chance.
In relation to the work (seemingly), light is something external. Something else. At the same time – and therein lies the paradox of it all – it light) is something constituent with the essence of the work.
The identity of the work as an aesthetical object (or act) is irreducible to its punctual identity. The otherness is always there. On the one hand we have the thing (whatever in itself it might be), on the other, the light.
The disparity between them is an ontological imperative.
It should be pointed out that the Christian (Orthodox) interpretation of the ikon is founded on the idea of reversed perspective.It rests on the presupposition of a radical rejection of the (mimetic) understanding of perspective. The laws of optics and geometry, which hold such great importance for (secular) painting in the West, secede here to the problems of the possibility of the iconical presentation (I paraphrase the familiar maxim of Maximus the Confessor) of the eschatological reality of the world to come.
The ikon is not a picture. The ikon is an unalienable part of ritual. Its reality is not aesthetical, it is ritual.
All this creates a special connection between the ikonophile and light. Above all, the iconic establishment of the eschatological order excludes shadow, and the shapes manifest aren’t measured by the (geometrical and optical) laws of the material world. Light emanates from the ikon. The ikon doesn’t reflect it (the source of light is not in the physical space outside it), it is the source. The light of the ikon is not the material light of a physical reality. The light of the ikon is the immaterial (mystical) light of the Theosis on Mount Tabor.
The reality of the ikon is not virtual: it is eschatological. The reality of the eschatological order is not (virtual and) non-real. The ikon doesn’t show the world which is not (even if it might appear to be); the ikon shows the world which is still-not-here.
The reality of the ikon presupposes the mystical reality of the Holy Spirit. We live in a world of secular reality.
Every visuality is born in (some kind of) light. And exists, giving thanks to (that or some other kind of) light.
It matters greatly which and what kind of light it is.
There are many crafts (τέχνη); but there is one Art, and one Art only.
There are many gods – there is one Eros, and one Eros only.
Light is (much like Art), a thing of Eros.
Eros is the god of the ikon. As such, he (quite literally) delights in fiction. Eros likes images (among other things). He also likes art with the quality of plasticity. From time immemorial, he has been fond of sculpture.
He likes to look. He likes to be looked at, too.
It is in his character to excite imagination. To feed the flames of fantasy. That’s why there is so much (mortal and immortal) passion around him.
His nature is ex-static.
With all the toil and turbulence he brings, it is hard to imagine happiness without him.
We live in trying times.
There are few poets. Even fewer people who would call themselves happy.
We mostly complain, wail and gnash our teeth.
It is not by accident, I believe, that Schelling (continuing in the vein of Schiller, in some kind of ironic conditional) mentions the happy poet. Poets are naturally imagined to be miserable and grieving.
That makes Schelling’s poet an unusual presence.
We need one of that kind.
We need a happy poet.
A poet whose songs are visual. And who is — happy.
A great task awaits that poet. The happy poet. First of all, to assemble all the disparities of his time within himself. The time which belongs to him and to us. Perhaps it is still possible, one must hope, that some kind of visuality assembles all the (sickly) dispersion of our world and our lives.
This synthesis (the synthesis of a dispersed spirit and time within and around us), Schelling says, must be poetic. Not political, scientific, economical, ideological…
What is the familiar profile of the visual artist today? We will have difficulties in finding many who in their understanding of themselves indeed have that ποιητής (or whatever word we find appropriate to use). Will they be happy?
I don’t know. One should ask them.
What I do know is that they seem (or try really hard to seem) serious, worried, resolved, engaged in some cause…
Privately, they may be happy. Their work, however, points to a different sentiment.
Do they believe in miracles? The overwhelming impression is that they don’t.
And Light is — a miracle.
The topic is: modern visual art. Its relation to reality.
Emerging from that is a story of light. Of its origin. Of light as a miracle.
The miracle is a matter of faith. Of magic. Technology doesn’t produce miracles. It can only simulate them. Simulation doesn’t need (external) light.
Is a simulation of happiness possible? Not excitement, not excitation – Happiness?!?
The happy poet is a miracle.
Without a shadow of a doubt he is the same poet Schelling tells us about, and he is so (happy) on account of his being in Eros’s good favour. It is hard to believe it could be otherwise.
Eros assembles. He collects the dispersed. Connects the disjointed.
The man who looks with regard needs something more.
Technology isn’t enough. The same goes for the other trivialities, politics first of all. Without Eros, visual (or any) art is impossible.
Without him (in the work and the working on it), there is nothing to be seen.
One needs imagination (which is human). Imagination can’t be a matter of the machine. Light is needed as well. Light cannot come from humans. It must come from the gods. Or from God.
We have been hubristic. We have slighted the Light.
We have been deluded by our feelings of power. Stories have fuelled the delusion. Whenever there is much talk, there is much obliviousness.
We are stuck. Where? In Time. More precisely, our time itself is stuck.
We live in darkness. In the omnipersistent distress of ’immotion’. We do not see anything; nor is there anything to be seen.
In darkness, miracles don’t happen.
We need to steal imagination from the machines. And return it to man.
If art, visual art, is really to be both visual and art, it must return to the light/Light.
We need to find light again; the light that isn’t artificial. The light that is real. I say ‘real’ not in the sense that it is realistic. Quite the contrary, I say ‘real’ in the sense that it is more real than ourselves. Than our life and our works.
One cannot reach it through mere (poetological) thought. Copying idols is out of the question. Such a light needs to be a gift. A peculiar gift. A gift from someone else. That someone else must be some kind of god.
Eros, for instance.
One of his (Eros’s) oldest names – in fact, his most ancient name – was Φάνης. Meaning: the bright one, the shining one, the radiant one – the one of Light.
That’s how the Orphic cosmogonies remember him.
We would certainly benefit from remembering him like that as well.