Light Interdiction: PSAS: Wang Fujui, Ting Chaong-Wen, Tao Ya-Lun, Tom Muller

by Graham Mathwin

Light art seems to have come into its heyday. Approximately 30 to 40 years after it was pioneered by the likes of Robert Irwin, Dan Flavin, James Turrell and Doug Wheeler it has come to Australia in force. The National Gallery of Australia commissioned a massive Turrell in 2011, and he had a major retrospective there recently. There was also the eponymous ‘Light show’ at the Hayward in 2013, which came to the MCA in Australia this year as well. To offer a simplistic analogic definition of it all, I can’t go past the somewhat ‘dawning’ zeitgeist presented in Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in the TATE in 2003 (this one clearly not in Australia, but I think this is something of a global ‘phenomenon’). The ominous impact of Eliasson’s work is interesting to consider, as I would present it as the ultimate image of what many light artists seem to seek. The work was philosophically grounded in a kind of phenomenology – the discourse that seems to inform a great deal of light art. It insisted on the idea of ‘seeing yourself seeing’ the placement of the visual experience within the lived experience of individuals. Mostly through covering the ceiling of the already vast Turbine Hall with mirrors.

The other thing about mirrors is that they are a little bit narcissistic. I think Eliasson’s installation embodies something far more potent than what it is ostensibly about. To see themselves in reflection people haplessly wriggled their arms and legs, prostrated on the ground before an enormous, univalent sun. The sheer effect of the space, doubled, is incredible. This is a monstrous artwork. The centrality of the sun, its enormous figure, all of it revealing its construction, appears like a ‘benign’ god. It is, perhaps unconsciously, an embodiment of the diffused, phenomenologically explicated individualised spectacle of late capitalist museums. All lit in one frequency of light, every ugly pore of skin in harsh street-light yellow, and far above you, your own self, one of the little black worms indistinguishable from the mass of people clattering in the vast echoing hall. There is a ring of dystopia to the fantastic spectacle of that exhibition…This is my way of saying that it takes a particularly intelligent use of light to get away from what these artworks tend towards – contentless ‘euphoria’ to borrow Krauss’ terminology when she spoke about minimalism in ‘the cultural logic of the late capitalist museum’. Light art is turning rapidly into a gimmick, and it takes some intelligence or extremely refined subscription to its potencies for it to open a space for our consideration.

There is an unfortunate treatment of space in this show, both of potential spaces opened by the work, and the very use of the physical space itself. This problem seems endemic to Light art in Perth, I remember ‘LUMINOUSFLUX’ at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, a disastrous show with the happy inclusion of Rebecca Baumann (If this is the fourth time I have mentioned her in as many reviews, I apologize, but really!) whose ‘reflected Glory’ the vision of which is still on my mind. Yet the rest of the works failed for a simple reason, that the work in this show also suffer from: they were too object-like, too much like paintings. Light is not an object, and to treat it as such shows not its limitations, but the artist’s own. Baumann was the only one to remotely deal with space, the Flavin, the only other contender, a dull corner piece that could have been a lantern. Tom Muller was in that show as well, presenting a similar work, using neon, yet that was pinned to the wall. Happily, this current work stands in the middle of the space, and this simple declaration easily makes it the most powerful work in the show, a bold, extremely bright white light, glancing down through the space into a small mound of white matter. Its boldness is its success, and it gathers one’s eyes like a bonfire. The space of the gallery comes into play through this positioning, and people gathered and cycled around it. Yet it is far more object like than spatial, though it uses the space effectively.

There is a case for light as an object, though, so let us consider this work as this. Neon is a very object-like light source, it speaks of the 70s as well, but of pop art/conceptual art, and the one-time popularity of neon signage, before LEDs and Fluorescents became cheaper. There were often words written with neon of course, and we can still see this happening. Yet what is the position of neon in our contemporary city? Has not the LED replaced it entirely? Neon is somewhat dated now as an object, something that spoke of a very particular discourse. This is not to infer that it cannot succeed to speak about anything else, though. I feel that Muller’s work makes visible the graphic strength of its materiality, yet it is also possessed of the euphoria of light of the late capitalist museum.

The main problem I have with the other works in this show, though, is that they appear ‘interactive’ without engagement in any what it means to be involved. I am reminded of the early work of perhaps the worst artist in LUMINOUSFLUX - Jim Campbell (and his stumbling, barely visible LED ‘paintings’ and his expanded light field in King’s Park that year). The early works consisted of a program that would make your body appear on fire on a monitor – as an appearance of what it was like to be mentally ill. Of course, the response was totally contrary to Campbell’s intention, and people rather enjoyed seeing themselves on fire. It was, after all, a gimmick. This is the problem that the three other works in the show suffer from.

I fear that I am being overly judgemental, yet the more I consider, the less happy I become with what I saw. This is not because of the failure of these works, but that there is possibility within these works that was not realised. I feel like Wang Fujui’s work could have moved itself away from the wall, and though its soundscape was a wonderful addition to PSAS, I felt it lacked an actual consideration of space and movement, which seemed to be its area of operation, the images of previous work in the catalogue seem to indicate a previous engagement with space in such a way, and I am puzzled as to why something so specific and limited was felt more appropriate. There is little fun in placing a hand through a small blue laser. It would have engaged more thoroughly in what I suspect it was trying to achieve by being presented in space, away from a wall, perhaps with multiple lasers, giving some degree of variance to the experience of navigating space. For is this not what this is about? The work is ostensibly about a small part of our body in relation to a linear section of space. Why not our whole body? Why not the manner in which we typically interact with space? Why not the door, that moment of inadvertent high traffic? There is a need within this work for it to find engagement with the way people already interact with the space that PSAS offers, and this can be done easily and effectively. The other two interactive works suffer from similar issues. Ting Chaong-wen’s projection requires that we stand in a particular place, requires that we interact with it in a controlled and controllable way. In a smaller gallery, I can imagine it working more successfully, yet here there is a need to adapt to the enormity of the space, which has not been considered.

A similar thing may be said of Tao Ya-Lun’s lenses and the lights, that were positioned, bizarrely, in the far back corner of the room, far away from the action. The lights illuminated almost the entire space, yet they were almost incapable of projecting the image of our bodies through the lens onto the wall. The main problem with it was simply that it was too removed, once again, too far from us. If the work is, as it appeared to be, about our interaction with it, why was it so limited in its capacities? I do believe that the work has a powerful and enormous potential to it, but there is a necessity that this potential is realised, for me to be able to consider what it might be that lies beyond the merely technical bounds of the work.

In this sense, Muller’s work is the most intriguing, its bold and direct, unified presence a thing to behold in the space. It succeeded, I feel, precisely because it was not interactive in the same way as the others, relying instead on its merits as a light artwork, rather than media and interaction. It feels like a pertinent and appropriate use of the media, a suggestion of the verticality of the space, referencing the space of PSAS, filled as it is with pillars. It is linear as well, but unlike the laser, a strong glow emanated from what is the centre of the room. There are still problems within it that ask to be resolved. There is something troubling about it, just as there is something troubling about Mariko Mori’s exhibition at AGWA and Olafur Eliasson’s work. It feels like it is too much an object, but also that it subscribes to the euphoria engendered by the focus on perception to the absence of the political. It seems odd, as Muller’s work has previously engaged in the politics of landscape and money, yet this work is quite distinct from this other content, in a way, it feels like the work is attempting to escape its actuality. I do not mean this in a positive way. I recall David Batchellor’s statement, that light without a cord always seems to suggest some kind of spirituality. Batchellor’s own arwork, in their heavy, industrial encasement, and frequently visible mechanics, present a deepening of the discourse of light art, a revelation of the phenomena of everyday life, not the sacralised and monumentalised, decontextualized efforts of someone like Turrell. Muller’s cords are hidden beneath a piece of tape, yet the very fact that the work does not present this on its sleeve tells us something of its nature – particularly that it seems to speak with that same euphoric, spiritual voice as much other light art. Yet for its simple, powerful presence, it is uncompromisingly dominant in the space, and activates its place in the centre.

I am interested to see what comes next, for light and space in Perth, and also globally, as it seems to be on the rise.


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