Light has come a long way in the art world. It was once an additional element overlooked in the background though has been evolving into a prominent art medium over the recent decades.
Many art historians believe El Lissitzky Prounen Raum (Proun Room) (1923) is the first work of art to incorporate lighting elements while László Moholy-Nagy Light-Space Modulator (1922-1930) is the first object-based light sculpture. However, it would be decades before light art or luminism would light up the art world. For too long, traditional mediums such as painting and sculpture reigned supreme. Also, depending on its application, light can be a challenging medium that exposes artists to harsh working conditions and posing complex and demanding collaboration processes for production and installation.
By the 1960s, more and more artists began using neon, taking the movement to the next level. Dan Flavin was an American minimalist who first started exploring light’s potential as a medium of expression while working as a guard at the American Museum of Natural History in 1961. It was there that he started to sketch works that incorporated electric lights. Some of Dan Flavin’s most memorable light art pieces include Diagonal of May 25 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi), icon VII (via crucis) 1962, and icon V (Coran’s Broadway Flesh) 1962. In New York in 2004, his Untitled (“monument” forV. Tatlin)1964–1965 sold at Christie’s for $735,500.
James Turrell was also one of those early adopters of light as a medium, first experimenting with it in 1966. The former fighter pilot and perceptual psychology degree holder had a fascination with the Light and Space art movement which focused on perceptual phenomena. One of his early work Raethro Pink (1968) was a light projection of a luminous pink pyramid that appeared to be suspended in the air. Some of Turrell’s best works include Afrum I (White) (1967), Meeting (1980), Light Reignfall (2011), and Twilight Epiphany (2012). There is now a James Turrell Museum in Salta, Argentina where you can view nine of Turrell’s light installations.
It was only recently in 2015 that an award would be created honoring light-art specifically. An initiative of the Centre for International Light Art Unna and Innogy Foundation, the International Light Art Award promotes emerging artists who develop light art creatively, using new technologies while also addressing energy usage and sustainability. Thanks to evolving curiosities and experimentation, artists who were likely inspired by lights’ architectural applications and visual arts discovered its potential to exist as its natural medium of expression. Artists would use light’s properties to manipulate the audience’s attention, strategically drawing the eyes or accentuating corresponding elements. From integrating lights into canvases to light installations to creating an interaction between light and architectural spaces, light art exists anywhere the artist chooses – from indoor museums and gallery spaces to festivals and outdoor landscapes.
Artists Leveraging Light in Illuminating Ways
Here are nine contemporary artists who have taken the light and used it to expand our imaginations and help define luminism.
Born in 1967, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson is known for his immersive large-scale light installations and works that typically focus on natural phenomenon and social issues.
Some of his light installations include Room For One Colour (1998) and 360 degrees Room For All Colours (2002). His Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger)(2010) was a piece commissioned by the Arken Museum of Modern Art; it was a 90-meter long tunnel that museum goers could enter. Viewers would navigate the space, enveloped in dense fog and relying on light to help them find their way. His recent solo exhibition titled “Olafur Eliasson: the unspeakable openness of things” in Beijing’s Red Brick Art Museum spans over 20,000 square meters.
International Light Art Award finalist Yasuhiro Chida has participated in the Amsterdam Light Festival, one of the best-known light festivals in the world. His Brocken 6 A was part of the 2017 exhibition while Aftereal, a large installation in the public space reflecting the artist’s fascination of using light for the physical and sensory perception of our environment, installed in the 2018 celebration.
Chida considers light as “one of the purest materials that make it possible to perceive a space. Light is the root of beauty; natural phenomena or substances that we feel beautiful, many of them are concerned with light.”
The Royal Academy of Arts artistic director Tim Marlow has described Emin as “one of the most important and influential artists in the world.” The original YBA (Young British Artists) and once the enfant-terrible of the infamous “My Bed” installation, Emin has been using neon as a creative medium for over three decades.
What differentiates Emin from other light artists is that she uses her handwriting in her neon text sculptures. While much of her work has been quite sentimental (and evidently self-confessional as in her early installation works) with messages like “Just love me” and “Wanting you” and continuing to reveal her trademark sexual provocations with blaring works like, “Is legal sex anal?” and “Is anal sex legal?.”
In her latest work, Emin who is now a rare female Royal Academician, created neon light installation that greets St. Pancras station commuters with a 20-meter-long message, “I want my time with you.” Expressing her frustration with Brexit, Emin says it’s a message of love for the rest of Europe.
Born in Chile in 1972, Chilean sculptor utilizes neons, lights, and infinity mirrors to convey politically-charged messages. Despite having lived in New York since his twenties, Navarro has never quite gotten over his youth spent under the brutal Chilean dictatorship, a time of blackouts, curfews, censorship, and people were kidnapped or arrested, never to be seen again.
In his earlier work You Sit, You Die (2002), Navarro built a lounge chair out of white fluorescent tubes, describing it as “my version of the electric chair.” Navarro describes his pieces as having a “certain amount of fear.”
Born in Mexico City in 1967, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer is an electronic artist who intersects architecture and performance art to create interactive installations. Among the numerous and diverse body of works, Lazano-Hemmer describes his light and shadow pieces as “anti-monuments for alien agency.” His Articulate Intersect is a massive installation that produces an “interactive canopy of light” using 18 powerful searchlights controlled by the public.
Born and raised in California, Mary Weatherford studied visual arts and art history at Princeton University. Her career in art began in the 80s with works focused on painting landscapes. In 2012, she became intrigued by the colored neon signs she’d seen illuminating in old factories and restaurants. She began to carefully shape and incorporate colored neon tubes into her abstract paintings.
Using vinyl-based Flashe paint, Weatherford creates extensive works on linen canvases. Her painting process involves pouring water across the canvas surface before adding pigment, allowing the water and colors to dry and sink in overnight. Then adding the light elements by collaborating with a San Diego-based sign-making company bend the glass based on her canvas patterns.
Keith Sonnier has had a long history with lights. Born in 1941, Sonnier has been working with lights as a medium since 1968. His light art technique includes materials such as neon, fluorescent lights, and reflective materials.
In 2004, Sonnier created MOTORDOM, one of Los Angeles’s most significant public installations. The red neon and blue argon structure consisting of 15mm tubes illuminate the courtyard of Thom Mayne’s Caltrans District 7 Building in Downtown LA; a digital lighting sequence operates it.
International Light Art Award finalist Jacqueline Hen specialized in Visual Communication, Spatial and Experience design when she studied at University of the Arts Berlin and Art Center College of Design Pasadena. Hen’s interest in the investigation of light as an artistic material is because of its “transformational potential on the human consciousness.” She continues, “Using light guides the perception through targeted acoustic and visual phenomena into border areas in which ambivalent experiences (contingency (Luhmann)) set in and the habitual perception of space and time is abolished.”
“I’m interested that light has thingness itself, so it’s not something that reveals something about other things you’re looking at, but it becomes a revelation in itself.” – James Turrell
Light illuminates and inspires us like no other natural phenomenon, as artists have and continue to harness its forms to create works of art. It has truly come a long way since the 60s when those artistic giants like Turrell and Flavin pushed the boundaries to where it is today.
Almost five decades since James Turrell first started experimenting with light, Turrell revealed an historic piece at the New York City Guggenheim in 2013. It was the Aten Reign, spectacular a 79-foot tower of immense elliptical play of light transforming the famed Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda and ocular skylight — one of the largest site-specific installations for Turrell. The visceral and unforgettable experience for those lucky viewers being virtually transported to a place quite indescribable by words, to only such brilliance of light art can take us.