My whole life I have been drawn to light. Not like a moth is, for celestial navigation (although I am a moon-watcher), but I am definitely positively phototactic. Some of my least-favorite fellow creatures are negatively phototactic; so, given the choice between light and dark, I will always go with light.
Drawn as I am to glowing things, I’ve become aware of the varied qualities of light. Natural light is best because of its color range. And there are those special lighting effects that the sun can produce: the translucent backlighting of leaves – both spring and fall foliage have their unique attributes; the glint of light on stone revealing its crystalline or mica structures; reflections and movement on a water’s surface, and sometimes down into its depths; rays breaking through cloud curtains and extending like searchlights onto the earth; glistening silica particles sparkling in sand or grass; a rainbow, a miraculous fracturing of light; the orange fanfare of the sun’s rising and setting; the moon’s shine at night; a stream of light with its thousands of floating particles, like a glimpse into the beginnings of life itself; the Northern Lights, which I must someday see; and even something as mundane as the warm glow cast on a telephone pole.
Not sun-related, but light-significant, too, are: lightning, a powerful emanation of the original electric light; fireflies and their glowing signals, like tiny lighthouses of the sky; candle flames, doing their own peculiar dance of life; the color and warmth of a full-blown fire, and too, the glowing red embers that fight for survival as it fades.
These very qualities of light can create placeness in nature, a symbiotic alteration of site or space that is sometimes momentary. But if you are there to witness it or experience it, a moment may be all that’s required. It must be this sensory phenomenon that induces artists to try to recreate it or capture it in some way. Certain artists work with artificial light, attempting to mimic the effects of natural light. Dan Flavin used industrial fluorescent tubes, which to me are the anti-light, but painted them and clustered them so that the colors bleed and interact much in the same way that the color spectrum does. (See The Dan Flavin Institute entry on our arslocii website.) Or there is Olafur Eliasson, whose theories are made manifest by hugely proportioned installations designed to alter or challenge the viewer’s perceptions. Science aside, I viewed his piece, “Your Color Memory,” at Arcadia University in 2006. Once you entered the large rotunda built inside a cavernous building, you were enveloped in light. Not static light, but rather light in constant flux, changing color, density and brightness. Whereas Flavin’s piece was like entering a rainbow, this one was akin to walking through the Northern Lights (I imagine). There was nothing in this space except light, and it had such presence, such placeness. It was like a full-body treatment for SAD; my cone photoreceptors were in overdrive, and it lifted my mood as if some sort of laughing gas was being pumped in through the heating ducts.
Other artists try to capture natural light. James Turrell comes to mind, having started his career using artificial light inside to create an altered sense of interior space. Then he started opening up holes to the sky to work with sunlight and star-viewing. In his largest project, Roden Crater, which is ongoing for more than thirty years, he is turning a meteor crater into a celestial observatory, pulling the light of both day and night through an elliptical occulus for its effects within the crater’s space and on the viewer, and causing it to have a physicality. And Walter De Maria’s “Lightning Field”: a flat expanse of upright steel rods that attract lightning down to the high desert ground, its effect likened to, once again, the Northern Lights. The regularity and density of the metal receptors create the possibility of the electrical energy bouncing off the rods as in a pinball game as it tilts with each attraction.
Each of these artists is a place-maker, using light, just as our eyes do, to create shape, color, space, sensory experience, a physical presence, out of thin air. It is the ultimate in placeness, turning something immaterial into something “real.” There is a kind of alchemy in this process, and it is totally natural. It is said that water is the source of life itself, but for me, it is light – whether in its natural creations or the human-made ones. Without light, there would be nothingness.