Tag Archives: light

The Shadow Knows

We tend to design our living spaces with light in mind. It’s only natural: We need to see our environment – and through windows, the outside – to know things like time of day, where that object you don’t want to trip over is, whether that’s a brown shoe or a black, and so on. Light helps. That’s why so many brains have set themselves to the task of creating the best sources of light, natural and artificial. Control of light is a marker of civilization and – even if you hate compact fluorescents – progress.

We think about darkness, too, and not just in ways we can obliterate it with light. During sleep hours, in a movie theater, in moments of middle-of-the-night contemplation, for star-gazing – for most of us, the darker the better.

window well

But, lately, it’s shadows I’ve been considering. Not the necessary and mood-enhancing umbral pools at rooms’ edges, in places where table and task lighting pay no attention. No, it’s now that Spring is in the air, and the sun is higher in the sky and in spots that the  winter sun could only aspire to … it’s now that the light is hitting objects we’ve placed in windows and on doors, and reflecting off things sitting on tables and sills, and so creating designs and patterns, splashes of color and amorphous mandalas all over the walls and floors of lucky rooms. And these shadows, like Plato’s, reveal the world and the shape of structures in it that direct observation never shows us; in fact, the shadows uncover shapes and elements and physical relationships that we are totally unaware of without their assistance.

blinds

Today I have seen the sun behind tilted venetian blinds – bars and taut lines in slashes across the floor; the golden reflected light from a teapot jiggling on the wall; window grates leaving fade-in/fade-out hash marks across plant leaves. And there are some intricate weavings and playful squiggles the origins of which I still can’t determine: the light is coming from somewhere, hitting something, and projecting beauty.

glass

This is art of an improvised nature: light, as if conscious, as if sentient, playing off solids like a percussionist utilizing alleyway trash receptacles as a drum kit. Or like water, finding its way around and through even the smallest cracks and flaws, pouring in.

windowsill

We design our places for light. Perhaps we should just as purposely and consciously design our spaces for the shadows that can be thrown like ideas, sketched like gesture drawings on the canvasses of our rooms … and, just as ethereally, vanish, to return the next time, only different, a new work, a surprising bit of art.

x marks the spot

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A Little Light Music

winterHere we are, well into the free-fall frenzy of the final month of the year, the now super-sized holiday season that appears to be a whopping two months long instead of what used to be individual days separated by weeks of ordinary days. Growing up in my house, there was a a polar oppositeness in the recognition and observation of holidays. Dad was more of a humbug guy and, other than enjoying the fruits of all the womenfolks’ labors that resulted in a cornucopia of plenty to savor, he would have preferred to continue his daily routine uninterrupted by such unnecessary rituals.

Mom, on the other hand, believed in the magic bestowed upon special days. Probably a little too much, but maybe it was her way of trying to tip the balance from Dad’s point of view. Or maybe she just preferred fantasy. The downside of holidays is having too much expectation and always being disappointed in the reality. Between the two of them, she was likely the most unhappy as a result of holiday cheer; and, despite the evidence to the contrary, her hope sprang eternal.

Their children, as an offshoot of this bipolar environment, chose to reject traditional holidays and their underpinnings – much like Dad did – but, rather, decided to find magic in the real as opposed to the fictitious – a healthier Mom. What this means is that we resist the relentless reminders of “the season” and try to avoid the persistent false advertising about the Dickensian ideal of good will and peace on earth. No matter how many thousands of these observations of a single day or groups of days we have, as a species, it seems we are no closer to reaching the more perfect union that the holidays encourage us to seek.

We know from whence it came: we are the primitives in our caves, winter and darkness biting at our frozen digits. It must have felt like the world was ending, the sun sneaking away to warm other creatures that we didn’t know existed over the horizon. We needed some sort of story to comfort us, a way of repeating the fear – of owning it – and keeping in mind that there is hope for the return of the light. It is a primal story, and it has been molded into many variations by different sects; but, even though these groups interpret their stories in their unique tellings, it is still about the light.

winter_solstice

This holiday is about the Winter Solstice, no matter how far afield the explanations stray. It’s funny how a natural phenomenon, so basic and so real and having such immense impact, can be interpreted in such fantastical ways. There is the physical-science explanation; the cosmic, spiritual connotations; the religious-story overlays; the familial-bonding imperative; and the commercialism spin – the Winter Solstice has become a growth industry. All these things exist otherwise, but for some reason the Winter Solstice has had to carry the load, becoming all things to all at the end of the calendar year, and being buried in there somewhere in the rubble.

I celebrate the Winter Solstice as a jumping-off point, an end to one period and the start of a new one, a cyclical reminder of nature and life, darkness and light, beginnings and endings. It is, for me, a time of reflection. A time to slow down and think about the year past and the year ahead. And even though we now know that the light will be returning, most assuredly, we must not take that for granted. Ever. It is the gift for the season and it costs nothing. Happy Winter Solstice to the entire Northern Hemisphere! That’s something to celebrate.

SolarEclipse

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A Tale of Two Gardens

In our attempts to understand and explain the ins and outs of arslocii, we fell into a perfectly clear example during one weekend in June. It was one of those annual events in which people open their gardens to gawkers like us, for a small sum. This kind of thing echoes the class-based tradition of visiting large estates and stately homes in the United Kingdom, snooping while contributing to the upkeep of the digs of a long line of dukes and duchesses now on the skids. It isn’t quite the same here in the States, having no royalty, but there is a palpable sense of have-nots paying for the privilege of sniffing at the haves.

One garden in particular smelled of new money – an out-of-place McMansion sitting on a ski-slope-like bank on the west side of the Hudson River. The view, we admit, was breathtaking, but on closer examination, it was all wrong and not even attractive enough for the money ill-spent. What had been done was a wholesale removal of a swath of forested growth, as wide as the property’s borders and all the way down from the hilltop manse to the water’s edge. We understand the desire to capture a view, but this was more like stuffing and mounting it. The fact is, there were opportunities aplenty to play peek-a-boo with the river, to tease and suggest by selectively removing or pruning trees. But, no, the owners (and that’s what they were – not guardian-dwellers, not loving cohabitants with the land, but simply owners) decided to just drop their drawers, so to speak, to make their vista a widescreen experience. So, now, rather than a naturalistic attempt at enticing with glimpses, there is a broad lawn tumbling down to the river (the thought of cutting the grass without ending up in the water is frightening, not to mention the erosion this causes), and it ends up resembling those channels cut into mountaintops to erect power lines, or a vertically challenging 16th hole on a golf course. Aside from the scalping, dotted about the steep slope are little islands of plantings, so out of scale and incidental-looking that you almost don’t notice them. They look more like footholds for descending/ascending the river bank than considered gardens. Well, we wouldn’t want any competition with the view, right? There is no sense of place in this scenario, since there is nothing interacting with the water view. Instead there is the shock, a feeling as if a flasher has his trench coat parted — and we all know how disappointing that can be. So, yes, these folks are rich enough to denude the land but they really have given nothing back to it, let alone done something in partnership with it.

In contrast, there was another garden on this touring circuit with a less-than-ideal setting, but which was made into something special. A cluster of farm-industrial buildings of a strange Tudor design were situated right up against railroad tracks. We were told that this had been a cold-storage apple repository convenient to shipping – the land once part of a vast apple orchard production farm. To quote the owner and creator of the new incarnation of usage (as a costume factory) and gardens, “I am now eight years on from the weedy field of rubble I started out with. Sometimes I feel my intentions are starting to show, sometimes not … It’s at all times a workshop, a long dialogue with ‘Place,’ rather than the ‘design-and-install’ approach. Emphasis is of foliage, texture and contrast. Sculpture and plants are used in a theatrical context.” One of the strengths of this endeavor is the subduing of a large unwieldy space by creating rooms and transitions between them, each unique, each embellished with sculpture – the natural elements interplaying with the fabricated. In other words, there is a give with the take, a mutuality and not a dominance. And there is the wonderment of the garden not taking itself oh so seriously. It is a one-off site, and most people would not find the potential for beauty and magic in such a place. Enter the costume designer with a sense of style and whimsy to make it “sew” and you have a cohesive respite, a blending of fantasy and reality, a labor of creativity and craft with respect and a resulting air of joy. Placeness can be found here.

And also shadows. Placeness, as we’ve shown in previous arslocii installments – and what is, in fact, at the very center of the arslocii definition – is much to do with duality and counterpoint. On our website (and you’ll pardon our quoting ourselves) we, in trying to wrap our minds around the arslocii concept, talk about “a special pairing of the manmade with nature, or sometimes even manmade with manmade; the effect being a symbiosis in which neither one stands out or alone, nor would be as meaningful, beautiful or inevitable without the other. It’s an interdependence of aesthetics that goes beyond, thankfully, human dominance over nature or setting, because that has never had much grace.” The pairings and contrapuntalisms – big/small, hard/soft, open/contained, inside/outside, close/distant – doled out in the proper amounts and with just the right tilt of the head are what create placeness, and what, in turn, can mix that placeness DNA with that of art. Add to that list another pair: light/dark. It is here where the two gardens, the subjects of this piece, show their true colors. In the first, there is no accessible shade or sheltered spot – it is all sun-bleached and, though lengthy, without depth. It is an overexposed photo – everything is lighted, and lighted the same way. And, thus, there are no revelations, no discovery – though green, and with a river, it is as much a desert as the Gobi.

But the second garden – now, there, they understood that to see the light you need to have dark, and that the dark is only appealing (or nonthreatening) when one can see light. In this garden, one walks almost immediately from a light-drenched parking lot to the inviting shade offered by covered pathways and pergolas and way stations, then out again into an unprotected field adorned with small-ish sculptures … and then back again into the dappled shade of a woods – there to run into a straw man, a scarecrow, a figure that could be sinister but is rendered merely special by its location (there is no field of crops for it to keep birds from), by its lighting (only heavily filtered light, as opposed to the unremitting sun-soaked existence of most scarecrows) and by its backdrop: more light, and perhaps safety, just beyond. Back and forth, in and out, right here and up ahead.

And then, just farther along one of the winding paths, an allee of colorful parasols that comment wonderfully on the duality: in the most direct sun, they cast tiny, mushroomy pools of shade along the trail, creating a dimensionality out of very little – not just periodic protuberances to dot a landscape, as in the first garden, but ethereal definers that provide senses: sense of location, sense of style, sense of humor, sense of intelligence … sense of place and placeness. Sense and sensual, but not (like the first garden) overly sensible. Artful, playful, resonant, basic, primitive, natural … arslocii.

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The Light Fantastic

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.

 

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Ode to Joy

Recently, in a weekend retreat program designed to seek and find joy, our task was to list the things that bring us joy in life. My list included:

1. serendipity, finding the unexpected certainly can generate joy, maybe it is joy;

2. light, mostly natural, some artificial (incandescent lamps only);

3. music, both natural and human made – I am keenly aware that I am more attuned to the latter but I can also appreciate the sounds of nature.

Some examples of natural music during this sojourn: the calls of birds, frogs and wind; a flock of sandhill cranes singing their crossing of the evening sky, like a chorus of squeaky gates; the bullfrogs’ vibrational drone, perhaps an Indian tambura; the wind through a forest of pines, a soft whoosh, similar to a distant train or the persistent ocean ebb and flow; the high pitch howl of a coyote. Magical sounds. Real sounds.

Placeness can be perceived through sound as well as sight, or feel. Or through all of these things together. At the site of the retreat was an overwhelming sensual experience, a place of spirit – a spirit of place. There, in this mid-Michigan landscape, was a pine forest planted in rows, straight lines, aisles, allees in the woods, chorus lines in an endless mirror. Row after row, uniform rows, columns, stud walls, buttresses holding up roofs of scented leaves, cathedrals of nature, a crunchy carpet of brown needles below. Upright, alert, an army of trees, battalions, natural fence posts. The wind rushing through the totemic figures, the light penetrating and generating an orange glow off the trees and thick floor matting. Space is defined, place is created. Sight, sound, feel. Joy.

Or inside an empty corn crib built of horizontal wood lath with light filtering through, corn husks on the floor. A tiny chapel for one or two who enter and notice. An odd birdhouse-shaped structure, almost a cartoon rendering of a house with no right angles. This basic, practical container becoming a beautiful space and light container, a filtering device for viewing the world, or a space all its own.

Genius loci is a concept defined by the Romans as a protector of a site, a deification of a unique place that makes it something worth defending. Random House Dictionary’s entry for genius loci is “the peculiar character of a place with reference to the impression that it makes on the mind.” Simply and modernly put, a “spirit of place.” Alexander Pope incorporated the concept into landscape design, now an underlying principle of landscape architecture – that the overlay of design should be adapted to its context – in order to express the uniqueness of place. From personified tutelary spirits that exemplify a place to a pervasive spiritual sense of a particular site, it all reveals that throughout human history, the interaction with “place” is significant.

Arslocii begins with Genius loci, but that’s only half of it. Arslocii is the combination of a special site with something else – something permanent, or something fleeting, which causes an enhancement of both and creates an experience of placeness from the two. It is the pairing and synergy, ergo the two “ii”s. It is an artful relationship, one of the spirit and of the mind, of the place and of what’s placed in the place, in tandem. And the whole is greater than the two parts.

Back at the retreat, as we moved symbolically from leaving our joylessness behind and welcoming our newfound joy, we each in turn threw a handful of glitter up into the air. It was a partially cloudy day with the sun ducking in and out intermittently, a soft breeze moving the clouds playfully. The glitter was tossed, it caught the sunlight, was carried by the wind and created magic as it cascaded in waves to the ground – a fairy veil of sparkly energy, atoms made visible, tangible sunlight. It lasted but a moment but what a spectacular moment. Joy. Arslocii.ladyfi.wordpress.com

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