Of all our senses we rely mostly on sight. I remember a night sail several years ago, the big ships that came against us. I mistook the lit ship for a Christmas tree. I was surprised to discover a gigantic dark metal body, with lights fixed at. The shape was so different from what I thought I’d seen.
If the visual perception does not match what we feel, hear or smell, we trust our sight. At night, we have a much shorter field of view, we are more sensitive, more vulnerable and referred to the night’s light sources; the soft light under moon and stars. The different sensory impressions may be more similar, they blend together. The colors disappear, the contours become blurred. Nevertheless, we try to see and read, rely on sight.
Usually we prefer to have our own source of light, a flashlight to illuminate the road with. Herein arises a dilemma; one can not both lit up the world and still see the stars. The headlight limits our field of view – we see only what is in the beam. If someone happens to angle the flashlight towards our eyes we see nothing at all.
The same situation occurs at a stationary light source, the fire, or in modern times at the solitary street lamp. When you stand next to it, you can read a newspaper but not see anything outside its beam. However, someone who is himself outside of the lit ground can still see quite clearly and simultaneously orient themselves in the dark landscape.
To avoid such situations of vulnerability we choose to illuminate our surroundings as much as possible. We defy the darkness and change our living conditions by turning night into day, mitigate seasonal variations and keep winter sleep gone through the illuminated houses and streets. It is a very light and scattered light, so much so that satellite images even at night look like maps. The more you highlight the greater the risk that you will be blinded, that everything you see becomes flatter and less clear.
To see the light requires darkness, to read the room three-dimensionally requires both light and shadow. Light falling on something and the shadow objects cast. The most interesting time of day is also when the sun is low, when the side lights and shadows accentuates the landscape, and when the colors are saturated.
Light studies represent a tradition in painting and there is hardly any painting that is not about light. The architecture will light a three-dimensional body. It’s about how light falls in buildings, how the rooms are filled with light. Our perception of the room is determined by how big the windows are, how high they are and towards which direction.
Pantheon in Rome is an excellent example of a building where light plays the main part. The dome shaped roof has an opening in the middle, through which a beam of light falls. It is a giant sundial that gives the light a physical shape, a volume that we can read, revelation and perception of the sunlight itself. One might as well say that Pantheon is as much light sculpture, as it is a building, because the light experience is so pure.
There is not yet a consolidated tradition to work sculpturally with light, with the lighting experience in itself. Although it is no stranger than using materials like stone, clay, steel, or color.
James Turell is one of those artists who persistently explores the boundaries of our perception and reproduce various light phenomenas, and gives the light form. He recognizes our vision and his aim is to create the same wordless communication that arises when we look into a fire.
Just looking into a fire is a good starting point for reflections on light sculptures and why we really need them right in our over-illuminated environment, why it is not enough with our ceremonial candle rituals during the dark season’s festivities, why it is not enough to ignite the fireworks, bonfires and candlelight.
Light sculptures play with and displaces meanings, the boundary between the completely obvious, and it is adjacent to an optical illusion. They raise awareness for the pre-linguistic, reach past our intellectual interpretations linked to the right sight, directly into the clean sudden experience of light. They make us aware through to elude our perception. We need them to see.