While light can be seen as a basic energy, its ambiguous constitution makes it subject to a range of metaphorical implications. It suggests ’enlightenment‘ and ’illumination‘, as well as 60 watts. It is mysterious and ephemeral, as well as a staple feature of functional interior design. As an artistic medium, it has been used to convey transcendence (James Turrell) as well as reductive minimalism (Dan Flavin). Artists such as Kitty Kraus and Haegue Yang have exploited this multivalency. In their installations, light‘s role within 20th-century Minimal art establishes a sobering context, respectably ’sculptural‘, even as they exploit the medium‘s potential as an atmospheric decor effect creating a seductive aura of evanescence.
Seemingly paradoxically, Kraus’s recent installation at Galerie Neu was both more ascetic and emotive than her previous work. The usual entrance had been walled off (occlusion is Kraus‘s pet theme), so the viewer entered through a narrow portal between the office and the gallery. The gallery itself had been reduced to two windowless rectangular shells, in both of which a chest-high plywood plinth had been placed in the middle of the floor, its open top levelled by a thin sheet of opaque black glass which left an infinitesimal gap between wood and glass out of which light of a penetrating intensity leaked. There must have been a bulb of extremely high wattage within the plywood boxes. The wood and glass felt dangerously hot to the touch. Light may appear to be purely visual, and therefore insubstantial, but it is a powerful energy – composed, substantially enough, of a type of particle, at least according to quantum physics. Theatrically, Kraus dramatizes and rhetoricizes light, even as she makes the installation appear to be merely a matter of its physical containment and displacement.
We would have expected the light’s effect on the surrounding room to have been the image of that narrow band of brilliance topping the plinths, but instead the walls were traversed by a horizontal shadow stripe incising an overall dim illumination. Like hieratic idols, the plinths claimed the space by producing an effect which distinguished itself from them as their negative. The effect was both elegant and mysterious, impelling the viewer to repeatedly scrutinize the perceptual axis between cause and effect, looking for a logical causal link which remained elusive, belying the installation’s air of geometric rigour. The shadow stripe’s negative otherness made it seem to possess the autonomy of a separate work of wall-based Minimal art encompassing the entire space – like the Polish artist Edward Krasinski’s bands of navy blue masking tape which would traverse a gallery wall and the pictures hanging on it – although that autonomy was simultaneously negated by its being a mere shadow.
Kraus’s installation activated a series of binaries between transcendence and materiality, aura and source, trace and origin. It was as though she had stumbled upon the ideal vehicle for her idiom, like a poet who finds she has invented the metaphor which perfectly embodies her vision, justifying her particular weaknesses – in Kraus’s case, her obsequious dependence on the seduction of pat effects – because it comprehends them. And yet the installation seemed more than the sum and interaction of its elements – the plinths and walls, and their effects on one another – because it evoked semblances which transcended its material parameters, such as the way in which the plate glass top of a dressing table appears to have stored light in its blue-green cross-section, which it emits when the room is darkened. The installation transported us imaginatively beyond its sealed confines, while its shadow band acted as a symbolic cordon, denying that release.