Art and optics
In ancient times, the Sky and the Earth loved each other so madly, their offspring were trapped between their bodies until the mightiest of the children, Tane, forced them apart and let the light shine in on the world. This, the oldest story of the Maori of Aotearoa New Zealand is a tale retold in many tongues, from Genesis to the Big Bang. Light bursts upon the world, and in the philosophy of the 12th century theologian Robert Grosseteste it is light that connects us to God because it is light that gives form.
Every visual art is optical, but some art looks towards the light. Light, which is so potent a symbol for every human culture, is also one of our greatest technologies. Fire, which heats and cooks, is also the flicker of firelight that draws us home to the hearth. Because it is a technology, light has a history. For our first ancestors, the only sources of light were sun in the daytime and bio-luminescence at night. Even until the 19th century, our only light technology was flame. The incandescent electric bulb and its heirs changed that forever. Today light not only illuminates: it is the secret of fibre optics, the laser-powered infrastructure of our ubiquitous computers.
All our lenses and mobile phone displays share one single characteristic: they seek to control the light. Whether light is the visible form of God or cosmic radiation, it pours upon us in chaotic waves, blasting across space, the very measure of ultimate speed. Light creates space and shape, but as it does, it bounces, reflects, refracts, diffuses, its wavelengths and durations changing in infinite complexity. We need light, but we want to control it. We shade the too bright lamp, and magnify the dimmest flickers. With the amplifying chemistry of photographs or the rigid order of receptors in digital image capture, we hold light to our purposes. Our television screens, like our computer displays, shape light into order ranks and rows. Transmission protocols strip time out of the equation: we demand the instantaneous. Light is everywhere organized in optical technologies.
Human beings cannot bear very much disorder. We tidy our nests, guard against dirt, separate and categorise and order what we can. And yet we know that from time to time we must go out into the chaos of the world to find new energies and new ideas. Order is an endless struggle between entropy and fascism, too little order and too much. And this is the terrain of art, to walk the ragged boundaries, to quiz our unexamined taxonomies, to muddy the clear waters and sieve out of them new ways of putting the world back together again.
The artists gathered in this exhibition peer into the light that makes our world. Each of us lives in many eras. We are the electronic generation, our faces underlit by mobile screens, our cafés, shops and houses cast into sharp highlights and shadows, or suffused with warm glows, tied to the global economy of energy production, of the lithium in out batteries, the petrol in our generators. But we are also those who love firelight, and those who walk into the high hills at night to watch the timeless circling of the stars. At once the most ancient and most modern of media, light is the medium of our existence as the historical animals.
The speed of light is the final measure of time, but we have learned to control that speed. The gods came, says the poet Ezra Pound, by speed of communication. But we are human, and our arts of communication are not only about immediacy but slowness.
Every day we navigate oceans of images and data. Every screen, every image, promises to be whole and entire, to speak some kind of truth, about the news or sport or beauty or fun. To offer a whole experience. Our artists work with the light that carries these images. They unpick the woven fabric of images, unfold the impenetrable surfaces, unpack the contents of the black boxes where we keep the engines of image-making. One makes us see, in the scanning electron guns, the remnant of the patient gesture of hand and arm. Another magics into existence a way of seeing bodies moving, neither slow motion nor fast but in a different time to the one we think we know so well. One makes us feel the weight of history , the long centuries of travel and trade that brought us to this moment when all the world's goods can be dangled before the eyes of all its citizens. Another tells us of the geographies of transmission. The ancient light of fireflies inspires another with light that has no history, but comes to our city to tell us just how strange the city has become. Sometimes a darkness is the core communication of the light, a memory repressed, like a photograph stashed under the bed in hopes that one day from out of the dim past will come the flaming swords of justice and shame.
By attending closely to the time of light, of the making of light and of watching, of the purest act of perceiving light, these artists invite us to consider its weight and density and its power to link us in myriad bonds to the history of light and seeing. By making experiences for us, they also bring before us the fragility and ephemerality of light, its unique moment in the sun, its flickering passage into night. Symbol of both mortality and immortality, our hearth of tradition and our beacon of progress, light complies with power, and complicates it. The order of light is the disorder of time, and the order of time is the freedom of light. We celebrate as we mourn both the splashing light of fountains and the rectilinear ray, and contemplate the subtle politics as we engage the deft poetics enacted in the art of light, at this moment, in this city, unique in all the annals of creation.
Sean Cubitt, Winchester, 16 March 2013