“Light cannot be captured…”
Surface and Rhythm in Grimanesa Amorós’ Work
by Andreas Backoefer
“Light cannot be captured”, Grimanesa Amorós explained on the occasion of her current exhibition OCUPANTE at the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz and went on to say: “… it is fleeting, and yet it can be perceived through these tubes.” ((insert figure of OCUPANTE)) By this she means that her works are not about light itself but about its perception. For over 100 years, artists have explored the perception of artificial light on different levels. The rapid increase of digitalisation in recent times has greatly expanded the range of expressive possibilities in light art. Grimanesa Amorós primarily makes use of this development in order to render changes in light perceptible. She is by no means opposed to leaving the protected sphere of the museum and has thus installed site-specific objects at public places, such as UROS HOUSE (2011) in the middle of Times Square in New York ((insert figure of UROS HOUSE)) or PINK LOTUS (2015) on the façade of the Peninsula Hotel (also in New York).
The current work OCUPANTE, the series of works UROS, and also PINK LOTUS include two basic ornamental components of Amorós’ formal language: the (hemi)sphere (UROS) and the pliable plastic tube (OCUPANTE/PINK LOTUS) – both versions are illuminated from the inside with countless light-emitting diodes (LED for short). Consequently, the perception of light occurs on the border, or, to be precise, the membrane between the objects’ interior and exterior – right on the surface – before diffusing into the given space. In his collection of essays Ornament der Masse (The Mass Ornament) (published in 1927), Siegfried Kracauer tried to describe Modernism by reflecting on the ornament. His main focus was the surface which he believed was in fact an aesthetic precondition of Modernism. According to him, phenomena occurring on the surface should not be underestimated. Kracauer’s insights reveal how the ‘game’ on the surfaces became a fundamental form of expression in the visual culture of Modernism, and ultimately, in contemporary philosophy.
When viewing the surface one is caught between the pull of absorption on the one hand, and dislocation on the other. The membrane itself appears to be both material (confining) and immaterial (translucent). Besides physical space and volume, Grimanesa Amorós also creates a space of perception between her objects by activating the light on the surface. Drawn by the intensity of the light effects on the object in question, viewers focus their attention on the surface, on the material. This establishes a tension field between the materiality and the immateriality of light.
It also becomes clear that no phenomenon, no matter how ‘immaterial’, can exist without a material basis, even if it is only minimal. The question of materiality is one of the fundamental questions in art. It is always about shimmering and noise, the medium’s inherent dynamism. For a long time, immateriality (or de-materialisation) was a main characteristic of (post) conceptual art. However, less and less faith is being invested in this quality. Even in digital culture, the quintessence of a field based on information and symbols, there has, for some time, been an increasing focus on the properties of digital matter and the resulting ‘new materiality’: a comprehensive imagined, media-generated substance as a means of characterising this culture as a whole; or at least more so than customary attributes such as fleetingness, dissolution, or immateriality.
Digital media include another field of light art which Grimanesa is also very dedicated to: video. According to filmmaker Peter Greenaway, video/cinema is a “deal with artificial light”. In the process, images are stored on celluloid or data carriers which become revived through the projection onto a surface. Light installations and video art share a structural characteristic which defines the perception of time: rhythm. In the light objects it is determined by programmed sequences, and in video art by the succession of images.
For her installations Grimanesa Amorós ‘invents’ the individual light sequences on site and tries them out in a complex process before finally storing them on hardware. Like poems, the rhythm of these sequences seems effortless and conveys a feeling of tranquillity, presence – maybe also pleasure. According to sociology, rhythm, that is to say, a common temporal sequence plays a significant role in holding together social structures. Pierre Bourdieu wrote that social order is primarily based on the regulation of time and the performance of individual and collective activities in an adequate rhythm.
Thus rhythm is an – already premodern – social experience which became increasingly complex in the course of industrialisation and ensuing digitalisation. We are now living in a world in which different time structures – social and institutional alike – compete with one another. In his work “Elementa Rhythmica II”, the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristoxenus already made a basic distinction regarding art: between poetic rhythm (ῥυθμóς, ῥυθμιζóμενoν) and visual rhythm or schema (σχήμα, σχηματιζóμενα).
Rhythm could also be described as a dynamic structure which manifests itself spatially rather than temporarily in visual art. In a painting, for example, the ‘metre’ can only be determined by analysing the pictorial elements. In Grimanesa Amorós’ light objects the spatial structure is supplemented by a temporal one: as in a musical composition, a program controls the LEDs’ intervals. Upon entering into the sphere of one of the artist’s installations, viewers become aware not only of a spatial but also a temporal ‘metre’. Perhaps it is this that lends these light objects their distinctive presence and intensity.