Space, Time and Movement in the Work of Grimanesa Amorós
An old cigarette box lies unremarked on the ground. Made of wood, it is wrapped in paper foil, on which the brand name ‘Fortuna’ can be read in wonderfully curlicued lettering, the typography reminiscent of late Art Nouveau. Forgotten, over the years it has gathered dust and rubble.
The gaze wanders across set pieces, glides over the ground, meets walls and broken windows. The place is dark and obviously abandoned, ignored for decades and left to decay. But viewers are not sent on a journey through sites of forgetting, but rather see the present at the same time. The camera takes them on a journey of exploration through a site that seems to bear a massive burden of the past, and they become intruders in a place which, beyond the abandoned and the decayed, also offers a curious visual presence. Time and again there is this searching with the camera, with out-of focus and zoomed-in perspectives which yield so little of the whole, obsessed with detail, lacking all context, in the search to experience this place through visual palpation, to experience it, to incorporate it within oneself, to appropriate it.
The whole is accompanied and at times also overlaid by a musical atmosphere dominated by a vigorous guitar that occasionally falls into flamenco rhythms without entirely losing itself in them. In between, a few sentences buzz around; they accompany the artist Grimanesa Amorós as she explores the site, a dialogue that isn’t one, but which, rather, speaks more of amazement than that the beholder may obtain information. It is a listening-in to a different sphere, to a dialogue in which one is not involved, but has been unexpectedly allowed to eavesdrop upon. Like the gaze, which nowhere finds anywhere to rest, the voices buzz around in space, overlaid by the tones of the guitar, then joined, contrapuntally, by orchestral carpets of sound.
Photos turn up in a box, shots of a young girl whose grace seems so alive that we might expect her to appear in the flesh – but she remains a vision, banished to the photographic paper. Again the gaze wanders on, unsteady, driven by the rapid rhythms of the music, which swells into stirring volumes. A headstrong drama intrudes into the experience of sound and picture, and refuses to let the beholder go. Confused by the place that bears within itself the homelessness, the abandonment, the residual and the poverty of a time that was once alive, the beholder struggles to categorize what the eye sees and the ears hear. There is talk of beauty, the beauty of the place and the good fortune of being allowed to live a wonderful life. The good fortune of existence. ‘How lucky I am.’
It is Grimanesa Amorós who speaks on the film, and who, wandering through this places, makes it her own, who smokes the last cigarette in the pack and befogs the gaze.
It is a film about time, the past and the present, but at the same time it is also a statement about sensation and perception, about the wishes and dreams that move us all, appropriate us for themselves, and allow the facets of our own lives to be accepted or rejected. It deals, like all of Grimanesa Amorós’ artistic work, with special places, in this case the old Tabacalera factory in Madrid. She herself describes this place the first time she sees it as a ‘time capsule’, something left behind by another time and another world. Unlike the beholder, she speaks of the place as a work of art in itself, of the beauty emanated by this abandoned site which can be found in every little detail. Be it the reflections of rainwater in a canister, the old coloured cables and electrical connections lying around, the now opaque window pane, whose missing shards allow a view to the outside, the expanse of the halls, the shabbily flaking walls which themselves have long since mutated into abstract patterns.
Time and space are crucial for Grimanesa Amorós, in particular when she develops site-specific works that react with absolute precision to the circumstances of the chosen place. Even more than the light installations, her video works are characterized by her personal experiences, which, however, are transposed into a mode of generally valid perceptions which all can experience. Here too, she is concerned with the sensory penetration of spaces, which she wanders through and appropriates. These are moments of life, of the wakeful realization of countless planes of perception and emotional appropriation. The sculptural force in the individual sequences, the mise-en-scène of the light, the emphasis on sometimes abstract patterns (in the broken window panes) and the strong presence of the music, which appears as an equal partner and intensifies the atmosphere still further: all these are elements of artistic expression in which Grimanesa Amorós stages a homage to the place but at the same time a homage to life. ‘Life is uncertain,’ she says in the film ‘Ocupante’, and it is one of her most important maxims, one that allows her to accept the moment itself as a gift. Many of her videos from recent years testify to her interest in intensifying the visual experience of the moment by means of film sequences, cross-fades, diffuse focus and above all through the element of movement, whether it is triggered by the protagonists themselves, as in ‘Susanna Baca’ (2006–2011), or mechanically as in the train journey at the start of ‘Between heaven and earth’ (2004–2006), and increasingly a fusion of reality, dream and surreal stylistic means such as in ‘Miranda’ (2013).
Grimanesa Amorós’s video works are in themselves highly complex, filmically and musically sophisticated, which can without any trouble at all be compared to the productions of the internationally leading video artists. When Bill Viola gave a talk in Munich in 2003, which had been initiated by the Burda-Stiftung and the Frauenhofer Institute, he gave it the title ‘Sense perception and human experience’. Bill Viola, who as a child once almost drowned, shares this existential experience with his borderline relationships between life and death and underscores this – just like Grimanesa Amorós – with ‘sound carpets’ that intensify the visual experience in the video for the viewer still further. All the senses are honed for human experiences, as sensory expansion and at the same time the concentration of the unspoken. The British video artist Douglas Gordon too, currently one of the most sought-after artists worldwide, often works at the limit of visual possibilities, by filming familiar material anew and in the process stretching it out in extreme slow motion (e.g. Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, which he draws out, literally, to ‘24 hours Psycho’), achieving a focus with the isolation of subjects (‘”Zidane” A 21st Century Portrait’, 2006), or by using reversals (in ‘Between Darkness and Light (after William Blake)’, 1997, where he projects two film classics superimposed but each laterally reversed in respect of the other). Also, thanks to their filmic techniques, Douglas Gordon’s videos always take on a certain something that lifts them out of their time, and hence even out of their original emotional context, evoking new emotions. In some of its techniques and visual dramaturgy, in particular the cross-fading of flowing water, and the death’s heads appearing between the gravestones, Grimanesa Amorós’ ‘Reflection’ resembles Gordon’s own film strategies, which often enough generate something disconcerting. Quite rightly, the art critic Raphaël Brunel emphasizes the relationship between pop culture and individual narrative which always takes an unusual turn in Gordon’s works: ‘Douglas Gordon questions popular culture and media images by perturbing the visitor’s bearings, by modifying their nature or temporality. The artist’s interest in this type of image seems to recall the first thesis of Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle”: “Everything that was lived directly has withdrawn into a representation.” But rather than seeing in this the end of art, Douglas Gordon seems to find a productive act of narration and experience in the differentiated experiences generated by mass culture. Individual experience telescopes into collective experience, mass culture being manifested in the practices of groups as well as implying personal aspirations.’
It seems that Grimanesa Amorós is exploring experimentally in film many of the things that light sculpture did not allow her, at least to this extent. Here she unfolds, far more, her narrative planes, the borrowings from the culture and history of a wide variety of places, the interweaving of real existence and imagined life with its surreal facets. And time and again the water and the light play a special part in her works. She comes back to this when she talks about her work and her inspirations, when she occasionally goes right back to her childhood and adolescence, which she spent in Lima, on the Pacific coast. Its expanse, its sometimes fierce surf, and Peru’s sometimes harsh climate are dimensions of her perception and experience which have left a deep mark. Fusion with nature turns up in many of her works, not just in the videos, but also very concretely in her site-specific light installations.
The 2015 ‘Golden Water’ project, in which she covered the canal by the Soleri Bridge in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her light threads and waves, points indirectly to the subterranean irrigation system created by the indigenous peoples of the Nazca culture in Peru. These aqueducts, known as ‘puquios’, some of which are still in use, follow the natural aquifers and provide an insurance against severe drought. It is with this reference to her own ancestors that Amorós links her way of looking at and experiencing things when she goes about the projection of her light installation. In this sense, in the Scottsdale project she not only links the engineering achievements of pre-Columbian peoples (irrigation systems) with the project of the architect Paolo Soleri, who constructed a glass bridge across the Arizona Canal, but also links the intense sunlight of Arizona with the gentle light of the night sky. It has been noted far too little hitherto that Grimanesa Amorós sees herself here not just as a light artist, but also as part of the tradition of outstanding exponents of Land Art, who as long ago as the 1960s and 70s left the confines of their studios to start a new artistic genre in the midst of nature. Specifically, one might think of Nancy Holt, who went to the Great Basin Desert in Utah, where she created the Sun Tunnels to document and make visible the position of the sun and stars using minimal means. It was also she who captured in photographs light reflections in water and panes of glass, and concentrated them sequentially. Even the magnificent project by Richard Smithson and his now legendary ‘Spiral Jetty’ in Utah could be adduced. His massive interventions in the landscape constitute artificial form while at the same time following the templates of nature (where the spiral crops up all over the place) in an appropriate fashion. In her modern, LED-controlled light sculptures, Amorós combines in particular the graphic structure of the ancient Peruvian irrigation systems with the light and wave systems as such.
Borrowing from her Peruvian homeland in 2013, she displayed her ‘Light between the islands’ at the Litvak Gallery in Tel Aviv. On the highly polished concrete floor, the light sculptures with spheres floating like soap-bubbles on the surface come across like little islands in the sea, whose lights also appear as reflections in the floor. Specifically, Amorós refers to the inhabitants of Lake Titicaca, whose shores are overgrown with high reeds. These are used by the local people to make both highly useful and highly attractive objects: banana-shaped boats, their round houses, and their floating islands looking like round baskets, which they use for freight transport. The reeds are versatile, and so Amorós too adopts the structural form of this natural material and transfers it as a graphic pattern to translucent vinyls. Here the graphic lines come across like an abstract grid, whose origin is hardly discernible. She takes up this pattern of lines once more for the window front of the gallery, in order thereby to create a sensory entanglement of interior and exterior.
The shapes of her ‘Uros’ recall the floating islands with which the Uros, the aboriginal people of the region, who once lived totally out of the public eye, moved around Lake Titicaca. ‘The Uros live on 49 “floating islands” which they make from dried totora reeds. The same plant also provides the raw material for, among other things, reed boats and the houses on the islands. These islands, on which no more than a few hundred Uros now live, are located five kilometres to the west of Puno harbour. Most of the Uros now reside on the mainland, where their cemeteries are also located.’ Almost all ‘primitive peoples’ are nomads, who move around, mostly secretly, following the climatic conditions in the rain forest, and now see themselves increasingly displaced as a result of the destruction of their natural environment by the ruthless greed of Big Oil. The Uros by contrast have long been known to the outside world, and as a long-standing tourist attraction are no longer entirely free of outside influences. Even so, their manner of building their islands, their houses and their boats has remained authentic, and unique in the originality of its forms. The floating islands, which have secured the tribe’s survival for centuries, are a veritable oddity. Their boats, whose form generally and prows, shaped like heads, give them something of the appearance of Viking longships, allow them to transport quite heavy loads.
Grimanesa Amorós takes up the original form of these islands and uses her light installation to refer directly to her own experience of a trip to Lake Titicaca, but even more to this tribe which has left such a mark on her homeland. She likes to tell of the beauty of the lake, which is located at a higher altitude than almost any other, as well as of the wind that soughs through the reeds and makes ripples on the surface of the lake. It becomes more than clear that she would like to revive the magic of the site in her light installation, and the way she realizes this space in sculptural form suggests strongly that she also speaks of the danger it is in. ‘Seen in the light’ means in this case once more at the same time to see the darkness, for only then do her ‘Uros’ unfold a visual power of their own. But precisely because these shimmer, wonderfully hovering, in the darkness, they also proclaim their own swansong. One will not understand the artist fully if one believed that light was her only source of inspiration here. Rather, in this work too she also seeks to come to terms with her cultural roots and to transfer her own identity into a contemporary form. The fact that in so doing she refers to the past does not exclude the incorporation of modern technology. In this way, she is able to transfer the basic concept of the pristine habitat into the present as if it were a vision of her own. This is, at the same time, a process of intercultural fusion of past (Peru, the Uro tribe) and lived present (New York, Manhattan), something also reflected in her own nomadic life, which is constantly taking the artist from one continent to another and requires continual movement through space and time. Therefore not only the dimensions of the historic and present times are apparent here, but equally those of movement.
Her numerous projects, the exhibitions and in particular the commissioned works take her to the remotest places, but also to the best-known cities in the world, and here we must also include the private trips, which she undertakes to gather inspiration – such as recently to Sri Lanka and India. This is not just an end in itself, but also always demands new receptiveness to places which she ‘occupies’ with her light-works. This determines her entire artistic concept, according to which she not only explores the current situation in advance (not least the existing light connections) but also often integrates the historic dimension of the place and its surroundings. In this, she differs fundamentally from other internationally highly acclaimed light artists such as James Turrell, Mischa Kuball and Olafur Eliasson, whose intention is entirely directed towards the transformation of the existing space. James Turrell in particular has for decades explored the conditions of light and space time and again in order to project them into a physically perceptible unity for every individual observer. In his 2013 light sculpture ‘Aten Reign’ for the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York, which emphasizes the interior of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral ramp, Turrell says tellingly, that it was his intention to create ‘an architecture of space created with light’ . He too – like Amorós – uses LED lamps, albeit in his case largely invisible to the viewer. With his light spaces, Turrell refers to the dimensions of the actual space, which he dematerializes through light. In his ‘Roden Crater’ (since 1977) by contrast, as in ‘Celestial Vault’ (1996), he is concerned with the relationship to the light of the stars, suns and galaxies in the sky and directs the gaze of the beholder to a metaphysics of light which is, in the truest sense of the word, intangible.
For this reason it may be not unimportant to recall that already Lucio Fontana, whose ‘concetto spaziale’ had him open up the surface of the picture, was also a light artist. As long ago as 1951, at the Triennale IX in Milan, he presented his ‘Sculpture lumineuse’, an apparently freely hovering light sculpture (‘neon arabesque’) , which used light to create a free drawing on the ceiling. Fontana wanted to detach himself largely from the object, and sought with the fluorescent-tube sculpture to introduce a new dimension of the perceptible. In 1964, the artists Heinz Mack, Otto Piene and Günther Uecker, who had joined up in the late 1950s to form the group ZERO, developed their light space, which they dedicated to Fontana. Here in particular the artists were concerned with the constant movement of light, a choreography of light phenomena in the otherwise dark space.
For Grimanesa Amorós, all these aspects and factors are of great importance. It is the concrete location in a specifically selected space or environment, it is the external conditions which (e.g. in public squares) she has to integrate into her concept in order to intensify the effect of the light installation and the sequencing of light in a composition of her own. Light is, for her, space, movement, time. And it should not be forgotten that she is concerned to show light both as material and as immaterial. All these aspects become more than clear in the light installation at the Ludwig Museum: the technical structure does not detract from the magic of the light, which, along numerous LED hoses, shimmers sometimes warm, sometimes cool. In a sequence of more than five minutes, the light wanders from one end of the room to the other, transferring her observation of the two rivers, the Rhine and the Moselle, at their confluence at what is known as the ‘Deutsches Eck’ with its monumental statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I, into an almost immaterial manifestation.
In the concept of her exhibition, the artist leads the viewer via the video ‘Ocupante’ finally to a ‘golden secret room’, golden because of the gold foil which lines its walls, in which she shows six stills from the video. The foil displays a starry pattern created for the purpose, which she causes to glow by means of a reticent red-and-yellow light sequence. No surprise that the native Peruvian references the gold treasure of the Incas here, but it could equally evoke the legendary ‘Rhinegold’ that also pervades Richard Wagner’s bold opera and which far more easily conjures up the genius loci. This room triggers an effect of its own in the visitors, inviting them to linger longer, oscillating as it does between the majesty of the gold (as spiritual colour and metal) and the manifestation of the material, which does not deny being a thin foil. The reflections in the room also throw visitors back on themselves. True, only vaguely, but still helpful in this context, for let us remember Mischa Kuball’s 2013 exhibition ‘Platon’s mirror’ [sic], when he projected the ancient Greek philosopher’s ‘simile of the cave’ on to the modern beholder. ‘In arrangements, at the same time simple and highly effective, of projectors, reflective silver foil, photographs and videos, Kuball creates, on the one hand, rooms that are to be understood as metaphors of Plato’s cave situation, while on the other he translates into his photographs and videos the complex relationship between light source, reflection, shadow and depiction in mediation steps that can be expanded seemingly endlessly, on which reality, as the reality of its reflection reconstitutes itself ever anew.’
In the case of Grimanesa Amorós too, the question arises as to which journey she is taking her viewers on. Evidently not just on one that gets high on light. More important still to her are the dimensions of time and space, of past and present, which can only be understood if one approaches them in a spirit of reflexion.