Light Art, a definition

by Alessandro Trabucco

The progress of technological innovations has always allowed a parallel evolution in the artistic field, just think about the invention of the photography and, more recently, of the computer.
In the case of artificial light, used especially in the sphere of the so-called Light Art, this progress has found a real application at expressive level, determining some slight changes of it even from the technical point of view.
Basically the means have changed, differently from classical and traditional practices such as painting or a certain type of sculpture a little less sensitive to this kind of variations.
The Light Art just involves artists who use the light, and only it, both as specific medium and as final outcome of the work, so we can say that both of them (medium and outcome) coincide perfectly.
Just think, for instance, about the installations with fluorescent tubes carried out from the Sixties on by Dan Flavin or, in the same years, the projections of geometrical shapes with luminous beams by James Turrell (especially the series Afrum Proto with the use of xenon lamps) or, some years later, by Anthony McCall (the latter chose powerful cine-projectors instead). The main difference among their works is that in Flavin’s the medium producing the luminous emanation (the fluorescent tube) is still visible, whereas in the two others it is not, the luminous source is hidden and the work is totally immaterial.
The fluorescent lamp was conceived by the physicist and inventor Nikola Tesla in the last decade of the Nineteenth century whereas the neon one (they are two different types of light, although they are often associated to the same technology) was invented by Georges Claude and was presented at the Grand Palais in Paris at the beginning of the Twentieth century.
To find out their own place in the world of art, they had therefore to wait around fifty years, when Lucio Fontana presented his Concetto Spaziale (Spatial Concept) at the Triennale in Milan in 1951, a linear and abstract shape, practically a “doodle” designed with a neon tube. What Lucio Fontana opened in those pioneering years was an out-and-out “Spatial Era”, that would have led to the definition of a new aesthetics.
But the definition Light Art was recently coined: in fact, in the time of the first experimentations in the field of the light around the beginning of the second half of the Twentieth century, these trends were grouped in bigger currents or movements universally recognized, such as the Minimal Art and the Land Art or, as in the case of the Californian artists, in the Light and Space movement that included, other than the already mentioned Turrell, also Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler, Maria Nordman, Larry Bell, John McCracken and DeWain Valentine.
The relationship between work and space becomes indivisible and the possibility of exposure and fruition of these works is almost always bound to the nature itself of the luminous source, that requires usually closed and obscured rooms. Some of Piero Fogliati’s works spring to mind as well, Aura Cromatica (Chromatic Aura, dated 1970) and Edicola delle Apparizioni (Apparitions Kiosk, dated 1985/’86), set necessarily in completely dark environments.
In all these cases, a beam of light is what creates the work. Those of James Turrell and Anthony McCall are mainly static works, that is abstract/geometric images projected on two-dimensional surfaces to gaze at in their formal fixity. Fogliati, instead, inaugurated a solitary trend of research, the one of the pure immateriality, the vision in the vacuum of images in movement, a movement performed not by the work but by the observer’s eye. This great Italian artist, sadly died recently, also employed powerful projectors of light, manufactured by himself through special technical devices, conceiving also a very precise and effective definition to describe the dynamics triggered by his works: “independent fruition”. What actually happens is produced by the active glance of the observer, led by determined events planned by the artist, to perceive images in the vacuum, appearing and disappearing depending on the uncontrollable and autonomous eye movements (scientifically called “saccadic”).
Powerful beams of light with special projectors, or fluorescent tubes industrially produced, are therefore the means through which the pioneers of the Light Art create all their works in the years ranging, more or less, from the first Sixties until the end of the century.
Even the last frontier of the Light Art is always bound to the technological innovations already mentioned at the beginning of this article and it is represented by the use of LEDs (Light Emitting Diode) as well as specific software handling their “behaviour”. Conceived at the beginning of the Twentieth century, they started to be manufactured only around the beginning of the Sixties to be eventually fully employed in the technological and artistic fields in the last two decades only.
Not only the LED, but also other types of luminous sources allow the contemporary artists to achieve works no longer bound to dark spaces but also usable in external places, making therefore possible an involvement of the observers even more full and shared.

Photo credits

1 | Antony McCall, Face to Face III, 2013
2 | Antony McCAlL, Installation Meeting
3 | Antony McCall, you and I horizontal, 2007, Gallerie Aboucaya, foto Swann De Oliveira
4 | Dan Flavin, Untitled, 1975
5 | Dan Flavin, Untitled, 1970, Blue and red fluorescent lights
6 | Dan Flavin, Untitled, Ikon Gallery
7 | James Turrel, Wedgework III, 1969, installation with fluorescent light
8 | James Turrell, wedgework III, 1974, installation with fluorescent light
9 | James Turrell, Rondo blue
10 | James Turrell, Stuck red and stuck blue, 1970 construction materials and fluorescent lights wall
11 | Lucio Fontana, 1951, struttura al neon per la IX Triennale di Milano
12 | Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale Neon, 1951
13 | Piero Fogliati, disegno progetto Rivelatore cromocinetico – (1967) 1992

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