Lower the Light
by Cecilie Høgsbro Østergaard
In 1968 Stanley Kubrick gave a historic interview to Playboy after the premiere of A Space Odyssey. In a frequently quoted passage he gave a sort of cosmic reason for all human aspiration, especially in the artistic field:
It starts with fear of the universe. Space is not frightening because it is hostile, but because it is completely indifferent to us. In the midst of all the indifference art may be regarded as a form of evolutionary necessity: if as a species we can come to an agreement with the indifference of the universe, our existence can achieve the genuine meaning necessary for humankind to have the strength to continue the thraldom on earth. “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light”.
The image of the little light that creates difference and meaning in a monumentally uniform darkness is more biblical than Darwinist, but let us assume that Kubrick is right. All art starts as light for those who are afraid of the dark. Purely technically, of course, all images originate in light: the painting that represents light or the photograph that, as the word says, paints with light. But Kubrick evidently thought mostly of light as the light through the chink of a door at the end of a dark corridor, or like in a Dutch baroque painting, as the phenomenon that the seventeenth century French art critic Roger de Piles conceptualized as claire-obscure. In claire-obscure light creates a state of both élan and calm in an unsettling blackness. Or it is the opposite: an unquiet light breaks a secure, animating darkness. A light darkness.
Kubrick himself pursued claire-obscure technically, aesthetically and emotionally in the majority of his films. Perhaps the most tangible and brilliant example is Barry Lyndon (1975), whose dim Hogarth- and Caravaggio-inspired candlelit scenes were shot with converted ultra-fast Zeiss lenses, originally developed for NASA for the Apollo moon landings (!).
David Svensson’s exhibition Old World Rise Again also moves within claire-obscure’s classic register of aesthetic perfection and balance. At first sight, Old World Rise Again otherwise seems to be a simple, dialectical exhibition about black and white, light and darkness: a white space with black works and a black space with luminous works. But if one digs a little deeper, it is more an exhibition about the fusion of phenomena, about light in darkness, about light darkness, about claire-obscure.
Like Kubrick, Svensson simply uses claire-obscure in almost all other ways than in the traditional painting-technical sense. Old World Rise Again builds on claire-obscure as material, as a sensual phenomenon, as dramatic effect, as a feeling, as structure, as language, as a literary figure, as forgetfulness and rediscovery, as utopia, as a political metaphor, as modernism, as technology and even as industrial history.
It starts with Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Dunkles zu sagen, the Orpheus poem that forms the title of her collected poems, Darkness Spoken, as the book is so beautifully entitled. The texts have been used in a ‘lithographical’ series, where the pages of the book are printed over each other on one page in an illusory way, so that the ink collects in an almost supremacist square. A synthetic, black wall-to-wall carpet is beside this book series, with human silhouettes finger-drawn in the weave. The black pictures in the first space may be regarded as technical replays, in unorthodox materials, of the study of the pictorial space by classical modernist oil painting. Among other things this means the pursuit and critique of the spiritual and spatial dimensions in the black surface, known from Malevich’s mysticism to Ad Reinhardt’s special technique with a chromatic painting of many layers of paint that end in achromatic black.
At the same end of the aesthetic scale as the carpet– but in the next room – we find poor man’s crystal or pressed glass, which we know, for example, from the wall and ceiling bracket lamps of the 1970s in the once rather depressing colour scale of moss green, amber and white. Svensson has lifted the bracket lamps down from single-family houses’ dark internal corridors and utility rooms and recycled them as building blocks in tall, crystalline towers, or arranged them in large virtuoso patterns on a light table. It could be said that direct functional light has become indirect, ornamental light. The light works in the darkened room with sun filters on the windows may do the opposite of the first room, but nevertheless ride on the same modernist wave of political and aesthetic spirituality as the black painting by resembling illustrations for a revolutionary scenario for a utopian glass kingdom.
In the final analysis an exhibition about light in darkness is also an exhibition about pictorial space. In several meanings of the word. In this context claire-obscure is especially interesting because it is precisely the technical and art history lens through which light and darkness can be regarded as spatial rather than surface phenomena. Even though this may be disingenuous from the point of view of art history, one could play with the thought of regarding claire-obscure as a precursor of the modernist black, abstract pictorial space and maybe even of minimal art. In claire-obscure black is, after all, described as a space in itself and not merely as an effect, a shadow or surface in a space – as in the central perspective picture. The black space is both a more conceptual and sensually loaded way of reproducing space than the classic, mathematical and cerebral depth perspective. This may be why claire-obscure, which actually originates in early religious painting, was so popular in the Baroque. With the black space it was possible to distance oneself from the more puritanical renaissance painting and create greater tactility and sensuality in the painting. Modernism took over the fascination, but discarded the figure and began to concentrate exclusively on the ground, the pure black space.
Thus, even though there is something extremely modern about the ability of claire-obscure to create depth and conceptual space by light-darkness effects, with modernism pictorial art abandoned the concept itself. Art apparently assigned claire-obscure and its speculations about figure-ground-based spatial configurations to film and photography. In an artistic context today, claire-obscure is regarded as a kind of outdated index of aesthetic perfection like the Fibonacci numbers list, which is associated with all forms of compositional harmony, from form-creating principles in nature to classical music and the golden section in painting. Therefore it has also rejected principles of an art that wanted to liberate imaging from an art history canon and join art with a new, more up-to-date pictorial regime of discrepancy and multi-dimensional space.
This is just a reading, of course, but if we assume that Svensson quite deliberately is moving into the classical register of claire-obscure, then it is not because he is regressive and is playing Rembrandt in knickerbockers. Just as Svensson is interested in all possible materials and objects that have been rejected by the times, he also revives discarded pictorial regimes and tries to find a completely new way of using them. He evidently does not think that the essence of art is to be found in a certain (up-to-date) medium, but tries to identify what artistic meaning or intensity really is by testing art in all possible media, media that, also conventionally viewed, are foreign to art. He even pursues artistic intensity in objects and materials that have obtained a kind of artistic stamp, entirely without human intervention. It could be a bleached page from a book or discoloured canvas from a sunshade.
In this way Svensson attempts to rehabilitate artistic meaning as an emotional, tactile and mental complex of precision instead of fetichising art as a point with a sender to a receiver’s unequivocal discourse-critical interpretation. The aim is to hit the public with emotional and mental content with a minimum of dialogue and explication, somewhat in the same way as music.
This is not a clash with a certain art form but, on the contrary, an attempt to transcend an artificial barrier between concept, expression, desire and pleasure that modern art itself has erected.
It is perhaps an attempt to recreate an art that is so general that it can be grasped and acquired by everyone but not definitively explained by anyone. It is not an art without meaning or idea. One is free to read whatever allegorical or political meaning into the work one chooses. The idea is not that we should think something specific, but that we should think for ourselves.
Cecilie Høgsbro Østergaard is a litterary, writer and curator