“Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us”
Sir Thomas Browne, Urne-Burial
If it’s a fact that the practical business of artists happens mostly – or at least, firstly - in the realm of the visual, then it might also be inevitable that the prerequisite for most artworks should be the presence and special qualities of light. From earliest times of course, painters in particular have often had to grasp the problems of light almost before anything else, from the changing highlights cast by a tallow lamp onto a cave wall to the banal miracle of an endless succession of sunrises and sunsets; photography, on the other hand – the word means ‘writing with light’ – might at one level be said to consist of almost nothing else. But we live, in the West at least, in an age when light’s meanings and registers seem to have been shifting so fast that perhaps it’s only artists who can keep up with naming them. The very figures of modernity, since the first gas lamps lit our cities (starting with Berlin in 1826) we have blinked in the glow of a florescence of new lights, each one bringing its own chromatic scales and its own pitch of visual ‘white noise’: from the glaucous blend of filtering daylight and shop-window illumination of Victorian arcades and department stores to the green cast of the digital screen, the skin of our faces growing accustomed to reflecting the pulses from mobile or iPod. Today this convergence of light particularly visible around new constellations of media seems to organize a plenitude not of things but of their hologram representations, a reminder that the play of modern light is almost always a game of missing objects – of things revealed or remembered but never quite experienced. The age of light is a gleam on the shapes of an absence.
It’s possible, however, that the anxious pallor of this modern light of existence – at the same time so flat and so full of information – is just a new set of wavelengths of our uncertainty about light, refracted through the technologies of our times. Sir Thomas Browne, writing in Norwich in the seventeenth century of the varieties of burial customs, contrasted the ‘invisible Sun’ of our inner being, pure and temperate, with the ostentation of funeral pyres, noting both the predilection for cremation in many cultures, and that even daylight must deceive us: ‘it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness, and have our light in ashes […] Darkness and light divide the course of time.’ Natural light, particularly in those parts of the world where the sun’s presence isn’t to be relied upon, tends everywhere to be equated with blessings whose return must be hastened at all costs. But its artificial twin, fire, carries more ambivalent meanings: warming and threatening, fickle yet essential, its role as the hearth of sacrificial destruction or purifying immolation, as the elective element of alchemist and satanist alike, makes light both precious and deadly from our earliest memory.
The qualities of light as memorial and loss are also present in contrasting works by Dominique Rey. In a series of photographs taken from inside Second World War bunkers, the anxious view of the machine gunner defending a specific political reality is now a glimpse of a cheerful, ordinary landscape. Framed in black as though seen from a socket in a skull, what might have been a strategic target is now just another guidebook scene, while it’s the inside of the concrete coffin that’s ceased to exist, bereft of light. A project for a monument in glass, on the other hand, inverts this play of light, memory and politics: etched with a poem and modelled on a Persian garden, this architecture of light stretches from the modernism of the Barcelona Pavilion to the Moorish city in its commemoration of loss as a paradise of transparency.
If to illuminate is to see (to be condemned to see), then it might be seeing that projects our inner lights onto a world whose flicker intoxicates us with fairylights and widescreens – our invisible suns that could be a flame or a neon, a diode or a dying star. Like Goethe on his death-bed, we clamour: ‘More light!’