A working arrangement: the oil lamp creating a circular concentration at one end of a deep wooded table. Night becomes productive. While the rest of the room keeps its muted secret – the bed in the corner suggesting not repose but duty and time – the lamp makes possible the extension of the daily task. It challenges the divisions of sacred and profane time – it opens the possibility of rewriting them, of renegotiating the designations of sun and moon. It recalls the originary difference that created light as a problem, and though there be light there was also intense darkness – of the kind that announces itself at the sharpest of contrasts. Within the focal circle a world of concentration: a concentrated world extended forwards and backwards in time. The space of the transmission of knowledge, the exact replication of the word by the hand, the weight of responsibility for an entire tradition. Good light for working.
Without words, without speech or the sound of another, without even the sounds of the self, the monk as the vehicle for the transmission of the word works with minimal movement. The body is enlightened only by distraction, only by refraction, by the almost involuntary action of personal reflection and mental association. To reproduce without passion, without glow? Impossible. Only at the margins does the light dance into illuminated form in the figures of fantasy and associative complexity that threaten to form their own narrative, to institute their own tradition, to corrupt the circle of light. By distraction, the monk supplements the light of purity with an idiosyncratic light, the stillness of the body with wild adventure. Bodies are introduced trimmed with gold: monstrous faces and scaly skins, absurd figures, the visions of a dazzled imagination. A shimmering in the corner of the eye while the lamp burns still.
And yet this light too emits its own corruption. The glass darkens with each burning hour. It leaves a trace, a mark, a darkening ceiling, or candle wax on the table sliding its way into texturous crevices before drying with characteristic opacity. A residue. A problem. As in the beginning, light is made with darkness: a productive darkness that transmits a temporary light, a productive light that commits a darkening stain. Immediate to its work are the conditions of its production. This miniature factory of light, and the light between work and working, are both present to the monk as the conditions for his own work. The labour of simple combustion to transmit a radiance; the labour of writing to transmit an entire tradition. To leave it alone would be disastrous, for no light lasts long enclosed in darkness, and just as a tradition left unattended threatens to project its marginalia into illumination, so too a lamp left alone threatens to burn the house down.
The traditional light of knowledge wants many hands. A tradition must be revered, feared, but it must also be looked after, loved. This is the first lesson of cultural inheritance; how to hold the flame. A watchful eye, a stern gaze like the fervent glances of a parent watching the child at play: a clumsy bundle of energy oblivious to accident and incident. Always the danger of becoming heat, of crossing the line into chaotic flame and consuming that which it had desired to enlighten. Even light can cross to the dark side. Beyond the flickering in-between and into the realm of abandon, the flame is the beast of consumption, the devourer, the white light of the vision of death. It knows no rest – its end is dank, dark reason, that which is left behind. The flickering candle casts multiple shadow patterns all the way back to the cave, back to the very question of knowledge itself. To look after the light is to look after the shadows. A patience, the demand for clarity against the settling ash and the darkening glass. The becoming-light of knowledge, the becoming-knowledge of light is a desire with an impossibly long history.
Light directs us, controls the movement of traffic, presents the flow of information, blinks to tell us that something is wrong. Everywhere, colours and patterns flicker and flash for our attention. Desire as light communicates its simple need, and the light doesn’t have far to travel. A self-contained circuit, with few demands. Every day millions of people choose to spend hours in darkened comfort-spaces gazing at projections no longer silvered but glaring with saturated colour. Unburdened of lamp, lantern or candle, the projection is cast some metres ahead onto a vast flat surface, where its trajectory ends. On smaller screens providing the focal point of the family room, smaller projections emanate from a glass box and end within a short space. More images are transmitted all the time, each and every one conspiring with the other to condense their reach. Time fills with finite bursts, and the eye is burdened with the responsibility to interpret their associations, to refract them back into a common light – or to let the light pass by while the body rests.
On yet smaller screens the knowledge worker contributes to the proliferation of the word – not the written word, not even the printed word, but the word fabricated by a process of cathode rays and liquid crystals. Finally become light, the word transmits itself immediately via complex modes and materials of mediation. Working late at night, too diligent to rise from the chair and flick the switch on the wall, the knowledge worker’s screen word lights up a corner of the desk and casts shadows across folders and partitions. A constitutive relation between work, light and the word – many words, many elaborate contexts for the refraction of knowledge. Law, commerce, insurance, government, programming, marketing, consulting. Outside the artist reclaims an industrial space whose high ceilings make changing a light bulb a precarious obligation. Inside a clean, consistent light, the order of the scientist: clarity and distinction. Switch on or off. Simple.
In a corner, disguised as a pale, cumbersome box, light produces a copy in one clean sweep. A new light bred solely for the purpose of producing like image: the copy photon. Undecidably between the particle and the wave, the single sweep reproduces without corruption – its darkness hidden within weighty machinery. A machine: nothing at the margins. Text lying too close to the margins will not be reproduced. The photo-copy condenses into an instant all the conditions of its creation: writer, discipline, tiredness of hand, weariness of eye. Like all alchemy however, the process of concentration gives off an insidious residue. A fine, grimy soot with a carcinogenic risk – chaotic darkness in powdered form. Light may provide the true chemist with a clean, consistent fluorescence in a long tube on the ceiling, but its darkness too is in the form of a risk: headache, eye strain, distraction. Radiation as the darkness of light.
Dawn: the moment of clarity, of decision, of a reason with well-defined outlines. Stars dotting the night sky have faded away, their light-message having taken an incomprehensibly long time to reach the earth, and now they fade even further away than that which cannot be grasped. The break of dawn is the rational residue of the fuzziness of the dream – trying to make sense of what is remembered, now that the morning light suddenly makes thinking possible. Dream and warmth and memory condense and focus into the space behind the closed eye – and then, awareness, waking, light. Orbum to urbum – closer, the city lights dim and give way to the sun, a globe of light rising above the jagged urban horizon, leaving for dusk the next transformation of the bustling community into streetscapes of light and darkness. By dawn shadowy alleyways become safe and ordinary, and monsters under the bed disappear. As every small child can tell you, there are ever new reasons to be afraid of the dark.
From afar, the lights of the night sky tell the story of stellar bodies long gone – and then, finally here, to have transmitted only an echo, only a moment – the only moment that can be known by the eye, the same lost moment extended for a lifetime… only a flicker for the star. From afar, the city lights make every metropolis take on a recognisable texture. This is the city: the repetition across a networked world of the global urban zone. The long shadows cast by tall buildings might cast themselves back to the cave, but they don’t cast themselves out to suburbia, which stretches out under a consistent light and with the comfort of a shared memory. From afar, repeated lights, flickering stars. On the street however each city has its own movements, its own language, its own particularity. Each street at home, like each house, like the lamp next to every bed. The night-light making it safe to close the eyes and welcome sleep, without having to look under the bed first.
Light as time marks multiple paths for desire from afar, and time as light imbues memory with space, space with memory. Faded photographs in an old album, the characteristic glow of a city visited again after many years, the fear burned into the body of the first electrical storm – lightning tearing across the grey sky like a dazzled, confused Prometheus not knowing from where to be handed the flame.
More light – more light than ever before. More lights, new and different lights, different and multiple refractions and projections and reflections.
If light can be said to have had an origin, then it must be as the answer to the problem of beginnings – as the beginning of all problems. We bring to light the answer, we are enlightened by the truth, we pass on the light of knowledge, we are dazzled by the glare of the sun but we look to it as the source of all life, just as there is a tradition which philosophises towards an originary light as the source of all truth. Making the light appear at a particular place at a particular time: the torch, the holy flame prepared for communal transmission – for communication.
Where light once guaranteed truth, it now problematises certainty. More and more it becomes clear that light and darkness are co-constitutive, co-mingled in a necessary relationship. We are careful of seeing something in the proper light, in the light which is proper to it. Darkness is chaos, formlessness, fear. We have a vision in waking life, occasional crystalline moments of such power that we feel one with ourselves: the light of identity.
So weighty a burden for something so light. We recreate origins with Olympian glory for global enjoyment – we fabricate an origin for global identity, collective memory. According to the light of mythology, we stole from the sun to grant ourselves fire as a gift. Then, from the time that we began to call ourselves and our age enlightened, it was no longer possible for there only to be one light. The problem of the transmission of truth and the corruption of origins refracted into multiple sciences from this moment of proclaimed crystallisation, and today the light dances about us. Still we hand something on, we tell our story, we have a history. I tell a story – your eyes light up, and you share the fading glow of it with another. Ultimately we want to transmit the truth, transmit what is most pure, transmit it in such a way that its handling and its retelling will not corrupt it, will not taint it with the subjective. The impossibility of this task, and the necessity of the corruption, is history and culture itself.
As you walk through the exhibition you will want to find the darkness of the work before you, to feel its time, to interrogate the promised knowledge its tradition, to make a memory of its effect on your body. The desire at work here is the desire to see the light anew – to see colour without shape, texture without form, to see as the artist does and not under the consistent light of the scientist. To see the light.
Commissioned for φώς ανάμεσα / light between exhibition at Diana Gallery, Athens 2004 as part of the Olympic Games cultural program
Curated by Fay Tzanetoulakou