by Joost Rekveld
This text was written for HC Gilje´s book Conversations with spaces, released on uten tittel.
The English scientist Thomas Harriot could have discovered the craters on the moon a year before Galileo, were it not for the fact that he failed to notice them. In about 1609 he had built a telescope that was of a similar optical quality as the one Galileo used, but Harriot’s first drawing of the moon does not show the craters that Galileo drew and published in his Sidereus Nuncius (“Messenger from the Stars”) in 1610. The historian of science I.B. Cohen explains this historical puzzle by referring to Galileo’s visual culture. Galileo was able to recognize the craters as three-dimensional shapes that were revealed by the play of light and shadow on them, because he was familiar with perspective and the techniques of chiaroscuro in painting. He knew how to construct shadows produced by light coming from the side, and was thus able to understand the probing of beams of sunlight from changing directions on the uneven surface of the moon.
Classical perspective is more than a geometrical understanding of the propagation of light, it is also an arrangement in which the observer is positioned in a characteristic way: a perspective painting is in many ways similar to a classical theatre stage. The scene is clearly separated from both the auditorium and the technical rooms, and it has a similar alignment of the optical center of projection, the canvas or proscenium, and the point of view. The arrival of cinemas and television tubes did not change this fundamental disposition, and in virtual reality parts of it have become portable, but without changing the interrelations of its elements. Projector and projection move along with the point of view of the user, who is then free to navigate a virtual, illusionist space that is not essentially different from Baroque special effects.
In the time of Harriot and Galileo, both the theory and practice of projective geometry were still being developed. A few decades after the discovery of the craters on the moon, the French monk Jean-François Niceron perfected the practical geometric construction of images projected under unlikely angles, or on vaulted surfaces instead of on a flat wall or canvas. He took this as the starting point for a religious art that emphasized the vanity of human existence by dramatizing the transience of images that appear and disappear depending on our viewpoint. In his art of anamorphosis, the alignment between projection and viewpoint was turned into an experience by making it a rare and privileged occurrence, only happening at a very specific location relative to a fresco.
Here the revelation is not caused by the source of light changing position and revealing features in an uneven surface, but by the viewer moving around relative to the painted image. In Niceron’s work, a more advanced understanding of the geometry of light leads to a different kind of role of the observer, and to a situation in which the separation between image space and audience space is no longer constant: an oblique view that involves the spectator as an active participant in real space.
Much of HC Gilje’s artistic output of the last ten years is the result of a shift from work that was made for a theatrical stage or screen towards work in which machines, light and audience share the same space. Before this, he had been making projections for dance and theatre pieces for many years, often using spatial transformations to generate images or developing software-controlled projections. These spatial transformations sometimes involved dancers or performers, but never involved the spectators as active participants.
A key early outcome from this shift is Blink (2009), first shown in the Hordaland Art Centre in Bergen and afterwards developed into other installations specific to other spaces, sometimes including sculptural elements. In each of these works, video is projected on the floor under a very shallow angle and the imagery that is projected in each installation is taken from a vocabulary of archetypal, animated graphic shapes. For instance, these are sequences of a slowly undulating line, slowly shifting color gradients, or patterns of parallel lines that breathe. The perspective distortion that would normally occur under a shallow angle of projection is not experienced with these images: they remain flat because of their basic, graphical nature, or sometimes perspective correction is used. This means that the audience does not experience them as projections or even as images, but as patterns of light in the space. Because of this, there is no privileged viewpoint, and the visitor of the installation feels free to wander around in the work and explore the interaction between the articulated light and the space. An important part of this interaction is caused by how the light of the projectors bounces up from the floor. This produces beautiful reflections or subtle gradients of light on the wall, dependent on the material of the floor surface. Blink is a spectacularly subtle work, each version the result of a meticulous investigation of how the physical characteristics of the exhibition space can be revealed with light. Seeing it is a meditative experience that makes the viewer aware of the conversation between the work and the space.
Blink resonates with other artworks that also look at projection obliquely. The most well-known of these is Anthony McCall’s work Light Describing a Cone (1973), originally a 16mm film made to be shown in smoky underground cinemas, a piece that shifts attention from the moving dot or curve projected on the screen to the moving three-dimensional cone of light created in the haze above the audience. His more recent explorations of the same theme become material spaces, made of light, that the visitor can move around in and explore. Another key work in the history of non-conventional projection situations is the expanded cinema installation Displacements (1980) by Michael Naimark. In this piece, color images of an interior are projected back upon that same interior painted white, using a rotating camera and projector that slowly scan the scene from the center of the space. The actors that appear in the projection pass through as flat and fleeting ghosts, and visitors cause shadows in the moving projection, two different interesting resonances with Niceron’s thoughts about human ephemerality. A more recent example of projecting life into objects was developed by Pablo Valbuena in his “Augmented Sculpture Series” (2007). In these installations, he animates plays of “virtual light” by making computer animations of changing light on virtual three-dimensional objects, and by projecting those on real objects that have exactly the same shape and are perfectly aligned with the projection.
Going back a bit further into the history of the art of projection, the power of light to bring volumes to life was an important part of the photography course that László Moholy-Nagy developed at the Bauhaus. In his book Vision in Motion, he describes the “light modulator” as a tool for an abstract photography assignment: “Any object with combined concave-convex or wrinkled surfaces may be considered a light modulator since it reflects light with varied intensity depending upon its substance and the way its surfaces are turned towards the light source.” The goal of this assignment was to make students aware of the extent to which light can change our perception of objects, and to develop their sensitivity to the interactions of light and volumes that could be applied to all kinds of photography.
Nathan Lerner was one of Moholy-Nagy’s students at the “New Bauhaus” in Chicago in 1937, and took this assignment a step further by developing the “light box”. By opening and closing the rows of holes in the sides of this box, it functioned as a kind of miniature theatre in which the light falling on the “light modulator” could be carefully controlled in both direction and intensity. Moholy-Nagy described this as “a particularly effective laboratory for the study of receding and advancing values of the lit surfaces. These effects produce direct emotional reactions which can be enlarged upon through the combinations of visual fundamentals. … Thus, one may paint with light as surely as one can paint with oil and pigment.”
For Moholy-Nagy, such experiments with light and shadow were more than merely visual explorations. He saw them as steps on the way of developing and depicting a new understanding of spatial relations that he considered essential for a sounder, more “biological” approach to technological society. From the scientific theories and imagery of his time he derived concepts such as dynamism, energy and interpenetration. According to him, one of the tasks of the artist was to help move the collective imagination into the 20th century by translating such new concepts into a visual culture accessible to a larger public.
The Crossing (2015) can be understood as a version of Nathan Lerner’s “light box” on a large scale, with controllable point light sources taking the place of Lerner’s holes in cardboard. This site-specific installation is a recent example of another family of spatial light works by HC Gilje, of which an early version of what later became Spin can be considered a precursor. That early version consisted of a series of LED lights mounted on a circular frame, which allows for movements of light along the circle to be animated. In the case of Spin, the moving patterns of light set the shadows of the viewers in motion, evoking circular pre-cinematic toys as the praxinoscope and the zoetrope. Since 2009, HC Gilje has been developing a series of works based on such arrays of light sources arranged in straight lines, where animated orchestrations of light activate and reveal the surfaces and shapes around them. He has used these arrays as material for light compositions in industrial spaces (the installations Trace in 2013 and 2015), but for instance also in a forest (Lightspan Forest Flares, 2014), and recently in a beautiful wooden structure built by the architect Sami Rintala on the Sandhornøy island in Northern Norway. In works like In Transit X (2014–2015) and Flimmer (2015), Gilje has used such light arrays in an interplay with sculptural elements he designed himself.
The Crossing was specifically made for a site close to Zapolyarny, a planned Soviet mining town in the Russian Arctic. The site was a round pit, 40 meters across, with at its center a set of walls formed by thick standing slabs of concrete sticking out of the ice: the foundations of an unfinished industrial building that never grew beyond ground level. The intervention of HC consisted of a number of white LED strips, arranged as a partial grid of lines on top of these walls. Along those lines, points of light travel at speeds comparable to walking or running, their light projecting around, animating the shadows of the walls and the visitors. Seen from the edge of the pit, the installation looks like a subdivided box, with a beautiful, breathing rhythm in its continually changing distribution of light and dark spaces. Seen from within the structure, shadows are in constant cinematic motion; the passing lights graze the slabs and highlight the textures of concrete, ice and snow. The composed sequences of intensities and directions of the light turn the site into a choreography of light.
The work comes across as a confrontation between the abstract world of planning, composition and mobilization on the one hand, and material and historical realities on the other hand. With its concrete geometry, the site is like a monument to a lost Soviet civilization, even as it evokes the Assyrian grid architecture that can be found in the deserts of Iraq and dates from the beginning of civilizations based on agriculture and the first forms of spatial planning. The austere lines of the concrete slabs also evoke the worlds of CAD/CAM software or early CGI as seen for instance in the first Tron movie (1982), in which lines of light represent the immaterial world of mathematics or can be seen as luminous traces of data traffic. But in The Crossing, these lines become gestures of probing, the orchestrated light itself very much a material entity that is in dialogue with the materiality of the site.
The spatial transformations that HC Gilje was using to generate his earlier theatrical video work resemble the kinds of transformations at the basis of many current scientific imaging and visualization methods. One characteristic of these is that they do not so much operate on images of the surface of things but on data sets that represent relations. Scientists routinely use techniques of slicing, multiple projections, autocorrelations and other ways to make sense of the data contained in such sets, mapping out those trajectories through them that reveal the most interesting features.
In his light installations, HC Gilje maps out patterns and trajectories in physical environments, composing an interplay between the articulation of light and the way a specific space responds to this light. The activating and probing of a space through light is an integral part of the work, with the spectators present both as witnesses of this process and as light modulators in the space. In these works, the light is not a messenger from a virtual or distant universe, but a material that inhabits the same space we inhabit, and that can be engaged with the here and now.
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