Res Lucis: Light in Contemporary Art

Contemporary light artworks are characterized by the reflected use of physical light. They explore light as a medium of display, of imaging or of perception. Artistic practices include darkness and shadow images, translucent materials, light-reflecting pigments and illuminated canvases, light filters and all kinds of requisites, displays of light sources and all types of projections. From the very basic interplay of light and shadow to the array of optical properties, from the chemistry of photography to the handling of big data, a diverse variety of artistic approaches encompass physical light as material, medium or tool. Today, the artistic research on light in fine arts is an essential part of the aesthetic reflection of the contemporary visual codes and their implications. Light has become Ariadne’s thread of a complex process of re-evaluations of contemporary as well as of historic imageries.

In contemporary artistic practices, physical light is used for drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, intervention and performance as well as mixed media approaches. In their research, artists reflect on the interplay of material and the connotations of its appearance, of form and color, of light and shadow, of space and time, on all kinds of phenomenological aspects as well as on their semantic implications. These kinds of artworks are designed to be dynamic systems of interdependence. They explore the interchange between material aspects and optical properties, conditions of human perception and codes of content. With focus on the reciprocal influences, they direct the attention to the properties of the media that defines and cartographs the visual experience.

The growing number of artists working with light indicates a shift of focus. Instead of linking the artwork to the applied materials like canvas, binder or pigments, the media hosting the artwork advances to the center of interest. Since origin of the world, light has been mediating between the world and its perception. Non-locality and time flow, inter-mediality and perception-responsiveness have always been inherent qualities. Rather than as an art form, the rich diversity of contemporary artistic positions working on light can be described as a cultural phenomenon. This essay collects and sorts some aspects to encourage further research and discourse .

Digital Culture

The contemporary digital culture was hard to imagine in the 1950s, when ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, became the first network to take advantage of the internet protocol. The World Wide Web did not exist and the cultural transformations were not predictable. In the recent decades, the digital technologies advanced fast and altered almost every aspect of our lives. By now, channels of communication, storage of information, organization of social structures or economic settings are done via digital interfaces. Almost all facets of analyzing, organizing, administrating, designing, marketing, producing, distributing among others are linked to digital controls. This includes an immense influence on behavior by the media producing and transmitting information worldwide. Conjoint, they engender a seamless media scape. The philosopher Bernhard Stiegler addresses the ongoing changes: “the alteration of space and time […], by the globalization of interactions through the deployment of telecommunication networks, the instantaneity of the processes, the “real time” and the “live”, but also the space and time of the “body proper” itself, by tele-aesthesia or “tele-presence”. With the ubiquity of digital systems, new artistic practices emerged. They come with new challenges in terms of interpretation, curation and collection and alter the canon of fine arts.

Digital Culture and Light

The material that links the analog and the digital sphere is light. It outlines the analog visual scopes as well as all digital dimensions. The challenges of the digitalization shifted the focus of interest from the body material to the media of appearance. Featured in the current discourse are the outstanding qualities of light that are progressively unveiled by research and technological development from the speed of light as the highest attainable speed in the universe to the focusing capability down to one millionth of a millimeter, or the shortest pulse up to a billionth of a billionth of a second or the unimaginable performance with up to billions of megawatts or the undistorted capacity of superimposing up to millions of megabits per second. These are only some of the aspects that outline the properties of light. Along the interfaces of analog and digital worlds they are reflected in artistic research and experiment and new artistic formats arise.

Visual Culture History

Light in fine arts is not a contemporary invention. It can be traced back to the origins of visual art. While science strove to enlarge and to refine the precision of their results in the examination of the phenomenon of light, the artists explored the esthetic implications. In art history, light played a crucial role for all ages and for all art genres. From the earliest cave drawings to the digital displays of the 21st Century, the artistic research on the interchange of light, time and space, shape and color has been an omnipresent challenge for artists addressing the ties between “what is”, “how it appears to human perception”, “how can it be represented in an image” and “how it can be recognized”.

Light and Shadow

Observation of light and shadow projections resulted in the first representations, as they were found in the caves in the south of Europe. They arose where no daylight fell. In the glow of fire their material was the soot of fossil fuel material. To date, shadow plays are still of artistic interest. Christian Boltanski, William Kentridge, Nalani Malini or Kara Walker provide some examples that examine complexity, layering, and multiplicity of shadow images, and include time, movement and sound in their concepts to develop narrative archives, for artistic reasons as much as for political ones. Their works allow us to apply Plato’s “Cave Allegory” to contemporary media, knowledge construction and world view.

Light and Transparency

As well, light phenomena have been reflected in particular in connection with diaphanous materials, such as glass, and as far back as 9.000 years ago, already led to first artifacts. The term “glass” refers to the shine and shimmer – as it appears in the interplay of glass and light. Since the 5th Century there has been evidence of transparencies, especially for glass paintings. Major works haven been done from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, from Art Nouveau to modern and to the most contemporary art. They have in common their high differentiation in contrasts and color vibrancy. For contemporary artistic approaches like the ones of Olafur Eliasson and Peter Erskine, the interplay of changing solar light conditions is rediscovered for our understanding of an image as a non-static one.

Light and Projection

Since the Abu Ibn Al Haytham published the “Kitab al Manazir” [en: “Book of Optics], the camera obscura [“light can carry an image of its environment through a whole into a black box”], the projected image became a source of inspiration and paved the way to extended artistic research on technical optics based images. Over the centuries, the camera obscura principle has been revisited with numerous artistic approaches. Some of the examples of contemporary artists working with it today are Vera Lutter, Abelardo Morell and James Turrell.

In the 16th Century, optical instruments were explained by the Italian author Giambattista della Porta. His book “Natural Magick” [en: “Natural Magic”] encompassed observations on geology, optics, medicines, poisons, cooking, metallurgy and magnetism among others. It was first published in 1558 and translated into Italian [1560], French, [1565] Dutch [1566] and English [1658]. According to the observations of artist David Hockney, artists like Caravaggio were using optical devices to project the image on to the canvas and work on the projection instead of the image perceived by the eye. Hockney assumes that Caravaggio composed his works from a series of experiments with reflectors, mirrors and/or lenses, may-be in the form of a camera obscura. “His work would then have been a sort of collage of quasi-photographic close ups – which is indeed exactly what it looks like.” Hockney collaborated with Charles M. Falco, Professor of Optical Science and Physics at the University of Arizona (us) for a research project on optical analysis of historic paintings. Their thesis is “that certain elements in certain paintings … were produced as a result of the artist using either concave mirrors or refractive lenses to project the images of objects illuminated by sunlight onto his board/canvas.” Falco and Hockney show in their thesis, how the impact of the original lens can be traced in an image and they explain how the optical tools were included in the artistic practice earlier than reflected in the academic art history approaches.

Light And Animation

During the 18th Century, artists started to employ light as material in their paintings. In 1781 in London, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg developed transparent screens for the lighting design of his boxed stage called “Eidophusikon”. It was a miniature stage which moved its scenery by means of pulleys and produced the illusion of changing sky effects, clouds, storms and sunrises by a moving backcloth of tinted linen, lit from behind by lamps. Loutherbourg called it his “movable canvas”.

At the end of the 18th Century, diaphanes became popular. Image carriers were oiled paper, parchment paper, shaved leather, thin screens or silk, which were printed or colored with watercolors or diluted oil paints. The translucent images were backlit with daylight or shown by using various light sources in dark environments. Candles, torches, oil, kerosene and gas lamps were used as light sources. One of the known examples is the ones of Caspar David Friedrich. In 1835 he described – “four clear images, drawn on paper and on stretchers with two glass bowls, a lamp and a small block” – in a letter accompanying the delivery of some artworks. The glass bowls were turned into cobbler balls in the same way as craftsmen availed themselves of water-filled spherical glass flask as a converging lens to collect the diffuse light of the sun or of a gas or oil lamp onto the workspace. With the transparencies by Philippe Loutherbourg [~1782] Louis Carrogis Carmontelle [~1783], Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre [~1822], Caspar David Friedrich [~1835] light became the media of animation of painting.

Light Across Artistic Media

The Promethean spark not only had an impact on painting, but on drawing, photography and film, sculpture and architecture, but also on theater and music. In 1913, the composer Alexander Scriabin published a composition with a light voice, incorporating dynamic changes of light intensity and special effects like sparks and tongues of fire, light plays and even fireworks into the performance. Although the technical implementation of the light voice was written in the “Parisian Score”, the “Poem of Fire” could technically not yet be realized.

In the 1920s, the idea to pave the way “From Pigment to Light” was central to László Moholy-Nagy. At the Bauhaus in Weimar and Dessau, he experimented with industrially manufactured light bulbs and developed mechanical equipment to perform an interplay of light, color and space as it had been developed in the constructivist painting. The “Light-Space-Modulator”, developed from 1922 to 1930, is one of the significant works in the history of artistic engagement with physical light. Later incurred “light plays” – photographs and films, kinetic objects, spatial installations and stage sets. In 1925, in the Essay “Painting, Photography, Film”, László Moholy-Nagy reflected on the relevance of light for fine arts and postulated that reflecting light is a condition for the art.

Light as Condition for the Arts

In the following years, light became tool, material and media of moving images and had a share in the artistic advances of Futurism, Cubism, Constructivism, Kinetic Art and Op-Art. As well, it paved the way for artists like Duncan Grant, Léopold Survage, Viking Eggeling and Hans Richer to make the link to the new media film in the beginning of the 20th Century.

The increase of ideas of abstraction along with the polarity of material and immaterial were the backdrop of the fundamental change of the concepts of the visual and imaging. “The cinematic projections are predetermined both visually and temporally. The free … projections based on the use of filters and reflectors, which can be static or mobile or both.” the artist Nicolas Schoeffer explained at the end of the 1950s. Schoeffer was also invited to Kassel in 1964, where for the first time light-based positions were shown at the Documenta. The curator Arnold Bode had gathered young artists whose works were based on mechanical motion and light plays as opposed to static visual art. Among the other artists were Julio le Parc, Heinz Mack, Otto Piene, Jesús Rafael Soto, Jean Tinguely, Günter Uecker and the artists group GRAV [Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel]. Wieland Schmied, the director of the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hannover, wrote a review in the magazine “Zeit” from July 17, 1964: “… particularly joyous the community in the attic of the Fridericianum, kinetic and light plays by Agam, Goepfert, Kramer, Mack, Piene, Uecker, Soto, Bury, Tinguely, gleams of hope and bright spots in the sometimes murky aspects of 1964. I am not sure if what drives these people up there has to do with “art”, but it has been always fascinating for me, and when vitality is a criterion of art, then these dynamos and rotors and objects are art.” The exhibition “Dynamo” in 2013 in the Grand Palais in Paris was a follow up. Under the title “A Century in Light and Movement” it showed how artists such as Alexander Calder, Julio le Parc, or François Morellet have been developing over time, but also how the spectrum of light art practice has been differentiated, as the examples in the works by Carsten Höller, Jeppe Hein and Michel Verjux could be read. “It is rather an experiment with the sense of vision and the desire to deceive.”, commented Hanno Rauterberg about the exhibition in the magazine “Zeit” from April 19th, 2013 – fifty years later but still in the same tonality as Wieland Schmied, Hanno Rauterberg is questioning the artistic relevance.

Luminous reliefs, vibrating images and sound sculptures were built as techno-mechanical systems to define and explore scopes and processes in order to be able to repeat them. “If you look at the work of all artists who were involved directly or indirectly to Zero, it is striking that all of them work serially. And no one has made composition. For the musicians this time it was just the same. Whether it was John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Steve Reich or Philip Glass – with all of them you will find pure, serial structures! We were very electrified, that instead of compositions we worked on structures, energy fields, rasters and series.” , as the artist Heinz Mack descries it in retrospect.

Light in Space and Time

While founding the artists group “Zero” in 1957, Heinz Mack and Otto Piene agreed that light as a material “should serve as a neutral and starting point for a new awareness of the environment”. They referred to the fact that emitted light always travels and scans the environment. Light appeared to be a great material to explore sites and to understand their visual qualities. It requires the artist to include the reflection of the site in his/her composition and concept. Exhibition sites transformed into “found objects”. Instead of being regarded as neutral displays, they became an integral part of the material of the work. What it emerged were spatial installations or site-rooted interventions in which the site and the work are inseparable.

In the interplay of light and site, the unique properties of light offer the potential to alter the appearance and atmosphere of the site in a non-invasive and continually transformative way. In combination with digital technologies, this potential is multiplied. Live visuals, projection mapping and interactive environments are among the new artistic forms of design and expression. Along the responsiveness of an environment to light, the new art forms engender their specific visual qualities while transforming given three dimensional spaces.

The Philips Pavilion, which in 1958 was realized for the World Exhibition in Brussels, was described by music and media scientist Golo Föllmer as “the first electronic-spatial environment, that links the architecture, film, music and light to a space and time merging experience” . The artistic director
Le Corbusier co-operated with Iannis Xenakis and Edgard Varèse. Golo Föllmer also writes: “Two tape compositions were created: The “Poème électronique” by Edgard Varèse aimed at an intense fusion of space and sound experience. The synthetic and concrete sounds used were moved as lines and volumes in space with the aid of lavish loudspeaker technology in accordance with Le Corbusier’s film / light projection.” Acoustic space and architecture, light response and imaging, as well as the specific aesthetic qualities of the electronic equipment were merged into a new synthesis.

Contemporary artists like Cuppetelli and Mendoza, Hartung and Trenz, Klaus Obermaier and collectives like Anti VJ focus their artistic practices on how to merge the principles of op-art and the interchange of analog and digital spaces. Op-Art developed in the continuance of the ideas of the Russian Constructivism, of the De-Stijl-Movement and the Bauhaus, and the interest of artists like Victor Vasarély, Jesús Rafael Soto or Yaacov Agam was directed to the active principle as much as the principles of inclusion and exclusion of visual perception.

As well these kinds of artworks are time-tied and cannot embodied in a lasting framework. Since the 1960s temporality is reflected in the conceptual approaches in artistic positions. Happenings, performances and sound sculptures were all part of ephemeral art. Early examples of ephemeral art include Fluxus’ performances, Richard Long’s walks, Sarah Lucas’s early mobiles and Joseph Beuys’s Social Sculptures. In the last fifty years the idea of temporary artworks that can’t be collected or stored and that are tied to a site, a time and a moment have continued and expanded. In the contemporary light artworks, temporality, spatiality and movement are just as implicit as the changes that depend on the lens system that receives the light – whether it is in an eye, in a camera or in a projection system. Imbedding light directs attention to performativity of light and to the specific conditions of time, space, and beholders themselves.

Perception as part of artistic concepts

Many of the artists working with physical light today relate to perception as a co-creative process of every art work. In the beginning of the 19th Century, the physical aspects of seeing were revised and the concept of “subjective seeing” came up, referring to the viewer as an autonomous and productive subject. In 1920, the chemist and Nobel prize Laureate Oswald Wilhelm Ostwald published his “Farbnomenatlas”. He was already known for his “Lectures on Nature’s Philosophy” and one of his essentials was that the human eye reacts to radiant energy which causes chemical changes on the cornea which humans recognize as a light sensation. Subsequently, the physical surface of the eye was studied. Classic optics with focus on the optical properties of transparent systems were replaced by a physical cartography of the eye and the processing of visual impressions including the timing of reaction, adaption and persistence . One of the artists who was fascinated was Josef Albers: “Our eye is such a wonderful machine we cannot conceive that greatness that this little retina of our eye which is less than a square inch big has 157 million little particles, as an English scientist found out; and that they are working in different conditions differently. Recently we learned that the only part of the human organism which has no blood pressure, blood increase and decrease, is the eye. Because the eye has no pulse. It would disturb the finesse of perception; it’s amazing, so incredibly a great wonder that we just have to shut up!”

Artists working with light took into account sensory perception. They experimented with the potential as much as with the limits of visualizing as well as with those of seeing and recognizing. Addressing the gaps between the factual and the perceived, they allowed new insights into the understanding of the visual situation. Subjectivity, as a priori of perception, became emphasized and consequently, the model of an objectively describable, static artwork was discarded. Due to the exploration of perception the ratio of subjectivity and objectivity in the 20th Century the status of the viewer was designed to be an active one. Artists take their share in these discourses with a growing plurality of interventions as well as responsive, interactive and participative concepts.


In the 21st century, generative data systems were added to this transmedia interaction of moving images, volumes of light and electronic sounds. Today, audio and video data are bound to the same information carrier and are inter-connectable. Digital technologies allow the artists to merge sound and image and they can be calculated in real time. Even large amounts of data which are not perceptible to humans themselves, not examinable and unnavigable can be processed in a short time. Working with open amounts of data, artists organize these processes in their formal, temporal and spatial details. Developing, beholding and performing are all happening at the same time. The habitual separation of production and display is abandoned. Based on the term “Gesamtkunstwerk” coined by Richard Wagner, Ron Ascott called this option for artistic synthesis in the digital space „integrated data work“ . Artists like Ryoji Ikeda and joeressen+kessner handle these kinds of formatting processes and experiment with open amounts of information and data in composition processes to develop site-tied interventions, mainly as projections.

Light Art

From the point of view of today, the interdependence of view, image and digits are essential for an understanding and critical reflection of the contemporary visual values. Against this backdrop the term “Light Art” seems to be an interim term for artworks that comprise physical light and reflect on the ratio between media properties, imaging, perception and recognition in order to decipher the visual dimension. Currently, it is mainly used to describe art works which integrate light as one of their constituents. Although not helpful as an analytic term, it directs attention to the change from static to performative properties of artistic materials. The growing number of artworks building on light emittance forms a nexus to comprehend the phenomena of light and its mediumship as counterpart of the visual culture of the present. The light art of the 21st century participates in a discourse that acknowledges the significance of mediality, perception and subjectivity for the generation of knowledge and understanding. Evident in a multitude of artistic imageries, the contemporary art production renders visible culture historical changes in the ratio of imagery, media and newly emerging realities.

Text: Bettina Pelz. Published: 20 January 2018.