on light and darkness
Photography relies on light and darkness. The making of a photograph requires a balancing act between aperture, shutter speed and the sensitivity of the film or sensor. Losing the balance will result in overexposure or underexposure and consequently invisibility - the image becoming lost either in the realm of light or the realm of darkness.
For a video work I lowered my camera down into a deep well. The well holds water at the bottom, the sun illuminates the edges of this water, creating a circle of light dots surrounded by complete darkness. In the video the camera is pulled upwards, slowly, out of the well, the circle remaining a point of focus, until, near the end, the camera nears ground level and the sunlight pours in, illuminating the walls of the well, revealing where you are.
The terms light and darkness are frequently used metaphorically, referring respectively to all things positive, happy and easy to digest and to all things negative, melancholic and complex. When looking at my artistic body of work through this lens, nearly all my subject manner can be easily identified as being in darkness. There are projects about the wolf, fear, the woods. There is a project about forgetting some one, about death. There is research about madness. However, like the video of the well, none of these projects are without light. They could not do without it.
While writing about light and darkness I am immediately faced with the question if I should distinguish between a literal light and darkness (the kind you create by switching a lamp on and off) or metaphorical light and darkness (the kind that is more inward, more mental). In Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore, one of his characters mentions this distinction. "Until Edison invented the electric light, most of the world was totally covered in darkness. The physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two. They were directly linked. Like this." Oshima brings his two hands together tightly. "(…) People of that period probably couldn't conceive of these two types of darkness as separate from each other."
Many are drawn to darkness. I reach for an essay on aesthetics by a novelist who, like Murakami, is from Japan: Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. The essay is titled In Praise of Shadows and compares the way shadow is perceived and used in architecture, literature and other arts in Japan and the West. The essay is filled with lyrical descriptions of shadows, such as this: (…) when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway. Tanizaki’s writing is melancholic, for he fears for his beloved shadows. He ends the essay thus: I have written all this because I have thought that there might still be somewhere, possibly in literature or the arts, where something could be saved. I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.
Brief moments of darkness, recommendations
#1: When in a toilet, don’t turn on the light. The light leaking in through the slit between door and floor is enough to find what you need, the toilet paper, the tap. A visit to the toilet is allowed in almost any context, use it as an escape route, as an easy gateway to darkness.
#2: In a cinema, when the main feature is about to show, lights are dimmed. In the interval between the previews for other films and the start of the film you are about to see, there is a sliver of darkness to be savored.
#4: As a photographer working with analogue film, you rely on darkness; you require it professionally. True dark is not the darkroom, which is contaminated by red, but the small room where you roll the film into the development tank. Stay there as long as you need.
Light and darkness are at play not only in producing and developing an image, as I have mentioned above, but also in presenting the image - especially if one uses the form of projection. The French film scholar Domique Païni writes (…) let us agree that the artists who make up the present exhibition manipulate the travel of luminous images, images irreducibly foreign to the surfaces that intercept the beam of light, surfaces that however embody them. Of images that exist because they are made of light, being images that are of time. The difference between a painting or photographic print and a projected image is described by her in this way: (…) light no longer encounters an image, nor bathes it, nor illuminates it. Light penetrates it at first, then transports it, duplicates it in dematerializing it. Thus the projected image is light itself, defeating darkness, at least for a duration of time.
W.G. Sebald, German writer and academic, is another person who revers the dark. His The Rings of Saturn is filled with dark tales of death and dying, all of them true, on characters as diverse as the English doctor Thomas Browne and the Chinese dowager Empress Tzu Hsi. Halfway in his book and journey he embarks on the telling of a history of the herring, from which I would like to quote a short passage: An idiosyncrasy peculiar to the herring is that, when dead, it begins to glow; this property, which resembles phosphorescence and is yet altogether different, peaks a few days after death and then ebbs away as the fish decays. For a long time no one could account for this glowing of the lifeless herring, and indeed I believe it still remains unexplained. In describing this strange natural phenomenon Sebald has opened up the way to reflect upon light and darkness anew, for here is a contradiction: In death, known as the darkest of darks, the herring emits light. In the lifeless herring, in photography and in projection, in the themes of my art works, light and darkness meet.
Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore, Vintage, 2006
Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, Leete’s Island Books, 1977
Dominque Païni, Should we put an end to Projection?, October, 2004
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, The Harvill Press, 1998