Light is beautiful, extraordinary, confounding, changeable and often surprising. Light governs how we understand, navigate and experience the world. It is fundamental to our existence and our primary human condition is as bodies immersed in light.
Light is central to my ongoing art practice and PhD research which investigates how states of presence can be mediated through the materiality of light. A significant part of my research process involves durational observations of light and its many varied interactions with matter. Whilst these interactions are limited to only four basic states; transmission, emission, reflection and absorption the visual possibilities of these appear to be infinite.
The International Year of Light 2015 has provided a perfect context in which to undertake a year long study observing the visual interactions between light and matter by posting an image of light each day on my twitter feed. My Image of the Day for IYL 2015 project allows me to maintain an ongoing daily practice of seeing, contemplating and understanding light. Each photograph is a record of my day to day experience punctuated with moments of light. Sometimes the light frames an object in such a way that I am able to see differently, or produces a colour, contrast or composition so astounding that it seems appropriate to pause and appreciate it’s beauty. Often the content is very ordinary, just a view from my window, a patch of sunlight, a shadow or a reflection but each of these observations reveals a small insight into the nature of light and the process and experience of seeing it.
The act of seeing and the relationship between light and body are complex and deeply interwoven. The body and light, whilst experienced as separate entities, are bound within a duality which at the very least, sees the two parts existing in a commensal relationship. Our seeing of light and the visions we have of ourselves and our place in the world are inseparably entwined.
In his book, The Speed of Light, David Grandy states that ‘light is so deeply implicated in our “reference frame” and implicit in our nature, that we cannot step away from it for objective viewing. At one level it informs us of the world, but at a deeper, more fundamental level it informs or structures the world we see and the very way we see it.’ (1)
Every act of looking is an inherent observation of light, but our inclination is to focus attention on the illuminated material or object, rather than on the experience of seeing or the nature of light itself. The artist James Turrell uses the medium of light ‘to force the viewer of his work to see themselves seeing – actually and directly perceive the processes of their own perception’.(2) Turrell achieves this by making light the singular focus of his work and creating a ‘closed circuit’ in which the viewer experiences the act of seeing as made possible only by the light that is observed. As David Grandy explains, light is such that we cannot see it without seeing by it, a fact that keeps us from separating light from our experience of light.’(3) Carlos Cruz Diez’s Chromosaturation installations use this union of light and body to reveal even more about the experience of seeing to the viewer. When moving between three separate colour chambers infused with red, green and blue light, one colour becomes neutralised through extended exposure and as a result intensifies the perception of the next colour to the point of over-saturation. By using light and immersion Cruz’s work profoundly alters the viewer’s experience of colour and space whilst simultaneously allowing them to ‘see themselves seeing’. (4)
In these examples, it is because light is both the subject of the gaze and the illumination by which the subject is seen, that the viewer is able to observe their own process of perception. Whilst the images in my Image of the Day project do not attempt to isolate light as these artworks do, my focus on light as the subject refines my observational ability and ensures that through watching and recording light, I also gain a significant insight into the process of how I see. My fascination with light continues to grow and the longer I observe it, the more my eye is tuned to seeing light as both illumination and subject. The cumulative outcome of my year long visual study reflects a tiny, but satisfying, fragment of all that light can be.
Light has been imagined, observed, harnessed, focused, measured, isolated, mediated, manipulated and investigated. It illuminates our lives, carries the data which defines our age and gives structure to our visions of the world, and yet despite the efforts of the most renowned minds from the entirety of human history, light, as a whole remains a delightfully enigmatic frontier.
The final collection of 365 images from the Image of the Day for International Year of Light 2015 project will be published as a limited edition artist’s book in 2016.
1 – Grandy, The Speed of Light: Constancy and Cosmos, 2009, p.52-53
2 – Graham-Dixon, James Turrell: A Life in Light, 2007
3 – Grandy, The Speed of Light: Constancy and Cosmos, 2009, p.49
4 – Graham-Dixon, James Turrell: A Life in Light, 2007
5 – Graham-Dixon, A. E. C. James Turrell: A Life in Light. L. T. B. Gallery. London, Louise T Blouin Foundation, 2007.
6 – Grandy, David A. The Speed of Light: Constancy and Cosmos. Indiana University Press, 2009.
Michaela French (@michaela_french) is an artist and researcher working with light and time-based media. Her art practice moves between large-scale immersive projection spaces and small light-based objects. The universal and the intimate are central to her work which investigates the interwoven relationship between light and the body.
Michaela is a PhD Candidate in Information Experience Design at the Royal College of Art. She lectures in moving image, time-based media, animation, motion design and immersive cinema. Michaela leads the RCA Fulldome Research Group and has extensive experience creating moving image and light-based art works for exhibition and installation in galleries, planetaria, theatre and live performance.