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  • John Diamond-Nigh

To a lighthouse; to a lightlife


My treehouse is just a skeleton now, with a few ragged locks of tin hanging down. But once, on sublime winter nights, there was a bed up there, a wood stove and a window that framed, like an altar almost, a full moon and a wonderland below us of pewter luminosity. I’ll worship that, a high school buddy murmured, quite moonstruck; we lit our drugstore cigars like episcopal incense.


Contemporary art is famously hard to boil down to any convenient dogmas or styles. Yeah, there are politics, identity politics, money, then even bigger money, a big dose of residual Marxism, and a pious chafing on the part of art against its own commodification–the list is short, the list is long. But when I’m asked what the most pertinent medium is, I say light. Which in turn is why I find space so much more intriguing that any single artifact or manifesto.


When did light become so essential? Or a least, so modern? Giotto’s interesting. He still employs haloes (medieval) but at the same time uses a new light to gnarl and inflate new real people. A compelling start. But for me light becomes modern when it first illustrates human psychology with the power of a Caravaggio or a Rembrandt. When a whispering, grimacing light on a face declares our humanity to be so much more complex and poignant than the wooden duality of good or bad. Look at a late Rembrandt to truly understand western light.


Jump forward to the present: John Pawson, Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell. Pawson–I have mentioned before–is an architect who makes spare, linear, meticulous spaces where the primary adornment is the fluctuation of light and shadow over the walls–an endlessly changing and mood-resplendent wallpaper. Kusama: I won’t go into her turbulent life, but will only mention her mirror-sheathed ‘infinity rooms’, in which LED lights are cross-reflected, mirror to mirror, into an infinite glow that can stagger and move and thrill like a Beethoven symphony. The rooms are small, the technology is actually quite basic, and yet the effect, through the multiplication of light, is cosmic.


James Turrell is maybe our greatest artist, certainly the sovereign artist of light. Like Pawson and Kusama, Turrell uses light like an architect or theatrical lighting designer. I recall being led by an usher with a tiny flashlight into a room, in LA, of utter darkness. Spooky, imbalancing darkness. After twenty minutes I made out a fugitive ghost of light crossing the air like a straying curl of consciousness, building up over the next half hour into a billowing aurora borealis of light that swam around me like the skirts of angels. Turrell’s other famous structure is a room with a square excised from the ceiling, so you can look through a razor-edged picture frame at the sky above. The infinite becomes solid and close, like blue formica. As different colors of light wash over the internal walls of the room, the color of the sky correspondingly changes. Brilliant.


Light. I make, alter, diffuse and erase as much light as I can as an artist and designer. Llight once, in a sense, invented modern psychology; it now can do so much to enhance it. Put lamps in your home that are more than the hack bestowals of a furniture store––exhilarating artifacts, controlled by an intelligent dimmer that knows just when to hush them down to the mood of a perfect Merlot and a midnight kiss.

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