To those who can see, light shapes the universe from the distant stars to the smartphone screen. It is the basis of life on Earth; our entire existence depends on light and still, most people take it for granted. Indeed, in an age of electricity and LED, it’s hard to imagine how our distant ancestors ever prayed for the sun to return – until you see the new awe-inspiring installation of the Amsterdam based artist duo Children of the Light. Filling MU with wonder, the premiere of Spiraling into Infinity allows you to rediscover light in all its magic and magnificence.
Unlike previous works of Children of the Light that are based on geometric shapes like straight lines, squares or circles, Spiraling into Infinity started out as a spontaneous gesture. As an airy drawing without any meaning or, in the words of Paul Klee, ‘a line that walks about freely, a stroll for the fun of it, without a goal’. This active line has been transformed into a three-dimensional circuit of light that winds its way through MU’s large exhibition space where you can walk around it, enter it, and interact with it. In spite of its tangible, technical realisation, the feeling of freedom remains and is reenforced as the light plays between the columns. Appearing here and there in many colours, running this way and that along the line, the light evokes many moods and modes of being, carried by a soundscape by composer Jacob Lekkerkerker that intensifies your perception of space.
As a line of light, a gesture suspended in the air, Spiraling into Infinity has a fascinating predecessor in a photograph taken by Gjon Mili in 1948, of Matisse drawing in the air with a penlight. Mili kept the shutter open while the artist made his gesture in the dark, and then used his flashlight to capture Matisse himself. A year later, Mili realised an elaborate series of photographs of Picasso, who was drawing bulls, women, plants and other figures with light that looks incredibly fresh, almost naïve. Still, the Matisse drawing, not much more than a scribble, is exactly the kind of line that goes out for a stroll. It doesn’t have to represent anything, it is completely free. Very few artists working with light incorporate such a spontaneous gesture. Keith Sonnier comes to mind, with his Neon Wrapping series from the late 1960s or the large installations Tears for St. Francis and Tunnel of Tears from the early 2000s. More recently, Cerith Wyn Evans created intricate light scribbles in the Neon Forms (After Noh) series and the monumental Forms in Space...by Light (in Time), which is more of an elaborate composition comparable to a Kandinsky painting in neon.
In an early installation like Magic Square of the Sun, Children of the Light worked with neon too, but they are always investigating different technologies, from slide projectors to retro-reflective materials and, more recently, LED. The possibilities to digitally control each little light source individually and make the LEDs collaborate in intricate patterns of movement and transition have been explored in breath-taking works like Warping Halos and Overflow (which is an integral part of the eponymous choreography by Alexander Whitley that is still touring the world). And now there is Spiraling into Infinity, in all its marvellous joy.
Like many works of art created with light, Spiraling into Infinity is at its most impressive when the surroundings are shrouded in darkness. What few people realise, however, is that darkness today is only the absence of light that humans can see. In a reality that we can not perceive, we are always surrounded by light: from radio waves and infrared to ultraviolet or gamma rays. All these forms of electromagnetic radiation travel through a vacuum at the speed of light – because they are just that: light. And so even the dark parts of the night sky are aglow, with echoes of the Big Bang for instance. Astronomers and physicists don’t know precisely what happened the moment the universe began, but the ancient myths of origin might just have gotten it right. First there was chaos, followed by night, and only then the light came into existence. The unimaginably hot fusion of energy and particles that expanded in the earliest moments of creation (chaos) had to cool down and settle into atoms for the cosmos to become transparent – but totally dark (night). It took hundreds of millions of years for stars and planets to form, and with them nights and days as we know them (light). Spiraling into Infinity refers to the cosmic dance of celestial orbits, to the movements of the sun in the solar system as it spirals along in the Milky Way. At the same time, it hints at this other world, beyond our senses, where life operates in ways that we can neither see nor comprehend.
Christopher Gabriel and Arnout Hulskamp first collaborated during a Darkside concert in a crowded Paris music hall in 2012. Their test for a moving, performative installation, Mirror Moon, was an instant success and they realised they wanted to work with light for the rest of their lives. Since then, they have created an impressive body of work as Children of the Light, a name that captures the playfulness, curiosity and innocence we attribute to children, and merges it with a spiritual message of positivity and salvation found in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessaloniki. Writing of the imminent Day of the Lord he assured them that they didn’t need to fear God’s wrath: “You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” The biblical reference doesn’t make Children of the Light’s work Christian, or religious for that matter. Even installations they designed for or presented in church buildings, like Between Light, A Notre Etoile, and Diapositive do not appeal to faith, but to our capacity to be taken by surprise.
Surely, philosophers would have a field trip analysing the art of Children of the Light. In so many ways it connects with how we see or interpret the world around us, how we make sense of it all. It deals with our experience of space and time, of presence and absence, energy and matter, transformation and order. It explores how light represents existence, life, and positive forces, without opposing it to darkness. But don’t worry: you don’t have to think hard to understand Spiraling into Infinity; you can just experience it and find out how it speaks to you. It certainly has a lot to say.