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Celebrating 20 Years of Light Art in Unna

Light plays an essential role in how we feel and perceive the world. In a literal sense, light means life. Without it, there would be no existence.

Every day, lighting exists matter-of-factly as it blends into our social fabric and serves pragmatic purposes, such as stimulating consumption, enhancing the living experience, or simply regulating road traffic. In this context, light is the mediator and enabler of civilisation. However, art and light-based art do not necessarily fit into a system as it appeals directly to our senses. Therefore, it has the right to be there, autonomously in its self-referentiality.

Although more pronounced in insects, the primordial human instinct draws us towards the light.Unlike other visual arts genres where exclusion can occur with a lack of understanding of culture and context, light art is more comprehensible and inclusive as we are already accustomed to its raw materials. Accordingly, light-based art makes it easier to enter the “art world.”

As the first and only museum that focuses on light art presentation, the Zentrum für Internationale Lichtkunst (ZfIL) or Centre for International Light Art is at society’s service to make light art accessible. The museum hopes to bring light, design, architecture, and art into dialogue and offer a visually perceptive and atypical view. Visitors to the museum are asked to rethink how they experience light and art — emerging with a new appreciation of light and its influence on our souls.

Luminous from afar, radiant below the earth

In the late 1990s, Unna’s development prospects were bleak. Once coal mines flourished in the area, but the industrial revolution was long past, and all that remained were the remnants and ruins. The city pondered about the best way to repurpose the 3000m2 of cellars vacated by the Linden Brewery (Lindenbrauerei) in 1979. While unsuitable for most activities, the space was perfect for light art. The lack of natural light resulted from the spatial conditions and therefore, the perfect canvas for the artists.

François Morellet, No End Neon, 2013; Photograph: Frank Vinken

In most cases, natural light is not used within the installation, and therefore darkness is necessary for light-based art. The complete absence of daylight and other light sources provides a perfect space for artistic expression. A combination of unused light-void cellars and the desire to provide a permanent home to light art meant that the abandoned Linden Brewery was the ideal location to house the museum and a paragon for the city of Unna.

The structure in which the ZfIL is housed is genuinely unique. A 52-metre sky-high chimney erupts into the sky, and the visitors travel 10 metres underground to experience the art in a labyrinth of cellar vaults. Many comment that the cellars of Unna are like Rome’s catacombs filled with history and the souls of those gone before. When the museum was establishing, artists from across the globe were invited to ZfIL to create site-specific installations that not only use light but utilise the unique space to touch the soul. In many ways, the permanent collection works represent the exciting encounters between avant-garde light art and Unna’s historical remnants.

Mario Merz, Fibonacci Sequence, 2000; Photograph: Frank Vinken

“Colour is the wonderment of light” – Marc van Halsendaele

Perhaps it is essential to clarify that light art does not merely mean making something visible through lighting or setting accent lighting. The great obsession with illuminating our surroundings and sceneries permanently is far from what is meant by light art. Some may accuse light art in public space of being ‘pollution,’ but, light art needs to be contained and experienced. It is conceptual and thrives on interaction. A work is only complete when the spectator becomes engulfed and experiences the exhibition. In this sense, it could be said that light art creators and dark sky advocates are not polar-opposites but one and the same as they both support the controlling of light to keep our night skies as they are intended to be.

The Evolution of Neon

Despite its current eccentric intonation and retro-esque ornamental appeal, neon is not a conventional material from the art sphere but originated from the commercial world. The mouth-blown tubes filled with noble gas were indeed elaborately and attractively prepared for advertising purposes. In the 60s, neon became popular with some artists inspired by the world’s metropolises illuminated at night by neon signs. Over the decades, with a shift in applications and perception, artists provide context for the audience’s experience and reimagination of neon lights in different settings.

The temporary exhibition “Neon Delight” opened in March 2020 at ZfIL. It is an ambitious project featuring a broad selection of artists showcasing a range of artworks from the 1960s to the present that provides a comprehensive overview of neon in light art.

Keith Sonnier, Tunnel of Tears, 2002; Photograph: Frank Vinken

One of the most acclaimed installations in the museum is Keith Sonnier’s, Tunnel of Tears (2002), being part of the permanent collection. The American artist created a sense of tension in the exhibition structure using a variety of neon tubes suspended from the ceilings to form a colour sequence starting with red, then violet, and ending with blue. Enhanced by the groundwater that regularly appears, the overall architecture mirrors the tears in various nuances. The water’s mirroring effect forms a tube, or better described a tunnel, due to the reflection of the vaulted ceilings — hence the title of the work. As many affectionately refer to the installation, the Tunnel of Tears for Unna is an inescapable experience for all who visit.

Celebrating the past and present

Light art is a relatively new art genre that can be placed in the general classification of sculpture and installation arts, with the primary medium of light.

In the 20s, László Moholy-Nagy (b. 1895), who was employed at the Bauhaus at the time, emerged as a formative figure in light art development. His first efforts to bring artificial light and art together was closely linked to the technical development and potential. Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator (Das Lichtrequisit) is viewed as one of the first objects developed in connection with light art. This influential piece is permanently housed in the collection of the Busch-Reisinger Museum at Harvard University.

James Turrell, Third Breath, 2005; Photograph: Frank Vinken
James Turrell, Third Breath, 2005; Photograph: Frank Vinken

In the 60s, based on Moholy-Nagy’s body of work, contemporary artists began experimenting and exploring artificial light and its characteristics as a medium and less on the technical aspects. For example, James Turrell (b. 1943) sensitises our perception and understanding of space with his surrounding light. In Third Breath, one of Turrell’s work in the ZfIL permanent collection, he provides the audience with a unique lighting experience. On the top storey, a lighting composition combines with the natural light gathered by a round opening from the roof, creating a unique visual effect. Downstairs, mimicking the principle of a camera obscura, the visitors can imagine being a part of a converging lens that channels light from the sky into the darkroom.

Beaconing the World

“While it is ZfIL’s mission to pay respect to the masters of the past, it is also our goal to showcase and celebrate its future. As the world and technology change around us, it is our duty to explore new forms and the potential for digital integration along with the tools and crafts of light art founders,” commented museum director John Jaspers.

ZfIL is the first museum that focuses only on light art. This places the responsibility on the museum to create a platform for global emerging artists and their works. Many initiatives have emerged from the dedication to support light art. Over the first 20 years, ZfIL has become an important anchor point for light art. The museum now addresses an international audience, and people from all over the world come to the fairly small city of Unna to have a unique experience with art and light.

Jan van Munster, Ich [im Dialog] / Me [in Dialogue], 2005, Photograph: Frank Vinken

In 2015, the inaugural International Light Art Award (ILAA) was very modest in scale with 29 submissions. The third ILAA in 2019, received over 350 concepts from artists from 54 countries. The three finalists were invited to actualise their visions and exhibit at the museum. It is hoped that in 2021, the biannual ILAA can once again attract international artists to compete for the 10,000 € prize.

Collaborations with universities, high-schools, and the lighting industry continue to grow. Many school groups visit the museum motivating the parents to discover the underground treasures. Team Junges Museum (Young Museum Team) cements the museum’s relevance for the future by acquainting hundreds of schoolchildren with light art through exhibition talks and workshops.

Mischa Kuball, Space-Speech-Speed, 1998/2001; Photograph: Frank Vinken

Another initiative to support young artists is the partnership with Saarbrücken University of Fine Arts (HBKsaar). In 2016, ZfIL hosted its first exhibition featuring student artists. Switch I looked at the versatility and complexity of light as a medium and material. The exhibit focused on the works and the students’ experience with physical light in drawing, painting, sculpture, installation and performance. When travel becomes more common once again, ZfIL plans to show a follow up this year with Switch II.

Over the past 20 years, ZfIL and our artists have had to reckon that light art is very technology-based art. On the one hand, this means a relationship of dependency, in which, at some point, the material preferred by artists may simply no longer be produced for reasons of sustainability – for example incandescent lamps, halogen bulbs and step-by-step fluorescent lights. On the other hand, the limits of what is possible within light art are continually expanding. From neon tubes to fluorescent tubes to LED or OLED light sources or high-resolution projections, it becomes clear that new technologies also impact art. If not already active in an artist’s creative studio, OLED elements will soon find their way into light-based art.

Rebecca Horn, Lotus Shadow, 2006; Photograph: Frank Vinken

There are many great plans for ZfIL today and into the future. The goal is to grow and expand as a house and as a knowledge centre and take advantage of all opportunities. Programs are in place to intensify collaborations with universities, high schools and the lighting industry. The museum looks to play a leading role in the future of light art, through exhibitions, symposia and collaborations. There are also plans to grow the museum size to enable it to show an even broader bandwidth of light art and explore the digital world of light art. The past 20 years have been amazing, and the next 20 will allow Zentrum für Internationale Lichtkunst to realise its goals for not only the museum but for light art.

Museum website www.zfil.de

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