In the early years of modernism, artificial light was positively connotated and regarded as a symbol of modern life. In the course of the twentieth century, however, dark stains increasingly appeared on the pure white vest of light: Today, despite all technical developments and undeniable advantages, light is also associated with luminous pollution and energy wastage. The exhibition Power! Light! at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg presents artistic positions—based on selected light art works from its own collection—which consciously focus on political, ecological, or social statements and critically comment on the (thoughtless) use of light—and thus also in a figurative sense on the use of resources in general.
“We will meet in the place where there is no darkness.” This statement, which prophesies an alleged state of happiness, runs like a thread through George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. It plays with a traditional, positive metaphor of light, according to which light, that is to say brightness, is good, and darkness is bad or evil. In the course of the plot, however, the prophesied place of eternal light turns out to be a place of torture. The light metaphor used by Orwell goes back to antiquity, in particular to Plato’s analogy of the sun, and also plays an important role in Christianity. The Book of Revelation ends, for example, with the hope of a world in which “there will be no night.”
Light only gained negative connotations through the far-reaching substitution of sunlight by electric light in the twentieth century. The inverse use of light in its most extreme contemporary application goes as far as the use of light for the purpose of torture: The psychologically and physically agonizing exposure to a constant source of light is one means from the arsenal of euphemistically labeled “white torture.” In terms of power, or rather the exercise of power, a historical development of artificial light can be vividly traced using the example of spotlights, which were developed early on—like several other objects of daily use—in the military sector. Modern electric spotlights reached the zenith of their popularity in the darkest chapter of German history under the Nazi architect Albert Speer, who used numerous spotlights to build monumental “cathedrals of light” reaching several kilometers into the air to stage and illustrate the Nazi fantasies of omnipotence in the Third Reich. Beyond this powerful megalomaniac use, however, spotlights are also political light projectors in the sense that they make it possible to separate the illuminator from the illuminated: they do not illuminate generally and without hierarchical or social differences but can be used selectively. The illuminator decides who or what he or she wishes to illuminate. It is the spotlight that “mobilizes and mechanizes the gaze itself” (Friedrich Kittler, 1991). Especially in today’s celebrity culture, it is the spotlights of television studios and glamour events that decide whether a one is relevant or not.
In contrast to previous exhibitions on the subject of light art, Power! Light! does not seek to cover the broad spectrum of all possible works of art in which electric light is used in any way, but rather concentrates decidedly on such positions in which light has political, social, and/or ecological significance in a broader sense—and this against the background of the current tension between metropolitan luminous pollution due to, on the one hand, the ever-increasing lighting and illumination mania and, on the other hand, increasingly sophisticated lighting concepts with a focus on saving energy. Based on selected works from the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg’s own collection, a fascinating spectrum of works of light art will be presented in the completely darkened central hall of the museum, the conceptual levels of reflection of which revolve around socio-political and thus political aspects.
The development and use of the medium of light in art will thus be examined in numerous chapters, above all in its broader political dimension: Spotlights, advertising, “white torture,” star cult / celebrity culture, border—exclusion, monitoring / control, etc.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a comprehensive bilingual publication (German/English), published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König and designed by Jan Kiesswetter, Berlin, with art historical, sociological, biological, theological, and philosophical contributions by Andreas Beitin, Holger Broeker, Jo Joelson, Annette Krop-Benesch, Christoph Markschies, Julia Otto, Michael Schwarz et al.
Siegrun Appelt, Awst & Walther, Maja Bajević, Matthias Berthold, Joseph Beuys, Christian Boltanski, Monica Bonvicini, Gesine Braun, Claire Fontaine, Jürgen & Nora Claus, Bill Culbert, Sven Drühl, Olafur Eliasson, Patrick Fenech, Kendell Geers, Douglas Gordon, Tue Greenfort, Petrit Halilaj, Jeppe Hein, Georg Herold, Lori Hersberger, Damien Hirst, Jenny Holzer, Stephan Huber, Alex Israel, Alfredo Jaar, Anne Marie Jugnet & Alain Clairet, John Knight, Mischa Kuball, Dominik Lejman, Claude Lévêque, Los Carpinteros, Kristin McIver, !Mediengruppe Bitnik, Gerhard Merz, Mario Merz, Tatsuo Miyajima, molitor & kuzmin, Robert Montgomery, Heike Mutter & Ulrich Genth, Maurizio Nannucci, Bruce Nauman, Warren Neidich, Nana Petzet, Daniel Pflumm, Bettina Pousttchi, Tobias Rehberger, Bernardi Roig, Gregor Schneider, Marie Sester, Paul Thek, Tim Noble & Sue Webster, Timm Ulrichs, Mariana Vassileva, Peter Weibel, Cerith Wyn Evans et al.
Curators: Andreas Beitin, Holger Broeker
Credits: Gerhard Merz, An Étienne-Louis Boullée III, 2006 © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019, Photo: Marek Kruszewski