“Light preoccupied artists for centuries,” says Kerryn Greenberg, an independent curator and writer based in London, and former Head of International Collection Exhibitions at the Tate. She says while light was initially often a subject of art, depicted predominantly through divine light and biblical references, scientific breakthroughs invited a shift in thought. “Artists began to explore light from different perspectives,” says Greenberg. “We were wanting to create a show that traced that trajectory.”
That journey is captured in Light: Works from Tate’s Collection, a new travelling exhibition curated by Greenberg that lands at ACMI from June 16–November 13. Drawing from the Tate’s collection of over 77,000 works, the exhibition features 70+ works and looks back at over 200 years of art history, from classical works to contemporary, exploring the evolution of light in art – from subject to medium. Following a roughly chronological journey, classic works by the likes of J.M.W Turner, John Constable, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Alfred Sisley, are interspersed with contemporary pieces from the likes of Olafur Eliasson, Yayoi Kusama, Liliane Lijn, James Turrell and more, allowing for new contrasts and connections to be made.
Greenberg highlights a series of diagrams by Turner found in the Tate archives, created for a lecture series he conducted teaching students how to represent refraction and reflection.
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“Looking at those I couldn't help but be reminded of a much more contemporary work by Liliane Lijn called Liquid Reflections,” says Greenberg. “[It] has these spheres floating on top of a water and paraffin kind of substance, with light again reflecting and refracting. One is a very simple oil on paper diagram, and the other is an immersive, kinetic installation. But these two artists, working at completely different moments in time, are both looking at the relationship between art and science.”
This interplay between art and science is why Greenberg was so keen on featuring the companion Turner pieces alongside another painting called The Deluge, never before displayed in Australia.
“I knew very early on which Turners I wanted,” she says. “Getting them was the hard part. [We have] three of the really iconic Turner works – it's a real coup I'm delighted about.”
The works reference both Moses and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in addition to having an impressive artistic resume was also a scientist. “I love the idea of the biblical reference, and then also the more scientific reference,” says Greenberg. “The early part of the show is kind of trying to pull these things together.”
Greenberg says the theme of light has endured in art because it was initially so difficult for people to understand. “[They] could see it but they couldn't really pin it down.”
This changed over time. One section of the exhibition is a room featuring Bauhaus photograms. Greenberg says creating photograms involves: “Basically placing objects on photographic paper, exposing them to light and then it develops itself. It was quite a historic technique – very much a precursor to the moving image and demonstrates the technical interrelationship between light and film.”
Elsewhere light isn’t just depicted, but manipulated and made present in real time. “Installations like James Turrell’s, for example, come into their own because they're trying to replicate atmospheric conditions from nature,” says Greenberg. “But in a controlled environment so you become much more aware of the space you're in.”
Across the exhibition light moves from canvas to installations, creates shadows and bounces across surfaces. We see it dissected in diagrams, and translated into captured images. Light: Works from Tate’s Collection reminds us when something is all around, you can forget how remarkable it is.
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Light: Works from Tate’s Collection is on at ACMI from now until November 13.