ELEMENTAL | Seeing the Light
Since opening in 2011, the Sturt Haaga Gallery has presented three exhibitions based on the theme of various elements that either make up the garden or which can be found in the garden. These would include plants, of course, but would also include the raw materials, conditions, manifestations and outcomes of the natural processes that make it possible for a garden to exist. Past exhibitions in this rich vein of inquiry have been themed around stone, dirt, clay and other elements of the earth in which plants root and grow; the many shapes and forms of wood; and the sine qua non of plant life of any kind and all kinds, water.
The current exhibition, ELEMENTAL | Seeing the Light, considers the element in the garden that is perhaps the most fundamental and pervasive, but also because of its ubiquity and immateriality, the one we may be the least conscious of: light.
From our basic science classes, perhaps we recall that the phenomenon we call “light” is made possible by wide-spectrum electromagnetic radiation from the distant sun — a very small slice of which, over eons of stop-and-go-and-start-over evolution, has been adapted to by living things. For some living things, light made the world around them visible; for others, like plants, light made life itself possible through the emergence of photosynthesis, a phenomenal biochemical engine that powers all of what we call “life” on this planet.
From simple materials — light, water, carbon dioxide and a few trace minerals — plants literally make themselves and, by turn, both make and become food for others. The “exhaust” from the process is pure oxygen, which most other forms of life also require. Plants take a small slice of the sun’s relentless and broad-spectrum shower of electromagnetic radiation and turn it into the tissues of themselves; food for most of the other life forms on the planet; a benign resting place for carbon in the great planetary cycle of time and life; and a component of the atmosphere critical to the sustenance of most other forms of life. It’s really astonishing when you stop to think about it.
The precise subatomic, molecular, and cellular mechanics of this remarkable process are both intricate and elaborate, but the entire process begins with the energy from light. It was the energy in light that, over unimaginable stretches of time, summoned life from the primordial earth. And it is the creative possibilities inherent in light that have summoned the artists and works of art in this show. For a very long time, it was light reflected that allowed humans to see and enjoy both gardens and art and inspired the artists who drew, painted, sketched, etched, carved, or photographed to make them. But starting in the 1950s, artists began thinking about and using light itself as a material, a source, a subject, and inspiration. Just as light can be understood as some miraculous hybrid of waves and particles, this new art became both object and subject.
The funny thing about light is that you can’t really see it. You can see the things that make light, like the sun, the light bulb overhead, or the fire in the fireplace. You can see other things like leaves, rocks, rooms, cars, and buildings because of the light that bounces off their surfaces into your eyes and brain. You can see a rainbow when the conditions are right. But you can’t see the actual light itself, only its effects. You know it exists because of what it does to everything else. The one thing it can’t do is portray itself. In this fascinating show, we will see how artists both use and portray light.
ELEMENTAL | Seeing the Light is funded in part by Heather and Paul Haaga. Additional support for Sturt Haaga Gallery exhibitions provided by Richard Carlson, Erin Maclean Culley and Wells Fargo.
above: Fluorescent light sculpture by Yunhee Min