An Art History Paper by Matthew Szal
written at T.C.U in 2012
Before the dawn of man was the sun (how long depends on whether you ask a creationist or a scientist). Regardless of how long we look back, the sun has and remains to mediate our experience of the planet and, thus life itself by allowing our eyes to perceive. Yet, concurrently our species has also found an ever-expanding plethora of different methods of mediating sunlight, everything from windows and mirrors to solar power.
In every period in history, there is a trend to be nostalgic about certain times in the past. Most people are arrogant about how progressive things appear in their contemporary moment. Countless exhibitions, books, essays, and reports have been thought up about how things and ideas directly or indirectly influence each other in different moments.
The gothic transformation of windows from small openings for the sun into large spaces for the creative manipulation of colored sunlight is the antiquated predecessor to several future movements. The light and space movement of the 1960s and, more recently, Germaine Kruip's installations that manipulate sunlight follow in the shadow of more than 800 years. My central contention is that, although the ideological purpose of manipulating sunlight is different in gothic cathedrals and Kruip's installations, perhaps, there is a phenomenological experience central to both of these diverging ends. This connection is an excellent reference point to examine Kruip's treatment of light and space as media and her work's intellectual, spiritual and phenomenological components.
Even in antiquity, sunlight was being transformed through the massive gap of the oculus in the Pantheon. However, what sets the Gothic moment apart is the use of such a large amount of colored light in a space that's purpose was intended to create an ethereal, "heavenly" experience. This purposeful manipulation was allowed by technological advances in architecture, like the flying buttress and pointed gothic arches.
Imagine standing in the Cathedral of St. Denis in 1144 for the consecration attended by the King of France and Thomas Beckett, Arch-Bishop of Canterbury. We know by Suger's writings that all the stained glass windows were in place by this time¹, and what an experience it must have been( 257 St. Denis) For a peasant who lived in a little wooden hovel with no little to no color or decoration in there lives, working the land all week, this must have been quite an experience. Literacy was rare and being able to write even rarer. The church was the only place where one might be intellectually or aesthetically simulated.
How can one even begin to start to compare Kruip's manipulation of daylight in 2004, precisely 860 years later? I thought of spending time on this comparison in the discussion of Kruip's medium of light and space to better understand the seemingly opposite approach that each one takes. By 2004, television, the internet, social media, cellphones, flashing LED light displays, and city walls plastered with bills of advertisement created "the promise of all consumption to come… avoid that promises joy." (Kruip 101)
The first words of the first essay by Jan Werwoert in the book The Illuminated Void that is dedicated to Kruip's work are "We desire, we pray". The paper draws a fundamental connection between the way that illuminated surfaces serve to illicit a desire. While light and space are the principal tools that solicit these desires (whether in stained glass or on television), the exhilaration that only it seems these powerful tools can bring forth is a religious feeling.
Exhilaration is sublime. It's a religious feeling. It's the religious feeling.
Religion comes from the Latin Religare, which means to bind back or together. So, the impulse to desire something (desire in the sense of to wish or long for; crave; covet) web 373, desire binds a person with something. Something could be anything from a new Barbie or new automobile all the way to gaining entry into heaven or finding enlightenment. So, this begs the question: what is it that Kruip would have us desire? Is it simply to desire to purchase the work?
It is by the benefit of the suppression of a narrative that Kruip goes against the grain of the present condition of commercialized familiarity, where sensations are sold in package deals that include their own interpretations.
Even in the glass of St. Denis, there is a specific theological message that is being communicated in order to produce the desire to believe and in turn support the church. Using the same tools, Kruip turns the message on its head. The lack of any specific narrative calls attention to the fundamental power of the medium of light through space, thus exposing how it has been abused. A subtle manipulation of light with mirrors reveals how powerful using these media to the extreme end can be while also giving fresh air in the content-saturated world described earlier.
-Butterfield, Jan. The Art of Light and Space. New York: Abbeville, 1996. Print.
-Cherix, Christophe. In & out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960-1976. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2009. Print.
-Gerson, Paula Lieber. Abbot Suger and Saint-Denis: A Symposium. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986. Print.
-Raguin, Virginia. The History of Stained Glass: The Art of Light, Medieval to Contemporary : By Virginia Raguin, M. Higgins. Thames and Hudson, 2003. Print.
-Withers, Benjamin C., and Jonathan Wilcox. Naked before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England. Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2003. Print.