The Light smuggler

There exists present stories that suffer from their discourse’s evidence; there exists stories that are forgotten for their evidence is near to universal. It is the case for that of the light material, created from the overlapping of the industrial revolution and modern art’s emancipation throughout the 1970’s- some artists then decide to leave the closed spaces of their studios, galleries and museums, to work in direct contact with the world and the society of their time. Whilst doing this, they become against their will, the makers and smugglers of the light material’s odd story. It is not then about telling the story of Fairy Electricity, whose marvels have foremost fallen into common issues’ indigence, but on the contrary to tell a multitude of stories thanks to light: the main one being undoubtedly that of night and its appropriation, or even its annihilation throughout the XX th and XXI st Centuries. The proper of light material is to not have a proper story.

By asserting itself as an aesthetic and artistic material, light symbolises an aesthetic of communication conveyed by hyperlights that characterise a metaphorically lit, identifiable and updateable world, to quote Monique Sicard. These light metaphors borrow various modes of appropriation of light that were very early conveyed by the rapid, not to say frenetic, interest shown by local authorities, who very quickly saw such a medium’s potential when used within urban space, whereas the art world was strangely enough keeping out of these new practises.

Let us recall that the finality of public space lighting was for long security orientated. It is only very recently that public lighting was attributed other purposes, such as to pinpoint, mark and reveal urban organisation. Nowadays, the light material gives to see, however by doing so, it isolates the individual in the heart of the urban network. Light invades urban space: conceived in a linear, neutral, even distant way, it symbolises both a certain form of progress, yet also the expansion of individual intimacy and a mass egocentrism, to quote Divina Frau-Meigs. Light remains a subtle agent, to not say secret, of a viewing seldom more significant within modern society, meaning it imposes itself to the perception of all without real possible control.

Within such a background, Yann leads us to have a more distanced and critical approach to light, and to carry out what we could call the exteriorisation of light: the theatre’s light is at the service of the cities, for long not adapted to night, turning these into open sky stages.

This distance is yet even more natural for Yann that the real topic of his work is not light, but the exploration of night by light. If the latter enables an improved urban readability, it can furthermore identify the locations and networks that constitute it.

Enhancing the urban structure in order to underline its hierarchy is a political act; revealing the multiplicity of functions and their interactions is a geo-political act. Yann has borrowed this word from Kenneth White, the Scottish poet and thinker, to detail an aspect, which is geo-poetry of night, throughout light.

Yann does not use light for it fascinates him but as it enables him to listen to, explore and relate night, be it urban or not. It enables him to outline night without aiming at defining its exact contours; he explicates its geography whilst revealing the geo-poetry, motivated by societal, psychological and cultural referents of each location. Yann stirs – to not say manhandles – our habits in our way of seeing rather than the choice of what our vision sees. By this, he extricates us from the routine in which we increasingly trap ourselves.

He manipulates light in the manner of a societal tracer: he tracks what is left of our subtlety in a uniform society. His approach relates to that of biologists who bring invisible organisms and mechanisms in evidence, with the aid of tracers. He finds and retraces in this way the systemic organisation, the physiology of a district, or the alchemy of a city by replacing its buildings in their historical and socio-geographical environment. The word systemic must be here understood in two ways, by referring on the one hand, to the organisation of the human body in interdependent systems – nervous, digestive, vegetative – and to the analysis that, in principle, lies on three logical levels: the system’s environments, the system in itself and its internal components – sub-systems or processors; Yann’s light settings lie on a systemic approach of buildings, taking into account the district where the edifice is located, the edifice as an architectural piece and the location’s residents. His work is perpetually located at the “intersection between the visible and the social power”, at the intersection of sculpture and architecture. Moved by a fascination for shape and its transmutation, he has from very early stages, inspired himself from the German architect, mathematician and illusionist Hans Walter Müller. The magic of the location and its secrets, the poetry of the night and its sacred profane are so many parameters that Yann indexes and materialises in his light architectures.

Beyond appearances, by indexing his lights pieces on variables recorded on site, Yann enhances, modifies or transforms our perception of a location and increases its affective resonance. Light becomes line, colour and spatiality, whereas the location’s materiality loses all substance. The city’s sometimes very harsh reality hence starts floating in the most utter abstraction: the luminous lines no longer circumscribe anything concrete and define what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have called “smooth areas”.

These smooth areas become as many territories to rediscover and conquer. The underlying thirst of exploration of Yann Kersalé’s work reminisces that he is before anything a man of sea. Space and time are landmarks, beacons in the heart of the night that we find so difficult to tame. Yann directs all of light’s symbolism towards a location where he is present and ties it there, creating a transcendent link between his day and night apprehension; light shapes a septum, a veil of transcendence linking these two visions of the location. Regarding this, he likes to specify that within his light installations, light “is not only dedicated to the object but to its situation in the landscape and the town, tourist animation, traffic jams … the percept, here, is the intrusion of alchemic metaphor in daily routine”.

This situationist position of his artistic outlook on the world makes Yann’s task all the more reason tougher, not to say ungrateful, that it intervenes at a time where light is more than ever celebrated, even over-consumed in cities. This trend effect generates an overbid from which a multitude of ludic installations – grouped under the architainment label – spring. This portmanteau word hides all that Yann has seldom fought against, meaning a use of light based on its sole power of fascination.

The question of man’s ancestral fascination for light nevertheless points out the expression of a very modern sensitivity facing the image-light and its influence on our space-time perception. Image-lights surround us and condition our perception of the world; their power is incessantly reinforced and renewed by technological improvements in the information-technology and image production field. Ignoring our visual habits and playing on one of the numerous paradoxes of the light material, Yann helps us to retrieve ourselves from the visual straightjacket we are living in, by deviating what consists of its very essence.

Yann listens to night, interprets it, transcribes it in subtle light games that invite the spectator to enter in a transfer and counter-transfer game, enabling a new distribution of urban space, different to the one he is used to, in daytime. When tamed, light appears in all its complexity, altogether revelation of the invisible, mean of communication, evocative of what we are unable to name, destructive force that takes part in all forms of life… The sunrays, that we have attempted to reproduce, have nevertheless become a danger; this explains that certain artists such as Olafur Eliasson have wished to give a heliotropic dimension to their works.

Regarding this issue, Yann often reminisces that “the ancestral fear of night has been replaced by that of the too strong light” and plays constantly with light’s ambivalence, both a source of benefaction and of terror. It takes part to the emergence of a new form of profane spirituality that according to Christine Buci-Glücksmann, would be “a sacred of transcendence without God, that plays with verticality, luminosity, all forms of retrieval and suspense”. We hence find refuge in a night that turns salving, artificial light then becomes the material of a memory work.

We can associate this sacred of transcendence excluding God with the break-up between paranormal and sacred, linked to a re-actualisation of the notion of aura as Walter Benjamin had defined it. This enables our vision to perforate reality and grasp from it paranormal whereas in the aura’s sacred vision, it is the paranormal that comes to perforate the observer’s eye; according to Maria Giulia Dondero. In other terms there is no paranormal vision without paranormal. The appearance taken by this luminous spirituality changes constantly, but deep down, light itself remains unchanged, both sublime and terrifying.

Light’s metaphysical qualities of light lead to a series of meta-dialogues between notions of space, time and transcendence, as James Turrell reminds us when he explains that he focuses on the direction towards which his spaces direct their “vision” and the same goes for the observer’s. Like Yann, he takes very specific interest in the expression of time via light. According to Turrell, even if we find landmarks of the times we live in, in works of artists like Bacon and Warhol, those also include other traces that have come down through the ages and whose true meaning transcends whichever given historical period.

As an essence of all visual communication, light is foremost the medium throughout which any visual message is driven to our conscience; it yet facilitates the currently open dialectic between the arts field and that of the so-called mass communication. This union has given birth to a new type of aesthetic: the aesthetic of communication.

Within Yann’s work, this aesthetic does not rely on formally identifiable values, and let us recall that “the aesthetic of communication does not create objects and does not work the shapes, it themes space-time” according to Mario Costa. This theme of space-time is enabled thanks to the use of light material and of its penchant to identify, materialise, de-structure space and time. With Yann, light becomes the vector of this new aesthetic. In the manner of Impressionists, he invites the observer to reconsider his surrounding landscape – be it urban or natural – and to carry out there a series of motionless travels, in order to better grasp the impressions and fluctuations from it.

The idea of Travel is implicitly linked to Yann’s work, for who the sea is the image of night. At a time where “anamorphosed” maps present us a world, our world, in the midst of shrinking, collapsing on itself, the travel that Yann invites us to do is no longer based on the dream of an elsewhere, yet the realisation of a marvellous present. When Yann calls upon us to follow him in the heart of the night, he not only modifies our surroundings, but also our perception of time and space. The content of his works is not aesthetical, but aesthesical. They enable us to feel a location’s space-time strength.

If the motives of the travel are endless, an essential value unites them: that of the slowing down of time, this “Praise of Slowness” to use Milan Kundera’s expression. We find again this idea of nocturnal slowness with Yann, a slowness that connects to certain “land artists” who believe in sharing with the observer their perception of “traveller” in the heart of a hyper realistic world located at the intersection of reality and of fiction suggested by the artist himself.

The world is evolving – increasingly fast – men are changing, children nowadays are born in a technological society where everything goes fast – travelling around the world only takes a few hours and no longer eighty days – and where the notion of time gone by has made way for those of instantaneousness and fugacity, symbolised by information, image and light flows. Light nowadays conveys most of the information that crosses the planet; optic fibres progressively replace telephone and radio transmissions, substituting light’s speed of propagation to that of sound’s.

This phenomenon yields a prevalence of the media aspect of light and ends up having effects on other disciplinary fields than human sciences. Must we here relate this extension of light’s field to changes of paradigms lived by modern society?

Individualism is undoubtedly the most palpable expression of these shifts; it is associated to the drawback of the individual in his microcosm, and can also become a prerogative for a person that is master of his life, who finds in himself the strength to confront others. Whilst carrying forth his quest of an ideal me, the observer has the opportunity to discover his own thanks to Yann’s work. By making concepts, aspects of daily life visible and tangible, the latter attempts to palliate to the lack of interpersonal communication that is the first consequence of hegemonic presence of visualisation in our cities.

The (urban) trail that Yann offers us is an initiating trip guided by a revealing and cathartic light. Light explores the artificial celestial universes such as those that Edgar Allan Poe invites us to discover in his prose poem Eureka:

“Bend over the abyssal depths! – Attempt staring at these countless stellar perspectives, by slowly again scrutinizing the sky – again – and again! Does the spiritual vision itself not collide in all ways with the golden and continuous bastions of the Universe? These bastions consist of myriads of shiny bodies whose presence seemed to have blended in unity”.

Yann’s installations invite us to experience those myriads of shiny bodies, echoes of a world that is both dependent upon an expansion and on a collapse, upon a possibility of infinities, in the midst of emerging under his eyes and similar to that Poe describes basing himself on the following assumption:

“If the succession of stars was to be unlimited, the sky’s background would offer a uniform luminosity, as the one stretching out with the Galaxy as there was there, within all of this background, absolutely no spot where one star would not exist. In such conditions, the only way to acknowledge these voids that our telescopes find in countless directions is to suppose that this invisible background is placed at such a prodigious distance so that no ray could have ever been capable of reaching us.”

If the criticism seems somewhat disrupted by Yann’s works, the audience is not fooled and has seldom approved his installations whose fragile beauty plunges it in a series of physical experiments that largely go beyond the aesthetic record such as we traditionally acknowledge it. They do not only address our vision, but the whole of our senses; they hence enable us to become fully aware of a location that could not be solely reduced to its visual expression. For this reason, there are as many total art pieces that catch the whole of our senses via visual stimulation alone.

When entering the electrical space field, Yann grasps this light substance’s material-energy, in order to explore yet virgin territories, often inaccessible to human perception, and transmits its sensations of movement and life. Thanks to light, Yann reveals in a near organic way, phenomenas that have become imperceptible due to the vision’s overdevelopment – to the detriment of other senses – that give us a abridged image, to avoid saying simplistic, of the world surrounding us.

Yann makes each thing visible in all its complexity, and to do so he has seldom sought to place his work above simple aesthetical experience, and to set up true societal experiences; he has not chosen light for its fascination power but for its capacity to give body to what is intangible and to create links between things, concepts that would seemingly never relate to each other.

Light continues to surprise the artist and the observer with its “fundamental strangeness” to quote Philippe Grangier’s expression. Yann accepts to stand by and let a material that he knows he will never be able to completely master, rule. He plays with light, tames it and surrenders himself to it, just like we let ourselves be overwhelmed by his installations. Light is ethereal at human scale, yet it nevertheless possesses its own essence and its own presence, that Yann manipulates with generosity and sensuality, relating back to as simple and beautiful sensations such as cuddling into the warmth of a ray of light, filtered by two strips of a blind.

If we were to summarise Yann’s work in one sentence, I would borrow this one to Henri Alekan for whom: “The appearance of things, shapes, is a fact of light. Its absence destroys the object, as it is no longer perceived. (…) Light feeds the sight, but furthermore it gives food for thought”.

Thanks to light, Yann yet gives us to see and think a world that we can no longer see through the visual straightjacket within which we keep it trapped. Because he listens to light before seeing it, Yann has become the smuggler, not of a story, but of an array of stories, whose diversity and truculence stagger a world that we would wish to be smooth and uniform. The generous and knowing approach that he bears for things builds bridges between the art world and the world, whilst showing, if it were still necessary, that the one and the other are yet only the reflections of a same reality, lit differently.

Pierre Auboiron