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Anthony McCall: Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum of Contemporary Art
Anthony McCall You and I Horizontal, 2006 Installation view at Institut d'Art Contemporain, Villeurbanne, 2006 Foto: Blaise Adilon.

By: Dr. Kai Artinger

BERLIN.- What is light? What is time and space? What is light in sculpture? And what is the significance of light as a medium of art? All these and other questions arise at the current exhibition by the British artist Anthony McCall (born 1946) at the Berlin Museum of Contemporary Art. It is an impressive presentation that throws interesting light on our way of observing and perceiving the world around us. Anthony McCall’s light sculptures juggle with paradoxes, showing us something that is simultaneously both real and unreal, that contains nothing of substance and is pure light. Though the works are intangible, we want to touch or grasp them. But there is nothing to hold onto, nothing to touch or to feel. These sculptures deceive our senses; confronted with them, we fall victim to an optical illusion. For visitors to the pitch-black exhibition hall in which these works are displayed, the first impression is one of strangely illuminated sculptures, reminiscent of gigantic cones. They seem to be solid but they are in fact only a fascinating illusion.

In western Europe, there is a tradition of light art whose roots can be traced back to the 1920s, to the painter, photographer and Bauhaus-professor Lzl Moholy-Nagy, for example. Between 1920 and 1930, he produced the famous “Light-Room-Modulator“, the first light sculpture ever completed. We can, however, go even further back, to the year 1892 when the American dancer Loe Fuller performed as a living light sculpture at the Folies Bergre.

Light sculptures do tend to be spectacular and overwhelming. One has only to think of Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project“ at the Tate Modern in 2003, or Arnold Dreyblatt’s “The Recollection Mechanism“, exibited in Berlin from 1999 to 2000 in „The 20th Century: a Century of Art in Germany“. By chance, Dreyblatt’s work was displayed at the same location at which McCall’s is at present being exhibited: in the big middle hall of the Hamburger Bahnhof. Then, light transformed an endless stream of words and sentences to transparent columns which floated in the dark, labyrinthine room; now, towering cones rose ghost-like from the floor to the roof, a distance of perhaps ten metres.

Anthony McCall teaches us to mistrust our senses and taught knowledge. All his light sculptures change slowly and continually; thus, he wants us to rethink all that we already know about light, space and time. After a while the sculptures are no longer what they were; to become aware of the tiny modifications the sculptures have undergone, one has to take time and look very carefully.

Highly original electronic devices produce these effects: using computer programmes and a beamer, McCall projects animated white lines onto the floor and walls of a black room filled with artificial fog. The odourless haze reflects the light and creates the astounding illusion of moving cones.

That this exhibition attracts even families with small children is unsurprising: both adults and kids find comfort by retreating into their own imagination.

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