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15 Jan 21

Upon us, a luminous scene


This essay was first published in NGV Triennial 2020, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Last Sunday, when I wrote this, I was struck by the quality of light, an intensity of light that it seemed the city had no right to. We had left the afternoon and entered twilight some half-hour before, but instead of getting darker, all of a sudden the world beyond our windows brightened.

It was not just brighter; it was glowing. Melbourne has moments like this in a way I’ve never experienced in other cities. Perhaps I have in terms of the quality of the light, on occasion, but not the same disparity, so markedly before, during and after this luminous moment. The hard Australian light gives way to something more diffuse, before ramping up brilliantly. It seems to only happen here a handful of days of the year, often around twilight when the sun has dropped below the horizon, cutting off its hard, direct light while still illuminating the sky. It can happen at other times, when it is overcast enough to cut off the direct light. These moments tend to last much longer than those at twilight, which are fleeting at best, maybe three or four minutes at most, despite finding immaterial form in the ‘golden hour’.

I remember once when I was a university student working part-time in a camera store, the whole of Elizabeth Street was transformed somewhere around 3 or 4 pm for what seemed like forever. Everyone stopped what they were doing, ignoring customers if necessary, and walked outside (being photography obsessives, most of the staff bore an affinity for light). Everyone stood on the road or on the footpath, struck, experiencing the moment alone despite our proximity to one another.

It always happens out of nowhere, this moment. All of a sudden the world dazzles. The shadows open up and the contrast drops; objects glow, as if self-illuminated, like on a screen; everything becomes otherworldly, magical, glowing. It is like the world has become a hallucinatory film set, with enormous banks of light sculpting the scene, a phalanx of gaffers unseen behind them. It might have something to do with pollution, with large particles in the air; I’m sure something as prosaic as that, but it never fails to stop me in my tracks, and the rest of the world with me. However basic their origins, these moments always feel deeply profound.

That such atmospheric illumination continues, even today, to induce wondrous, affective states amazes me – that the power of light is so fundamental, universal and apparently undiminished by time. But, of course, the very nature of time is dependent on light: how long until the sun comes up again; how long it takes to orbit around that source; how fast it travels – these are the foundations of measuring experience as a collective, dividing up our reality. Light carves through our complex civilisation, our rationality (such as that is today), and taps into something inside. It enters us both visually – even with eyes closed or with reduced sight – and through the body as it is felt on our skins. It goes to work on us and in doing so transforms itself from the incorporeal to the corporeal, with us as its conduit and vessel. It has seemingly always been thus. Light has been the force around which civilisations have bent, building real and metaphorical structures – including those of ritual and worship – in relation to the reception of light from the sun, the stars and the moon. From Stonehenge in England to Jantar Manta in India; from the Mayan pyramid of Kukulkan to stained-glass windows in cathedrals; from ‘let there be light’ to Buddhist transcendence – light has been used to define our belief systems across times and cultures. Our very way of conceiving morality, good and evil, in our collective mind’s eye is light and darkness, across eras and cultures. Further, to illuminate is to reveal, demystify or pass on knowledge. Thus, light is the symbolic antidote to ignorance, the path and destination of salvation, and the primordially affective medium for life.

During the NGV Triennial, in addition to projects dispersed throughout the exhibition, an entire level of the museum housing the permanent collection of the NGV has been given over to light – a ‘floor of light’ if you will. Artists and designers harnessing the practical, poetic, symbolic and affective qualities of light have been gathered, often in dialogue and exchange with the historical works of art and their contexts. Together, they explore light’s potential today, as a medium and metaphor to tell stories, raise issues, celebrate and critique, mesmerise and move.