There is something fundamentally masculine about size as a parameter of quality, strength, and power. Something patriarchal in the assertion that big things are important things. Of course, this is not to say that Copenhagen Contemporary (CC) is an art venue which de facto cultivates patriarchy. But even so, its love for quantitative art experiences is notable – as though endless floor space and soaring ceilings must repeatedly call for very tall paintings or huge quantities of solid sculptures or lots of big letters on the walls or immense installations. Or as CC itself describes its latest project: “the biggest exhibition to date.”
The Light & Space movement originated on the West Coast of the United States in the late 1960s; Los Angeles and its brightly colourful beach ambience, desert landscapes, and penchant for synthetic materialism are the mainstays of an intensely self-confident current that was, of course, led and dominated by men.
The exhibition in Copenhagen is a historical presentation of the movement’s own standard bearers that also involves a number of contemporary artists who, each in their own ways, connect with issues of light and geometry. It comprises older, newer, and brand-new works created by a total of twenty-eight artists and is undoubtedly the result of extensive research, huge sums of money, years of fundraising, and all sorts of flexing of institutional muscles. Indeed, staging such an exhibition on Danish soil is certainly an impressive feat. However, actually passing through the thousands of square metres, encountering all the electric light sources and mirrors, all the moulded acrylic and epoxy and resin, has a strangely forgettable and vapid feel to it: a sense of slick surfaces that rarely reach beyond the eyes (and cameras).
Robert Irwin’s Light and Space (a work from 2007, incidentally) offers visitors a gleaming welcome as the exhibition’s first extensive installation: 115 white fluorescent tubes on a large wall. They make the room soft, almost dusky, despite the artificial nature of the light. Such a work simply screams “immersive, total experience”; people become silhouettes in front of the lamps. Being photogenic is a fine success criterion for any installation, but one of the side effects – or possibly an intentional effect – is that it also makes the art feel like scenography.
Moving further in, Peter Alexander, John McCracken, and Craig Kauffman take up space. The unambiguously sculptural nature of their works (three small polyester figures, a tall polyester plank accompanied by a series of other polyester planks, and two acrylic reliefs, respectively) makes it slightly difficult to follow the point made in the presentation materials about how the movement contributed to “a radical shift in art, moving away from a focus on the object to an awareness of experiencing art through the body.”
Something about this exhibition reminds me of attending university, the persistent willingness of (some) art historians to engage in an uncritical repetition of canonised style history. Of being served up truth upon truth, definition upon definition, about something so utterly fragmented, so complex and difficult to approach as art, yet without ever opening up the possibility of a basic conversation about what we are looking at and how that feels.
Comparing an exhibition to a lecture is, of course, hyperbole. But the sense of being presented with observations drenched in academia-speak as if they were indisputable facts feels hauntingly familiar. The insistence that something is a specific “bodily experience,” and that this exact group of artists “changed the way we experience art,” for example. Or that these particular objects (no matter what the presentation materials claim, the Light & Space exhibition is full of objects) “blur the boundary between the space and the work of art.”
Staging an encounter between different transparent materials, Ann Veronica Jannsens’s delectably pastel-coloured yet un-cute sculptures create the illusion of three works in a room, three sharply delineated forms to look at. De Wain Valentine’s two glazed polyester columns reach toward the ceiling; standing three-and-a-half-metres tall, they are simultaneously appropriate to and dwarfed by the vast space. They are two sculptures, demarcated and inward-facing and accentuated as things in art venues often are. Neon tubes are things, too, no matter how audacious they seemed as sculptural material in 1969, when Laddie John Dill used them for his Light Sentences. Maybe the fluorescent tube is actually the ultimate objectification of light’s intangibility?
Fortunately, a range of more subdued and minimally material works by artists such as Karin Sander and Elyn Zimmerman – specifically Sander’s almost invisible high-gloss field on a white wall and Zimmerman’s graphic mappings of shadows passing through a window over the course of a day – demonstrate that working with light can also be another kind of invitation to look for the luminous. Indeed, these works show that light may actually be at its most malleable and ambiguous as material when it is not cascading out of lamps or the sun.
After a succession of objects in large halls, two rather rustic installations by Eric Orr and Doug Wheeler, respectively, present us with pitch-black darkness and white light in their own dense spaces. In Orr’s Zero Mass (1972–73) we encounter darkness descending upon us like a physical sensation of anxiety or a sack pulled over our heads until our eyes find out how to filter it. From here we can move ahead into Wheeler’s equally contour-less sphere of light where reliable geometry becomes blurred as a powder-like whiteness turns light into a colour beneath a domed ceiling – into a kind of architecture rather than a natural phenomenon. The body is flooded with darkness before it is sucked into a fierce light, and if that sequence sounds corny, it’s because it is.
Proudly displayed with obvious flourish on CC’s upper floor, the exhibition’s grand finale is an extensive presentation of James Turrell’s major work Roden Crater (1977–ongoing) and his new immersive installation Aftershock (2021). The artist ego, the dream of touching upon eternity and infinity could hardly manifest itself with greater emphasis and gravity than in Turrell’s practice, particularly in his ceaseless crater work, which is soon entering its fifth decade. Of course, it would be ignorant to reduce Turrell’s practice to its visually megalomaniacal tendencies – and the Roden Crater project is surely staggering. But the funding behind it is equally incomprehensible. Take, for example, the artist’s collaboration with (or, rather, the reliable influx of millions from) Kanye West: “For reasons even Turrell cannot explain, he agreed to give West a private tour,” claims the internet of the background behind their first meeting. Well.
Access to Aftershock is governed by time slots, intensifying the sacred qualities of the light installation, a so-called sensory room that first requires visitors to wait in a state of anticipation before “ascending the temple-like staircase,” as the accompanying wall text puts it. Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit, but it is hard to fight the urge when facing the fawning reverence with which CC embraces James Turrell. His luminous space is indeed special: a fog forms in the pink, purple, bluish unreality viewers find themselves occupying during the approximately ten minutes it takes to complete the work’s full colour cycle. Here, too, the room falls apart into a strange and corner-less state of total pink, total colour – perhaps a dream of weightlessness.
If only CC had dialled down the insistently academic admiration evident in its communications, even just a little; if only the work had been left to pulsate on its own as the slice of a universe it clearly wants to be, then it might have gotten some sense of witnessing art that actually feels like phenomenon rather than form. Stunning mornings, sun-covered landscapes, mists that make the horizon vague are all miracles, absolutely, but severely material attempts at framing or reproducing what a blue-pink sky may look like are more likely to become reminders of humanity’s destructive logics rather than self-evident natural wonders.
Artificiality is everywhere at CC, perhaps with the exception of the room which represents the most condensed effort to strike a gender balance more suited to contemporary palates than the movement was originally able to muster. Connie Zehr, Judy Chicago, and Ann Linn Palm Hansen all in the same room. Olafur Eliasson is there too. But apart from his mirrors, a slightly more organic materiality of eggs, sand, and bodies prevails. It is a pleasant break from lamps and synthetically glossy surfaces, yet it also seems strangely contrived.
It goes without saying that Judy Chicago has created legendary performances, but the connection between her videos and the intensely bland Eliasson mirror cabinet someone decided to place next to them is either non-existent or goes over my head. Indeed, the question of what Eliasson and Jeppe Hein and their weirdly identical mirror works are doing here as two almost demonstratively Danish, contemporary appendixes to a primarily historical presentation of an American art movement is something of a curatorial enigma – a peculiar kind of inanity, rather like hearing grown men saying stupid things on the late-night serious news.
I really have a problem with this exhibition, but I also want to urge all sorts of people to see it, to think about why and if quantity is quality, to be overwhelmed or take photographs or have the kind of physical experience that these immersive installations can certainly create – but which my own impatience with unabashed male entitlement prevents me from having. Pop and effects and potent shifts in scale can certainly be cool, and one of the least interesting positions in encounters with art is the default depreciation of what holds broad appeal. Still, it would be so lovely and rare and wild if art institutions, especially the established mainstays, could muster a bit more confidence in their visitors being able to look at other things than the ones looming luminously or preciously or hugely tall or world-famously before them.