A visit to the current Dan Flavin exhibition in the Vienna Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK) evokes a number of interesting questions as to the art of light and the related domain of photography, often also described as “painting with light” (as if e.g. oil paintings would not equally need light as a quintessential element). The exhibition is placed in a very reduced environment so that the visitor often finds him- or herself alone with the light source (which uniquely consists of neon light tubes of different colours). This reduced-ness makes for a visually very interesting backdrop to photograph, and one is suddenly tempted to photograph other people’s art, expecting to create with this one’s own. This fallacy can not easily be contoured, even if one tries – as I have done here – to include other people, but it is equally difficult to not press the shutter when confronted with such clear lines, overpowering colours and otherwise lifeless, wide-open spaces.
Light art has existed for a long time in such artistic spaces as architecture – only to mention here stained glass windows in churches and mosques – but it only came into its own as a singular form of expression with the ascent of the artificial light bulb. Since then, it has entered modern art as a defining feature, whether as projections, sculptures, light installations or ephemeral firework displays. A very interesting recent example is also the video paining project by Sweatshoppe.
In terms of photography, light is obviously fundamental. But the deliberate and conscientious use of light as a method goes beyond this. Surrealist photography such as the work of Man Ray prepared the ground for this, and in more recent times artists such as Trent Parke or Alex Webb integrate light as a defining part of a picture. Webb’s latest publication, “The Suffering of Light”, is harking back to Goethe’s Theory of Colours, which ties together the nature of light, shadow and colours and has exerted a direct influence on the arts.
The strong emphasis on light and colour is by far not undisputed. Aside from the group of photographers who – mostly unthinkable in the world of painting – expressively confine themselves to the “realism” of black and white, there are many who refuse to have light dominate form and content, and shy away from strongly lit or highly contrasted subjects, since the play of light and shadow would artificially detract from the meaning of the picture.
The ancient Catholics were no wimps when it came to remembering their dead.
If you happened to be a saint, you could bet that bits of your body would be preserved in some container to be revered forever. If, however, you were only a simple mortal, a tombstone generally had to suffice.
But then there were the few lucky ones whose inner self made it into the future. I am talking here, of course, of the skeletons of the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of believers that were lucky enough to have their bones kept for later use, rather than having them rot away underground. All over Europe, there are churches and monasteries with limited space whose last resort was to turn the burying business into a real business.
If you wanted grave space, you needed to pay up. Later, once your rent had invariably expired – no choice there – you could opt for eternal preservation. The monks of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome had their bones turned into something useful – a lamp, for example. In Hallstatt, Austria, your hard matter was more likely to end up as something artistic. Generations of painters were recruited to decorate the skulls of your beloved with names and symbols. Little did they know that their work would be exhibited against a modest fee to visitors from all over the world more than a century later.
While it might look ironic and slightly odd to us, these rather crude methods of the past are rooted in serious beliefs and reflect what an introverted community the people of Hallstatt were, not to speak of the Capuchins who had even more ideological reasons to preserve their forefathers’ body parts in their ossuaries. As they solemnly remind the modern visitor:
Welcome to Hallstatt, location of the world’s first known salt mine, originator of the well-known Iron Age culture of the same name, recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Site! The quaint and picturesque village, which lies in China’s Guangdong Province, attracts millions of foreign tourists every…. hang on, hang on – China?
Well, since 5 June 2012, the world has two Hallstatts. There is the original, perched on the shores of the Hallstätter See in Austria’s Salzkammergut, with its thousands of years of history, and possibly – due to the salt mine in the mountains above – one of the first places of human settlement. And there is Hallstatt 2, built between 2011 and 2012 by the Chinese mining company China Minmetals Corporation.
Clearly, the initial push for producing a copy must have been – apart from the obvious attractiveness of Hallstatt – the fact that the town was already under siege by Asian visitors for the last decade or so. A carbon copy in China would allow even larger visitor groups to partake in the cultural delights of the town, without having to deal with pesky Austrian villagers, odd currencies and long travel.
Even for European visitors, Hallstatt does not feel entirely right. Only connected to the outside world since the early 20th century – visitors previously had to cross the lake to get to the place – one sometimes gets the impression as if the town’s inhabitants are a bit overwhelmed by all the interest. The tourism industry is well-oiled for sure, and even the most innocuous looking building has been turned into a shopfront for tourist tat. But at the same time, Hallstatt still sports some original inhabitants, which was made clear by an old lady who, in-between muttering grumpily to herself, told the hapless visitor to shove off and not walk straight into her house (which is on the main square and for all intents and purposes looks like a shop).
No, it is more the feel that the entire place has been set up for a film production company that surely will show up in a few moments. The Austrian, American, Japanese and Chinese extras are lingering in the background, seemingly waiting for the stars to arrive. The waiters in the outdoors cafés are furtively looking over their shoulders as if they know more than anyone else about the show. The kids with their dogs jumping around the fountain on the central square, pretending to play but really only rehearsing their act. It all feels terribly unreal, and while the cameras never arrive, the set is always ready.