In 1969, as part of an experimental program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Robert Irwin and James Turrell outlined a new direction for art, identifying viewer experience as the critical outcome of an artist's creative production and establishing viewers' visual perception of the environment as a principal concern. For Irwin and Turrell, light was the primary medium for investigating these ideas.
Artists have long used light, but, thanks in large part to the pioneering work of Irwin and Turrell, the dedicated field of light art emerged in the late 20th century. Light artists create environments specifically to explore the perception and experience of light itself and to change the way people perceive their everyday visual environment.
To better understand light art's influence on architectural lighting design, it is important to consider the two different approaches that light artists take to affect viewers' experience and perception. Some artists, such as the late Dan Flavin, place familiar lighting conditions in a new context, while others, such as Turrell, create unfamiliar environments in order to induce heightened perceptual awareness. An artist's choice to conceal or reveal lighting systems therefore has a considerable influence.
Environments that require the viewer to fully immerse themselves in a space are very different from the lighting conditions we typically experience. With such installations, artists often limit sensory stimuli, leaving themselves free to manipulate the viewer's perception of a few remaining lighting elements. This kind of enigmatic experience is less likely to occur when lighting systems remain visible. By hiding devices such as light fixtures, daylight apertures, reflectors, and screens, the artist can focus an observer's attention on the illusory characteristics of light.
In contrast, light artists such as Turrell and more recently Olafur Eliasson endeavor to intensify the perceptual field without completely removing viewers from everyday conditions. By exposing the mechanics of the artwork, as Flavin famously did with fluorescent lamps, the artist can lead viewers into an analytical frame of mind by allowing them to consider lighting effects alongside the devices and techniques that create them.
While architectural lighting design and light art share an interest in their exploration of space, experience, and perception, the issues associated with budget, life safety, energy use, maintenance, and coordination with other design and engineering disciplines often become the focus of attention on architectural lighting projects. Unleashed from these restrictions, light artists have developed a body of work and a range of approaches to viewer experience and visual perception of the environment that provides the architectural lighting design community with a valuable reference point for examining these issues in their own projects.
Glenn Shrum, a new ARCHITECTURAL LIGHTING contributor, is founder and principal of Flux Studio, which is based in Baltimore, Md. He is the U.S. coordinator of the Professional Lighting Designers' Association and a part-time faculty member at the lighting program at Parsons, The New School for Design, School of Constructed Environments in New York City.
The Origins of Light Art