You climb down into Light in Darkness, or that's how it feels, like a cave, like winter. The gallery lights are all turned off. The only illumination comes from the works of art themselves—white neon shaped into words; the blinding flash of a camera set on repeat; a river of dust motes streaming in a beam of light; a construction lamp flickering on and off on a balcony; a pair of white tables, one lit from above and one from within.
It's a group show with 23 pieces by 19 artists. The title, Light in Darkness, is drawn from Shakespeare's early comedy Love's Labour's Lost—drawn, more precisely, from a speech that provided another group show a title at Western Bridge back in 2008. Light, Seeking Light contrasted categories of light, specifically natural and artificial; its centerpiece was an unlit mural. The mural depicted highly realistic shadows that seemed to be cast by trees outside, but no trees were there at all. The art projected a new exterior onto the gallery from inside.
Love's Labour's Lost is Shakespeare's most enthusiastically mindfucking play. Not much happens in it. A king tells his court he wants fame and intends to get it by academic means, so they all have to devote themselves exclusively to studying. Immediately they begin falling in love instead, and in the process stage a play-within-the-play, and the end ends not with a marriage but with a promise. What really happens, happens in the language. Characters denounce poetry—while speaking it. What they do and what they say are never the same. The whole play parodies hermetic academic pursuits, while itself substituting intellectual wordplay for a juicy story. Language beats plot. Ulysses, not James Michener. Poem, not prose.
Light in Darkness opened in January, at the same time as the ballyhooed launch of Google Art Project, an online program that gives anyone the power to giga-mega-super-zoom in on certain paintings in certain museums around the world. Art Project is a cross between a video game and a science project. Museum director Max Anderson called it a hammer looking for a nail. Why is zooming so damn satisfying? Is art—or anything we study—a way of zooming in or zooming out? What are we doing with our studies?
Light in Darkness is the opposite of a zoom. It's literally blurry, and its blurriness changes constantly—for instance, the opening and closing of Martin Creed's giant curtain changes the light that falls on Hadley+Maxwell's video of a lightbulb projected on an actual hanging bulb. The focusing that takes place in a typical exhibition—works isolated in vitrines or trapped and framed within the light and shadow of a trained track light—is foregone completely as each work bleeds into the next. Art is treated not like a thing you go into the dark or into the light to see. Art is treated as the stuff of light and dark itself.
For Darkness Falls on the Kelly Cabin, Hwy 109, Copalis Beach, WA 98535, every source of light was manually removed from a cabin at the edge of the forest on the Washington coastline. Kindling and newspapers, lightbulbs of all types, a set of stove-top elements, a handful of tea light candles. The piece is part of a series executed around the world in various locations. The artist, Jason Dodge, each time instructs someone (anyone, just not him) to find a cabin at the edge of a forest and remove all its sources of light. The bulbs and such are then set on the floor of the gallery in a pile that can take any form—as long as it isn't arty. From this unshaped pile of cheap rudiments on the gallery floor rises a romantic literary vision of a darkened cabin disappearing into the woods behind it, as if the darkness had been drawn out of the forest and deposited here. There's something funny about the contrast between this ominous fairy tale and this dumb little pile. Light in Darkness is a comedy the way Shakespeare's wordplay is a comedy: It is, and it isn't.
Ticktock, back and forth, curtains opening and closing, lights going on and off. There's a meditative rhythm in the gallery, opening up a zone beyond dualism, beyond needing to choose between zooming in or out, and beyond the mirroring of contrasts. Each work has its own system of concerns that reverberates in this chamber. Spencer Finch's long diagonal rows of fluorescents wrapped in colored gels are an approximation of the colors of the light Finch saw when exiting the earliest known dark place where art was made—the caves at Lascaux. (The piece is titled The Light at Lascaux (Cave Entrance) Sept 29, 2005 5:27 PM.)
The gallery next to that one contains a soup of light (and heat: There is ambient heat as well as ambient light throughout this show). This soup emanates from a large sculpture on the wall, of colored lights spelling out the shortest poem in English, "Me, We," spoken by the dyslexic Muhammad Ali. Each bulb is a different shape, color, and type, but because light has no boundaries, they all change each other all the time.