Glowing from Afar: The Look of Light with Ulterior Motives

Spencer Finch‘s The Light at Lascaux (Cave Entrance) September 29, 2005 5:27 PM beckons from behind a corner inside Western Bridge. Although only visible through its reflected light prior to physically entering its gallery, the glow of the piece would dominate the entire art space, were it not sequestered. This is because all of the works on view in group show Light in Darkness incorporate light in some form, while also providing the only light in Western Bridge; all utilitarian lights in the space are extinguished for the run of the show.

Spencer Finch, The Light at Lascaux (Cave Entrance) Sept 29, 2005 5:27 PM, 2005 , fluorescent light fixtures and theatrical gels, 15 3/8 x 240 in., Edition of three, Image by justinkrol on

As one of the brightest pieces of Light in Darkness, The Light at Lascaux‘s punch of light radiates from across the exhibition, providing the surreal suggestion of a window in an overtly windowless space.  Inside the gallery, seven angled rows of fluorescent light fixtures covered in a variety of theatrical gels recreate the natural light environment of the work’s title. This simulacrum reconstructs a place and time beyond the present moment: the transitional light suspended between the darkened Lascaux caves and their surroundings, as day moved towards night on September 29, 2005.  The resulting sensory experience is difficult for the human eye to process. When confronted head-on, the light itself seems implausibly created from this foreign, constructed structure, and consequently, gazing into its grid of color is mesmerizing.

Throughout the darkened Western Bridge, other individual works surface as pockets of light: Olafur Eliasson’s Neon Ripple slowly pulsates in water-like rings of light affixed to a disk on the ceiling; delicate bulbs similar in structure to a drink discretely fade and re-emerge in Claude Zervas’s Elba; the single incandescent bulb of Martin Creed’s Work No. 312 flashes from a balcony overlooking the space. This set up fosters a sporadic, attention-driven viewing of Light in the Darkness: as a light appears and disappears, our eyes and body follow the brief spectacle, seeking the source as though it were a spotlight roaming across the skyline. The combined effect of various light sources interchanging throughout the exhibition accentuates the way human perception of light changes upon its liberation from a utilitarian role.

Light’s ability to command attention as a spectacle manifests most prominently in the city of Las Vegas, where artificial light contributes to the creation of an intoxicating environment in the interest of casinos.  Located in the middle of the Mojave Desert, in the daytime, Las Vegas is an unappealing place; piercing sunlight casts a whitewashing sheath over everything it touches, resulting in a highly undesirable cityscape difficult to sell as a vacation destination.

“1957 Las Vegas Strip,” YouTube video by gerlock11.

As the sun sets over the Strip,  the casino signs quietly begin their nightly routine, culminating in an overblown spectacle of illuminated, animated words and symbols when darkness finally falls.  Mid-century Las Vegas experienced the most complete transformation between day and night, from glaring intensity to hypnotic glow, through the use of neon signs to entice drivers from the road into the gambling oases. Similar to The Light at Lascaux’s recreation of a specific place and time, neon lighting enhanced the themed environments created within the casinos: the sky blue lights in a Greco-Roman font comprising the sign for Caesars Palace evoked the colors and appearance Americans, trained by popular culture, could associate with Greece and Rome.

Independently, each sign was a glowing, aesthetic spectacle, illuminating and darkening in such a way that passersby absolutely had to look. Together, the mass of flashing lights coalesced into a cloud of color and activity that transformed the city from a place unpleasantly bleached lifeless from the sun, into a series of intoxicating, coercive light forms that invited visitors to experience everything before them.

“1957 Downtown Las Vegas at Night,” YouTube video by gerlock11.

Contemporary Las Vegas casinos have largely replaced neon signs with LED billboards at the entrances to their resort complexes. Despite the spectacle inherent to overblown, new technology, many people yearn for neon’s return, seeing it as indicative as “authentic” Las Vegas. Although LED lights can more perfectly replicate specific images though digital projections, the recreation of a particular environment is lost through this more directly representational presentation. The LED lights introduce a harsh, chaotic barrage of images that fail to offer the attractive, hypnotic effect of repetitive, animated light sequences.

The unique properties of neon signage produce schematics of light and movement that cannot be replicated in another medium; the inherent nature of this form of light itself contributes to its attraction to the human eye and mind. Similar to the effect of The Light of Lascaux from across the building of Western Bridge, the delicate compositions of particular light formats draw the human eye to the light’s source, creating a relationship between light and viewer that goes far beyond the mere illuminated room.