April 24, 2012

Let There Be Light

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Scientists, artists and spectators gathered in Milstein auditorium on Saturday afternoon for a celebration of light. The lecture series was a companion event to the new LUX art exhibit on display in Milstein and Willard Straight art galleries until May 11. LUX features works by an international team of artists.  The exhibit showcases light in ways that are by turns stunning, comforting and deeply unsettling. It is a festival of lights befitting the 21st century, and as such, it leaves me feeling a little uneasy. The stand-out work of the exhibit is Italian artist Beatrice Pediconi’s series Untitled. Pediconi paints in and on water and uses white tempera. She captures the stunning results with photography and video. Pediconi’s photographs and videos alike bring the viewer to a soft, contemplative place — a place from which celebration of light cannot help but spring forth. Some of the scientists speaking on Saturday approached light with the same contemplative softness, especially Prof. James G. Morin, ecology and evolutionary biology, in his work with bioluminescent crustaceans called ostracods. As he described the twilight dance of glowing ostracods over Caribbean reefs, his voice was tinged with a gentle reverence. Prof. Cole Gilbert, entomology, explained the evolutionary functions of bioluminescence in fireflies with contagious exuberance, while Prof. Roald Hoffman, chemistry, gave a more loving and intimate history of indigo than I thought possible. Because hey, fireflies and glowing crustaceans are pretty incredible, and the lights and colors of nature are worth celebrating.  In hindsight, it’s remarkable that these artists and scientists managed to celebrate nature at all within the cold, metallic confines of Milstein Hall. It’s an impressive piece of architecture, but you can’t get much further from nature than Milstein’s wannabe space station aesthetic. The tension between the building and the exhibit is mirrored by a tension within the exhibit itself. Take, for example, Jason Krugman’s LED sculptures. Krugman bends grids of LED lights into forms which are, admittedly, quite attractive, even organic. Looking at Krugman’s work, though, one can’t escape the jarring light of those profoundly artificial LEDs. No matter how you twist them, those lights will never look natural. What are we celebrating, then? Somehow, LEDs never manage to evoke the same wonder and joy as say, luminescent ostracods propelling their way through Caribbean reefs. Some of the other works succeed to an even greater extent than Krugman’s in making light joyless. Japanese artist Kazue Taguchi reflects light off of reels of reflective substances, casting bands of light onto the wall. Philadelphia artist Sharyn O’Mara’s work is similarly uncompelling, a fabric woven out of optical fibers and attached to the wall in a vaguely half-interesting way. I just can’t get all that excited by new configurations of glass and plastic. Prof. Morin’s and Prof. Gilbert’s lectures, celebrating bioluminescence, contrasted sharply with some others. Prof. Michal Lipson, electrical and computer engineering, gave a lecture on nanophotonics, while researcher Moti Fridman, applied and engineering physics, spoke about temporal cloaking. If these lectures celebrated anything, it was human cleverness. And hey, maybe some people get excited by human cleverness. We sure can do some clever things with lasers and petrochemicals. I’m just more into fireflies. The tension between man and nature is perhaps most interestingly on display in “Universe Cubed,” a cubic sculpture of the entire visible celestial sphere, created by a collaboration between Dublin artist Oisin Byrne and Princeton University Prof. J.R. Gott, astrophysical sciences, A light shines from the center of the cube, making the stars twinkle as the viewer walks around the cube. It’s beautiful, in a way, because the night sky is beautiful, and because the stars deserve a place in this celebration of light. But to claim to represent the universe with a metal box and a pair of light bulbs …In these evaluations, I am, of course, revealing my own bias as a lover of nature. This bias perhaps makes me unfit to review a 21st century celebration of light, inevitably dominated by the harsh glow of electric lighting. Maybe I need to get over my fetishization of the natural and embrace my technological masters with open arms. When I step out of those space-age hallways, though, and see sunlight hit grass, the interior of Milstein Hall suddenly seems profane. I realize with an ugly shock that in the entirety of this exhibit and these talks centered around the theme of light, the sun has received barely a passing mention. Think about that for a second. When 21st century humans throw a celebration of light, the sun doesn’t even get an invite. I enjoyed much of LUX, but when it comes to light, much of it feels cold and artificial. Few of the artists and scientists manage to capture the natural warmth and splendor which, to me, makes light worth celebrating. It was a strange, sunless celebration of light, a celebration deeply symptomatic of our times. One artist, however, provides welcome refuge from the technological colonization of light. Hidden away in the old ceramic studio in Willard Straight Hall hangs a cluster of human-sized cocoons, sculpted by Risley Artist-in-Residence Natalie Tyler. As a visitor passes through the exhibit, the cocoons slowly come to life with a rich, golden glow. I know, I know, it’s electric light all the same, but here among humans trying to forget the sun, these cocoons seem to glow with a quiet protest. They urge us to remember, to celebrate, the light we came from, before we get all excited about the lights we can create.

Original Author: Tom Moore

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