When Meaning Comes to Light

In James Turrell's
In James Turrell's "Milk Run" at the Hirshhorn, a seemingly pitch-black room with recessed lighting creates an eerie atmosphere. (Joseph H. Hirshhorn Bequest Fund)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

"What am I looking at?"

I wondered the same thing as I heard these words, in a child's voice, rise from the darkness surrounding me. Along with a couple of other visitors at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, I was sitting on a bench inside artist James Turrell's "Milk Run," an installation consisting of what first appears to be an almost pitch-black room. Gradually, after your eyes adjust to the dark, it becomes clear that the far wall is lighted -- but barely -- by recessed fluorescent bulbs that give it the eerie, faintly pinkish glow of a bathroom door left ajar in the middle of the night.

It's a fair question, and one I'm sure the museum doesn't mind being raised by its exhibition. Called "Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works From the Collection," the show itself proposes it, with a panel of introductory wall text stating that, throughout the history of art, "light has been linked to fundamental questions of vision and perception."

Like Turrell's piece, seen previously as part of the 1999-2000 "Regarding Beauty" show, several of the works are making reappearances from recent installations and will look familiar, if not unwelcome, to regular visitors. Giovanni Anselmo's "Invisible," for instance, which projects the Italian word for "visible" on a passerby's torso, is still fresh in my mind from the "Arte Povera" show of a few years ago, but I was glad to cross its path -- quite literally -- again. Other art, such as Jesús Rafael Soto's "Two Volumes in the Virtual," a sculptural construction from 1968 that uses light falling on an array of wooden dowels to create the illusion of solid forms, held more surprise.

Some work feels flashy and, quite frankly, a little silly. Adam Peiperl's "Astralite 7," for instance, in which plastic gewgaws swim in a water-filled glass globe lit by blue light, looks like something you might buy at the Sharper Image to decorate your rec room.

Despite the preponderance of so many shiny things -- Olafur Eliasson's motorized "Round Rainbow" light show and Jim Hodge's mirror-mosaic "View" are but two eye-dazzlers -- "Refract, Reflect, Project" is more about getting the viewer to reflect than about the art. Its goal, in other words, is conceptual, and it wants us to think, both about the meaning and the mechanics of seeing.

A somewhat more straightforward approach is taken by the Baltimore Museum of Art's "Meditations on African Art: Light." The first of a trio of shows that will also address the themes of color and pattern in African art, "Meditations" includes traditional African objects (wooden figures, masks, a vest, brass anklets) meant to be viewed in different contexts: daylight, twilight, firelight and, in the case of objects made for the tomb or the practice of special medicine, almost never.

The striking centerpiece of the show, however, is Theo Eshetu's three-part multimedia installation incorporating photography, video and mirrors. A London-born, Rome-based contemporary artist of Ethiopian descent, Eshetu addresses themes of globalism and the "other" in multi-channel videos. They are shot mainly in Ethiopia, but the focus on the universal beauty of light powerfully overrides the specificity of place. Eshetu's point -- questioning arbitrary distinctions between us and them -- is driven home even more strongly in "Brave New World," which requires viewers to stick their heads inside a kind of inside-out mirror ball. As scenes from around the world play on a video monitor in front of us, we see ourselves surrounded, not by strangers, but by myriad versions of ourselves.

Reflection -- literal and figurative -- figures prominently in a new exhibition of work by Washington glass artist Tim Tate at the Fraser Gallery. Called " . . . but what have we gained?," the show continues Tate's exploration of several of his abiding themes: survival as an HIV-positive gay man, mortality in general and the death of his mother in particular, and salvation and damnation. Apothecary-style jars filled with plastic dice, tiny demons and human ashes and the leitmotif of the plus sign drive home the symbolism of fate and life's fragility.

Tate has also incorporated video into his work, including one, titled "Welcome Home," in which viewers see their own faces on a credit-card-size monitor, accompanied by a recorded loop of the title phrase. Clearly, Tate is far from solipsistic about his obsessions, inviting us to join in with the memento mori club.

Overall, though, the work isn't exactly morbid. Take the two glass pieces incorporating mirrored silver plating, " . . . but what have we gained?" and "Preventative Reflections." While the works' raised-bubble surfaces reflect gallery visitors, they also create fractal patterns resembling cell replication. That can be read two ways, the artist says: As an image of the virus, or as the body's defense mechanisms fighting back.

Like any mirror, the fact that it reflects both Tate and anyone else who looks into it means only one thing: None of us has any way of knowing whether the light at the end of the tunnel is a way out of danger or an oncoming train.

REFRACT, REFLECT, PROJECT: LIGHT WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION Through April 8. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-357-1729). http://www.hirshhorn.si.edu. Open daily 10 to 5:30. Free.

MEDITATIONS ON AFRICAN ART: LIGHT Through April 1. Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr. (North Charles and 31st streets), Baltimore. 443-573-1700. http://www.artbma.org. Open Wednesday-Friday 11 to 5; first Thursday of every month until 8; Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6. Free.

TIM TATE: . . . BUT WHAT HAVE WE GAINED? Through April 7. Fraser Gallery, 7700 Wisconsin Ave., Suite E, Bethesda (Metro: Bethesda). 301-718-9651. http://www.thefrasergallery.com. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 to 6. Free.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company