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Ethereal work elicits a visceral response Dan Flavin at the MCA

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by Jason Foumberg

Dan Flavin’s objects demand first and foremost that the viewer be physically present; the viewer’s body, subjected to tens of thousands of lumens, in turn becomes the subject of the artwork. A nauseous and blinding light is cast onto the viewer in the larger installations, violating the viewers’ space and reminding them that sight and body are not separate. Ultraviolet becomes ultra-violent. All that matters here is sensation, to the point where your eyes bleed. Perhaps the museum guard wearing sunglasses inside the exhibition is onto something.

The lights burned into my eyes, filled my headspace with nothing but pure light, and cast sickly colors over my skin. The architecture of the MCA, especially the rounded barrel vaulting, turns everything into ritualized spaces of worship and devotion. “Alternating Pink and Gold” (1968) mimics the structure of a private chapel: there are columns, niches, and at each end an altar. Although this temple to minimal experience is seemingly without expression, Flavin streamlines the emotional and intellectual content, touching on an essence, however subtle it may be.

The cold, blank irony that many ascribe to the Minimalist aesthetic is somewhat overturned by Flavin, though he does so using its own means. Cold light does not necessarily equal the cold shoulder. We often associate fluorescent lighting with poor lighting choices and headaches of the office cubicle or supermarket variety, but Flavin’s use of fluorescent tubes works in reverse cultural association. Instead of these being somehow reminiscent or nostalgic for a certain technological era, they create their own context, as empty as it may be. Fluorescent tubes as a medium will always seem to carry the weight of twentieth-century technological advances, but light is universal and eternal. Flavin contradictorily denies history by using a historical medium, and in doing so sought to wipe clean the slate of art by further entrenching it in basic formalism. To paraphrase art critic and historian Lucy Lippard, this is a fresh start. It is a project fraught with internal tension, but unabashedly idealistic, and for such an attempt we applaud Flavin and award him with a seat in the canon.

But of course the viewer only reaches such a conclusion if he/she wholly buys into the Flavin mythology. Some of Flavin’s color choices seem dated now, whereas the all-white tubes look clean and classic. These works are sometimes about the physical material and other times about the metaphysics of light, depending on how cynical you feel during the exhibit. With conservation issues now being raised, the containers are becoming more and more the object of conversation. At once we see an ethereal medium that connects bodies and spaces while somehow still retaining their object-ness, especially in pieces where the accretion of material (as in the monuments to Tatlin) is a significant trait. But at the same time, I have to ask: Where are the cords and electrical sockets? Like the brackets on a Donald Judd wall piece, any sign of process is cleverly hidden from view.

I have never seen a museum so dramatically changed with such a simple gesture—in essence, pure lighting effects. Standing in one gallery and looking through the door into the next, one can see the strong glow projected onto the walls, and this really seems to change the shape of the spaces by cooling them or softening their edges. Also, the reflection of lights appear to pierce the ground, which breaks the spaces that many take for granted. This effect can be dizzying, as it is both physically and conceptually jarring.
These works appear to be simple configurations of light, obvious and straightforward in their everydayness of material. I found myself at ease here, not struggling for some esoteric meaning, but very relaxed and in tune with the simple geometry of colored light.

October 2005

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