Descartes claimed that the blind see with their hands; it is a positivist view that to touch something, to determine its contours, is to know it: I “see” it, therefore it is. But this idea does not so much redress but renew the gulf between seeing and knowing: the classic mind-body problem. Centuries later, the French phenomenologist philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty refocused Descartes’ analysis. “There is no vision without thought,” he wrote. “But it is not enough to think in order to see.” In other words, our bodies—our vision—are the permanent condition of our experience, and thought is born by what happens in and on the body. We are conductors; absorbers and emitters of the universe’s energy.
Since well before the Renaissance, light has been used for and understood as a metaphor for illumination, spiritual or intellectual; light is the opposite of dark. Pure light is the carrier of energy at once the message and the messenger. And the news is this: light can bring, in equal measure, life and destruction, energy and fear, illumination and obscurity.”
In their most ambitious project to date, Mike and Doug Starn present Gravity of Light. This exhibit is part art sculpture, part photography, and part scientific experiment that includes a carbon-arc lamp that mimics the sun. This arc lamp is very much the center of the show as it is brilliant and noisy. The 13-foot tall carbon arc lamp is so bright visitors must wear safety glasses in order to protect their retinas.
The lamp is a facsimile of Sir Humphry Davy’s “voltaic arc” used in the first discovery of electric “artificial light in 1804. The peculiar thirteen-foot-tall mechanical structure at its center is titled Leonardo’s St. John or This is my Middle Finger (2005). In the painting by da Vinci, St. John the Baptist shrouded in darkness, is lit up and points his finger to the heavens, indicating the path to enlightenment.
John’s gesture has been digitally replaced by one of profanity. As Martin Barnes,
senior curator of photographs at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, writes,
this gesture “is like a rebuff, aimed at paltry human confidence in the
face of eternity. Pure light is the carrier of this awesome power, at once the message and the messenger.”
So much about this installation is unique from the carbon-arc lamp illumination to the location of the exhibit. Although the Cincinnati Museum of Art sponsored this exhbit its location is not within the museum. Holy Cross Church at the Mount Adams Monastery is the place where you can view the Starn show.
Holy Cross Church is an old abandoned church. You can see the faded paintings and religious images on the wall. The whole building is in disrepair and the Starn imagery, large and beautifully photographed contrast with the crumbling bricks and faded religious iconography. Each of these photographs each deal with the theme of light’s effect. One of their large moth photographs shows the insect from a previous exhibit, Attracted to Light. The moth is attracted to the light which often leads to their own death, yet they can’t resist it. It is what human and non-human crave, the light, that which helps us to visually see or to see the spiritual light.
Another piece is of the Buddhist monk Ganjin, it towers over us at the opposite end of the church. Ganjin was blind yet with an inner vision. He saw the black is still filled with light and saw the light inside of himself, found through a form of Eastern religious discovery. He too like the moth was attracted to the light not in the physical sense but in the spiritual one.
Light can be a blessing but can also bring death through the blinding light of the carbon-arc lamp. Light can bring, in equal measure, life and
destruction, energy and fear, illumination and obscurity.
The Starn exhibit is put on by the Cincinnati Museum of Art and closes on December 30, 2012. You can read about the show in the accompanying book Gravity of Light.