A Certain Kind of Light review – let there be mirror balls

Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne
An exhibition on the theme of light is the latest to draw on the Arts Council’s huge national collection. But how illuminating is it?

A show about light: a light show – what might a curator put in? Just about all art concerned with making the world visible in some sense speaks of light, the very condition in which it was made. But an all-inclusive approach would be ridiculous, to be sure, so how about a show on light?

You could include Manet, who believed light was the main protagonist of any painting. You could put in Vermeer if you had the funds. You could look at the ever-changing effects of light in the art of Monet, or stuff the show with Constable, Turner and the American luminists, or blow your cash on a Caravaggio – or go the other way and show light art itself, from Dan Flavin to James Turrell.

But the Towner Gallery hasn’t gone this way at all. True, it has a small seascape by LS Lowry that is hardly lightsome in its turgid opacity. It also has a large Julian Opie sculpture that fuses one of Flavin’s sublime neon works with a freezer cabinet in icily sinister pastiche. And Ceal Floyer has a bulb dangling from the ceiling that seems to emit an eerie blue glow (achieved by projectors) even though it’s actually switched off.

By now it will be obvious that this is a conceptual event, multimedia, multifarious and intermittently tendentious. So there’s the show itself to think of. The opening gallery is certainly all gorgeous radiance, generated by Cerith Wyn Evans’s immense chandelier, flashing up a glumly obscure morse code message, to David Batchelor’s marvellous cascade of coloured plastic bottles, each lit within like some abstract Christmas tree of the future. These lights send their reflections deep into Anish Kapoor’s stainless steel void so that it looks more like a funhouse distorting mirror than an actual sculpture, playing subtly on voluminous depth.

Gary Hume’s Fragment of a Rainbow VI, 2011 at Towner, Eastbourne.
‘Gleaming wit’: Gary Hume’s Fragment of a Rainbow VI, 2011 at Towner, Eastbourne. Photograph: Pete Jones

And there is the same lighting problem, so to speak, with Toby Ziegler’s white on white painting, made in acrylic on polypropylene. Apparently we ought to be able to see Moorish columns, abstract designs and the extreme depth of field you get in computer games in its reflective surface. But what’s mainly visible is the winking of Mark Titchner’s wilfully hideous wool and lightbulb construction nearby.

Gary Hume’s Fragment of a Rainbow is a gleaming piece of wit: the colours of the spectrum all isolated in what appear to be massive, disembodied highlights of the shape one would normally find on a painted iris in a portrait, making the eye come alive. Red, green, yellow, blue and so on, these glossy panels carry their own reflections too: a triple play on light, and on the way we see light in art.

And this is beautifully paired with an exquisite piece by Mark Garry that appears, at first, to be a beam of light passing at ceiling height between two galleries and then transforms into a light-splitting prism as you pass below. In fact it is nothing more than a sheaf of coloured threads stretched between two walls, affected by ambient air and the gallery spotlights.

Untitled, 1995 by Anish Kapoor.
‘Voluminous depth’: Untitled, 1995 by Anish Kapoor. Photograph: Pete Jones

Here one sees how art makes poetry from science, specifically the behaviour of light. And there are other works here that take this even further, especially Garry Fabian Miller’s beautiful experiments in the dark room, using light-sensitive paper but working entirely without a camera. Miller directs light, funnels it, and introduces liquids and filters to make what look like ethereal abstract paintings with some kind of nearly supernatural glow at their core.

Katie Paterson’s vast glitterball revolving between two projectors creates an ever-turning cosmos of stars gliding across the gallery walls. How far art has come from the static image… But each pinprick is the reflection of some miniscule image of a historic solar eclipse, 10,000 of them, reflecting the progression of an eclipse across the room. The vision is simple, rapturous, but the data is intensely complex.

There is some straight science here. Runa Islam’s projection of a negative image flashes on for several seconds and then suddenly disappears, leaving a spectral positive of a woman’s face on the mind’s eye. This could be in the Science Museum, but at least it has something to do with light. It’s pushing it to claim that Rachel Whiteread’s resin cubes, cast from the spaces underneath chairs, are relevant in any way, still less Shirazeh Houshiary’s modern reprise of Brancusi’s Endless Column. As for John Riddy’s show of a building in Barcelona, it has about as much to do with light as any pre-digital photograph.

‘Spectral’: Runa Islam’s Stare Out (Blink), 1998.
‘Spectral’: Runa Islam’s Stare Out (Blink), 1998. Photograph: © the artist

This is the besetting sin of theme shows: they can put viewers into questioning mode, pondering what is and isn’t relevant, how strong or weak the connections, what the entrance qualifications ought to be. This is no real way to look at art. Many shows rise high above this problem, but it is a test for viewer and curator alike, and particularly aggravated in this case.

A year ago, the Arts Council announced that it had chosen four national partners to mount 24 “must-see” shows over three years, all derived from its massive collection. The partners were Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Birmingham Museums Trust, Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery and the Towner. The galleries get art and cash, the collection gets an England-wide airing and the public gets a glut of theme shows.

Although it would be possible, in theory, to focus on solo artists such as Bridget Riley in which the collection is rich, or specific decades, or schools of art, nobody does it. So far it’s been people, homes and the colour blue, with the decriminalisation of homosexuality to come. Not only are the curators limited to the collection, they are effectively in competition with each other. Hence, perhaps, the reliance on themes as a way of divvying up the art.

A Certain Kind of Light is at the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne until 7 May


Laura Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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