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Light Space Time: The Legacy of Nicolas Schöffer

On 10 November 2021, by Andrew Ayers

At Avignon’s Grenier du Sel, 14 living artists enter into dialogue with the legacy of Nicolas Schöffer, the Franco-Hungarian pioneer of spatio-dynamic cybernetic light art.

Light Space Time: The Legacy of Nicolas Schöffer

Exhibition View, “Lumière, Espace, Temps” (“Light, Space, Time”), the Grenier à Sel in Avignon.
© Grégoire Edouard

Though most people today would draw a blank at his name, Nicolas Schöffer (1912–1992) was practically a household celebrity in 1970s France. Building on the legacy of fellow Hungarian László Moholy-Nagy—inventor, in the 1920s, of the celebrated Light Space Modulator—, Schöffer, who moved to Paris in 1936, began to experiment with spatio-dynamic kinetic light sculptures in the late 1950s. Taking Moholy-Nagy’s ideas one step further, he produced robotic cybernetic pieces that could travel through space autonomously and—an art-historical first— incorporated electronic computation to achieve a certain degree of interactivity. As the swinging 60s morphed into the psychedelic 70s, Schöffer created ever larger and more elaborate installations, immersive environments of light, sound and movement that reached a wide audience on stage, film, and television, as well as developing more ambitious urban visions for his inventions. Though today he may have faded into period obscurity, for curator Véronique Baton, Schöffer’s spirit is still very much alive, resonating both consciously and unconsciously in the work of a younger generation of artists. This is the premise of her exhibition “Lumière, Espace, Temps” (“Light, Space, Time”), which sets 14 contemporary creators in dialogue with the Hungarian light-space magician at Avignon’s Grenier à Sel cultural center.

Inevitably, the possibilities offered by the digital loom large in the show, though they are far from dominant. Indeed the analog is alive and well in Avignon, for example in Étienne Rey’s sculptures Air and Prisme, which use dichroic glass to chromatic spatial effect, or Adrien Lucca’s Lampe Ciel (Sky Lamp), which seeks to reproduce the chromatic conditions of gloaming within the white box of the gallery. Félicie d’Estienne d’Orves plays similar solar games with her light piece Éclipse II, but swaps luminous sensuality for the materialization of cosmic truths with Sun (8’)—a steel cube equipped with a tiny LED that flashes every 8 minutes, the time it takes for a photon to reach the Earth from our nearest star—and Étalon lumière (Light Standard), a meter-long steel bar along which a tiny light moves, indicating in real-time a photon’s journey from Venus to our home planet (2 to 14 minutes depending on the varying relative positions of the two heavenly bodies).

Exhibition View, “Lumière, Espace, Temps” (“Light, Space, Time”), the Grenier à Sel in Avignon.© Grégoire Edouard

Exhibition View, “Lumière, Espace, Temps” (“Light, Space, Time”), the Grenier à Sel in Avignon.
© Grégoire Edouard

In the second part of the show, the digital comes to the fore, for example in Maurice Benayoun’s Emotion Winds, a video installation that shows “emotions” escaping from the world’s cities and swirling around its surface as hysterical weather patterns. Given Schöffer’s precedent—kinetic light sculptures that responded to handclaps—, the interactive possibilities of the digital could not be ignored, and are duly represented in Santiago Torres’s video pieces Composition couleur and Trame en temps réel (Composition Color and Real-Time Frame). The poetics of kinetic art are present and correct too, first in analog form—Pe Lang’s hypnotic essays in serial movement—and then in Elias Crespin’s electronically programmed Circular Inception, a series of concentric red-plastic rings, suspended from the ceiling by invisible nylon wires, which move up and down in different configurations, projecting a black-and white shadow ballet onto the gallery walls. Nor could a Schöffer-themed show ignore artificial intelligence, which is called on to produce Ronan and Robbie Barrot’s Peeping Skulls, generated by AI that Robbie trained on death’s-head paintings produced by Ronan. But the point where all these transdisciplinary dialogues come together is Justine Emard’s CO(AI)XISTENCE, a mesmerizingly beautiful video in which Japanese dancer Mirai Moriyama interacts with the AI-equipped humanoid robot Alter, which tries to learn from its interlocutor’s movements. The silent dialogue between the two takes Schöffer’s CYSP 1 performances—in which Maurice Béjart danced with one of his kinetic moving light sculptures—to a whole other level, and is the most strangely moving piece in the whole exhibition.

Worth Seeing
"Lumière, Espace, Temps. 14 artistes d’art contemporain en hommage à Nicolas Schöffer"
("Light, Space, Time. 14 Contemporary Artists in Dialogue with Nicolas Schöffer"), The Grenier à Sel, Avignon (France)
Until 19 December, 2021
legrenierasel-avignon.fr

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