HELIOTROPE

15 February – 4 March 2017

Daytime Opening | Saturday 18 February, 12–2pm

Dawn Viewing | Saturday 4 March, from 6.30am

 

Leslie Eastman

Heliotrope explores metaphors of light and our relationship to a larger context. The material of light is explored in two ways in this exhibition. Firstly, through the use of the camera obscura, the naturally occurring optical marvel used repeatedly by Leslie Eastman to reflect on how the world sees itself and to relate spaces near and far. Heliotrope also shows video footage of dawn and dusk filmed at Europe’s first commercial Solar power station in Andalucía, Spain. The two encounters contrast presence and duration in our encounter with light.

This exhibition runs concurrently with The Illuminated Field also presented by Eastman at the Islamic Museum of Australia in Thornbury. A ‘call and response’ exchange is established between the two locations with The Illuminated Field providing an extended, immersive experience of the light harvesting experience.

Join the artist at BLINDSIDE from 6.30am for a dawn viewing at 7.07am (civil twilight starts 6.39am) with a performed reading at 7.05am by the artist + guest readers.

Heliotrope addresses the contingency of light. This exhibition is dependent on natural light levels. A dawn viewing of the camera obscura will provide a peak experience of the optical phenomena. The dawn viewings will be accompanied by a performed reading of texts addressing the visible and invisible dimensions of light.



REFLECTIONS OF LIGHT

Light has long played a central role in how we define our world and sense of being. We chart the passage of time according to the cycles of the moon and the orbit of the earth around the sun, and design temples and our homes in response to the flux and flows of light. We live by an assumption that light will reveal truth and testify to presence. On a physical level, light services vision to guide us through space, and by casting shadows it helps us to discern the mass of objects and their connection to the ground. As the sun continually rises and sets, it also establishes the rhythm of day and night, revelation and concealment, and presence and absence that structures the very language of philosophy. [1] No wonder, then, that the French philosopher Jacques Derrida described light as the founding metaphor of Western philosophy as metaphysics. [2]

In language, philosophy and theology, we invest heavily in the notion of an absolute distinction between darkness and light. Light is not only the opposite of darkness but in its very essence “darkness is destroyed and overcome.” [3] The list of dualisms that arise from this binary scheme seem infinite. Light is linked to the good while darkness is aligned with evil; light is bound to order while darkness represents chaos; and whereas light is associated with life and vitality, its absence suggests death and depression. “Light lights up, makes-free, provides a way through. The dark bars the way, does not allow things to show themselves, conceals them.” [4] These boundaries between lightness and dark are demarcated endlessly in language and culture. Light’s invisibility and contingency are inherently resistant to such order, and as a result the boundaries that delimit the meaning of light require constant reiteration. Like heliotropes, we are in relentless pursuit of the sun as an origin on which to fix this photological system – continually remapping this dynamic force according to our own cultural contexts and desires – turning and turning only to return to the same place in a movement that disavows light’s profound volatility. [5]

Light may be inseparable from space and language, from our being and knowing, but the myths and meanings that
we attribute to light also belie a tension deep within these relations. Such tension is particularly pertinent when considering the psychic investment in light, presence and space. Sigmund Freud was keenly interested in the language of light and darkness, and invoked photography (as light- writing) in his description of the links between consciousness and the unconscious. In a much-quoted passage, Freud makes explicit this correlation between the light of the positive, the dark negative, consciousness and unconscious: ...let us assume that every mental process...exists to begin with in an unconscious stage or phase and that it is only from there that the process passes over into the conscious phase, just as a photographic picture begins as a negative and only becomes a picture after being formed into a positive. [6]

In Freud’s work, light, darkness, positive and negative do not sit simply in opposition. Instead, psychoanalysis demands an exploration of the passage between the conscious and unconscious. The appearance of an image in the psyche is not simply the product of that image’s shift from the unconscious to consciousness where both realms remain discrete and distinct. Like the uses and meanings that we attribute to light, the boundary between these two realms is continually formed, traversed and renegotiated.

Our place within light, both physically and psychically, is subject to a comparable push and pull that is often neglected in the realm of art. This neglect of the contingency and fluidity of light in visual culture is no accident. Such patterns of neglect reflect a desire for an ordered, highly controlled understanding of the function of light in space that is tightly bound to our sense of being in the world. The control of light through a camera obscura, or the use of light to project an image of three-dimensional space onto a two dimensional screen, conforms to the laws of monocular perspective and their production of an all- seeing all-knowing observer. According to Jacques Lacan, Euclid’s optics (on which these systems of monocular perspective rely) place the viewing subject at the centre of the gaze and as such help to define a sense of being in oneself. Encapsulated in Lacan’s phrase “seeing oneself seeing oneself,” this regime of vision fosters the illusion of a self-reflexive consciousness. [7] Within this scheme both the object and light, as that which reveals presence, are located problematically outside of the subject who apparently remains discrete, distant and in control.

The practice of looking, argues Lacan, is actually far more complex. Light does not conform to the expectations of Euclidean optics and the boundaries between the self and the world are never so easily defined. When transforming an Other into a screen for our own desire, we are also subject to another point of light (the gaze) that delimits this one-way relation of objectification. According to Lacan, an additional point of light sits at the apex of Euclid’s cone of vision to transform the viewing subject into another screen, disrupting the field of perception by implicating the subject in the desire of the Other.

That which is light looks at me, and by means of that light in the depths of my eye, something is painted— something that is not simply a constructed relation, the object on which the philosopher lingers—but something that is an impression, the shimmering of a surface that is not, in advance, situated for me in its distance. [8]

Whereas a screen or an image on the wall may conform to the geometral field of monocular perspective and locate the viewer at the apex of the field, the point of light associated with Lacan’s gaze transforms the subject into a screen, mapping an entirely different mode of subjectivity. [9]

By engaging with these fluid intersections of light, space and presence, Eastman’s work opens up new modes of seeing. Light is not simply invoked to illuminate this space and chart the placement of the objects within it. As we share this exhibition space with the objects and move amongst their flickering play of light and shadow, we cannot help but realise that we too are being written in light.

- MELISSA MILES

Professor Melissa Miles is an ARC Future Fellow (2014–17) and researcher based in the Art History and Theory program at Monash Art Design & Architecture. Her writings include The Burning Mirror: Photography in an Ambivalent Light, published by Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2008 and The Language of Light and Dark: Light and Place in Australian Photograph published by Power Publications, Sydney, and McGill Queen’s University Press, Montreal in 2015.

ENDNOTES

[1] Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” in Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 251.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans., Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), 27.

[3] Hans Blumenberg, “Light as a Metaphor for Truth,” in Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision, ed. David Michael Levin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 32.

[4] Martin Heidegger, The Essence of Truth: On Plato’s Cave Allegory and Theaetetus, trans., Ted Sadler (London and New York: Continuum, 2002), 44.

[5] Derrida, “White Mythology.”

[6] Sigmund Freud, “Resistance and repression” [Lecture 19], in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud / translated from German under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–1975), 295.

[7] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans., Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1977), 74.

[8] Ibid., 96.

[9] Ibid., 106.


Heliotrope explores metaphors of light and our relationship to a larger context. The material of light is explored in two ways in this exhibition. Firstly, through the use of the camera obscura, the naturally occurring optical marvel used repeatedly by Leslie Eastman to reflect on how the world sees itself and to relate spaces near and far. Heliotrope also shows video footage of dawn and dusk filmed at Europe’s first commercial Solar power station in Andalucía, Spain. The two encounters contrast presence and duration in our encounter with light.

This exhibition runs concurrently with The Illuminated Field, also presented by Eastman, at the Islamic Museum of Australia in Thornbury. A ‘call and response’ exchange is established between the two locations with The Illuminated Field providing an extended, immersive experience of the light harvesting experience.

The camera obscura has a long history in the narrative of western vision and visuality. Extensive discourse surrounds the camera obscura, conflating it with the representational system of Renaissance perspectival space and reality. Jonathan Crary, in his book the Techniques of the Observer documents the tendency in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to equate the camera obscura with the relationship between the knowing observer and the world, referencing Descarte’s La Dioptrique and in An Essay on Human Understanding by John Locke. [1] Cartesian perspectivalism, as it has become known, is generally associated with the model of the camera obscura to propose a model of disembodied consciousness in which the viewing subject is separated from the viewed world. For instance Crary, quoting John Locke, argues that the enlightenment philosopher insists that human understanding behaves according to the model of a camera obscura, constructing a model of the human subject as passive, withdrawn and fixed in space: External and internal sensations are the only passage that I can find of knowledge to the understanding. These alone are, as far as I can discover, the windows by which light is let into this dark room. For methinks the understanding is not much unlike a closet wholy shut from light, with only some little openings left to let in external visible resemblences or ideas of things without, would the pictures coming into such a dark room but stay there and lie so orderly as to be found upon occasion it would very much resemble the understanding of man. [2]

The truth is the images do not simply stay there and lie orderly. They are in ceaseless and dynamic motion. One gains the sense when looking at the intricate mobile images from a camera obscura that these are the secret invisible lining of the visible, somehow seen from the other side of a mirror. For me the camera obscura embodies the rapport between spaces, between the inner and the outer, between an intimate space of memory and the greatest infinite context that extends beyond the frame of our Umwelt. These spaces are not separate, they are both intimately connected and open. Rather than camera obscura I wish for a different title. What might this be? The room of illuminated Shadows? Mirror World? One thinks of Borges: ‘The terrifying immensity of the firmament’s abysses is an illusion, an external reflection of our own abysses, perceived in a mirror. We now see,
St. Paul maintains, per speculum in aenigmate, literally: in an enigma by means of a mirror. Through a glass darkly’. [3]

However the debate around the camera obscura remains complex and has only recently begun to address the experience of these optical phenomena. Anne Marsh for instance has argued that the propensity to conflate the camera obscura with classical renaissance perspective fails to take account of the camera obscura as a space of theatre and projection.4 Irigaray has provided a feminist reading of the metaphors underwriting the camera obscura as part of her analysis of Plato’s Cave. In her thinking, the darkened room is the womb of the world, the aperture the forgotten vagina, the limiting of the light of the Solar Father a humiliation of the Patriarchal. She writes: (Light in the interior space) is at the mercy of a play of panes of glass that turns the suns rays aside, breaking, bending their reflected and inverted trajectories,
also upon a projection screen. The bursts of light are limited, defined when they have to squeeze through a hole that varies in size...What humiliating adjustments for the Father to make, he whose omniscience suffers no shaping authority foreign to its essence. [5]

Melissa Miles emphasises the discursive nature and status of light. Central to her treatment of light is the fact of its invisibility. The effects of light, she argues, can be witnessed but light itself is never fully present in itself and can only be experienced in its relations to objects and atmospheres that constitute our environment. As a medium it is invisible, it transcends us. Miles observes that in Jacques Derrida’s essay White Mythology, the philosopher explores the double meaning of the term sensed—as in that which is perceived through the bodily senses and that which is made sensible— in terms of intelligibility. For Derrida, metaphors of light have a double reading, illuminated metaphors are always sensory and intelligible. The second double meaning is often suppressed when the metaphor is put into circulation. Derrida considers the compulsive movement of a heliotropic plant (a sun flower for instance in Spanish is Girasol, or sun turner). This compulsive movement compares to the discursive fluidity of the structure of metaphor itself. Metaphor functions as a heliotrope, ‘a movement turned towards the sun and turning movement of the sun’6. In her commentary Miles writes: As it turns, the heliotrope ultimately returns to itself, and thereby inscribes the law of metaphysics as a double effacement. By returning to itself, Derrida’s heliotrope erases within itself the relations in which it is produced, and accordingly circulates as truth as pure and original as the light of God...Characterised by a simultaneous movement towards and away from the sun, the heliotrope is on one hand a model of the sensory sun, and on the other a reference to the metaphorical status of the sun in that it represents all that is natural in philosophical language and is
a symbol of order, unity and stability, consistency and rationalism. [7]

Thus for Derrida the sun, whilst being a natural and perceivable celestial body, is unable to be divorced
from its metaphorical function. Each time we see a sun, metaphor has already begun. If the sun is ‘always already’ metaphorical then it cannot ever be completely natural, it is “always, already a lustre, a chandelier, one might say an artificial construction”. [8]

The image of the heliotrope resonates strongly with my visual production. The notion of watching, perceiving, following listening, all suggest the idea of the heliotrope. Metaphor however is understood as metaphor in my work. The devices of technology or artifice are not effaced or hidden in the work. They are revealed as a construction gradually after the initial impression of the illusion or appearance. Like Melissa Miles I take exception with Derrida’s insistence upon the sun’s status as ‘always already’ bound to our own metaphoric worldview. His analysis leaves no room for a light or for a sun that precedes or even extends beyond the construction of metaphor. As Melissa Miles argues whilst we must use metaphor to make sense of the sun or natural light, there can be no doubt that the sun and the radiant forces of the cosmos have a history that precedes us and that will extend beyond us. [9] There is a transcendent dimension to light. It is not entirely contingent to us. It is not transparent to us and therefore is a form of the infinite in relation to our finite selves.

The encounter of the perceiving subject with the infinite echoes our encounter with others. We carry the movement
of culture in all our encounters. The work Luz Nur is a consideration of the metaphor of the heliotrope but looks too at the place of the cultural other within European thought. In 2014 I undertook an Australia Council artist residency in Spain. This paradoxically provided the opportunity to reflect on Australia’s preoccupation with borders that parallels the current European, English and American fear of heterogeneity.

The philosopher Ziauddin Sardar identifies a puritanical insistence on religious or secular homogeneity in Western thinking, which he explores through an analysis of Spanish history from the Reconquista onwards. [10] In my residency I sought to explore the notion of a pluralistic threshold in the spaces of cultural indeterminacy. The footage of the solar power station is filmed in Andalucía in which the Islamic and European worlds exchanged language, ideas, culture and technology for 700 years. The Illuminated Field, an extended immersive multichannel installation documenting the sublime solar technology can be viewed at the Islamic Museum of Australia concurrently with the exhibition at Blindside.

The history of light and optics transcends cultural divisions. For example, the Islamic scholar and scientist Al Kindi (801– 873) famously wrote extensively on optics including numerous works on camera obscuras and mirrors. In fact it was Ibn Saina (known in the West as Avicenna) and later Ibn al Haitha (in the West referred to as Alhazzan) who decisively established the intromissionist theory of light and vision accepted during the Renaissance. [11] Newton drew on their findings in his Optics. Unlike their European counterparts however these scholars of light were able to contemplate both physical and invisible light as coexisting expressions of the same reality. [12]

The concept of the sublime equally has all the hallmarks of interwoven cultures. The notion of the sublime coincided with a growing awareness amongst European thinkers of Eastern ideas. Goethe for instance was highly informed by Sufi and Islamic texts and his understanding of these had an influence on the formation of later psychoanalytic thought. [14] Schopenhauer was greatly influenced by Buddhism and Leibnitz by Confucianism.15 As well as early alchemical sources, Jung’s research drew on Eastern thinking regarding sublimity and individual experience. To this extent the discourse on the sublime has a claim on a universality of thought. Eastern thought has always insisted on the incommensurability of language as a means to represent reality.

- LESLIE EASTMAN

Leslie Eastman is an artist and occasional writer. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Fine Art at Monash Art Design & Architecture. leslieeastman.com

ENDNOTES

[1] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer, On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century, (Cambridge (Mass): MIT Press, 1992), 25–66.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] Jorge Luis Borges translating Leon Bloy in “The Mirror of Enigmas”, Labyrinths, 245.

[4] Anne Marsh, The Darkroom: Photography and the Theatre of Desire (Melbourne, Macmillan, 2003), 55.

[5] Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, Gillian Gill trans. (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1985), 312.

[6] Jacques Derrida, “White Mythology, Metaphors in the Text of Philosophy”, in Margins of Philosophy, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982, 210.

[7] Melissa Miles, The Burning Mirror, Photography in an Ambivalent Light (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008), 30–31.

[8] Derrida, “White Mythology”, 251.

[9] Miles, Burning Mirror, 31.

[10] Ziauddin Sardar, ‘Touched by Wonder, Art and Religion in the 21st Century’, accessed January 5 2015, http://ziauddinsardar.com/ 2013/07/touched-by-wonder-art-and-religion-in-the-21st-century/

[11] Pages from Opticae Thesaurus which included Ibn Al Haitha’s Book of Optics, c.1015 CE. Accessed 11 January 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Alhazen

[12]  For instance see Luz-Nur, Lightin Islamic Art and Science,held at the Abengoa Foundation, Seville, 2014.


Leslie Eastman’s installation works explore our presence in and perception of the world. A graduate of Melbourne University and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Eastman is interested in questions of seeing, optics, reflection and embodiment. Leslie has held over thirty solo and collaborative exhibitions nationally, at venues including ACCA, Linden and Experimenta, and internationally. Residencies include Gertrude Contemporary and the Australia Council Barcelona studio. Collaborations include six shows with New York based artist Natasha Johns-Messenger, featuring XYZ-NYC shown in New York in 2011. From 2009-11, Leslie was a founding member of Light Projects, an experimental project space which exhibited over thirty local and international artists exploring issues of psychoanalysis and perception. Leslie completed his PhD in 2015 and is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Fine Art at Monash University.

The artist wishes to acknowledge the support of the Australia Council for the Arts and Abengoa Solar.