In the dark we find clarity. I take a lift to the top of the Prada Foundation tower. There a sharply
dressed gallery assistant, easily the chicest invigilator I’ve ever met, reminds me of a legacy of the pandemic: the need to use a sanitiser when engaging in the immersive experience. I listen to the advice to walk slowly as what I about to undergo is in pitch blackness. Belgian Carsten Höller (b.1961) first came to my consciousness when he installed a slide in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall bringing about a joie de vivre to the austere cavernous space. On the top floor in Milan he makes us feel we are dead, gives us dread in the ten-metre long corridor.
Created in 2000 and part of an exhibition called Synchro System (more on that later), it consists of
twists and turns which you navigate in the dark with nothing but a thin handrail to hold on to.
Named after the protagonist who pretends to be blind in Max Frisch’s Mein Name Sei Gantbein, the work is part of Höller ’s project to facilitate hallucinations, to make a regular experience like walking extraordinary. As I shuffle silently along in the corridor, I feel perplexed and even terrified at times despite being aware I would emerge at some point in a gallery filled with light. Occasionally I hear murmurs but I have no idea if they are behind me or in front of me. My hand strokes that of someone else who’s stumbling in the other direction. I apologise, they say nothing but release the handrail and sidestep. I walk on. In the dark everything becomes clearer.
Clarity in the darkness is a theme of Joseph Wright’s 1768 painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. Here a scientist, lit up by candle light, has placed a bird in a vacuum pump to demonstrate the cruciality of oxygen for life. A variety of people have gathered around him to witness the experiment. The theatrical scientist is wild haired in his red coat while the dead or dying cockatoo and distraught young girls being comforted by a gentleman add to the drama. Though he brings Enlightenment values of logic and discovery to illuminate his spectators, he also brings distress at the sight of the destruction of the animal. I remember encountering the painting on the cover of a paperback Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, another cautionary tale of a mad scientist playing God.
Micheline Szwajcer tells us of Höller ’s various other works that similarly play with perception. She links it to the aim of the Situationists. Avante-garde Marxist artists active in the fifties and sixties, they essentially brought about situations in which people would be brought out of their passivity, a passivity the artists saw as redolent of capitalism. They, like Höller, like the scientist in Wright’s painting sought to enlighten the minds of the audience.
Noting that darkness enables all kinds of monsters to flourish, Phillip McCouat2 highlights, by doing comparative analsysis of images on this theme, the challenges of painting night time scenes. Jessica Lack does the same in her essay which starts off with Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings depicting hell and ends with Indian artist, Ganesh Pyne’s The Animal (1972). Lack reminds us that Kant stated in 1790 that ‘The sublime is limitless.’ She argues this was the spur to countless artists to depict overwhelming vistas and scenes indicating the power of nature. I am reminded of Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea (1810). A monk shaped like a question mark walks on a shore. The sea is inky black and the sky occupies most of the image in a way that goes beyond the normal rules of
foreground and background in a realistic painting. It might be an image of ultimate solitude, of the boundlessness of nature, or as a monk is the subject and heaven a prominent feature of the painting, it could be a reference to immortality. Or the darkness of that blue black sea might symbolise eternity.
Synchro System was the original exhibition in which Gantbein Corridor was first seen if that is the right word. The artist had borrowed the name of the exhibition from a Yoruba musician, Sunny Ade, who had given his 1983 renowned album the same title. As someone that had grown up with the polyrhythms of Ade’s band due to the fact he comes from my father’s home town in Nigeria, I was intrigued to learn Höller was aware of this work. The Nigerian musician had been born into a royal family, became a guitarist as a teenager and wound up leading a big band playing a fusion of various music genres incorporating Yoruba percussions and rock. We listened to Ade’s records religiously on
Sunday using the tape deck in my father’s car as we were taken to the beach or Ikoyi Club where the elite swam or lazed around. The upbeat nature of Ade’s work, not a single slow ballad among them, is at odds with what Gantbein Corridor aroused in me. I trudged through that corridor worried about bumping into someone, something, a sharp object protruding, slipping on an item that had fallen out of a fellow audience member’s pocket, or on a discarded banana peel, breaking bones, falling into
the void, something I couldn’t avoid in the androgynous dark. That darkness has clarified a truth. I might have left Christianity or maybe it is Christianity that has left me. I might have lost a belief in hell, demons and ghosts. But the irrational fears we all suffer from still afflict the most logical of us when there is no light. The caveman reflex to shrink away from
the unknown is triggered, the fight or flight response is summoned, and inner harmony is only restored when you emerge into the light.