Tuesday, December 28, 2010

EU regulation out to kill Light Art

A few days ago I read an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung to which I was attracted because it was crowned with a picture of a wonderful work by Dan Flavin, light artist (here are some pictures of his works):

article heading: Extinguished!

I had seen a retrospective of Flavin's at the Pinakothek der Moderne in 2007, which was on display at the same time when the old Amish Quilts were being shown. As much as I adored his works then, I still thought at the time that they could have spared a few of the many square meters he had been given for his installations to give the Amish quilts a few more square meters so they could breathe, they were so jammed into their room. But that’s a different story.
I loved Dan Flevin’s work, and am very grateful that I got to see such an overwhelming number of works at the same time. 

I am a light person, and the biggest disappointment of my trip to Dortmund last May was that I did not have enough time to go to nearby Unna to see the museum for Light Art, Zentrum für Internationale Lichtkunst there.

Another wonderful light installation I got to see was Olafur Eliasson’s exclusive work for the Kunstbau of the Lenbachhaus Munich  which was shown there and gave you a very specific feeling for the premises due to the constanstly changing colors of light. I could have stayed there much longer than the three hours I actually did. Some pictures of his works can be seen here.

The article I mentioned above, however, is about a serious threat to such wonderful pieces of art. The European Commission, known for a broad and extensive urge to regulate anything that can be regulated (from the thickness of toilet paper via the standardized size of condoms to the length and straightness of cucumbers, to name just three notorious examples) obviously has found another area where regulation and standardization is necessary and overdue. They have ruled that anything that has lightbulbs or neon lights in it – i.e. a standardized switch with which these can be turned on or off – does no longer classify as art, but is merely „an emitter of light“. Although article author Gottfried Knapp stays rather calm about the regulation, simply pointing out that this will affect video art and computer art as well, it is very clear that he expresses a certain lack of understanding for this most recent EU ruling. This is most obvious in his last paragraph:

Wie unsinnig der Makel ist, mit dem Brüssel fest installierte Lichtkunstwerke in Europa versieht, macht ein Blick auf die Installation deutlich, die Dan Flavin kurz vor seinem Tod für den im U-Bahn-Schacht eingerichteten Kunstraum des Lenbachhauses in München konzipiert hat: Die vielen im Raum verteilten farbigen Neonröhren animieren die sparsam eingefügten architektonischen Elemente – […] – zu einem plastischen Eigenleben und machen den leeren Saal zu einem begehbaren Kunstwerk, das keiner Ergänzung bedarf und vieles, was Brüssel für Kunst hält, blass und alt aussehen lässt.

(Free translation: It becomes obvious how senseless this Brussel-initiated stigmatization of permanently installed works of light art is when one takes a look at the installation which Dan Flavin designed for the Kunstraum of the Lenbachhaus, a museum in an underground tunnel in Munich: the many colored neon lights spread out through the entire room animate the few and sparingly inserted architectonic elemts […] to take up a plastic life of their own and transform the hall into a piece of art that can be walked through which needs no further additional elements – and which lets much of what Brussels considers Art look stupid and pale.)

So why am I so upset about this regulation? After all, I needn’t care, do I?

Gottfried Knapp points out that part of the ruling must be monetary – if these pieces loose their status as ART they no longer classify for a special tax rate but fall under normal VAT regulations, surprisingly resulting in the fact that these pieces will be more expensive in the future, although now they aren’t art any longer. And they will thus present more of an income for the state institutions. This looks to me a bit like the big ‚saving efforts’ the states are attempting these days after they bailed out numerous badly managed banks, which often are taken out on those at the bottom of the social scale, ingeniously hidden under inventive formulations.

For one thing, I care because two of my most recent quilts involve LED-strings. One of these was recently accepted by SAQA for the show „Beyond Comfort“ and will be shown in Birmingham next August for the first time. Here is a detail from Illuminated:

Detail from "Illuminated"

The other one cannot be shown or talked about here yet.

Of course it is upsetting the see these pieces, which have a hard standing in the art world to begin with because they are quilts degraded as ‚not art’ simply because they rely on a plug-in for the lights that are a composite of the design.
Secondly, however, I feel threatened by the Commissions decision – they as non-artists, but true bureaucrats, are telling artists what art is allowed to be, at least by bureaucratic standards. 

Isn’t that taking it a bit too far?

Certainly I am all for a lively discussion about what constitutes art or not, and anyone is allowed to have an opinion on the fact whether a piece of work including a lightbulb or a neon light is ‚true art’ or not. But do we need a governement regulation to tell us that? And if you look at all the wonderful pieces by people like Dan Flavin and Olafur Eliasson, by Brigitte Kowanz 
(pictures hereor Christina Benz , to name only a few, one just realizes that certainly in this case the European Commission took a wrong decision. 

Let’s hope it really is the only wrong decision they took – and that they realize their mistake a.s.a.p. and take it back.

PS: However, yesterday, in my local paper, I read that another EU regulation which is already slowly being implemented is also endangering Light Art, from another side. The new regulations regarding light bulbs, which are supposed to be replaced by energy-saving-bulbs completely by 2012 is already affecting many works of art today. According to Wulf Herzogenrath, the director of Kunsthalle Bremen, the new bulbs are not adequate to replace light bulbs incorporated in many pieces of art on display in museums. It seems the EU is really going strongly after Light Art.

1 comment:

  1. I've read about this ruling and it seems terribly short-sighted. Those of us living in the benighted US, where attacking artists is great fun for the good old boys, always liked to think Europe was far more enlightened in terms of supporting the arts.

    I've seen Flavin's scultures in many places, including a huge building devoted to him in Houston, and they are quite impressive. But many of the bulbs he used, off the shelf when he built them, have gone out of production. So we're already dealing with the issue of how to maintain something that cannot be accurately reproduced or restored. Maybe these works eventually will live only in photo reproduction.